SPOTLIGHT: ALEXANDRE GIROUX

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

For the past two summers, former Hartford Wolf Pack high-scoring wing Alexandre Giroux had Europe on his mind.

The personable Giroux had established himself as a premier AHL player without getting a full-time shot at the NHL, so he thought it might be time to head overseas.

But when the start of free agency rolled around on July 1, 2010, Giroux had second thoughts. Sure he had scored more than 300 goals in the AHL, including 60 and 50 in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons as the Hershey Bears won back-to-back Calder Cup titles, but he had played less than two dozen games at the highest level and the itch remained to be there.

So Giroux decided against going to Europe and signed a one-year, free-agent contract with the Edmonton Oilers. But he didn’t play for the parent club until March 5, when he scored in a 5-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, after being called up following a season-ending injury to rookie sensation Taylor Hall, the first overall pick of the Oilers in 2010.

Giroux had spent most of the season with the new Oklahoma City Barons, where he had 32 goals and 46 assists in 70 games playing mostly on a line with Wethersfield native Colin McDonald. Giroux helped the son of former Hartford Whalers and New Haven Nighthawks defenseman Gerry McDonald score an AHL-high 42 goals, which was eight more than in his first three pro seasons combined with the Springfield Falcons. Despite his breakout season, McDonald wasn’t offered what he considered a decent deal by the Oilers, signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and is now with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. There’s a nice story on Colin on www.theahl.com.

“Last year was really, really different,” said Giroux, 30, whose 12-year pro career has included parts of three seasons with the Wolf Pack, now Connecticut Whale. “My mind was in Europe all summer until I decided to give it another chance (at the NHL). I had a great camp and went down to a city that’s not usual in the American Hockey League. It was a little different than in Hershey.

“It was a really young team with new coaches and a new organization for me, but I played with Colin and he had a great season. I was excited to play with him. He was a good guy, and we made the playoffs, which (the Oilers’ minor-league team) hadn’t made for a long time.”

But after one season with the Barons, ousted in the first round by the Hamilton Bulldogs, Giroux again considered going to Europe, but again changed his mind and signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 3, 12 days before the deadline to head overseas.

“One of my best friends, Antoine Vermette, plays in Columbus,” said Giroux, whose father, Rejean, played for the World Hockey Association’s Quebec Nordiques in his native Quebec City. “When I asked him what he thought about playing there, he said if I had a good camp that I had a chance (to make the parent club) because they had some spots open. The Blue Jackets were very honest and said if I was good, they’d give me a chance, and if I wasn’t, they’d take someone else. Plus, they were signing a lot of new players for depth, so I figured it was a step forward for the Falcons when they were adding guys like (goalie Curtis) Sanford, who would be a big help (in Springfield) teaching guys like (Greenwich native Cam) Atkinson and (left wing Matt) Calvert kind of how to be a pro and stuff like that.

“I got nine games in Columbus, but it was kind of a tough spot to be in with all the losses (eight to start the season). It was tough for a guy like me to produce when the team overall didn’t produce. They had to make some changes and got Mark Letestu (from the Pittsburgh Penguins), and that kind of hurt me because he’s an offensive guy.

“But I was in Columbus for a month, and that was a good experience. I want to play games in the NHL, and now I have the last few years. It’s a little tough being back in the minors again, but I keep playing hockey because I love playing it. I haven’t given up, and I’m going to play hard here and hope to get another call.”

Falcons coach Rob Riley empathized with Giroux.

“He kind of got caught in the same thing as some other guys like Atkinson,” Riley said. “(The Blue Jackets) kept going with their veteran guys to help get them out of the funk, but they were more of the problem than the solution. So guys like Alex get caught. He’s awesome, a terrific guy, and a really good player at the AHL level.”

Giroux is hoping he can become like another former Wolf Pack wing, P.A. Parenteau, who played for six organizations, including the New York Rangers, and was an AHL Second-Team All-Star in 2007-08, when he had 34 goals and 47 assists in 81 games in Hartford. Parenteau has finally found a niche with the New York Islanders, signing a one-year, $1.25 million contract this summer after getting 20 goals and 33 assists in 81 games in 2010-11, his first with the team.

“When my agent and I negotiated this summer, I used P.A. as a prime example of someone who just needed to get some games in a row, not just nine games on a fourth line,” Giroux said. “I think the Islanders gave him a good shot last season, and he took it. Some guys get a shot, and some don’t, but P.A. had a big year and they signed him to a new deal. So that’s kind of a guy that I looked up to to make my decision (to stay in North America).”

After Giroux left the Wolf Pack following the 2005-06 season after getting 36 and 31 assists in 73 games, he didn’t see much of the team while with Hershey, the Chicago Wolves and Oklahoma City. But the Falcons and Whale play 12 times this season, and there are still eight meetings left.

“It’s always special to play against a team that you used to play for,” said Giroux, who still has friends in Hartford.

But Giroux and the rest of the Falcons would like to forget their first four meetings with the Whale, all losses, especially the last two. First, they blew a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 on Nov. 26, on Andreas Thuresson’ second goal of the third period with only 21.6 seconds left. Then on Saturday night, the Whale trailed 3-1 early in the third period before erupting for five power-plays goals, two by former Falcons wing Andre Deveaux, to tie a team record in only 11:57 and pull out a stunning 6-3 victory.

The latter game had an ugly ending when Adam Mair was ejected with a major penalty after a cross check near the head of Deveaux. The veteran of 615 NHL games with 829 penalty minutes wasn’t suspended because it wasn’t a hit to the head, according to an AHL official, unlike after the Whale’s 2-1 victory in Springfield on Oct. 22 when Mair elbowed Mats Zuccarello in the head and got a four-game suspension. Zuccarello missed the Whalers’ 4-1 win over the Falcons in Hartford the next day. But the high elbow didn’t factor into another possible suspension for Mair, who has 37 penalty minutes, second on the team to Byers’ 73, in 16 games.

But even the normally mild-mannered Giroux got sucked into the ugliness of the game on Saturday night when he took a double-handed whack at Kris Newbury’s ankles after being checked hard, receiving a double minor for slashing and roughing, with the Whale center also getting two minutes for roughing. But Giroux’s forte is offense, and he has seven goals and five assists in 13 games while skating mostly on a line with Atkinson and former AHL All-Star center Martin St. Pierre, who played a lot with Giroux in training camp but was injured in a 5-1 loss at Adirondack on Nov. 25 and missed the 3-2 loss to the Whale the next night.

“I’ve known Martin for a long time, and we spent time together in the summer,” said Giroux, who scored off an assist from St. Pierre in a 2-1 victory over Portland on Sunday that ended the Falcons’ 0-4-0-1 slide. “We practiced good and had fun (in Columbus) and came down here. It’s a good line to be on, and so far so good.”

But there’s still that NHL carrot hanging out there, so Giroux has one eye toward Columbus while trying to stay focused on helping the Falcons reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

BRACELETS TO BENEFIT LOKMOTIV FAMILIES

Whale wives and girlfriends will be selling bracelets to benefit the families of those lost in the tragic plane crash on Sept. 7 involving the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia on Friday and Saturday nights when their husbands and boyfriends host Hershey and Providence.

“Love for Lokomotiv” silicone red bracelets will be available for $10 as part of a united effort to show support for the grieving families of those lost in the Lokomotiv tragedy, hockey wives and girlfriends around the world are raising money for their dear friends. The first 40 people to purchase a bracelet will receive an autographed puck and be entered in a drawing for an autographed stick and jersey.

Show your support this weekend, as all the proceeds go to the foundation set up in honor of the lost team. You can learn more about “Love for Lokomotiv” and find out how you can help at loveforlokomotiv.com. … On Friday night, the Whale will hand out a set of five trading cards to the first 5,000 fans, courtesy of Webster Bank. The first of three releases includes Johnson, veteran defenseman Wade Redden and forwards Zuccarello, Newbury and Hagelin. The other dates for the card sets of players to be announced are Jan. 27 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and March 16 against Bridgeport.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

The first televised Whale game in five seasons will be Saturday night when WCCT-TV airs the meeting with the Bruins, sponsored by Webster Bank. The game also will feature the Whale’s annual Teddy Bear Toss. Fans can bring a teddy bear to toss on the ice after the first Whale goal. If no goal is scored, they will be thrown at the end of the game. People who forget to bring a bear can purchase one at the game, and all the money and bears will be donated to St. Jude Connecticut Network that benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

RANGERS FANS VOTING

Fans can vote at www.Blueshirtsunited.com for the starting lineup for the Rangers team in the Rangers-Flyers outdoor alumni game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Dec. 31 as part of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. By casting a vote, fans will be entered to win a host of prizes, including Winter Classic jerseys and tickets to the alumni game and Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

Rangers players scheduled to compete include Hall of Famers Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner, former Wolf Pack players Dale Purinton, Dan Blackburn and Darius Kasparaitis and former Whalers Nick Fotiu, Darren Turcotte and Nick Kypreos, along with Adam Graves, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Mullen, Ron Duguay and commentator Dave Maloney, whose son Dave Jr. now works for the Whale. Hall of Famer Mark Messier isn’t on the roster because of scheduled surgery this month but hopes to recover in time to play in the game.

Coaches will be Mike Keenan, Colin Campbell and former Whalers general manager Emile Francis. The Rangers off-ice ambassadors will be Rod Gilbert, Ed Giacomin and Harry Howell, all of whom have had their numbers retired. For ticket information on the alumni game, call 212-465-6080.

The Rangers are offering special one-day and three-day NHL Winter Classic Road Trip packages presented by Amtrak. Packages include round-trip transportation to Philadelphia, game tickets, access to a pregame tailgate party with Rangers alumni, passes to watch practice and much more. For more information, visit www.newyorkrangers.com. … The Grand Rapids Griffins are getting contributions from many rookies this season, including a pair that stepped up offensively last week. Louis-Marc Aubry had a goal and two assists in a 6-3 victory over Toronto on Friday night, after totaling two points in his first 14 games, and Landon Ferraro extended his scoring streak to four games, including the overtime winner in a 4-3 win at Toronto on Nov. 29. Aubry and Ferraro both have fathers who played in both the AHL and NHL, Pierre Aubry and Ray Ferraro, who played for the Rangers and Hartford Whalers. … Manchester Monarchs center Marc-Andre Cliché, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Sean Avery deal, scored shootout goals in back-to-back wins over the weekend. He is now 4-for-4 in the skills competition this after entering the year 0-for-4 in his career.

DIFFERENT FEELINGS FOR LABARBERA, QUICK

Former Wolf Pack goalie Jason LaBarbera and Hamden native and former Avon Old Farms and UMass standout Jonathan Quick had quite different feelings when the final horn sounded Tuesday night.

LaBarbera had the exhilaration of winning his second game of the season in the same place, while Quick was done in by an unfortunate bounce in the final minute.

LaBarbera is 2-for-2 this season at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., after making 30 saves, several of the spectacular variety in the third period, as the Phoenix Coyotes won 3-2 on Keith Yandle’s goal with 1:52 left, their second victory in as many nights. Yandle scored his second goal in as many games, but just his fourth of the season, in his 200th consecutive start for the Coyotes.

“The last time I won was in this building in my first start, and that was a long time ago,” LaBarbera, who led the Coyotes to a 5-2 win on Oct. 13, told reporters after the game. “It’s not easy. I felt like I’ve played pretty decently this year, but I just haven’t gotten the results. … I’m pretty excited.”

Especially after he robbed David Legwand from close range, one of his 12 third-period saves.

“Barbs is the reason why we won that game. He was outstanding all night, he made huge saves, especially the one where he made coming across,” Yandle said of the Legwand save. Phoenix (15-9-3), which also got goals from Ray Whitney and Taylor Pyatt, older brother of former Wolf Pack wing Tommy Pyatt, improved to 2-0 on its current three-game trip. The Coyotes, who won 4-3 in a shootout at Chicago on Monday, visit Detroit on Thursday night.

Not much was expected from the Coyotes this season, especially after starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov opted not to re-sign and wound up with the Flyers. But Phoenix continues to find ways to win, especially on the road.

“We have a good group in there,” coach Dave Tippett, a former Whalers wing, said of his team, which could be heard celebrating from the bowels of Bridgestone Arena after the game. “They love to work hard and they like to have fun. Winning is what it’s all about for us, and sometimes it’s not pretty, but our group gets in there and they dig down and find a way. That’s kind of been our motto all year.”

The Anaheim Ducks’ motto lately has been just trying to find a way to win somehow. They have blown several leads since Bruce Boudreau replaced Randy Carlyle as coach last week, and it appeared as if it might continue again Tuesday night.

But shortly after an unfortunate bounce caused the Ducks to lose another edge, Boudreau called a timeout, gathered his players and told them to move forward. Captain Ryan Getzlaf also spoke.

“Getzy just said, ‘Those bounces aren’t going to beat us. We’ll be OK. Don’t hang our heads and let’s go,’ ” wing Bobby Ryan said. “You know, kind of the rah-rah stuff.”

The Ducks then got a fortuitous bounce of their own when Ryan chipped the puck over Quick and into the net with 48.8 seconds left for a 3-2 victory over the Kings for Boudreau’s first victory with Anaheim.

“It’s not the (Stanley) Cup, but it felt pretty good,” Boudreau said. “I felt really good for the players because they were smiling. They worked so hard. Had it gone the other way after another (blown) lead like that, I was a little worried about it. We got a lucky break, and they got a lucky break, so it sort of evened out.”

Ryan swatted home the puck off Kings defenseman Drew Doughty on a faceoff play by Teemu Selanne against Anze Kopitar to the left of Quick. Ryan, the NHL’s leading goal-scorer last season with 50, then exulted and did his signature celebratory crash into the corner glass.

The Ducks blew a two-goal lead for the third straight game and fourth time in six games, but all that doubt dissolved when Ryan scored.

“It found a way to go in,” Ryan said. “For us, giving leads up like that, it’s a whole different feeling coming into this room tonight. It’s huge. I think tonight the way we started, and the way we carried ourselves through the second … there was a feeling going into the third that we were going to be OK.”

It was only the Ducks’ fourth win in the last 22 games and a much-needed injection to a team that had hit rock bottom in its confidence. It was fitting that Selanne assisted on both of Ryan’s goals, given a conversation that took place Tuesday morning.

“It’s funny,” Ryan said. “Teemu told me this morning that things are going to start going. He’s been through it a little bit – maybe not to this extent – but it’s nice to rely on a guy that’s scored that many goals when he tells you that you’ll come out of it.”

A Quick turnover led to the Ducks’ first goal. Francois Beauchemin dumped in the puck, and Quick had his pass to defenseman Rob Scuderi picked off by Selanne, who fed a falling Ryan for an open-net score at 17:37.

Quick was still solid and might have earned his team at least a point if not for a bounce or two.

“(Selanne) won the faceoff,” Quick said. “He was just trying to put it on net. I think (Scuderi) got a stick on it, then it hit (Doughty) in the chin, knee or something, and kind of just lollipopped right into the net.” … The 2012 NHL draft will be June 22-23 at the new Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Round 1 is on the 22nd and rounds 2 through 7 on the 23rd.

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