SPOTLIGHT: SCOTT TANSKI

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

When Scott Tanski roofed a shot under the crossbar to win his second practice-ending shootout in three days last week, he was mobbed by virtually all of his Connecticut Whale teammates, many of whom leaped into the plexi-glass to try to get at the personable curly-haired redhead.

“It might have been my new stick,” a smiling Tanski said of his latest skills competition victory. “I like to keep it light in practice, and I know the guys knew I hadn’t had a goal yet, so when I win the shootout, it’s pretty special. We’d won a few games, and I just go to practice and try to have fun and work on a lot of things, though a shootout isn’t my specialty. I’ll leave that to Newbs (Kris Newbury) and Zucc (Mats Zuccarello) because they have some pretty moves. I don’t think too much, just think, ‘Shoot the puck,’ and I was lucky to squeeze a few in there. It must be some confidence with that new stick.”

Tanski soaked in all the adulation, though he would have preferred if he had been celebrating during a game. But as hard as the hard-working rookie right wing had tried, he just hadn’t been able to register his first goal as a pro, though he had come close on several occasions.

Two nights earlier, Tanski stood inches outside the crease and screened Hershey Bears goalie Branden Holtby to help defenseman Pavel Valentenko’s laser from the left point find the net for the tying-breaking goal in a 4-2 victory. Holtby, who had been run over by a hard-charging Tanski earlier in the game, objected that the feisty right wing had interfered, but the goal stood. Tanski had only one assist, a bunch of hard hits and loads of agitation to show for his first 20 games in the play-for-pay ranks, but when reminded Aaron Voros and Chris McKelvie scored their first goals of the season before and after Valentenko’s first winner of his life, Tanski broke into another wide infectious smile and said, “I’ll be joining them in the next game.”

Well, Tanski proved to be the latest edition of Kreskin when he got credit for the Whale’s first goal in a 4-1 victory over the Providence Bruins on Friday night, when defenseman Jared Nightingale’s shot hit off his leg and trickled through goalie Anton Khudobin only 6:13 into the game. The goal was originally credited to Nightingale, which would have been his first of the season, but later changed when it was learned Tanski had got a piece of the puck while stationed where he likes to be, on the doorstep of the goalie causing a distraction.

Tanski’s goal would have been the winner if Zach Hamill hadn’t scored shorthanded early in the third period, as Chad Johnson earned the No. 1 star with another strong game, getting 22 of his 28 saves in the first 40 minutes as the Whale was on the way to going 7-for-7 on the penalty kill. But Tanski was just happy to get off the scoring schneid.

“I just tried to stay positive, and it felt good to score,” Tanski said. “I had (a team-high) three in the preseason, but I knew it was a different ballgame in the regular season and what I’m here for. If I can chip in whenever I can on the score sheet, it’s going to help the team. (On Friday) our line (with McKelvie and Jordan Owens) got the first two goals and kind of gave us a kick-start, which was definitely a plus for the team.”

Tanski has had a chance to play for the Whale thanks largely to the persistence of Gordie Clark. The New York Rangers’ director of player personnel was interested in inviting Tanski to training camp the past two years but was overruled, so the undrafted wing went to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ camp and played in a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., that included the Blueshirts.

“I didn’t play against the Rangers, but they definitely saw me,” Tanski said. “I knew there was interest, so when my agent told me in the summer that the Rangers were interested, I knew there was something there because they had tried to get me to camp the past two years.”

Then the day before the Rangers opened camp Sept. 16, Tanski was preparing to leave on a road trip with his Carleton University team in Ottawa, Ontario, when he got a call saying he had four hours to pack his bags and catch a flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York. The Rangers had sustained several injuries and defections during and after finishing second in the prospects tournament, and needed a few more healthy bodies for the start of camp in Greenburgh, N.Y.

“I had tried to get Tanski in to camp twice before, but it didn’t work out,” Clark said at the Whale’s preseason game at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “When (Rangers assistant general manager) Jeff Gorton called saying he needed a few players, the guy that I thought of was Tanski. I knew I could rely on him to come in and play hard.”

So with Tayler Jordan having been injured and Randy McNaught and Jordan Hickmott opting to attend school rather than Rangers camp, the SOS went out to Tanski, who was stunned but delighted to finally get a chance to join the Blueshirts.

“When I got off the ice, my coach (Marty Johnston) asked me what I thought about going to Rangers main camp,” Tanski recalled. “I was just supposed to come to Whale camp, so he said I’d better talk to my agent. I was a little shocked because my mind was really focused on coming to Connecticut and getting some preseason games. I was ready physically and had done all I could, but mentally I was thinking somewhere else, so I had to switch off right away and go buy a suitcase.”

Tanski made Clark look good with his tenacity and grit, while having to work hard to get through the legendary training camp skating tests of Rangers coach John Tortorella.

“I’d been to Columbus camp for two years so I kind of knew what to expect having gone to one main camp,” Tanski said. “But nothing can really prepare you for Torts’ camp. I just told myself to do my best and don’t try and think too much about it because if you’re constantly thinking so much about what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen, then you’re not prepared for what you need to do.

“So every day I just tried to put my best foot forward, and if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. But I knew if I showed my best, I’d have a chance.”

In Whale camp, Tanski had the three goals, dozens of solid checks and even stood and offered high-fives to teammates as they took the ice before each period. It’s something usually reserved for veterans, but the rookie wanted to try to show his intensity and what it meant to be in camp.

The Whale appreciated Tanski’s gung-ho attitude and signed him and the equally energetic Owens to AHL contracts two days before the start of the season. Tanski’s success was similar to a year earlier when Kelsey Tessier earned a contract after showing well as an invitee to the prospects tournament and then continuing his good work in Whale camp. Tessier ended the season receiving the Seventh Player Award/Unsung Hero Award on a vote of the media.

Tanski and Owens have played together most of the season with McKelvie and now fellow rookie Tommy Grant, who got the winner last Friday night off the first of two assists for both Owens and Nightingale. After getting 53 goals and 80 assists in 219 games with the Brampton Battalion of the OHL the past four seasons, Tanski has only the one goal and one assist in 23 games with the Whale, who had a four-game winning streak stopped by the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on Sunday, but still lead the Northeast Division by three points over Adirondack.

But Tanski’s main job is to help the fourth line provide energy and strong forechecking on the opposition’s defense to try to wear them down, as the Whale did Saturday night, when they scored a team record-tying five power-play goals in the third period to rally to beat Springfield, 6-3.

“He’s going to give you a consistent effort, he does all the little things and he plays a pretty hard-nosed, straightforward game,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “He provides energy and forechecking and is a physical guy, and whenever the situation arises, I know he’s trying to do the right thing that’s being asked of him. He doesn’t take short cuts or improvise to lighten his burden. He does what he’s asked.”

Tanski said he knew what to expect in the pros after watching many of his teammates play in AHL games he attended, with the Hamilton Bulldogs being so close to Brampton. He and some other Whale players have had to step up since veteran center John Mitchell and rookie left wing Carl Hagelin were called up by the Rangers, though the Whale was bolstered by the return of right wing Andre Deveaux last Thursday.

“I’ve just tried to focus on what got me here,” Tanski said. “I haven’t tried to do too much, and while I haven’t put up tons of numbers, I think our line has been effective on most nights, getting the puck in and laying on bodies. I feel more and more comfortable each game, so there’s no reason we can’t maybe chip in on the score sheet a little bit more regularly.

“But that comes with confidence and comes with chemistry that I think me, Owens, Grant and McKelvie have on any night. Hopefully in the next 20 games, I can get a few more goals, but wins are the most important thing, and we’ve been getting those and I’m happy with that.”

Now, that’s always cause for a major celebration.

WHALE FINALLY GETTING SOME STEADY HOME COOKING

After playing 15 of their first 22 games on the road, the Northeast Division-leading Whale are in a stretch of nine of their final 12 games in 2011 being at the XL Center, starting with a 4-3 loss to the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on Sunday that ended a four-game winning streak. The Hershey Bears visit Friday night in Bourque Brothers Bowl II, as the Whale’s Ryan Bourque plays against older brother Chris for the second time in 11 days.

Ryan started a stretch of four solid games on Nov. 29, as the Whale beat the Bears 4-2 despite Chris getting a goal and an assist as the brothers’ parents, including Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, and a dozen friends from Boxford, Mass., looked on. Ray was thrilled that both of his sons performed well, saying, “I got goose bumps watching the game.”

Chad Johnson had a solid game in goal, and defenseman Pavel Valentenko scored his second goal in as many nights to break a 2-2 tie with 4:04 left, before unselfish plays by Jordan Owens and Kelsey Tessier set up Chris McKelvie’s first goal of the season into an empty net. AHL scoring leader, five-time All-Star and two-time Calder Cup winner Keith Aucoin (six goals, league-high 30 assists) helped set up goals by Bourque and Graham Mink, the second deflecting off Valentenko’s skate and past Johnson.

“It was my first two-goal game in North America,” Valentenko quipped.

Aucoin, seeking a second AHL scoring title in three years, had two goals as the Bears (12-6-3-2) won 3-2 at Bridgeport on Sunday to move into a first-place tie in the East Division with Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which regained the top spot Wednesday night as Scott Munroe made 25 saves and Matt Rust, an invite to Whale camp after playing the last four seasons on a line with Hagelin at the University Michigan, scored his first pro goal in a 1-0 victory over Binghamton. The two goals capped off a week in which Aucoin had two goals and six assists as the Bears won three of four to earn Reebok/AHL Player of the Week. He has 12 points in a five-game scoring streak and has recorded at least three points in a game as many times (four) as he has been held scoreless. A native of Waltham, Mass., Aucoin moved into 19th place in the AHL’s career scoring list with 743 points in 653 games over 11 seasons, making him the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in league history. He also ranks eighth all-time with 525 assists.

Chris Bourque (11 goals, 21 assists) is second in the AHL in scoring and has an 11-game point streak and nine-game assist streak, both AHL season highs. Other leading Bears threats are center Jacob Micflikier (9, 16, tied for fourth in the league), Mink (10, 12) and former Wolf Pack left wing and Hershey captain Boyd Kane (8, 4, team-leading plus-12). Kane, the Bears’ player of the month for November, missed the first game against the Whale because Hershey has too many veterans (260 or more games in the NHL, AHL, IHL and European Elite Leagues) and it was his turn to sit out. Braden Holtby (7-5-1, 2.54, .900, one shutout) and Dany Sabourin (5-4-1, 2.98, .901, one shutout) have shared the goaltending for the Bears, who have outscored the opposition 14-4 since losing to the Whale, matching a season best for fewest goals allowed in a three-game stretch in October. They also have killed off 15 straight shorthanded situations.

Friday night also will be the second matchup for Whale wing Francois Bouchard and Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who were traded for each other by the Washington Capitals and Rangers on Nov. 8. Bouchard, whose best friend on the Bears was Chris Bourque, played three seasons in Hershey and Washington and was a key contributor to Calder Cup titles in 2009 and 2010. Kundratek was in his third season with the Whale and scored his first goal of the year last Friday night in a 4-1 victory over the Syracuse Crunch. He and Chris Bourque assisted on Aucoin’s first goal Sunday.

On Saturday night, the Whale begins a home-and-home set with Providence (8-14-1-2), which is on a 0-6-0-2 slide since a 3-2 victory at Worcester on Nov. 13. Rookie right wing Carter Camper (five goals, 12 assists) leads the Bruins in scoring, followed by centers Josh Hennessy (8, 6) and Zach Hamill (7, 7). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, four assists and a team-high 50 penalty minutes. Anton Khudobin (7-11-2, 3.07, .910) had done most of the goaltending. The Bruins host the Whale on Sunday at 4:05 p.m.

Whale rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault had a six-game points streak end Sunday, but he still leads the team in scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists), all of which have come in the last 18 games after he was scoreless in the first five. Zuccarello is second with 20 points (7, 13) despite missing the first five games while with the Rangers. Hagelin is a team-best plus-12, and Johnson leads the goalies with an 8-3-2 record, 2.49 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and one shutout. Rookie defenseman Tim Erixon may return after missing four games with an injury. He had been playing well with one goal and seven assists in 10 games after being assigned by the Rangers on Oct. 29. He had three assists and was named the No. 2 star in a 3-2 overtime victory over Portland on Nov. 23.

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.

“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.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

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, forwards Zuccarello, Newbury and Hagelin and veteran defenseman Wade Redden. The other dates for the card sets of players to be announced are Jan. 27 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and March 16 against Bridgeport. … 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. … The St. Louis Blues assigned former Wolf Pack forward Evgeny Grachev to the Peoria Rivermen. Grachev, 21, had two assists in 17 games after being acquired June 25 for a third-round pick, which became center Steven Fogarty, who has two goals in six games with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League.… Rochester Americans left wing Derek Whitmore was named winner of the reGen Muscle Recovery Beverage/AHL Performance of the Month Award for November for scoring four goals in a 5-3 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs on Nov. 26. The Americans had lost three times to the Bulldogs, but with dozens of family and friends looking on, Whitmore had his stellar game. The fifth-year pro from the Rochester suburb of Greece, N.Y., has 11 goals and six assists in 23 games this season and is 68-53-121 in 266 AHL games.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS FOR RANGERS

While left wing Mike Rupp is getting close to returning to the Rangers lineup after playing only seven games because of an ailing knee that required surgery, former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer is out indefinitely with a concussion sustained in a crushing hit from rugged Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf with 4:42 left in the Maple Leafs’ 4-2 victory Monday night.

Sauer was having another solid season alongside former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Del Zotto, which was critical with All-Star defenseman Marc Staal on injured reserves with post-concussion symptoms from a hit by brother Eric in a game against Carolina on Feb. 22. Marc has resumed skating but is out indefinitely after headaches kept him from working out this summer.

Rangers coach John Tortorella said Sauer, who had one goal and two assists in 19 games and missed five starts with a strained right shoulder, is “day-to-day” and didn’t play Thursday night when the Rangers hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. His spot was taken by Anton Stralman, who played with Jeff Woywitka, while Del Zotto was paired with Steve Eminger.

“It’s tough,” Del Zotto told the New York media. “We’re missing Marc, and he’s such a key component to the team because he plays in all situations. It’s a hole in our backend and nobody’s going to replace him. Now Sauer’s gone, too. It’s an opportunity for guys to step up.”

Said Dan Girardi, who forms the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing with fellow former Wolf Pack blueliner Ryan McDonagh: “I think we’re going to be fine. All six of us now are willing to step up our game if Mike’s not able to play. We’ve been doing it all year with (Staal) out. Different guys playing different spots.”

Del Zotto fortunately came through relatively unscathed after crashing into the backboards with 3:45 left Monday night as he raced back to touch up on an icing call. Del Zotto said he had his legs taken out by David Steckel, who then crashed into him after Del Zotto hit the boards. Del Zotto made it through all of Wednesday’s practice and played Thursday night, so the Rangers didn’t have to call up someone from the Whale.

“I got away pretty lucky from that incident,” Del Zotto said. “I watched it once after the game. It was scary. I had a lot of people texting and calling to see if I was OK. … It’s tough to comment on (the touch-up icing rule). It is something that maybe they’ll talk about sometime in the offseason. Right now, the biggest topic is head checks. I know forwards probably feel differently, but they don’t have to go back and take that abuse.”

Eminger and Del Zotto have been paired in the past, and Eminger said he’s pretty comfortable with the prospect of being paired again with the 21-year-old.

“Obviously, we’re going to miss Sauer a lot,” Eminger said. “I don’t know the severity of the injury. I’m not going to do anything differently. I know Mike is active and likes to jump up in the rush. … I’m really comfortable with him. I know his game pretty well.”

Before Thursday night, Stralman had played only one game for the Rangers since signing a one-year, $900,000 contract on Nov. 5. He said he felt like he was “chasing the puck” in a Nov. 23 loss at Florida, but after practicing with the Rangers for more than a month, he said he “has more jump” in his legs.

“I definitely feel more comfortable,” said Stralman, who played 10:26 in 13 shifts in his Rangers debut. “But it’s kind of still my first game, it feels like. It’s a challenge when you don’t get consecutive games.”

Tortorella said Stralman would have to fit into the fast-paced flow of the Rangers system.

“That comes with just not playing, too, so it will just take some time to get into the tempo of the game,” Tortorella said. “That is very difficult when all you do is practice. We are trying to play with pace and speed, so it will take a little bit of time. But that’s the concentration. We want him to defend. We know he has some offensive instincts, and he’ll probably see some power play time along the way. The key is to play fast and get within the tempo of the game as quickly as possible.”

Stralman saidt he has done more “explosive stuff” with coaches in practice, drills that help him start quickly from the back. He also said he’s benefitted from working more on 5-on-5 and game situations in the last few weeks, learning when to jump up and trying to make those decisions come naturally instead of needing that extra split second to think.

On the front line, Rupp had his first official practice with the Rangers on Wednesday since undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus on Nov. 9, though he continued to wear a non-contact jersey and has been skating during and after morning skates since last week. The prognosis was to miss 4-to-6 weeks from the time of his surgery, but while Rupp said there’s no timetable for his return, he’s trying to do more and more on the ice so he can resume contract drills.

Rupp said his first practice felt different from the others after he made one strong rush to the net and bumped a little with Brian Boyle.

“The other days, the pregame skates, it’s about feeling good about yourself (for the game players),” Rupp said. “You’re going through the motions. (This) was good. I didn’t have to pull myself, but I was not doing stops and starts or battle drills.”

Rupp doesn’t know when he’ll be able to resume contact drills.

“I don’t really have any gauge,” he said. “They said four to six weeks, but the swelling went down quickly so I thought I’d be able to do some stuff. That was not the case.”

Just as trying to do too much too quickly was a bit of an issue early in his recovery, Rupp said there was also a moment Wednesday when he thought he might have gone too far.

“In a drill we had with Brian, I tried to get engaged and I moved in a funny way,” Rupp said. “It felt a little funny so maybe I was doing too much. (But) I’m encouraged with the way I’m feeling. Right now, I feel I’m not too far off from being able to do more.”

Rupp skated again in the Thursday morning skate, as did wing Wojtek Wolski, who skated alone Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since sports hernia surgery Nov. 8. He had two assists in six games but hasn’t played since Nov. 3. Staal skated by himself earlier Thursday after taking two days off following his Monday skate at MSG. He also worked out afterwards as he continues to be able to exercise without setbacks.

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