SPOTLIGHT: LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale got their first TV air time Saturday night since 2007 when the team was known as the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Wednesday night the Whale could get some exposure on a much larger scale, as part of the first of four episodes in HBO’s “24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” series leading to the fifth Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, where the Flyers will host the New York Rangers.

While a good crowd of 5,598 at the XL Center and a WCCT-TV audience watched the Whale beat the Providence Bruins 3-0 behind Cam Talbot’s 27 saves Saturday night, millions could see the Whale’s green and white, as HBO asked the AHL team for footage of Sean Avery while he played on Asylum Street for two games in October. That should also give the team and other Whale players more exposure, which is always a good thing and a major reason the team is televising five games on WCCT this season.

Plus, the Rangers have nine players besides Avery who have plied their trade in Hartford – captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer, Michael Del Zotto and the newest call-ups, John Mitchell and Carl Hagelin. And All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, who played his first 12 pro games with the Wolf Pack in the 2006 playoffs, is on injured reserve with post-concussion symptoms.

Then there’s the Hartford Whalers influence on the Flyers, in general manager Paul Holmgren and top defenseman Chris Pronger, the second overall pick in 1993. Pronger was on a preview released by HBO last week but is out indefinitely with concussion-like symptoms, which is certain to be part of the cable network’s series. And former Rangers Jaromir Jagr, Blair Betts and Jody Shelley are on the Flyers’ roster.

For those interested in viewing Part I on Wednesday night, tune in HBO at 10 p.m. and see the Rangers, Flyers and perhaps a bit of the Whale.

Then on Dec. 31 at 1 p.m., Hockey Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Cheshire native Brian Leetch, Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner will be among the former Rangers in the Winter Classic alumni game against the Flyers on the same rink as the NHL teams will use. Messier, the NHL’s second leading all-time scorer (1,887 points), and Leetch, who won the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP, led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years in 1994. Messier was scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery this month and was uncertain if he’d be ready to play, but he postponed the surgery and says he’s good to go after running the New York City Marathon for the first time last month.

Other Rangers scheduled to compete include former Wolf Pack players Dale Purinton, Dan Blackburn and Darius Kasparaitis and former Hartford 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. 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.

Fans can vote at www.Blueshirtsunited.com for the starting lineup for the Rangers team in the alumni game. 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.  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.

A third AHL outdoor game will be played at Citizens Bank Park on Jan. 6, when the Adirondack Phantoms, formerly based in Philadelphia and the Flyers’ top affiliate, will host the Hershey Bears. That will be two days after a collegiate exhibition game between Penn State and Division III Neumann University.

STAAL SKATES WITH TEAMMATES AGAIN

One day after Crosby announced he is out indefinitely again, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took another step toward returning from the same setback, as he joined his teammates in a morning skate Tuesday for the first time since training camp before a game against the Dallas Stars. Center Brad Richards faced his former team for the first time Tuesday night since signing a nine-year, $60 million free-agent contract on July 2.

Staal wore an orange non-contact jersey but saw this as the “next step” in his recovery and eventual return to the ice, though there is still no timetable for his return.

“I felt pretty good through the workouts and skating so I decided to jump on the ice,” Staal said, though clearly that decision was made in concert with the team’s medical staff.

Symptoms from a concussion he sustained Feb. 22 when hit by his brother, Eric, in a game against Carolina have kept him out of every game this season.

Asked what Crosby’s regression means for him, Staal said: “Everybody’s different. I have no idea what he’s going through. But for me, I know I have to make sure I’m 100 percent.”

Staal agreed “100 percent” means not only physically healthy, but mentally prepared and not playing with concern that another concussion could be around the corner. Given that Crosby has had a relapse, Staal is 100 percent correct in being as cautious as possible before returning to the Rangers’ lineup.

“Every situation is different,” Staal said. “The biggest thing is you have to know yourself when you’re ready to play. It’s different for everybody. You wait until the workouts get harder, then you see what happens after that. (Crosby’s situation) has obviously shed a lot of light on it. Guys are being more careful with these types of injuries. It’s not fun going through it.”

Tortorella also paid attention to the Crosby news.

“For me, you don’t want to see anybody go through that,” Tortorella said. “So I hope it works out. I’m sure he’s in great care, and we’re trying to do the same thing with our guys.”

Left wing Mike Rupp tossed away his orange non-contact jersey for a regular blue practice jersey for the first time since surgery on his left knee Nov. 9 after being injured Oct. 24 in a 2-1 win at Winnipeg. Left wing Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia) also skated, and he, Rupp and Staal will travel with the team to St. Louis and Phoenix this week.

Rupp has been cleared for contact but said the earliest he could resume playing is Saturday night in Phoenix. The Rangers are in St. Louis on Thursday night.

“I’ve got to find my way through this week to use these practices to really test it,” said Rupp, who had one goal in seven games before being injured. “Not that we don’t skate hard all the time but maybe treat it like a game.”

Unfortunately, former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer has not been around the team since sustaining a concussion Dec. 5 in a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He missed his fourth game Tuesday night and will not make the trip to St. Louis and Phoenix.

On another front, Tampa Bay wing Steve Downie was fined $2,500 for his role in the second-period melee after former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov used his stick as a rifle after scoring a shorthanded goal in the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout loss last Thursday.

Downie was not listed as on the ice for Anisimov’s goal but drew a two-minute roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct. He was sitting on the boards at the Lightning bench, waiting to jump on, when Anisimov scored. The NHL ruled it was a legal line change but still fined him the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. The fine money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

WHALE BACK HOME THIS WEEKEND

The Connecticut Whale returns home for another Friday-Saturday night set this weekend against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Providence Bruins. It’s part of nine games in the final 12 in 2011 at the XL Center after the Whale started the season with 15 of 22 outings on the road.

The Northeast Division-leading Whale (15-8-1-2) lost two of three games last weekend and has had problems with the pesky Sound Tigers (11-11-3-1), losing three of four meetings, the first two in a shootout and overtime after leading by two goals in each game. Then after a 3-2 victory on defenseman Brendan Bell’s goal with seven seconds left in overtime, the Whale lost 6-2 at Bridgeport on Nov. 25 in what equaled their worst defeat of the season.

So the Whale will have plenty of incentive in Round 5 of the GEICO Connecticut Cup on Friday night, especially after a 3-2 loss at Providence on Sunday, their first defeat in four meetings with the Bruins. The Sound Tigers, who have lost three in a row and are 1-4-1-1 since their last win over the Whale, have been led by left wings Tim Wallace (nine goals, 11 assists), Casey Cizikas (5, 11) and Justin DiBenedetto (9, 5) and centers Jeremy Colliton, the team captain, and David Ullstrom (12, 2). Wallace and Ullstrom are on recall to the parent New York Islanders, while left wing Micheal Haley (1, 2 in 16 games) was reassigned to the Sound Tigers on Monday. The goalies for coach and former Wolf Pack defensemen Brent Thompson are rookie Anders Nilsson (5-5-1, 2.99 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) and Kevin Poulin (6-7-0, 3.37, .892), who was reassigned by the Islanders on Sunday.

The Bruins’ win Sunday was their first in regulation since they beat Worcester 3-2 on Nov. 13. Since then, the Bruins (10-15-1-2) are 2-6-0-2, with the only other victory being 2-1 over Manchester in a shootout on Friday night, when Michael Hutchinson (1-5-0, 2.83, .909) had 26 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped four of five shots in the shootout for his only win of the season. Rookie right wing Carter Camper leads the Bruins in scoring with six goals and 12 assists, followed by centers Josh Hennessy (8, 7) and Zach Hamill (7, 7), right wing Jamie Tardif (7, 5) and rookie defenseman David Warsofsky (1, 11). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, five assists and a team-high 67 penalty minutes, and Anton Khudobin (8-11-2, 3.02, .911, one shutout) has done most of the goaltending for the Bruins and had 29 saves in the win over the Whale on Sunday to end a personal 0-5-2 run. The NHL Bruins recalled Hamill on Tuesday on an emergency basis.

Rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (eight goals, 14 assists) shares the Whale scoring lead with wing Mats Zuccarello (8, 14), who missed the two Bruins games last weekend with an injury. The next top scorers still with the team are center Kris Newbury (8, 7), right wing Andre Deveaux (6, 6) and rookie defenseman Tim Erixon (1, 11). Chad Johnson (8-4-2, 2.49, .913, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (7-5-0, 2.89, .894, two shutouts) have shared the goaltending.

The Whale’s only other game before their Christmas break is Dec. 21 at Adirondack, which is three points behind the Whale, who are at Bridgeport the day after Christmas.

To celebrate the holiday season, the Whale is offering a “Holiday Hat Trick” package of four upper-level tickets, four Whale winter hats and four Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for $80, with upgrades available. To purchase a package, call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366.

College students can get discounted tickets to weekday games with the Whale’s “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday home games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

Fans who purchase Whale season tickets, or a mini-plan, before Dec. 31 will be entered to win a round-trip excursion via limousine to a Rangers regular-season home game at Madison Square Garden. Current season seat holders and mini-plan-holders are also automatically entered.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS:

Left wing Roman Horak, traded from the Rangers to Calgary with two second-round picks for Erixon and a fifth-round pick on June 1, was recalled Sunday from Abbotsford. Horak had one assist and was plus-2 in two games with the Heat after being assigned after getting two goals and seven assists in 25 games with the Flames. … Former Wolf Pack and Rangers forwards Patrick Rismiller and Tim Kennedy were placed on waivers and re-entry waivers by Colorado and Florida. … Greenville Road Warriors goalie Jason Missiaen, who was in Whale camp after practicing with the team at the end of last season, was named ECHL Goaltender of the Week after going 2-0-0, including his first pro shutout, with a 0.50 GAA and .986 save percentage. Missiaen had 31 saves in a 3-1 victory over Gwinnett on Thursday night and stopped all 38 shots he faced in a 3-0 win over South Carolina on Friday night.

BARBER, CLARKE NAMED AHL ALL-STAR HONORARY CAPTAINS

Hall of Famers and Flyers legends Bill Barber and Bob Clarke were named honorary captains for the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 29-30 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. The honorary captains stand on the team benches during the skills competition and All-Star Game and are recognized for their careers at the AHL Hall of Fame inductions and awards ceremony.

Barber began his pro career with the AHL’s Richmond Robins in 1972 before playing 12 seasons with the Flyers, winning two Stanley Cups and named an All-Star six times. He retired as the Flyers’ career goal-scoring leader (420) and later coached their AHL affiliates in Hershey and Philadelphia, leading the Phantoms to a Calder Cup title in 1998. Barber, who also won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2000-01, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990 and is now a scouting consultant for the Flyers.

Clarke played his entire 15-year pro career with the Flyers, racking up 1,210 points and three NHL MVP awards while captaining the Broad Street Bullies to two Stanley Cup titles. The talented playmaker and eight-time All-Star then spent 19 seasons as the Flyers’ general manager between 1984 and 2007 and was GM of the Phantoms’ Calder Cup championship teams in 1998 and 2005. He was a 1987 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame and is currently the Flyers’ senior vice president.

Tickets for the All-Star Classic, who include admission to the skills competition at 3 p.m. on Jan. 29 and the All-Star Game at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30, are on sale at the Boardwalk Hall box office, all Ticketmaster locations, by calling 800-736-1420 or at www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets are also available for the post-skills party Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m. and the AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony Jan. 30 at 11 a.m. at Caesars Atlantic City.

For destination information about Atlantic City, visit www.atlanticcitynj.com.

WHALE-FALCONS FANS SERIES TICKETS AVAILABLE

Tickets for the next two games in the seven-game series between the Whale and Springfield Falcons are on sale.

Game 4 is on Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4 p.m., and Game 5 is Jan. 8 in Springfield at 12:30 p.m. Tickets for the final two games on Feb. 10 in Springfield at 5 p.m. and March 17 in Hartford at 4 p.m. will be available in the near future. Tickets must be purchased at least 10 days in advance of a game and include admission to the AHL game. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first three games raised about $600.

Tickets are available for games in Springfield by contacting Damon Markiewicz at dmarkiewicz@falconsahl.com. Advance tickets in Hartford are available by contacting Dussault at whalefalconsfangame@gmail.com. Information on all the games and the series is available at www.facebook.com/WhaleFalconsFanGame.

The Falcons fans have won 10-6, 14-4 and 8-4 in the inaugural such series originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series.

And mark Jan. 22, 2012 on your calendar as that’s when the Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, will be held from 4-7 p.m. at the XL Center. Whale players will serve dinner for the benefit of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford. Adult tickets are $30, and tickets for children 12 and under are $20. To purchase tickets for the dinner, visit the table outside Section 101 at Whale games.

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