SPOTLIGHT: DEFENSE

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale defense took a second hit in 24 hours Monday, when rookie Tim Erixon was recalled by the parent New York Rangers on an emergency basis.

The loss of Erixon and Wade Redden, who was injured in Saturday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Providence Bruins, came a day after the Rangers called up Stu Bickel on an emergency basis. Bickel, among the Rangers’ final cuts, was needed to replace Steve Eminger, who coach John Tortorella told the New York media Monday will be out eight-to-ten weeks with a separated right shoulder sustained when slammed into the boards by Martin Hanzal at 3:16 of the second period of a last-second 3-2 victory at Phoenix on Saturday night.

“It hurts,” Tortorella said the New York media after practice. “He’s a gamer, and he brought physical play to our back end. He never stands out, but he stands in the way and does a lot of good things for us. So we will miss him. Having said that, we have had injuries all year long, especially at that position, so we’ll just have to go about our business and play.”

Eminger, who Tortorella said won’t need surgery, is the third of the Rangers’ top-six defenseman to be injured long-term, joining former Hartford Wolf Pack blueliners Marc Staal and Michael Sauer, who are out with concussions.

“I know how down (Eminger) was after the game, and he’s probably my best friend on the team, so I was heartbroken to see this happen,” said Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who spent the second half of last season with the Whale. “You never like seeing a teammate go down, especially a close friend like that. Every day he has waited for his opportunity, and he’s stepped up with all the injuries, played so well for us. It’s terrible timing, and I just feel so badly for him.”

Erixon was called up for the second time in less than a week because Jeff Woywitka is questionable for a game Tuesday night at New Jersey with a left ankle/foot injury sustained when he blocked a shot Saturday night, when Brad Richards’ last-second goal gave the Rangers the win. Erixon was recalled Wednesday as insurance in case Eminger couldn’t play Thursday night (4-1 loss at St. Louis), after sustaining an arm injury when hit by a shot in a 1-0 loss to the Dallas Stars last Tuesday night. But when Eminger was able to go, Erixon returned to the Whale for weekend games against Bridgeport (6-3 victory) and Providence.

The NHL holiday roster freeze goes into effect at midnight Monday and lasts through midnight Dec. 27. It prohibits teams from making trades or sending players to the minors, though the latter restriction would not apply to Bickel or Erixon because each was recalled under emergency conditions.

Staal, who hasn’t played this season, practiced in a red defenseman’s jersey rather than a non-contact jersey Monday for the first time. He has not been cleared for contact and said he’s pretty sure his teammates know not to hit him. Staal said resuming contact drills is “close, in a few days if everything goes well,” which means no setbacks. But Sauer hasn’t been around the team and has missed six games since he sustained a concussion in a violent collision with Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf on Dec. 5.

“(Sauer) has done a little bit of physical activity, but he’s not going to be with us for a while,” Tortorella said.

Bickel, acquired from Anaheim for Nigel Williams on Nov. 23, 2010, had one goal, three assists, 80 penalty minutes and was plus-4 in 27 games with the Whale and will make his NHL debut Tuesday night. His 80 penalty minutes include five from a toe-to-toe heavyweight bout with Bridgeport’s Benn Olson on Friday night that caused Whale center Kris Newbury to quip, “They were chucking them pretty good. I’m glad I was on the bench for that one.”

“Obviously, Stu has been playing well,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said Monday. “We’ve got a lot of defensemen playing well, and you could have made a case for a lot of guys being called up. But the Rangers picked Bickel, and we wish him well.”

Tortorella recalled really liking Bickel’s game in training camp while the Rangers were in Europe, before Bickel was sent to the Whale. Tortorella added he was surprised because he really didn’t know too much about the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Bickel. With the Rangers playing the Devils, New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers in the next four games, the coaching staff decided to bring up Bickel over Erixon, a good two-way player who isn’t as physical.

“For sure, it’s nice to get recalled like that, the first time especially,” Bickel said after practice Monday. “I think I made some strides (in training camp), I made a name with the coaching staff.

“It’s not something you think too much about,” Bickel said of Erixon getting the first call on Wednesday. “You’ve got to be patient whether it’s him coming up or me coming up. I didn’t think too much about it.”

Bickel said training camp and the preseason and getting to travel to Europe for the exhibition games was good for “getting to know the guys, getting to know the system, at the same time, getting some confidence. For me, the big thing was being able to go down and play consistent every night. Anyone who knows my game knows I like to play a physical game.”

Bickel said the only Rangers defenseman he has played with is Del Zotto, when he was with the Whale last season. Bickel, 25, admitted he would be a “little nervous” before his first NHL game Tuesday night.

Redden was injured Saturday night when he crashed into the post as he and Blake Parlett tried to catch Jamie Tardif on a breakaway 2:38 into the third period. Redden was helped off the ice and didn’t return. Fortunately for the Whale, they had dressed seven defensemen, but they still had to play a man down the final 17:22 of regulation and five minutes of overtime, eventually losing 2-0 in the shootout. But with Bickel recalled and Redden injured, they were down to five healthy defensemen, so they recalled Lee Baldwin from Greenville of the ECHL, where he has three goals, tied for tops among defensemen, and is plus-5 in 11 games. He is scoreless and plus-1 in eight games in two earlier stints with the Whale.

Meanwhile, Richards’ dramatic goal to beat Phoenix was No. 1 on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day on Saturday. His whirling backhander glanced off Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle’s leg, had just enough to get over goalie Mike Smith’s pad and banked off the post and over the goal line in the final tenth of a second.

“I wanted to throw it at the net somewhere,” Richards told the media. “I had no idea that was going to happen.”

The game appeared headed to overtime when former Wolf Pack defenseman Ryan McDonagh beat Radim Vrbata to a puck in the corner and threw it backward blindly with less than two seconds left. Richards was in the right spot and whipped the puck toward the net, the fortuitous bounce giving the Rangers the improbable victory – but not right away. The referees waved off the goal, but when reviewed in Toronto, replays showed the puck fully crossed the goal line less than a second before the final horn sounded. That led to a delayed celebration by the Rangers, who had won only one of their last five trips to Phoenix.

“I was at the mercy of everyone else. It’s not a good feeling,” Richards said. “I knew it was going to go upstairs and you have to wait. You just hope you get on the right side of it. Timing-wise, you don’t win many games like that.”

Rangers goalie Martin Biron made 21 saves and was delighted to improve to 6-1 in place of Henrik Lundqvist.

“That’s about the weirdest ending I’ve ever seen in this league,” Biron said. “I was getting ready for overtime, but the clock showed different and that’s great for us.”

The goal capped a forgettable final period for Yandle, who fanned on a pass that sniper Marian Gaborik turned into his 300th NHL goal to tie the game at 2-2 at 1:09. Gaborik had two goals, his 16th and 17th of the season, and now has 13 goals in his last 12 games against the Coyotes.

“We get lucky. I think it hits the kid’s skate and we get lucky,” Tortorella said. “That one goal at the beginning of the period helped us get back in, and again we just tried to stay with it. I’m glad it went our way and we found a way to win a game.”

The Coyotes have now allowed 15 goals in the last two minutes of a period and seven in the final five minutes of regulation – but never anything like this.

“Pretty frustrating when we’ve seen a number of them like that before,” Coyotes coach and former Hartford Whalers center Dave Tippett said. “Mistakes keep piling up and you’re giving away points like that. It’s not good.”

The Coyotes had been a perfect 14-0-0 leading after two periods, but a 2-1 lead evaporated, thanks to a goal that set the stage for what was to come for a team that is now 3-6 in December. Yandle attempted to start a rush up ice but fanned on a pass from behind his net. Gaborik was all alone on the slot to collect the giveaway, and while Smith stopped his first shot, Gaborik still had time for a second whack to tie the game with No. 300.

“It seemed like a year ago when I started in the NHL,” said Gaborik, who reached the milestone in his 670th NHL game. “I was a little surprised by it. I was all alone right in front of (Smith) and I was as surprised as he was.”

The injury-plagued Rangers played without former Wolf Pack center Artem Ansimov because of the flu and then lost Eminger, but Rupp returned after arthroscopic right knee surgery. And Tortorella said Monday that left wing Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia) is “a week to ten days” from rejoining the lineup.

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Lauri Korpokoski scored shorthanded with nine seconds left in the first period, and Cal O’Reilly scored his first goal as a Coyote with 52 seconds left in the second. It was Coyotes’ third shorthanded goal of the season and the second of Korpikoski’s eight goals this season. The Coyotes dressed Justin Pogge as the backup to Smith, as former Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie Jason LaBarbera was not with the team because of a family issue.

BATTLE OF TOP NORTHEAST DIVISION TEAMS

The Northeast Division-leading Whale (16-8-1-3, 36 points) host second-place Adirondack (15-11-1-1, 32 points) on Wednesday night on “Ugly Holiday Sweater Night.” Fans who wear an ugly holiday sweater to the Public Power Ticket Office can get a 50 percent discount on upper-level seats and lower-level end-zone seats.

The Whale has split two games with the Phantoms in Glens Falls, N.Y., losing 6-3 on opening night Oct. 8 and then winning 4-2 on Oct. 28. Rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault has taken over the Whale scoring lead with 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists), followed by Newbury (9, 11) and right wing Andre Deveaux (6, 9), who has missed nine games while on recall to the Rangers. Chad Johnson (9-4-3, 2.42 goals-against average, .916 save percentage, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (7-5-0, 2.89, .894, two shutouts) have shared the goaltending.

The Phantoms are led by veteran left wing Denis Hamel (11, 12), followed by rookie wing Jason Akeson (7, 12), center Ben Holmstrom (8, 8) and left wing Garrett Roe (3, 12), though Holmstrom, the Phantoms’ youngest captain in history, was called up by the parent Philadelphia Flyers on Monday. Michael Leighton (11-10-0, 2.37, .923, one shutout), who led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, has done the bulk of the goaltending while backed up by another veteran, Jason Bacashihua (4-2-1, 3.31, .909).

After facing the Phantoms, the Whale has a four-day Christmas break before playing at Bridgeport on Monday in the sixth game of the GEICO Connecticut Cup. The Whale are 2-1-1-1 in the first half of the ten-game series but has lost in regulation and overtime in their first two visits to the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard. The Sound Tigers (11-14-3-1), coached by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, have lost six straight in regulation and are 1-7-1-1 in their last ten to fall into the Northeast Division basement. The Sound Tigers’ leading scorer, left wing Tim Wallace (9g, 11a), and No. 4 David Ullstrom (12g, 2a) are on recall to the parent New York Islanders. The leading scorers still with the team are center/captain Jeremy Colliton (7g, 10a) and left wing Casey Cizikas (5g, 11a). Rookie Anders Nilsson (5-6-1, 3.16 goals-against average, .902 save percentage) and Kevin Poulin (6-9-0, 3.39, .891) are back with the Sound Tigers after spending some time with the Islanders.

The Whale are back home next Tuesday night to face the Albany Devils (12-11-3-2 before visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday night) on “Student Rush Night.” College and high school students presenting a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket Office will receive 50 percent off upper-level seats and lower-level end-zone seats.

The Whale lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Devils on Oct. 14 and then registered their first win over Albany in the two-year history of the Devils franchise Nov. 5, also in a 3-2 shootout decision. The Devils are led by center Steve Zalewski (8, 9) and right wings Matt Anderson (5, 11) and Joe Whitney (6, 8). Former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman has two goals and nine assists in 21 games. Jeff Frazee (4-8-2, 2.71, .896, one shutout) and Keith Kinkaid (7-6-0, 3.00, .900, one shutout) have split the goaltending.

To celebrate the holiday season, the Whale are 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 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 game at Madison Square Garden. Current season seat holders and mini-plan-holders are also automatically entered. … It will be Connecticut Whale Night at the Bushnell Park rink in Hartford on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m. Mascot Pucky will be on hand, and prizes will be given out along with free skating and skate rentals. … The Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is Jan. 22 from 4 to 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, visit a table outside Section 101 at Whale games. … Episode II in HBO’s four-part “24/7 Rangers-Flyers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” series will air Wednesday from 10 to 11 p.m. The last two inside looks at the Rangers and Flyers will be Dec. 28 and Dec. 5. The 2012 NHL Winter Classic is Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

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.

TOP STATE WOMEN’S PLAYERS AT XL CENTER ON JAN. 21

Some of the best women’s hockey players ever from Connecticut will be on the ice Jan. 21 at 3 p.m., when the Boston Blades face Team Alberta in a Canadian Women’s Hockey League regular-season game before the Whale play the Norfolk Admirals four hours later. Tickets for the Whale game will also be good for admission to the CWHL game.

The Blades’ roster includes New Haven native Caitlin Cahow, who helps anchor the defense after being a bronze medalist with Team USA in 2006 and a silver medalist in 2010, after starring at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville and Harvard University. Others on the roster with Connecticut ties are Holly Lorms and Micaela Long of Pomfret, Raylen Dziengelewski of Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, and Yale’s Jess Koizumi and Greenwich native Bray Ketchum. Angela Ruggiero of Choate School in Wallingford, the most decorated player in the women’s hockey history, is also on the roster but hasn’t played this season.

The Blades’ leading goal-scorer is 2010 Olympian and former Boston College standout Kelli Stack, and their points leader is Erika Lawler of Fitchburg, Mass., another member of the 2010 Olympic team and a three-time national champion at the University of Wisconsin, coached by former Hartford Whalers center Mark Johnson.

The CWHL, founded in May of 2007, represents the highest level of women’s professional hockey in North America. An incorporated, not-for-profit, premier, professionally-run women’s hockey association, the CWHL consists of six franchises, whose regular season runs from late October through March before the playoff champion earns the Clarkson Cup.

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One response to “SPOTLIGHT: DEFENSE

  1. Klassen recalled by the Whale.
    http://theahl.com/stats/transactions.php?f_season_id=37&f_team_id=307
    12/20/2011 Sam Klassen (D) Connecticut ADD Reassigned by N.Y. Rangers (NHL) from Greenville (ECHL)
    Glad to see the opportunities fall to guys already on the depth chart.