SPOTLIGHT: NEWBURY

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Kris Newbury is a proud individual, as a human being and a hockey player.

Few demonstrate more grit, determination and leadership than the Connecticut Whale’s veteran center, something that earned Newbury frequent plaudits from New York Rangers coach John Tortorella during a handful of call-ups to the Big Apple the past two seasons.

But Newbury’s spirited play also gets him in trouble at times via penalties, including an elbow to the head of Bridgeport Sound Tigers wing Justin DiBenedetto on Nov. 18 that earned him a four-game suspension. But it reached a point a few weeks ago when too many “chats” with referees led to unsportsmanlike penalties and a loss on two fronts: the scoreboard and the A as one of the Whale’s three alternate captains.

Well, if Whale coach Ken Gernander, known for plenty of grit and determination during his 14-year playing career, wanted to send a message, consider it well delivered. Since being replaced as alternate captain by veteran defenseman Brendan Bell, Newbury has picked up his game several notches while curbing his occasional overzealous behavior, though he still came to the defense of Pavel Valentenko as he was being mugged early in a 3-2 loss at Providence on Dec. 11. The action earned Newbury a game misconduct as third man in a fight, but it also showed what a standup guy and consummate professional he is, whether it’s helping a teammate or taking responsibility for actions that cost him a letter on his uniform.

“I took some penalties that I shouldn’t have, and I guess I deserved it,” said Newbury, who had been an alternate captain when not on recall to the Rangers and a leading candidate to succeed traded Dane Byers as captain. “It was wrong timing, talking to the refs, but now I’m just trying to work as hard as possible, keep my feet moving, do as I’m told, try to earn their respect back and see what happens from there.

“I’m taking it game by game and shift by shift, show them that I’m working hard and lead by example doing that. I’ve felt pretty good the last few games and it has paid off for me personally, so I’m just going to keep trying to do the same thing.”

Newbury has focused on being a major contributor in the scoring and leadership departments, especially with the loss of talented wing Mats Zuccarello for several weeks because of an injury sustained in a 5-3 loss to the Hershey Bears on Dec. 9. Since returning from his suspension, Newbury has points in six of eight games with four goals and five assists, including a career-high four in a 6-3 victory over Bridgeport on Friday night, as he and linemates Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (two goals) and Andre Deveaux (three assists) combined for nine points, eight on the power play.

Newbury scored the Whale’s only goal off a nice lead pass by Audy-Marchessault in a 2-1 shootout loss to Providence on Saturday night and was the team’s best player again, while constantly showing his improved speed from the most extensive offseason workouts in his nine-year pro career. That helped Newbury get off to his best start as a pro with four goals, including his second AHL hat trick in the season opener at Adirondack, and four assists in the Whale’s first four games, earning him a promotion to the Rangers. After going scoreless with 24 penalty minutes and being plus-2 in six games with the parent club, Newbury returned and continued to be a steadying influence before being waylaid by some ill-timed penalties that led to the suspension.

But a confab with Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld two weeks ago helped Newbury get back to being the major contributor that the organization believes he can be.

“They keep reinforcing what I’ve got to do,” Newbury said. “Schoeny just told me how I have to play to be successful and help the team win. I’m counted on for leadership and for us to win hockey games, so I’m just taking it personal and trying to work as hard as I can.”

Newbury has done just that in spades, and Gernander offered plenty of kudos after each Whale game last weekend.

“He had a really strong game, and he’s still one of our more veteran guys in a leadership role,” Gernander said Friday night. “When you’re missing a few (players) here and there, it’s good when guys like that step up and rise to the occasion.”

On Saturday night, Newbury had seven shots, tying Jordan Owens for the game high, and nearly won it with 2:08 left in overtime, only to see his blast from the right circle hit off Bruins goalie Michael Hutchinson and the right post. A wide-open Audy-Marchessault had a shot blocked on an ensuing rebound, Hutchinson stopped Owens’ penalty shot with 15.6 seconds left in overtime and the Bruins won a shootout.

“Newbs had a strong game; he was skating really well,” Gernander said Saturday night. “He’s a powerful kid coming through the neutral zone with speed when he’s moving his feet, and he’s pretty hard to contain. When he’s doing that, he’s pretty effective. Like on his goal. It was wide speed, and that’s how we preach entering the zone. It was obviously a great shot that caught part of the water bottle and post and the whole works, so it was well placed and had a lot of momentum on it given the fact he was in full stride.”

Newbury has been in full stride in a terrific response to Gernander’s move. Knowing the competitiveness of Newbury, it’s not likely to stop any time soon. Don’t be surprised if Newbury gets the A back with veteran defenseman Wade Redden sidelined with an injury sustained Saturday night trying to deny a breakaway by Jamie Tardif.

LOTS OF OPPORTUNITIES IN NEW YORK AND HARTFORD

With Redden out for the time being, and Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon on recall to the Rangers, the Whale is missing half of their top six defensemen, just as the Blueshirts are minus All-Star Marc Staal (concussion), Michael Sauer (concussion) and Steve Eminger (separated right shoulder). And Jeff Woywitka (foot) couldn’t play against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night, so Erixon was back in the lineup, causing the Whale to call up Sam Klassen from Greenville of the ECHL so they would have six healthy defensemen for a Wednesday night game against Adirondack.

Injuries are part of the business, but it’s difficult for any team when so many occur at one time in one position, especially on defense.

“With guys out, there are opportunities for others,” said Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who handles the defense and power play. “The better coaches find ways to win, and the players have to pick it up a notch. When we lost (center John) Mitchell and (wing Carl) Hagelin (to call-ups), they were part of our top two power plays and leading scorers at the time, so somebody else had opportunities to go up there. Audy-Marchessault was one of them, and he really took the bull by the horns and is now our leader in points (25).”

Lee Baldwin was recalled from Greenville on Monday to replace Redden, and now Klassen will fill in for Erixon after getting one goal, four assists and 26 penalty minutes in 23 games with the Road Warriors. He was scoreless with four penalty minutes in three games with the then Hartford Wolf Pack as a rookie last season, when he spent most of his time with Greenville.

Bickel, 25, could be on Broadway for a while, as Eminger is out 8-to-10 weeks and Staal and Sauer aren’t expected back in the near future. Bickel made his NHL debut Tuesday night after a winding career path that saw him start in the United States Hockey League before playing one season at the University of Minnesota. The Anaheim Ducks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2008 before trading him to the Rangers for Nigel Williams on Nov. 23, 2010.

“It was a bit of a different situation for me last year when I got traded but I came in with a positive attitude,” Bickel told the New York media at the morning skate Tuesday. “My game hadn’t progressed to where it is now. I’ve made great strides.”

The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Bickel had two goals, seven assists and 135 penalty minutes for the Wolf Pack last season and has a goal, three assists and 80 penalty minutes in 27 games for the Whale this season. He said the consistency of his game is the biggest difference this season.

“You don’t come up wanting to just play one game,” said Bickel, whose rugged play impressed the coaching staff in the preseason and who was paired with Erixon on Tuesday night. “You want to earn a roster spot and be here for the rest of the year.”

Despite all the changes for the Whale, Daigneault said it will be status quo as far as the approach to the game.

“You don’t change anything,” Daigneault said. “We’re just hoping that guys seize the opportunity. It’s just like the Rangers. They called the other day asking what I thought about who should come up with them going to play New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Islanders. Bickel was been really good defensively and improving since he got here (on Nov. 23, 2010 from the Syracuse Crunch for Nigel Williams). When he first arrived, I didn’t think he had many good things in his play, and I sat him out. I think just sitting out kind of brought him to the bottom of the barrel, and he’s the one who climbed out of it.

“I had a good conversation with him, and you could tell that he really cared about his career and getting better. The guys really like him in the room, but I think it was important to pull him out and show him what he could do better and then work on his basic fundamentals and his passing. He turned over an awful lot of pucks last season, but every aspect of his game has gotten better. His shot gets through more from the blueline, though there’s still a lot of work to be done there. But his mobility and backward skating has really improved, and he knows that, too. He’s making the effort to come to practice every day and take advantage of the hour that we provide to him to get better. Going up was well deserved.”

Gernander also stressed the opportunity that players have and how you can’t dramatically change things just because some faces change.

“It’s doesn’t matter who’s here,” Gernander said. “You’re teaching certain things and playing a system, and who’s ever here should be capable of doing it. Luckily we’ve been pretty deep in that position (defense) this year, and it’s not like they don’t know what we want to do.”

The new-look and Northeast Division-leading Whale (16-8-1-3, 36 points) hosts second-place Adirondack (15-11-1-1, 32 points) 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 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, and are 8-2-1-2 in the division. With Zuccarello out, Audy-Marchessault now leads the Whale with 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists), which is third among AHL rookies behind left wings Cory Conacher of Norfolk (35) and Gustav Nyquist of Grand Rapids (29). He is followed in Whale scoring 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 and the Sound Tigers’ first game since a 2-0 loss at Providence on Sunday, their second shutout defeat. The Whale is 2-1-1-1 in the first half of the 10-game series, but has lost in regulation and overtime in two visits to the Webster Bank Arena.

The Sound Tigers (11-14-3-1), coached by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, have lost six straight in regulation since a 3-1 win over Albany on Dec. 3 and are 1-7-1-1 in their last 10 to fall into the Northeast Division basement, capped by successive shutout losses at Hershey on Saturday night (5-0) and at Providence on Sunday. They haven’t scored in 144:11 since Scott Howes’ power-play goal with 4:11 left in the second period of a 6-3 loss to the Whale on Friday night. According to standout Sound Tigers beat writer Mike Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post, their longest drought since the lockout is 173:44 on Oct. 18-24, 2009, which coincides with the last time Bridgeport was shut out two times in a row, Oct. 20 and Oct. 23. For back-to-back nights, you’re going back to Jan. 14-15, 2005, a pair of 4-0 losses at Bridgeport and in Hartford. The only time they were shut out three times in a row is Oct. 27, 29 and 30, 2004.

But the latest scoring drought isn’t all that surprising considering the Sound Tigers’ leading scorer, left wing Tim Wallace (nine goals, 11 assists), and No. 4 David Ullstrom (12, 2) are on recall to the parent New York Islanders. The leading scorers still with the team are center/captain Jeremy Colliton (7, 10) and left wing Casey Cizikas (5, 11). Rookie Anders Nilsson (5-6-1, 3.16, .902) and Kevin Poulin (6-9-0, 3.39, .891) are back with the Sound Tigers after spending some time with the Islanders.

The Whale is back home next Tuesday night to face the Albany Devils (13-11-3-2) 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 won 2-1 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday night for the first time in 19 tries dating to the then Albany River Rats also scoring a 2-1 victory on April 1, 2005. This time, Jeff Frazee made 25 saves and Mike Hoeffel scored his first two goals of the season, including the winner with 4:38 left in regulation. 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 22 games. Frazee (5-8-2, 2.59, .900, one shutout) and Keith Kinkaid (7-6-0, 3.00, .900, one shutout) have split the goaltending.

POWER PLAYS

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 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. … 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.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

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 Jan. 5. The 2012 NHL Winter Classic is Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

The Panthers called up former Rangers and Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy from San Antonio and returned center Greg Rallo to the Rampage. It’s the third recall of the season for Kennedy, who has one goal in 20 games with the Panthers and one goal and three assists in 10 games with the Rampage.

After missing two games with a broken nose, Minnesota Wild wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard, older brother of Whale wing Francois Bouchard, returned to the lineup Monday night and had a team-high five shots, but host Vancouver cruised to a 4-0 victory.

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Jed Ortmeyer made his NHL season debut for the Wild, after he had five goals and seven assists and was a team-high plus-11 in 22 games with the Houston Aeros. Ortmeyer, 33, has 21 goals and 30 assists and has always been a solid defensive player in 311 NHL games with the Rangers, Nashville, San Jose and Minnesota. Monday night, Ortmeyer played against former Rangers and Wolf Pack/Whale wings Manny Malhotra, Dale Weise and Chris Higgins, a standout at Yale in 2001-03 who is fifth on the Canucks in scoring with nine goals and 12 assists in 30 games

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 Wisconsin, coached by former 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.

MESSIER, LEETCH AMONG RANGERS IN CLASSIC ALUMNI GAME

Hockey Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Cheshire native Brian Leetch, Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner will be among the former Rangers participating in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic alumni game against the Flyers on Dec. 31 at 1 p.m. on the same Citizens Bank Park rink in Philadelphia as the NHL teams will use Jan. 2 at 1 p.m.

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 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.

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.

Fans can vote at www.Blueshirtsunited.com for the starting lineup for the Rangers’ team in the alumni game. By casting a vote by Dec. 29, fans will be entered to win a host of prizes, including Winter Classic jerseys and tickets to the alumni game and Winter Classic.

A third AHL outdoor game will be played at Citizens Bank Park on Jan. 6, when Adirondack, 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.

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