SPOTLIGHT: STU BICKEL

Bruce Berlet 7By Bruce Berlet

Defenseman Stu Bickel is the latest Connecticut Whale “graduate” to make a difference for the parent New York Rangers this season.

Bickel joined rookies Carl Hagelin and Tim Erixon as players to make their NHL debut with the Rangers on Tuesday night, as the Blueshirts traveled across the Hudson River and beat the arch-rival New Jersey Devils and future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur – AGAIN.

Bickel assisted on Hagelin’s backbreaking shorthanded goal with 5:18 left in regulation, stood up for his young teammate against always agitating David Clarkson, had one shot and was plus-1 as the Rangers scored three times in the third period for a 4-1 victory. The Rangers are now 18-7-2 against the once always-conquering Devils since the start of the 2007-08 season, and stud goalie Henrik Lundqvist is an amazing 21-5-5 against Brodeur in their last 31 matchups, after he started 2-4-0 versus the Devils.

And Bickel continued to receive kudos from Rangers coach John Tortorella in what is turning into a decidedly lopsided trade. While Nigel Williams wanted out of Hartford and is now out of hockey, Bickel has worked his tail off since being acquired from Anaheim on Nov. 23, 2010 to improve his game, and lot, to the point he is a useful commodity at the highest level.

“I just don’t think (Bickel) is afraid to step in and try to make a difference,” Tortorella told the media after the Rangers’ latest conquest of the Devils. “I didn’t see the hit (on Hagelin) or what happened on the (New Jersey) bench, but he stood up for his teammate. I don’t think he’s timid. I think he wants to make a difference. And with his size (6 feet 4, 218 pounds) and range in our end zone, he’s going to get in the way somewhere, especially on the penalty kill. And Timmy (Erixon) came in and gave us some good minutes (9:36), so we’ll see where we go with our next game (Thursday night at home against another arch rival, the New York Islanders).”

Despite being pinned into his corner locker by the media mob surrounding Lundqvist’s locker, Bickel had a wide smile on his face, after a game in which he played 11:40 while paired mostly with Erixon, a pairing that was on the ice when the game was tied at 1 in the third period.

“I was a little bit nervous going in, but once I was on the ice, I settled down a little bit,” said Bickel, who was among the Rangers’ final cuts in October. “It’s showing (Tortorella) has a little bit of confidence in us as a pair. They told me we were pretty solid. That was a good feeling. … I’ll take the win over anything. All the rest is just kind of background stuff. But it’s nice to get the first point. I just tried not to let the Wow Factor set in too much out there. You can’t step back and look at everything going on around you. You have to play your game, and I believe tonight I was able to do that.”

Tortorella also praised Hagelin, 24, who a year ago was co-captaining the University of Michigan to the NCAA championship game. Tuesday night, he picked up Bickel’s clearing attempt around the boards at his own blueline, broke in 2-on-1 with Brian Boyle and beat Brodeur to the glove side for the crushing goal, the 10th that the Devils have allowed shorthanded this season. Marion Gaborik scored his second goal of the game and 19th of the season into an empty net with four seconds left to ice it.

“It’s really exciting for me to have a kid step into a lineup and be able to have me feel more and more comfortable to put him in situations,” Tortorella said of Hagelin, who has been solid since joining the Rangers with veteran center John Mitchell on Nov. 24, after rugged right wing Andre Deveaux had contributed earlier in the season. “Obviously his speed is really good for us, but he’s doing a lot of the little things, too. A kid, too, and I think that’s so important for our team to keep on bringing kids in. He really played well.”

Bickel, Erixon and Hagelin also received praise from Rangers captain and former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan, and Lundqvist, who had 30 saves on the way to being named the game’s No. 1 star and donning The Broadway Hat.

“The young defensemen stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat against a pretty skilled offensive team,” Callahan said. “They played great for us. Obviously it’s a huge goal by Hags, and with his speed and the way he can skate, he’s going to get opportunities like that.”

Added Lundqvist: “I’m impressed the way guys are playing right now. Guys come in the lineup who haven’t played that much and do a great job. We need it. It’s a long year, so to have guys coming in and play so confident, it’s helped this team. Down the road, we’re going to have injuries. We need guys to step up, and that’s been the case this year.”

Another kid, former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, scored the Rangers’ first goal, enabling Whale coaches Ken Gernander, J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller to feel even better about the job they’re doing developing players for Broadway. The latest, Bickel, had two goals, seven assists and 135 penalty minutes in 54 games with the Wolf Pack/Whale last season and had one goal, three assists and 80 PIM in 27 games this season.

“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 said at the morning skate Tuesday. “My game hadn’t progressed to where it is now. I’ve made great strides.”

Bickel said consistency 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. “You want to earn a roster spot and be here for the rest of the year.”

Bickel’s solid NHL debut came only hours after Daigneault said how much the defenseman had improved since being acquired for the disgruntled Williams.

“Bickel has been really good defensively and improving since he got here,” Daigneault said after practice Tuesday. “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.”

It showed Tuesday night. Quite impressive for the 478th ECHL graduate – and latest Whale – to reach the NHL.

LABARBERA STOPS PENALTY SHOT TO SAVE COYOTES’ WIN

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie Jason LaBarbera stopped the eight shots he faced, including Stephen Weiss’ penalty shot with 24.5 seconds left, as the Phoenix Coyotes beat the Florida Panthers 2-1 Tuesday night. But LaBarbera didn’t get the win, as he came into the game at 3:29 of the third period after Mike Smith left with a groin injury. Smith, injured when he kicked out his left leg to stop a Tomas Kopecky wrist shot that went wide, made 19 saves before leaving with a 2-1 lead.

Weiss went with the exact move he used Friday night to score the winner in a 3-2 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames. That one beat Leland Irving cleanly between the legs, but this time, LaBarbera got enough of Weiss’ backhand to slow it down. The puck kept moving toward the net while the goalie fell forward but stopped right on the line.

“I was laying there, I looked at our bench, there was no reaction, and then I looked at their bench and there was no reaction, and I’m wondering what the heck is going on here?” LaBarbera said. “I looked beside me and saw it, and I obviously saw the replay and I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ ”

As for his relief appearance, LaBarbera said, “Sometimes it stresses you out a little too much when you have a lot time to think about it. And the faceoff was in our end, too, which made it more interesting. You try to get as loose as you possibly can — take a smelling salt and throw some water on you and get ready to go.”

Coyotes coach and former Hartford Whalers center Dave Tippett said it was about time his team caught a break.

“We make it hard on ourselves, that’s for sure,” Tippett said. “We’ve been in some tough games that haven’t gone our way, so it’s nice to see LaBarbera give us a big save there and basically save the game for us. Having a penalty shot with 24 seconds left is not ideal. So to trade some of those demons away and get ourselves a win, that should be confidence for our group.” … Former Wolf Pack and Rangers right wing P.A. Parenteau scored in regulation and had one of two shootout goals in the Islanders’ 3-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night. Former Sound Tigers wings Michael Grabner and Franz Nielsen scored in regulation and the shootout. … Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Ryan Hollweg was suspended one game as a consequence for his actions in the Portland Pirates’ 5-2 loss to St. John’s on Sunday. He will miss the game against Worcester on Monday night.

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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