SPOTLIGHT: HOLIDAY CHEER

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale family is happy on many fronts this holiday season, starting with good health for most and a spot atop the Northeast Division as the first full season for the renamed franchise nears the two-fifths pole.

The strong guidance of coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller has enabled the Whale to survive major injuries to standouts such veteran defenseman Wade Redden and skilled wings Mats Zuccarello and Chad Kolarik and the recalls of centers Kris Newbury and John Mitchell, speedy rookie wing Carl Hagelin, rugged right wing Andre Deveaux and defensemen Tim Erixon and Stu Bickel.

So as the team began its four-day Christmas break Thursday before returning for a game Monday night at Bridgeport, here’s what many in the Whale family are most hoping to find in or around their stocking and tree come Sunday morning:

Howard Baldwin, Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO: Good health. No bad moods! Sellouts.

Howard Baldwin Jr., WSE president and COO: All I want is my great staff to have the safest holiday and get much needed rest!

Karen Baldwin, wife of Howard: My wish for this year is the same as ever – for health and happiness for family and friend and peace in the world at large … and some nice big crowds for the Whale games!

Frank Berrian, community relations director: I want the Whale to keep winning and the fans to come on out!

Liz Bontempo, new media and promotions manager: Every girl loves jewelry. I would like a Calder Cup ring.

Ken Gernander, coach: World peace

J.J. Daigneault, assistant coach: A new transmission for my 1969 Mercedes

Pat Boller, assistant coach: An iPad

Damien Hess, trainer: No injuries, which means everyone is healthy

Mark Cesari, strength and conditioning coach: NHL2012 Xbox

Russ Holdredge, equipment manager: I’ve got everything I need

Players

Jonathan Audy-Marchessault: Go home to Quebec City and see my family and friends and go shopping separately with my mom and dad for Christmas and birthday presents (he turns 21 on Tuesday)

Lee Baldwin: A surfboard

Francois Bouchard: See my family in Montreal; it’s always nice to see family and friends at Christmas

Ryan Bourque: I haven’t been home for Christmas since 2008 because I’ve been playing for the Quebec Remparts so it’ll be nice to be with the family and hopefully it’s a white Christmas

Andre Deveaux: Get a backdoor pass from Newbury

Tommy Grant: Standup Skidoo

Chad Johnson: I’m happy, so I don’t really need anything

Chad Kolarik: To be healthy again

Chris McKelvie: Remain in first place and have guys who are hurt get healthy

Kris Newbury: Snow, so the kids can get out of the house and play in it

Jared Nightingale: Not to practice on Thursday (the Whale did)

Jordan Owens: A chance to go home and see family and friends in Niagara Falls

Blake Parlett: See my family and friends in Muskoka, Ontario

Jeff Prough: Golf clubs

Cam Talbot: I want Lee Baldwin to have a new set of hands

Scott Tanski: See my family and friends in Burlington, Ontario, and have some turkey. I like dark meat. (he’s traveling home with Owens, who lives about 40 miles away)

Kelsey Tessier: To visit my girlfriend’s family in Montreal and for everyone’s health to be good and my eye to get better (after being hit in practice on Tuesday)

Andreas Thuresson: Peace on earth

Pavel Valentenko: Me, my family, friends and fans to be happy and healthy

Aaron Voros: Get healthy

Mats Zuccarello: Get healthy

And me? I’ll take a little Gernander and Thuresson (world peace), a little Howard and Karen Baldwin (more fans supporting the Whale because the coaches and players deserve it), a little of several guys (health and being with family and friends) and a little of myself (a sellout for the revived Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance Bo Kolinsky Scholarship Golf Tournament; contact me if interested in playing June 28 at Lyman Orchards Golf Club in Middlefield).

Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah! Merry Kwanza! Happy Whatever Else! And enough wins for the Whale to raise a second Calder Cup banner in June!

DRAMATIC WIN HEADING INTO THE BREAK

The Whale got another dramatic win Wednesday night when Valentenko’s 50-foot laser off a faceoff win by Newbury overpowered Adirondack Phantoms goalie Jason Bacashihua with 16.2 seconds left for a 3-2 victory.

Valentenko pulled a Babe Ruth and called the second winner of his career after nearly converting on a similar play on his previous shift. But after assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who handles the defense and power play, replaced Parlett with Valentenko before the faceoff, Newbury cleanly won the draw from Tyler Brown to Brendan Bell, who dropped a pass to the Russian defenseman for a winning one-timer.

Bell, who assisted on all three Whale goals, has the most dramatic winner of the season when he scored with 6.9 seconds left in overtime to beat the Bridgeport Sound Tigers 3-2 on Nov. 18. It was the first of three consecutive 3-2 wins in extra time for the Whale, two in overtime and the other in a shootout. That stretch epitomized how the Whale has managed to hold the division lead heading into the holiday break despite a plethora of early injuries and call-ups that might have ruined other teams.

“Obviously we’re shorthanded, and if you watched us the last two days (in practice), it wasn’t going to be pretty,” Bell said after the Whale’s latest conquest without eight regulars. “We’ve got a lot of skill guys out of the lineup, but we did a helluva job. The guys who came in (from Greenville of the ECHL) and guys who had to play bigger roles were really good for us. (Sam) Klassen and (Lee) Baldwin on the back end were very, very good. It’s a gritty game, and good teams find ways to win when they’re shorthanded, and I guess we’re a good team.”

Bell traced the Whale’s success to how the Rangers are succeeding without regulars such as defensemen Marc Staal, Michael Sauer and now Steve Eminger and left wings Wojtek Wolski and Michael Rupp, who returned Monday in a 4-1 win over his former team, the New Jersey Devils.

“They’ve put an emphasis on character is what makes good hockey teams,” said Bell, who started the season with the Rangers after signing a free-agent deal Aug. 9. “Their core guys are character guys, and I think they tried to bring in people like that. And we’ve got a lot of guys like that in our (dressing) room. One hand now works with the other, and that’s kind of the way it’s been all year. We struggled a little bit early on losing third-period leads, but you kind of have to go through that to get over the hump, and we’ve been real good in them lately.”

Right wing Jeff Prough, recalled from Greenville a week earlier, scored his first goal in three games with the Whale when he took a ricochet of Valentenko’s carom off the end boards and produced a 2-1 lead at 8:28 of the second period. But 2:24 later, Jason Akeson got around Baldwin and swept a back pass into the slot to Tye McGinn for a quick wrist shot past Chad Johnson (27 saves) to tie it at 2.

It stayed that way until the perfect storm of a faceoff win, drop pass and shot that found the net to give the Whale (17-8-1-3) a five-point lead over Albany, which beat Binghamton 3-0 Wednesday night to move a point ahead of Adirondack. The Whale’s .655 percentage is second in the Eastern Conference to the .672 of the first-year St. John’s IceCaps (17-7-4-1).

“It was a good way to finish off, almost like an elongated segment before you leave for the break,” Gernander said. “We did a good job of being patient, not forcing passes and plays, and getting pucks behind and working down low. A lot of our wins have been the result of character, and we just stuck to it again tonight. A big faceoff win by Newbs and the shot by Tank were really good. Patience, hard work and sticking with it, not doing anything off the charts, can go a long way. In a tie game, you don’t have to make a high risk play to try to create your offense you just have to be diligent.”

Diligent is a perfect word to describe the Whale, who host Albany on Tuesday night after Monday’s trip to Bridgeport. They visit Worcester on Dec. 30 and then close out 2011 at the XL Center with a 5 p.m. game against Springfield on New Year’s Eve.

The game at Bridgeport will be the sixth in the GEICO Connecticut Cup and the Sound Tigers’ first start since a 2-0 loss at Providence on Sunday, their second straight 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 Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard.

The Sound Tigers (11-14-3-1), coached by former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, have lost six straight in regulation since a 3-1 victory over Albany on Dec. 3 and are 1-7-1-1 in their last 10 to fall into the Northeast Division basement. They were shut out at Hershey on Saturday night (5-0) and at Providence on Sunday and 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. Their longest scoring drought since the lockout in 2004-05 is 173:44 on Oct. 18-24, 2009, which coincides with the last time Bridgeport was shut out in successive games, Oct. 20 and Oct. 23. For back-to-back nights, you have to go back to Jan. 14-15, 2005, a pair of 4-0 losses at Bridgeport and Hartford. The only time they were shut out three times in a row is Oct. 27, 29 and 30, 2004.

The latest drought isn’t all that surprising since 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) have done most of the goaltending while also spending time with the Islanders.

Ullstrom and former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya sustained concussions from blows to the head in the Islanders’ 3-2 shootout victory in Winnipeg on Tuesday night, resulting in Nilsson and Michael Haley being called up Wednesday on an emergency basis. Montoya was run over by Evander Kane with 1:20 left in the second period as the Jets’ forward led with his stick, cross-checking Montoya in the mask. Montoya stayed down for two minutes before being helped off to the dressing room, giving way to Evgeni Nabokov, who stopped all 19 shots he faced in the third period and overtime and two shootout attempts in his first win since Oct. 15 and first game since sustaining a groin injury in goal on Nov. 17. Ullstrom left in the final minute of overtime after throwing a hit on Jets captain Andrew Ladd. Ullstrom caught Ladd’s elbow in the face and fell awkwardly into the boards.

Both players were well enough to fly home with the team but are out indefinitely, joining forward Brian Rolston and defenseman Steve Staios on the sideline with concussions. Besides calling up Nilsson and Haley, the Islanders shifted Rolston to injured reserve. The Islanders visit the Rangers on Thursday night and host Toronto on Friday night before a rematch with the Rangers at Madison Square on Monday. Since all those games are during the holiday roster freeze, Nilsson and Haley are on the roster until Tuesday, so they’ll miss the game against the Whale.

The Whale will face Albany (14-11-3-2) 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 in another 3-2 shootout.

The Devils have two impressive wins this week. They won Wednesday night as left wing Vladimir Zharkov figured in all the scoring with a goal and two assists and Keith Kinkaid made 36 saves for his second shutout of the season. That came after a 2-1 victory Monday night, their first at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 19 tries dating to the then Albany River Rats also scoring a 2-1 victory on April 1, 2005. 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 (6, 11) and Joe Whitney (6, 8). Former Wolf Pack wing Chad Wiseman has two goals and nine assists in 23 games. Frazee (5-8-2, 2.59, .900, one shutout) and Kinkaid (8-6-0, 2.79, .908, two shutouts) have split the goaltending.

HOLIDAY SPECIALS

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.

Ex-RANGERS/WOLFPACK THE DIFFERENCE WEDNESDAY

* Former Wolf Pack center Ryan Garlock and Tomas Kubalik both had two goals as the visiting Springfield Falcons beat the Worcester Sharks 6-3 Wednesday night. It was Garlock’s first two-goal game in the AHL, and he also assisted on Cam Atkinson’s third-period goal as the Falcons (14-14-1-0) moved within three points of third-place Adirondack and four of second-place Albany.

* Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Lauri Korpikoski set up Rostislav Klesla’s tying goal, and then scored the winner from the top of the crease off a Derek Morris pass with 9:12 left, as the Phoenix Coyotes rallied for a 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night.

“(Morris) had great patience, coming behind the net,” Korpikoski, the game’s No. 1 star, said after the Coyotes won for the second straight night. “I kind of whacked at it once it came in there. I think it hit somebody and it went high, but I’ll take it.”

* Former Wolf Pack wing Matthew Ford had one goal and two assists as Hershey beat Syracuse 5-2, moving the Bears into sole possession of first place in the East Division. Former Wolf Pack right wing and Darien native Hugh Jessiman had Lake Erie’s only goal in a 4-1 loss to Rochester. Avon native and former Boston College standout wing Ben Smith had Rockford’s only goal in a 4-1 loss to Toronto on Wednesday night.

WHALE-FALCONS FANS SERIES TICKETS AVAILABLE

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

Game 4 is on Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4p.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 first 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.

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