SPOTLIGHT: SOUNDING OUT THE TIGERS

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

After a well-earned four-day break, the Northeast Division-leading Connecticut Whale looks to extend their latest points streak to four games when they visit their intrastate rival Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Monday night.

The Whale headed to the Christmas hiatus off a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms on Wednesday night, on defenseman Pavel Valentenko’s 50-foot laser with 16.2 seconds left off a faceoff win by veteran center Kris Newbury. Defenseman Brendan Bell, who assisted on all three Whale goals, touched the puck to Valentenko for the second winner of his life, the first coming only nine games earlier in a 4-2 win over the Hershey Bears on Nov. 29.

The latest victory enabled the Whale (17-8-1-3) to increase their division lead to five points over the Albany Devils, who beat the Binghamton Senators 3-0 the same night and moved one point ahead of Adirondack. The Whale prevailed despite missing eight regulars that included call-ups John Mitchell, Carl Hagelin, Tim Erixon and Stu Bickel and injured Wade Redden, Mats Zuccarello, Aaron Voros and Kelsey Tessier.

“It was a good way to finish off, almost like an elongated segment before you leave for the break,” coach Ken Gernander said after the Whale improved to 10-4-0-1 in their last 15 games. “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 a big shot by ‘Tank’ were really good. Patience and sticking with it can go a long way. In a tie game, you don’t have to make a high risk play to create your offense, you just have to be diligent.”

Newbury was proud that the Whale has been able to overcome the many personnel changes on both the NHL and AHL front to put together the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s definitely difficult, especially when you look at the special teams’ aspect,” Newbury said. “When you lose a lot of guys who play special teams, whether it’s penalty killing or power play, you’re trying to work on both of those in practice and it takes time to get chemistry and stuff to go together. But I think for the most part we’ve done a pretty good job getting our special teams in the top 10 or 15, so you have to be happy with that aspect.

“And it’s an opportunity when guys get called up or get hurt to (have) more ice time. Guys take a lot of pride in that and want to show the coaching staff what they can do when they get dealt those cards. Everyone has been doing a great job and working very hard, so we’re very proud to be where we are at the break.”

With Mitchell and Hagelin on recall and Zuccarello injured, rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who turns 21 on Tuesday, has taken over the team scoring lead with 10 goals and 15 assists, followed by Newbury (9, 13), right wing Andre Deveaux (7, 9) and Bell (5, 10). Chad Johnson (10-4-3, 2.40 goals-against average, .917 save percentage, one shutout) is on a personal 7-1-1 run in which he and the Whale haven’t allowed more than three goals in a game. Cam Talbot (7-5-0, 2.89, .894, two shutouts) pitched a 27-save shutout in a 3-0 victory over Providence on Dec. 10, his second whitewash of the season.

The game at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard will be the sixth in the GEICO Connecticut Cup and the Sound Tigers’ first start since a 2-0 loss at Providence on Dec. 18, 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 Bridgeport.

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 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 Dec. 17 (5-0) and at Providence the next afternoon 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 Dec. 16. 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 Micheal 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 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. With Nabokov in goal, the Islanders lost 4-2 at the Rangers on Thursday night and 5-3 to visiting Toronto on Friday night, before a rematch with the Rangers at Madison Square on Monday night.

The Whale returns home Tuesday night to 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 had two impressive wins last 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 win 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 & FUTURE GIVEAWAYS, FUNDRAISERS

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 MSG. Current season seat holders and mini-plan-holders are also automatically entered. … Upcoming Whale giveaways start with Wade Redden Bobblehead Night, sponsored by Click It or Ticket, on Jan. 21, when there will be a doubleheader as the Whale hosts the Norfolk Admirals at 7 p.m., after a Canadian Women’s Hockey League game between the Boston Blades and Team Alberta at 4 p.m. A Legends poster, sponsored by Supercuts, will be given out on Jan. 28 (Springfield); a Whale TV poster, sponsored by Webster Bank, on Feb. 18 (Worcester); Green Koozie, sponsored by Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, on March 17 (Springfield); and green bracelets, sponsored by Xfinity, for home season finale April 13 (Manchester). … 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.

CONNECTICUT WHALES IN KING HENRIK’S COURT

The Rangers started the season trying to find a left wing for the expected No. 1 center/right wing tandem of newly acquired Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik, who was attempting to rebound from scoring only 22 goals last season, 20 fewer than in his first go-round on Broadway.

But after failing to find a partner for Richards and Gaborik, often tinkering coach John Tortorella broke up the duo about a month ago. Gaborik settled in well with second-year center Derek Stepan and former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, who moved to left wing after he had some struggles earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Richards was paired with captain and former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan and Ruslan Fedotenko, but that combo didn’t bring a lot of positive results.

So on Tuesday night during a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, Tortorella slid Hagelin, the speedy rookie from Sweden, alongside Richards and Callahan. Suddenly, Hagelin, who started the season with the Whale after being among the Rangers’ final cuts, was thrust into a highly demanding and visible position among the team’s top six forwards.

Hagelin certainly filled the bill quickly, scoring the back-breaking third goal shorthanded against future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, his second while killing a penalty since being called up from the Whale on Nov. 24 and making his NHL debut the next night against the Washington Capitals. It gave Hagelin four goals in his first 13 NHL games, including two shorthanders.

“For Hagelin to come up and only play this many games and do what he’s doing, it’s tremendous for the organization,” Richards told the New York media at practice Thursday. “Obviously his speed is the key. If he gets going I can throw the puck into areas. And he’s a lot smarter than people think, I believe also, at finding people.”

Hagelin, 23, had played well on a line with Brian Boyle and Mitchell, who also was called up Nov. 24. But as Tortorella noted, “They haven’t scored either” – one even-strength goal in the past 12 games – so Tortorella swapped Hagelin and former Wolf Pack center Brandon Dubinsky in the second period against the Devils.

Bickel has also been impressive since being called up Dec. 18, engaging in several fights and getting four assists in his first three NHL games, matching his point total (one goal, three assists) in 27 games with the Whale. He assisted on the Rangers’ first two goals Friday night on deft deflections by Stepan and Fedotenko in a 4-2 victory over the Flyers in the final preview to the 2012 NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

“Those are two huge tips from our guys up front,” said Bickel, displaying new battle scars on his face from the physical game. “When you can put a puck in a guy’s area and he can tip it in like that, it’s really incredible hand-eye coordination.”

Incredible, too, has been Bickel’s climb from the low minors to hockey’s highest level.

“It’s been a long journey, a roller-coaster with a lot of ups and downs,” said the 25-year-old Bickel, acquired from Anaheim on Nov. 23, 2010 for defenseman Nigel Williams. “But I’ve stuck with it and hope I can prove myself here.”

As for his sudden point production, Bickel smiled and said, “We have forwards who are making plays like the two tips tonight. I still pride myself in the same (physical) game, but it just so happens that we’re making plays up front.”

Bickel, Erixon and Anton Stralman, signed as a free agent on Nov. 5, have played well in the absence of All-Star Marc Staal (concussion), Michael Sauer (concussion), Steve Eminger (separated right shoulder) and Jeff Woywitka (ankle), who should return shortly after the break. And Hagelin and Mitchell have provided a spark upfront since being summoned from Connecticut.

“We’re trying to put (the former Whale players) in the right spots,” Tortorella said. “There have been some struggles along the way, which is expected, not just from our young guys, throughout a game. When you play a team like (the Flyers), there’s going to be some breakdowns, but look at Bick (Bickel). He gets a couple of points, and how many points does he have now, four? So it has been good. It’s a good experience for them to play against a team like that, and our team defense I thought was good through the neutral zone, and Hank made key saves when he had to.”

Besides the two primary assists, Bickel had a game-high six hits and was plus-2 and named the No. 2 star behind Henrik Lundqvist (28 saves) as the Rangers (21-8-4) won their fourth in a row to tie the Flyers for the Atlantic Division lead with a game in hand. They’re also one point out of the Eastern Conference lead, claimed by the Boston Bruins via an 8-0 rout of the Florida Panthers and first-year coach Kevin Dineen, the former standout right wing and captain of the Hartford Whalers. The Chicago Blackhawks, coached by former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville, lead the Bruins, winners of six in a row, by a point for first overall in the league.

“We put it into a capsule as I said a few days ago,” Tortorella told the media after the Flyers game. “These were the four days, all division games, and we took each day at a time. Tonight was our fourth day, and we ended up winning all three of them. I’m happy for the players because they get away from it for a couple of days. It’s not a big break, which I’m glad because you just don’t want to stay away from it for too long. But they should feel good about themselves. Having said that, there are a number of things you have to stay consistent with and we’re right back at it against the Islanders.”

Lundqvist was sharp throughout Friday’s game, especially when he stopped former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr trying to go five-hole from in front on a 3-on-1 with the game scoreless at 7:20 of the second period. After Stepan and Fedotenko scored on the deflections, Gaborik took a pass from Stralman, broke down right wing and buried his sixth goal in four games at 1:48 of the third period for his league-leading 21st, one shy of his total last season.

“Being on top looks good on paper, but we have to work hard every night for what we get,” Lundqvist said. “I think the difference between this team and the ones the last couple of years is that we have a little more talent. We’ve got great character combined with skill.”

Like Gernander, Tortorella didn’t want to sound like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge and cry “Bah Humbug,” but he rightly tried to keep first place heading into Christmas in perspective.

“I’m happy the way we’re playing and that we’re grabbing points, but first place now really means nothing,” Tortorella said. “They don’t give out playoff bids or anything else on Dec. 23.”

The Rangers again play the Islanders on Monday night at MSG, where they’re 10-3-2. Two nights later will be the debut of the third of four episodes of HBO’s “24/7 Rangers-Flyers: Road to the Winter Classic” at 10 p.m., with an encore an hour later. Friday night’s game gave the HBO crew plenty of highlights, including a fight between the Rangers’ Brandon Prust and the Flyers’ Marc-Andre Bourdon. Then the deflections by Stepan and Fedotenko required officials’ reviews in Toronto before being called goals, as did James van Riemsdyk’s tally for the Flyers with 2:10 left. It wouldn’t be surprising to see HBO show a behind-the-scenes look at the video reviews, as the network did last year when following the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.

ODDS AND END-BOARDS

The Columbus Blue Jackets assigned former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers to the Springfield Falcons on Friday. Byers, 25, was scoreless with seven penalty minutes and was plus-1 in three games with the Blue Jackets after being added to their roster on emergency recall on Dec. 12. Byers, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2004 traded for Chad Kolarik on Nov. 11, 2010, has seven goals, nine assists and 63 penalty minutes in 23 games with the Falcons this season.

The Minnesota Wild reassigned former Wolf Pack forwards Jed Ortmeyer and Jeff Taffe to the Houston Aeros.

SPEAKING OF FUTURE RANGERS, IT’S MILLER TIME

Forward J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June, was one of 22 players named to Team USA for the 10-team World Junior Championships that start Monday and run through Jan. 5 in Calgary and Edmonton. Defenseman Peter Ceresnak, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in June, will play for Slovakia.

Miller, who has 13 goals and 26 assists in 31 games with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, is one of seven first-round selections in 2010 and 2111 on Team USA, which will seek a second gold medal in three years, starting Monday at 8 p.m. (EST) against Denmark. Ceresnak has four goals and six assists in 31 games with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, and he and Slovakia will make their tournament debut Tuesday at 10 p.m. against Latvia.

Left wing Kenny Agostino, a sophomore at Yale, where he ranks second on the team in points (10), was considered a bit of a surprise cut among the five players released. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Agostino, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fifth-round pick in 2010, starred at USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp in August, finishing as Team USA’s leading scorer with three goals and seven assists in six exhibition games. He also scored a goal in an exhibition loss to Russia on Tuesday while playing on a line with Miller and Bill Arnold.

Right wing Christian Thomas, the son of NHL veteran Steve Thomas and the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010, was among the final seven forwards released from Team Canada two weeks ago. Thomas has 13 goals and 14 assists in 21 games with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. Canada opens play Monday at 3:30 p.m. against Finland.

Team USA’s games will be televised on the NHL Network. After their opener Monday, the Americans play the Czech Republic on Friday at 3:30 p.m. and Canada on Saturday at 8 p.m. The quarterfinals are next Monday at 5 and 9 p.m., the semifinals on Jan. 3 at 5 and 9 p.m. and the bronze and gold medal games on Jan. 5 at 3:30 and 8 p.m.

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 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 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 Thursday, 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.

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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