SPOTLIGHT: CARL HAGELIN

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

A month after his call-up from the Connecticut Whale to the parent New York Rangers, left wing Carl Hagelin continues to solidify his position with the big club.

The rookie speedster from Sweden had his second two-goal game in only 16 NHL starts on Monday night, as the Rangers beat the visiting New York Islanders 3-0 for their fifth straight victory, elevating them to first overall in the Eastern Conference standings.

“Obviously it was great to get two goals, and to be a plus-two; it’s always important to be a plus player,” Hagelin told the media after his third game on a top line with Brad Richards and captain and former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan. “There were just some great plays by my linemates and by (defenseman Michael) Del Zotto on the goals. I just had to get to the right spot.

“Richie just told me to play my game, use my speed and provide energy, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I try to win battles, get the puck to Richie or Cally and let them make plays and try to find open ice, and if the puck turns over I’m trying to be one of the first guys back. … I think we played pretty good. Maybe not the best first period, but then in the second we created some chances, and in the third we had a good run. Both of those goals were just me kind of coasting toward the net while the other guys were doing a good job. I came in late and found the puck.”

Hagelin also tied for the game high of five shots and was plus-2 in 13:21 of ice time. He has three goals in the last four games and ranks 10th among NHL rookies with six goals, despite playing in only the 16 games since he and center John Mitchell were called up Nov. 24. Hagelin, who also has three assists and is plus-11, was the No. 2 star behind Henrik Lundqvist, who had 28 saves in his third shutout of the season and 38th of his career and was especially sharp in a 1-0 game in the second period as he improved to 15-7-4, including 13-4-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average, .941 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 18 games.

“I think each year as you’re building your team, you need a surprise, and he’s been a pleasant one,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Hagelin. “It’s another young kid, and not only is he helping us offensively, but he’s doing a lot of good things away from the puck. You need that, and we were hoping to have it during (training) camp and didn’t. I think the guys down in the minor leagues did a good job, and he has played very well since he’s been here.”

But developing youngsters is nothing new for Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistant coaches J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller. Callahan, who became an AHL All-Star with the Wolf Pack when Gernander was an assistant coach, had two assists, three hits and was plus-2. He has five goals and 10 assists in the last 16 games and is now tied for second on the team in scoring with Richards with 26 points, seven behind wing Marian Gaborik, who scored an empty-net goal Monday to extend his goal-scoring streak to five games and increase his total to a NHL-high 22 goals, matching his output in 2010-11 after he had 42 in his first season on Broadway. Earlier in the day, Gaborik was named the NHL’s No. 2 star of the week after getting four goals, including two winners, and an assist in three games. Boston Bruins wing Brad Marchand was the No. 1 star, and Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Hartford Whalers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 1995, was the No. 3 star.

Del Zotto, who began to revive his career with the Whale in the second half of last season, made brilliant moves to set up Hagelin’s goals and extend his point streak to three games (one goal, four assists) while being plus-3 in 21:25 of ice time to earn the No. 3 star and the celebratory Broadway Hat. He has two goals and 13 assists in the last 15 games and is tied for second in the NHL (first among defensemen) with a plus-25 rating.

But it was Del Zotto’s toe-drag move that set up Hagelin’s first goal and left Frans Nielsen grasping at air that had drew the most attention.

“You don’t think about it when you’re making the play, it’s just going on instinct,” Del Zotto said. “It’s one of those where you’re going to get an earful from the coaches back on the bench if it doesn’t work out. I didn’t, but they warned me to be prepared for that if it doesn’t work out the next time.”

But Tortorella also said he was “happy” for Del Zotto after an injury-plagued, up-and-down – in play and location – sophomore season in 2010-11 after being on the NHL All-Rookie Team.

“I think he has really applied himself in the things that he needs to do to be a pro,” Tortorella said. “He has been a very important part to our back end, especially with everything going on with it (with injuries). He keeps improving, and as long as he handles himself off the ice the way he should as far as staying within himself and still learning as far as what it is to be a pro, he’ll keep growing.

“So I’m happy for him because last year was a tough year for a very young kid in a very tough position. I think he learned from it and continues to grow.”

Del Zotto, who has been on the ice for 54 of the Rangers’ 101 goals, talked again about his comfort and confidence and received plenty of plaudits from teammates.

“Obviously, he’s playing really good, he’s very good offensively,” said Del Zotto’s partner, Anton Stralman, who also was plus-3. “Right now, everything is going for him. That first goal was pretty amazing. I think, as a team, a lot of players are going right now. That’s what you want, everybody to chip in and do their job.”

“(Del Zotto) made big-time plays at big times in the game,” said center Brian Boyle, who had several black-and-blue marks after blocking five shots though credited for only one. “He’s turning into a stud for us.”

“He’s been outstanding in all areas right now,” Lundqvist said. “He’s still young (21). For a defenseman, he’s so young. You forget that.”

In more feel-good news that could affect the Whale, wing Wojtek Wolski skated hard in the morning skate and could be coming off injured reserve and returning to the lineup by the end of the week after being sidelined since Oct. 27 with a sports hernia that required surgery Nov. 7. And All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, out all season with the after-effects of the concussion he sustained Feb. 22 when hit by brother Eric in a game against Carolina, took another significant stride toward his season debut as he finally has been cleared for contact and took hits during the morning skate, the final major hurdle for a return.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the right thing to do,” said Staal, who consulted with Boston-based specialist Dr. Robert Cantu last week. “I did some battle drills, took some hits. I don’t feel great after two days off, but I feel good enough physically to do it. It feels really good. It’s been a long time. It’s the next step to get back to playing. … We’ll see how the next few days go with the hitting. I wasn’t hitting very hard. I still need some more work (on conditioning), I don’t feel like I’m ready to play 25 minutes a night like last year.

“Obviously, getting more contact, getting more hits, that’s the best way to tell if I’m ready to take it into a game, getting hit and getting into the grind of the season. I haven’t talked to (trainer Jim Ramsey), I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring. I totally felt fully confident going on the ice to take some hits. I knew they (my teammates) weren’t going to run me into the glass. It feels like I’m a step behind, knowing where they’re going and what they’re going to do.”

Staal acknowledged he needs to work on his conditioning before he’s ready to play.

“I’ve been working hard in the weight room, but I lost seven pounds (while shut down from mid-October through mid-November) and I need to get strength back in my legs and make sure they’re ready to go so I don’t pull a groin (muscle),” Staal said. “I could tell I was a step behind the corners, with the way guys roll off you on hits and in my positioning.

“I need to get my timing back, No matter how hard you work out, when you’re in the corner pushing and hitting, it drains you.”

Staal, Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka (foot) skated again Tuesday and accompanied the team to Washington for a game against the Capitals on Wednesday night. Though Woywitka is ready to play again, Tortorella said he doesn’t plan to change a successful lineup unless defenseman Stu Bickel, who has four assists in four games since being called up Dec. 18, isn’t able to go because of a swollen eye from a fight with the Islanders’ Michael Haley that prevented him from practicing Tuesday. Tortorella also gave strong props to Mitchell, who has been on a dynamic checking line with Boyle and Brandon Dubinsky, especially Monday night against the Islanders’ top line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and former Wolf Pack right wing P.A. Parenteau.

Meanwhile, another former Wolf Pack defenseman, Michael Sauer, sidelined since Dec. 5 with post-concussion symptoms after a collision with Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf, is improving, but the Rangers have issued no updates concerning his health. He and defenseman Steve Eminger, expected to be for two more months with a separated right shoulder, didn’t go to Washington.

The Rangers are at the 23-player limit, so the return of Wolski, Staal and Sauer will force them to make roster moves. Wing Sean Avery has been a healthy scratch for eight straight games and center Erik Christensen for four in a row.

The Rangers will shoot for a sixth straight win Wednesday night, and then in their final warm-up for 2012 NHL Winter Classic on Friday night, they visit the surprising Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers and first-year coach Kevin Dineen, the former standout right wing and captain of the Hartford Whalers. … Wing J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June, scored a goal as Team USA routed Denmark 11-3 in their opener in the World Junior Championships on Monday night. The Americans’ next game is against Finland on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. (EST) on the NHL Network.

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 NHL Winter Classic alumni game against the Flyers on Saturday at 1 p.m. on the same Citizens Bank Park rink in Philadelphia as the NHL teams will use Monday.

Messier, the NHL’s second-leading all-time scorer (1,887 points), and Leetch, who won the Conn Smythe 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.

The third of four episodes of HBO’s “24/7 Flyers-Rangers: Road to the 2012 NHL Winter Classic” debuts Wednesday night at 10 with the first encore an hour later. It should include something on the Boyle family Christmas in Hingham, Mass., as Brian is one of 13 children and his parents have 15 grandchildren. That would make for some fun TV, much like Callahan and his 95-year-old grandmother in Episode I celebrating the captain scoring in a 4-1 victory at Buffalo, not far from where he grew up in Rochester.

WHALE AT WORCESTER FRIDAY NIGHT, HOME AGAINST SPRINGFIELD SATURDAY

After hosting the Albany Devils on Tuesday night, the Whale is off until Friday night when they travel to Worcester to face the Sharks, whom they rallied to beat 3-2 on Avery’s shootout goal Oct. 29. The Sharks (14-8-3-3) ended a three-game losing streak Monday night with a 3-2 victory over Portland on an overtime goal by left wing and leading scorer John McCarthy (seven goals, 14 assists). McCarthy is followed by Tommy Wingels (12, 8), defenseman Matt Irwin (7, 9) and forward Mike Connolly (5, 10).

Rookies Tyson Sexsmith (8-5-3, 1.85 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) and Harri Sateri (5-4-0, 2.94, .895) have done most of the goaltending for Roy Sommer, 52, the AHL’s longest-tenured coach who is in his 13th season behind the bench of San Jose’s top development affiliate and his 15th season overall with the Sharks organization. He is 456-410-60-62 in the regular season and has reached the postseason seven times, including advancing to the Atlantic Division finals the last two seasons.

The Whale close out 2011 with a Hartford First Night game on Saturday at 5 p.m. against the Springfield Falcons (14-14-1-0), whom they have beaten four times by a combined 16-6 score. The Falcons are led by former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre (six goals, 23 assists), followed by Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout right wing Cam Atkinson (15, 9), center Nick Drazenovic (5, 15) and former Wolf Pack wings Alexandre Giroux (9, 7) and Dane Byers (7, 9), who returned from a three-game stint with the parent Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday but was recalled again Monday and then didn’t play in a 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Former Wolf Pack center Ryan Garlock (3, 8) had his first two-goal game in the AHL and an assist in the Falcons’ last game, a 6-3 victory at Worcester last Tuesday. Manny Legace (7-9-0, 2.23, .923), 38, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, has started the last seven games for the Falcons since a 6-3 loss to the Whale on Dec. 3. The Falcons’ other goalie is Allen York (1-1-0, 3.94, .871), who has spent much of the season with the ECHL’s Chicago Express (seven games) and Blue Jackets (four games).

The Whale begins the 2012 segment of their season at Portland on Monday at 1 p.m. against the new top affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes. In the teams’ only previous meeting this season, the Whale rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the Pirates 3-2 on defenseman Brendan Bell’s goal at 3:29 of overtime. The Pirates (13-12-2-2) are led by rookie center Andy Miele (eight goals, 15 assists), who won the Hobey Baker Award as collegiate hockey’s top player last year with Miami of Ohio. He is followed by center Brock Trotter (6, 12 in 19 games), who has four goals and seven assists in 14 games since being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 23, defenseman Nathan Oystrick (6, 11) and right wing Brett MacLean (11, 6). Captain and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dean Arsene has one goal and seven assists, and former Wolf Pack wing Mike Hoffman, who played at UConn, is scoreless in five games since signing a free-agent deal with the Coyotes on Dec. 8 after starting the season with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. Veteran Curtis McElhinney (9-11-0, 2.95, .910) has done the brunt of the goaltending for the Pirates, but he and right wing Patrick O’Sullivan (two goals, five assists in six games) were recalled by the Coyotes on Monday, while Justin Pogge (3-3-2, 3.18, .890) was reassigned. Marc Cheverie, on his third call-up from the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, was Pogge’s backup in a 3-2 overtime loss to Worcester on Monday night.

HOLIDAY SPECIALS, GIVEAWAYS

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 Saturday 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.

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 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 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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