SPOTLIGHT: WEEKEND PREVIEW

Bruce Berlet 7

The Connecticut Whale has several objectives for the last weekend of 2011.

First, the Whale (18-9-1-3) would like to build on a seven-point lead over the Albany Devils in the Northeast Division in games at Worcester on Friday night and against Springfield at the XL Center in Hartford on Saturday at 5 p.m.

Secondly, two victories might give coach Ken Gernander his first job in the AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 29-30 in Atlantic City, N.J. Gernander, an All-Star player in 1996, 1999 (captain of PlanetUSA in 5-4 victory in Philadelphia) and 2000, and the Whale are third in the Eastern Conference in points percentage (.645) behind Keith McCambridge of St. John’s (.683) and Hershey’s Mark French (.656). In the Western Conference, Todd Nelson of Oklahoma City is first at .719, followed by Milwaukee’s Ian Herbers (.696), Abbotsford’s Troy Ward (.677) and Houston’s John Torchetti (.672). Abbotsford hosts Texas on Thursday night.

The coach whose team has the best record in each conference at the end of play Sunday will lead that conference’s team at Boardwalk Hall. In addition, one head coach from each conference will be selected by the AHL to serve as assistant coaches. Playing rosters will be announced Wednesday, and All-Star Classic fan balloting for the starting lineups, presented by Reebok, starts Thursday and runs through a date to be determined next week. The date to announce the starters also has to be decided.

“It would be great (to coach in the All-Star Classic), but I’ve got other things to worry about right now,” Gernander said after practice Thursday. “I’m more worried about how we finish out the year, want the guys to finish strong before the break. We want the two games this weekend for the team, not personal reasons.”

The chances for Gernander and the Whale will be bolstered by the return of rookie defenseman Tim Erixon, who was reassigned from the parent New York Rangers after they lost 4-1 at Washington on Wednesday night. Erixon was scoreless and plus-2 in four games with the Rangers after his emergency recall on Dec. 19. But he was a healthy scratch against the Capitals after Jeff Woywitka returned after missing four games with a sore left foot.

Erixon played nine games with the Rangers to start the season and then was assigned to the Whale, where he had one goal and eleven assists in fourteen games. He led Whale defensemen in assists and points at the time of his second recall, and Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York media that Erixon needs to play on a regular basis.

“I just don’t want to keep on yanking him all over the place,” Tortorella said. “There have been times that Tim has shown improvement in his ability to play on the smaller ice surface and handle the tight spaces. He’s getting banged around a lot, but he’s been able to use his skill more to make plays.

“Against the Islanders (in 3-0 win on Monday) he was in the corner being hemmed in on a four-on-four situation, we had (center Derek Stepan) in front, and instead of just banging the puck out of the glass, he made a nice little backhand pass to Step that led to a three-on-two when (defenseman Anton) Stralman joined the rush. So with plays like that, you see he’s able to handle it more. It’s coming, you can see him growing, but he needs to go down and play.”

With rookie left wing Carl Hagelin and veteran center John Mitchell on recall to the Rangers and wing Mats Zuccarello injured, rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault has taken over the Whale scoring lead with 10 goals and 18 assists, after failing to notch a point in his first five pro games. Audy-Marchessault, who had two assists in a 3-2 victory over Albany on his 21st birthday Tuesday, and has an excellent shot to make the All-Star team, is followed in scoring by alternate captains Kris Newbury (10, 16), Andre Deveaux (10, 10) and defenseman Brendan Bell (5, 11). Despite missing the Whale’s first four games while with the Rangers and seven more since being injured in a 5-3 loss to Hershey on Dec. 9, Zuccarello is still third on the team in scoring with eight goals and 14 assists.

Chad Johnson (10-5-3, 2.43 goals-against average, .914 save percentage, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (8-5-0, 2.82, .899, two shutouts) have been solid most of the season. But with Johnson having to go home Wednesday because of a death in the family, the Whale called up rookie Jason Missiaen from Greenville of the ECHL, where the tallest goaltender in North American pro hockey (6 feet 8, 220 pounds) was 5-3-1, 2.43, .926 with three shutouts in 10 games, including a 0.60 GAA and .983 save percentage in his five wins. The three shutouts were tied for the ECHL lead and included back-to-back 3-0 wins on Dec. 9 and 12, and a 2-0 victory over South Carolina in his last start Tuesday.

In their only previous meeting with Worcester on Oct. 29, the Whale rallied from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 on Sean Avery’s shootout goal in a tiebreaker. The Sharks (15-8-3-3) 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), and then beat visiting Manchester 3-1 on Wednesday night, as Curt Gogol scored an insurance goal after setting up the winner by defenseman Matt Pelech. McCarthy is followed in scoring by right wing Tommy Wingels (12, 8), defensemen Matt Irwin (7, 9) and Sean Sullivan (3, 13) and forward Mike Connolly (5, 10).

Rookies Tyson Sexsmith (8-5-3, 1.83, .932) and Harri Sateri (6-4-0, 2.84, .900) have done most of the goaltending for Roy Sonmor, 52, the AHL’s longest-tenured coach, who is in his 13th season behind the bench of San Jose’s top affiliate and his 15th season overall with the Sharks organization. He is 457-410-60-62 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 at 5 p.m. against the Falcons (14-15-1-0), whom they have beaten four times by a combined 16-6 score, as Audy-Marchessault has three goals and six assists for nine points, five more than any other player. In celebration of New Year’s Eve, the Hartford Parking Authority is offering free parking at the Morgan Street garage and $2 parking at the Church Street and MAT garages. All upper-level seating will be $5, and fans showing a First Night wristband or button at the Public Power Ticket Office can take advantage of a 50 percent discount on lower-level end-zone seats. And there will be a First Night table in the XL Center atrium with First Night buttons available for purchase.

The Falcons, who won two in a row on the road before a 5-2 loss at Syracuse on Wednesday night, 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), injured center Nick Drazenovic (5, 15) and former Hartford Wolf Pack wings Alexandre Giroux (10, 8) and Dane Byers (7, 9), who returned from a three-game stint with the parent Columbus Blue Jackets last week but was recalled again Monday. Former Wolf Pack center Ryan Garlock (3, 8) had his first two-goal game in the AHL, and an assist, in a 6-3 victory at Worcester on Dec. 20. Manny Legace (7-10-0, 2.27, .921), 38, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, has started the last eight games for the Falcons since they lost 6-3 to the Whale on Dec. 3. The Falcons’ other goalie is Allen York (1-1-0, 3.94, .871), who has spent most 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. The Pirates (14-12-2-2) got two goals and an assist from right wing Brett MacLean and a goal and two assists from center Brock Trotter in a 6-3 win over Providence on Wednesday night. In their only meeting with the Whale on Nov. 23, the Pirates took a two-goal lead before losing 3-2 on Bell’s goal at 3:29 of overtime.

The leading scorer for the Pirates is rookie center Andy Miele (eight goals, 15 assists), who won the Hobey Baker Award as collegiate hockey’s top player last season with Miami of Ohio and was called up by the Coyotes on Tuesday. Miele is followed by Trotter (7, 14), who has five goals and nine assists in 15 games since being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 23, MacLean (13, 7) and defenseman Nathan Oystrick (6, 13). Captain and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dean Arsene scored Wednesday night and has two goals and seven assists, while former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Ryan Hollweg has two assists and 98 penalty minutes. Former Wolf Pack wing Mike Hoffman, who played at UConn, had two assists Wednesday night, his first points in the AHL since Dec. 18, 2009, when he scored for the Wolf Pack, and his first points in six games with the Pirates since signing a free-agent deal with the Coyotes on Dec. 8 after starting the season with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers.

“I know my role,” Hoffman, a 6-5, 250-pound wing who played last season for the Belfast Giants in Northern Ireland, told Paul Betit of the Portland Press Herald. “I’m not going out there to score goals every shift. I’m going out there to change momentum and be good defensively.”

Pirates first-year coach Ray Edwards said: “He’s out there to keep things calm, but he can make some plays.”

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 Monday, while Justin Pogge (4-3-2, 3.16, .891) 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 and the win over Providence on Wednesday night.

After three days off following the game in Maine, the Whale has a demanding end to next week when they are at Binghamton on Friday night, host Springfield on Saturday night and visit the Falcons on Sunday afternoon, their fourth three games in three days stretch of the season.

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 include 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., and Trading Cards Set II of Talbot, Audy-Marchessault, Ryan Bourque, Kelsey Tessier, Jordan Owens and former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, now captain of the Rangers, sponsored by Webster Bank, on Jan. 27 (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton). … 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 or call 860-728-3366.

TORTORELLA CONTINUES TO TALK UP MITCHELL, BICKEL

Though the Ranger line of John Mitchell, Brian Boyle and former Wolf Pack Brandon Dubinsky hasn’t scored much, they’ve earned plenty of praise from Tortorella for their tenacity and checking effort. They shut down the Islanders’ No. 1 line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and former Wolf Pack right wing P.A. Parenteau in a 3-0 victory over the New York Islanders on Monday night and started against the Capitals’ top trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin on Wednesday night. But they couldn’t get matched up much against that threesome, and Semin scored twice and Ovechkin had two assists and Backstrom one.

Tortoralla told the New York media that he didn’t know anything about Mitchell when he played with the Toronto Maple Leafs but was impressed how much Gernander and Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld talked up the veteran forward. They proved correct, as Mitchell and speedy rookie left wing Carl Hagelin have been solid contributors in 17 games since being called up Nov. 24.

Meanwhile, defenseman Stu Bickel has been a physical presence and had four assists in his first three games after being called up Dec. 18 after Steve Eminger sustained a separated right shoulder that will sideline him 8-to-10 weeks. Bickel’s eye was nearly swollen shut from a fight with the Islanders’ Micheal Haley, but he played Wednesday night while wearing a visor.

“(Bickel) gives us an element on the back end that we don’t have a whole lot of as far as his aggressiveness,” Tortorella said. “He’s played well.”

Bickel sported a nasty shiner around his right eye from the bout with Haley, who had been called up from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but said the eye wasn’t a problem.

“It looks much worse than it feels actually,” Bickel said with a laugh.

Bickel certainly didn’t want to miss a chance to continue his fine play, which includes four assists, 18 penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating in his first five NHL games.

“I think the past few years I have come a long way, and I think the biggest thing for me is that there never was a point in my career where I feel like I have been complacent or that I plateaued,” said Bickel, acquired from Anaheim on Nov. 23, 2010 for defenseman Nigel Williams. “It’s been great here, being a part of this winning, with a great group of guys.”

Erixon’s departure left the Rangers with 22 active roster players, two on injured reserve (Eminger, Michael Sauer) and two on long-term injured reserve (Wojtek Wolski, Marc Staal). The open 23rd roster spot will be needed if Wolski (groin) or Staal (post-concussion symptoms) come off LTIR and return to the lineup.

Staal, who was cleared for contact on Monday, said after the Rangers’ morning skate Wednesday that he has been doing the same level of contact and aggressive skating all week, meaning he hasn’t ramped up since Monday. But, as he put it, “the skates can’t get much harder than they are right now.”

On Monday, Staal said he would proceed for a week and then reevaluate what his timetable looks like

“Once I feel I’m in game condition and everything’s good with the head, we’ll pinpoint a date on when I can suit up again,” Staal said.  “To start playing in regular practices and body contact drills even just for three days, it’s been good. Just being out there with the team, it’s a good feeling.”

If Wolski can go Friday night at Florida against the Panthers and first-year coach and former Whalers captain Kevin Dineen after sitting out 24 games, the Rangers will have two spare forwards, Sean Avery and Erik Christensen, who sat out their ninth and fifth games in a row, respectively, on Wednesday night. The Rangers will have even more difficult decisions to make and roster spots to clear when Staal and Sauer are back from their post-concussion symptoms.

YOUTHFUL EXPERIENCE OUTDOORS

Hagelin, who co-captained Michigan to the Frozen Four last season, and former University of Wisconsin opponents Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh might be short on NHL experience, but they know plenty about playing outdoors, as the Rangers and Flyers will do Monday at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic.

Hagelin is the only Ranger to play outdoors twice, in February 2010 in 21-degree temperatures at Wisconsin and again in December against Michigan State in “The Big Chill At The Big House” in temperatures in the low 40s. Stephan and McDonagh have bragging rights from a 3-2 Badgers victory, thanks to two late power-play goals, but Hagelin got lots of satisfaction when he had two goals and an assist in the Wolverines’ 5-0 rout of the Spartans.

“I’ve played two outdoor games now, and I was more nervous for the first one than I was for the second one,” Hagelin told NHL.com. “I know what the ice it going to be like. At Wisconsin, it was really cold so there were big chunks of ice coming up all the time. We were fortunate last year at The Big House (Michigan Stadium). We had the perfect temperature. The ice was like any other ice. I know how everyone is going to feel out there. It feels like you can skate forever. You don’t really get tired on the ice with all the fresh air. At least that’s the way I felt.”

While the level of competition in an NCAA game is obviously lower than the NHL, there will be fewer people at Citizens Bank Park (capacity 47,000) than there were at Camp Randall Stadium (55,031) and Michigan Stadium (113,411, a record for a hockey game).

Hagelin learned plenty between his first and second outdoor games.

“I think the first period (of the first game), not only myself, but both teams were skating around looking at everything,” Hagelin said. “The crowd is so far away, but you feel like you still want to see them. That was probably the best experience, just knowing this is another game.”

Christensen and Michael Rupp are the only other Rangers to play in a Winter Classic. Stepan and McDonagh have only the outdoor game at Wisconsin, but every bit helps.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said McDonagh, who is part of the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing with fellow former Wolf Pack Dan Girardi. “We didn’t feel the cold as much as the fans did. It didn’t affect you, really. It was a little cold. It was perfect timing. Overall it was a great experience to be outside again.”

McDonagh added playing outside taught him it’s no different than playing inside once you get past everything surrounding the game.

“We had a cold night, but I didn’t wear anything different,” McDonagh said. “No long pants or anything like that. We had heaters on the bench, which helped. Other than that, it’s still a hockey game. The boards are the same. There was nothing really unexpected.”

QUICK TAKES NHL SHUTOUT LEAD; LABARBERA NOT SO LUCKY

Hamden native and former Hamden High/Avon Old Farms/UMass star Jonathan Quick made 38 saves for his NHL-leading fifth shutout Wednesday night, as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0, ending the five-game home winning streak of the league’s best team.

Quick was especially sharp in the third period when he had 18 saves, including several of the acrobatic variety off Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, who had an eight-game points streak ended. Trent Hunter and Jarret Stoll scored for the Kings, who are 3-0-0-1 under new coach Darryl Sutter, named to replace interim coach John Stevens a week after the former Whalers defenseman succeeded fired Terry Murray on Dec. 13.

Quick’s 23rd career shutout was especially rewarding since his dad, Dan, is one of 21 parents on the Kings’ semi-annual “father’s trip” that started with many watching a 4-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes in Los Angeles on Monday night when Quick bested former Wolf Pack goalie Jason LaBarbera, who was filling in for injured Mike Smith. The dads in L.A. then flew to Chicago to join others for dinner on Tuesday night, before watching the win over the Blackhawks and then going to Winnipeg for a game Thursday night against the Jets.

“That took four lines, six (defensemen) and a goalie,” Quick said of his shutout. “I thought we were outplaying them in the first two periods and getting the better of them – and because of which we jumped up to a two-goal lead. You know when you come into this building it’s just a matter of time before they get that kind of pressure (they got in the third). That’s a talented group over there. We’re fortunate to weather the storm and get out of here with two points.”

Blackhawks coach and former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville contested both goals, saying he thought there was goaltender interference that wasn’t called on Hunter’s goal and an uncalled slew foot on Stoll’s tally. But Quenneville and Hunter didn’t argue about who the star of the game was.

“I thought both their goals should have been whistled down,” Quenneville said, “but we still had a lot of chances at the other end and unfortunately you’re not going to win the game when you don’t score a goal.”

“He was unbelievable,” Hunter said of Quick, who is 16-10-5 with a 2.08 GAA and .930 save percentage. “He’s done that for us all year. You look at the way he played tonight and he was just a wall in there. He’s been solid all year, but he played unbelievable again tonight.”

LaBarbera wasn’t as fortunate as Quick on Wednesday night. His 27 saves also earned him No. 1 star, but Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg’s shot deflected off Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris’ right knee and through LaBarbera’s legs 58 seconds into overtime as the Bruins won their seventh straight, 2-1. An SRO crowd of 17,459 at Jobing.com Arena included many Bruins fans.

The Bruins have outscored their opponents 32-8 in their seven-game winning streak, and have won nine of 10 road games in a 21-2-1 run that began after a 3-7-0 start. The Bruins’ David Krejci scored on a screen shot 47 seconds into the game, and Ray Whitney matched it with 4:44 left in the first period, ending Tuukka Rask’s career-best shutout streak at 170:26. LaBarbera and Rask (21 saves) then matched stops until Seidenberg’s fortuitous winner.

“When you have a team like that come into your building, obviously everyone is going to get fired up,” said LaBarbera, who got the Coyotes to overtime with a brilliant glove save on Brad Marchand’s breakaway.

ENJOY RETIREMENT, ANGIE RUGGERIO

Happy trails to Angie Ruggerio, who retired Wednesday after beginning her climb to the most decorated and best women’s hockey player in U.S. annals with the Connecticut Polar Bears, which won the national women’s championship in 1995, and at Choate in Wallingford, where she set school records for goals (40), assists (23) and points (63). She became the youngest member of the national team in 1996 at 15 and was the only four-time Olympian, winning one gold, two silver and a bronze medal. After graduating from Choate, where she earned excellent grades and was class president for three of her four years, she played at Harvard and on the national team for 16 years, getting 208 points in a record 256 games for USA Hockey.

Ruggerio also made hockey history in 2005 when she played with her younger brother, Bill, a goalie, for the Tulsa Oilers in a home game in the Central Hockey League team. She was the first woman to play a non-goalie position in a men’s pro game in North America, and she and Bill became the first brother-sister combo to play on the same team in pro hockey. Ruggerio played last season for the Boston Blades and was on their roster this season but hadn’t been in a game because of an injury. It was doubtful that she was going to be able to play at the XL Center on Jan. 21, but now it’s official.

“It’s really great that finally women’s hockey has one league and one Cup to play for,” Ruggerio, who became a member of the IOC Athletes Commission last year, said in comments on the CWHL website before retiring. “I love playing for my country, but my Boston team is where I train throughout the year alongside teammates all striving to win the Cup.”

Not anymore, but that certainly doesn’t mean Ruggerio, who lives in Simi Valley, Calif., will be soon forgotten.

“She was the best ever, by far, and has quite the resume,” Tom Hine, who covered 10 Olympic Games for the Hartford Courant before retiring in 2007, said in an email. “Not many athletes play in four Olympics, win four medals, get fired on ‘The Apprentice’ at a late date by Donald Trump and are a player rep on the IOC. She was big, physical, talented and attractive – and also very, very nice. Other than that, she has nothing going for her.”

Enjoy your retirement, Angie, even if it’s a bit premature at 31. You deserve plenty of good times for all you provided for your country.

NOT FORGOTTEN HERE

In its tribute to athletes who died in 2011, ESPN failed to mention a single hockey player, but I’d like to remember E.J. McGuire, Mandi Schwartz, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Rick Martin, Johnny Wilson, Tom Cavanagh and the 43 people, including 36 members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team and staff in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, who died in a plane crash Sept. 7. They included Lokomotiv coach and former Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon, Pavol Demitra and former Rangers players or draft picks Alexander Karpovtsev, an assistant coach who played on the 1994 Stanley Cup team, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek. RIP to them all!!!!

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