SPOTLIGHT: MID-SEASON REPORT

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

After being among the AHL’s elite for most of the season, the Connecticut Whale looks to smooth their first speed bump as the midpoint of the season arrives Friday night in Norfolk, Va.

The Whale’s four-game winless streak (0-2-1-1) is their longest of the franchise’s 15th season, but they still have a five-point lead over Albany in the Northeast Division despite the loss of their two leading scorers, center John Mitchell and rookie left wing Carl Hagelin, to the parent New York Rangers and injuries to veteran defenseman Wade Redden and skilled wing Mats Zuccarello, named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team last week after playing in only 18 games.

“For the most part, we played some pretty good hockey until last week,” said veteran center Kris Newbury, now the Whale’s leading scorer (15 goals, 21 assists) despite missing five games while on recall to the Rangers and four games because of a suspension. “Our special teams have been good (power play is tied for third at 21.6 percent, the penalty killing is 14th at 83 percent), which always gives you a good chance to win, we’re getting lots of production from our defensemen and scorers are scoring and grinders are grinding.

“We seemed to have a couple letdowns the last few games, and it’s something we have to correct or we’re going to find ourselves slipping out of first place. We just have to put this behind us and get a fresh start in Norfolk.”

In the current mini-slump, the Whale (19-12-2-4) lost in overtime at Portland and in regulation at Binghamton, and then in a shootout and regulation to the Springfield Falcons (17-16-1-1), whom they had beaten five consecutive times by a combined 21-10 score. The Whale will have to play the next three games without rugged right wing Andre Deveaux, their third-leading scorer (11 goals, 14 assists), who was suspended Tuesday for two boarding incidents in the games against the Falcons.

Veteran defenseman Brendan Bell, an alternate captain with Newbury and Deveaux since Redden was injured Dec. 17, said the Whale has done “a pretty good job of keeping our head above water” despite the injuries and call-ups, which also include rugged defenseman Stu Bickel on Dec. 19.

“I think all things considered, it’s been a pretty successful first half,” said Bell, who started the season with the Rangers but played only one game. “Our power play is on the upswing, some of our young guys like Marchie (All-Star rookie right wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault) and (defenseman) Tim (Erixon) have good numbers and really contributed a lot, but if we could balance out our attack a little more, we’d be a more effective team.

“We’re kind of limping into the halfway point, but that’s bound to happen during the course of a season. Our top line can’t score every goal every night, but this league relies a lot on older guys and young prospects. If we can get contributions up and down the lineup, not necessarily every night but just here and there, we’ll be a real force to be reckoned with. Hopefully we just stick with it, string a few more wins together and get off this train we’re on.”

Until the calendar changed to 2012 last week, the Whale hadn’t lost more than two games in a row, and they failed to earn at least a point in such situations only twice. So no one is pushing a panic button as the Whale plays at Norfolk (21-13-1-2) on Friday and Saturday nights and at Portland (16-15-2-3) on Wednesday night before returning for a five-game homestand that begins Jan. 20 against Atlantic Division leader St. John’s (22-9-4-1). But with three road games looming, the Whale needs to improve away from the XL Center. They’re 0-5-1-0 on the road since a 6-3 victory at Springfield on Dec. 3, to fall to 9-9-2-1 outside Hartford.

“I think if you look at it as a whole, the first half has gone pretty well,” said Chad Johnson (10-6-0-4, 2.48 goals-against average, .914 save percentage, one shutout), who has formed a solid goaltending tandem with Cam Talbot (9-6-2-0, 3.03, .895, two shutouts). “But the last few games we’ve taken kind of a pretty big step back as far as our goal and team identity of getting pucks in, getting pucks out and doing the little things. You can see how it makes a difference because those little things add up. Right now we’re not getting that for the full 60 minutes, and while we’ve got some points, it’s disappointing not to beat teams that you know you can beat.

“So you have to catch it and turn it around and do what we have to do to be consistent through the whole season and get back to what we do well, paying the price to get pucks in, get pucks out in key times or make a big play or be disciplined to do things that win games. We just have to get that focus back. We just have to regroup as a team and stick together. We just need that consistency from start to finish because that’s where we were having success.”

While the Whale has succeeded on most fronts, their major aims for the second half are to reduce penalties (they rank sixth with 18.05 minutes a game), get more balanced scoring and hold leads, which plagued them early and the last half-dozen games, some of which they won. But while they’ve won five times when trailing after two periods, which is unusual, they’ve also lost as many games when they led after 40 minutes.

“I like our position in the standings after having slow starts the last couple of years,” coach Ken Gernander said. “So it’s good that we’ve got a lot of points (44), but I think we’ve left a lot of points out there as far as managing our game and being able to close games out when we have the lead going into the third period. I’d like to see that improved, and I’d like to see a little more secondary scoring. Our power play is doing a good job and we have some players who are putting up good offensive numbers, but we need to have a little more secondary scoring.

“Discipline also comes and goes, kind of like the third-period thing, so I’d like to see more consistency in that regard. … You’re going to have to continue to improve. I don’t care who you are, everybody in the league is going to get better and better as things go along.”

The line of Newbury, Audy-Marchessault and Deveaux carried much of the offense for several weeks before center Kelsey Tessier and wings Francois Bouchard and Andreas Thuresson picked up their pace recently. Wing Sean Avery is expected to help the attack when he returns from an illness, and Zuccarello’s comeback from an injury that has sidelined him 13 games will be beneficial, particularly on the power play.

The Whale also should get help from center Erik Christensen, who accepted a two-week conditioning assignment Wednesday after being a healthy scratch for 18 of the Rangers’ last 22 games, including the last 10 since Dec. 17.  Christensen met the Whale Thursday in Voorhees, NJ and skated in a practice the team held there before continuing on to Norfolk.

“I’ve only played four games in the last (22), so I just want to play hockey,” Christensen told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “I know I’ll be back (to New York), but I’m just excited to play again. Bag skating (after practice) really stinks, but I don’t blame Torts for not changing the lineup. He’s doing what’s best for the team, and I’d be doing the same thing. I watch the games every night, and our team is playing great. We’re an exciting team to watch, and it’s exciting to be a part of a good team, even if I’m not playing.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of the Rangers still and watch the team be successful, but at the same time, I still love to play, and this is a good opportunity for me to do that. The way we (the Rangers) put our bodies on the line on shots and are a physical team, injuries happen. We’ve been fairly fortunate this year. We’ve had a few guys go down, but the core of our team has stayed pretty healthy. But you never know, and I’m looking at this as a chance to stay sharp and sort of get my game going, get a little confidence, hopefully score a few goals and just get my legs under me again so if something does happen, like an injury, they’re not going to have any hesitation to put me in.”

The return of Erixon from the Rangers on Dec. 16 helped the defense’s mobility and offensive potential, which assistant coach J.J. Daigneault hopes improves down the stretch.

“I’m very satisfied with the power play, and the guys who I get to work with are very receptive and talented,” said Daigneault, who handles the defense and power play. “We have some good offensive defensemen like Erixon, and Brendan Bell has been a pleasure to work with. Guys want to learn and are willing to adjust because we’re adjusting all the time, so that’s one area that I’m very satisfied with.

“But I’d like a lot more goals to come from the back side. Some nights the power play isn’t going to be working, so we need some secondary scoring and to find ways to score five-on-five. I’m always preaching a four-man attack, so I’d like more goals from the back side regardless of your skill set. Whether you’re Bell or (Jared) Nightingale, a defensive defenseman or maybe more a stay-at-home defenseman, I’d like guys to get involved more offensively.

“And even though it’s the midpoint, you still want the team to get better because points are going to be much more difficult to pick up in the second half of the season. A lot of games will be one-goal games, and I think we’re going to have to be much better defensively and always work on our discipline, along with getting better with playing with the lead. We’ve had three-goal leads we’ve lost, and that can’t happen anymore, not in the second half of a season.”

Tessier, who has continued to be a solid contributor in all areas after receiving the Unsung Hero/Seventh Player Award from the media in his rookie season, might have summed things up best when he pointed out “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

“We just have to come back to our basics and play like we did at the start of the year,” Tessier said. “We just have to keep it so simple. We’ve been throwing the puck around in the middle, so we just have to put it behind their defense, do a lot of communication and play that dirty game where when (teams) come to play against the Connecticut Whale they don’t like it because we’re a tenacious team that wants to go in the corners, work hard and show them that it (stinks) to play against us.

“We have to have people thinking, ‘Oh, man, these guys are on us every time we have the puck, they drive the net, they chip the puck behind our defense, they just finish their hits.’ Those are the small things that definitely make a big difference.”

While the Whale will be trying to regain their footing, the Rangers hope to continue a run to the top of the NHL with five straight wins and 10 of 11 heading into a game against Ottawa on Thursday night thanks largely to Wolf Pack and Whale graduates who have helped the parent club to its best start since the 1993-94 season, when they last won the Stanley Cup. It began with defenseman Marc Staal becoming an All-Star on Broadway after playing his first 12 pro games with the Wolf Pack in the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs and has continued through forwards Ryan Callahan, the Rangers’ captain, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and defensemen Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, who spent the second half of last season in Hartford reviving his game after being a member of the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009-10.

The Rangers have had Newbury, Deveaux, Erixon, Hagelin, Mitchell and Bickel join or rejoin them and contribute this season, earning plaudits for the players and coaches Gernander, Daigneault and Pat Boller.

“I think each year as you’re building your team, you need a surprise, and Hagelin has been a pleasant one,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York media. “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.

“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. 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.”

Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather told Christopher Botta of the New York Times News Service that he credits Tortorella and Gernander with the development of the young players and cited Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld with being the link between the majors and minors.

“We play the same system here (in New York) and in Connecticut,” Sather said. “Everyone is taught the same. When we call players up, they fit right in.”

Schoenfeld said the Whale has persevered through all the injuries and call-ups who have not only “fit right in” on Broadway but made a difference.

“It speaks very well for the job that Kenny, J.J. and Patty are doing and the commitment the players are making,” Schoenfeld said. “The team is still at the top of their division, which I think is pretty good considering all the players that we have used and kept. The staff has obviously done a good job, and the players have listened to what they’ve been told and have been executing.

“They haven’t played a flawless game, but none of us do. But I think the effort is good, the attitude is good and there’s some good leadership there. And they’re going to have to find a way to get it done without the players who are here (in New York) because it looks like these guys have a pretty good chance of being here all season. (But) we feel we still have depth there that could come up and play if and when we need it. So it has been kind of a seamless thing for us to have these players come up from Hartford and have a positive impact on the team right away.”

Erixon, 20, a first-round pick (23rd overall) of Calgary in 2009 and acquired from the Flames on June 1, started the season with the Rangers, going scoreless in nine games before being assigned to the Whale on Oct. 29 to get more ice time in all situations, which he is doing.

“Having Tim (in New York) playing eight minutes a game is kind of counterproductive to his development,” Schoenfeld said.

Erixon, the son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon, was called up on an emergency basis on Dec. 14 because of injuries, then returned to Hartford two days later and is averaging a point a game (two goals and 17 assists in 19 games). Newbury continued to make a strong gritty impression in six games after playing 11 with the Blueshirts last season, and Deveaux proved another valuable physical, checking presence in his nine games.

The speedy Hagelin, who co-captained the University of Michigan to the NCAA championship game last season, provided more offense at first than the Rangers could have expected with two two-goal games and seven total in his first 16 games. He has been compared to Rico Fata, who also was fast but didn’t have the touch that Hagelin has.

“It’s a credit to the work that the staff (in Hartford) did with him,” Schoenfeld said. “We knew he was a good skater and could handle the puck reasonably well, but he had to learn the pro game. Speed is a great thing and a tremendous asset that he has, but sometimes you can save yourself steps just by proper positioning and letting the game come to you, especially defensively, where you’ve got to let things develop a bit. When you play against good people, no matter how quickly you skate, they start moving that puck around and you’re always chasing it.

“Sometimes thinking is something that should be ahead of skating, and he was skating all over the place mistaking effort for accomplishment. But he was a quick study, and by the time we got him, (the Whale coaches) had him where he had a real good understanding of positioning both five-on-five and killing penalties. He’s had a real positive impact on our club, and we’ll increase his role in that regard if he continues to improve.”

Mitchell has been a more low-key contributor, starting with being on a checking line with Dubinsky and Brian Boyle against some of the NHL’s top lines. But when Tortorella changed three of his four lines and moved Mitchell alongside Michael Rupp in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2, Mitchell responded with assists on Rupp’s second and third goals of the season that wiped out the Philadelphia Flyers’ two-goal lead and helped the Rangers notch a 3-2 victory.

But the line changes and Whale grads’ effectiveness didn’t stop there as Tortorella then put Hagelin alongside Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko and moved Mitchell from wing to center between Rupp and Brandon Prust after obviously learning more about Mitchell after earlier admitting he didn’t know anything about him from his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tortorella also said he was impressed with how much Schoenfeld and Gernander had talked up the veteran forward.

Bickel was one of the biggest surprises in training camp before being among the final players sent to Hartford. He has continued to play his aggressive, physical style that earned him his first NHL games after being acquired last season from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Nigel Williams.

“Last year was the first year that Bickel didn’t play all or part of the season in the ECHL,” Schoenfeld said. “He was basically a part-time player in the AHL, then last year he earned his stripes a little bit and was a surprise in training camp that he had advanced that much. Now he came up and fit right in, which is kind of what we expected. He gives an element that every team needs, so it’s been a real good fit for us.”

Bickel played his 10th NHL game in a 2-1 shootout victory over Phoenix on Tuesday night, meaning he would have to clear waivers in order to be reassigned to the Whale. Because right-handed defensemen who are efficient and tough are a rare commodity, it’s unlikely he’ll be reassigned, especially because of his age (25), size (6 foot 4, 207 pounds) and contract ($600,000 as an impending restricted free agent). Plus, Sauer isn’t close to returning from a concussion sustained when he hit his head on the boards after a collision with All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf of Toronto on Dec. 5, and Steve Eminger is expected to be out another 6-to-8 weeks with a separated right shoulder sustained on Dec. 17 that prompted Bickel’s call-up. So with the trade deadline on Feb. 27, Bickel likely will remain in the lineup unless the Rangers obtain a more experienced right-handed defenseman for the playoff push.

“At the start, the coaches kind of just let me play in order to see what I was about and what I could do, but now there’s a lot more dialogue about fitting in with how the team does things and what the defensemen are expected to do in different situations,” said Bickel, who is plus-4 and had as many points (four) in his first three games with the Rangers as he did in 27 games with the Whale. “I don’t think that there’s too much I have to change, I have to stay aggressive and be physical, but certainly I can improve my coverage and my reads on certain plays.

“There’s been a fair amount of teaching about my positional play, so I just have to continue learning and staying with it.”

Staal, who has been paired with Bickel in his five games since returning from post-concussion symptoms, said, “The one thing you notice about Stu right away is that he’s very sure of himself on the ice. His confidence doesn’t seem to waver.”

Even former Rangers defenseman and captain Dave Maloney, a commentator on MSG Radio, has been effusive about the newcomers and Whale coaching staff.

“Last year, Ryan McDonagh had a pretty good training camp and finds himself starting the season in Hartford, then after (38 games) comes up and becomes a real player,” said Maloney, whose son Dave Jr. now does video work for the Whale. “I think you can credit with what goes on in Hartford with Kenny Gernander, J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller and the job that they continue to do. Mitchell and Hagelin came in and stepped right in and have been factors.

“It sends a message to Hartford that when you’re playing well, we’re paying attention. And it also tells the guys in the Blueshirts that, hey, if I’m not doing my job than I better be careful because there could be somebody who gets called up to replace me. That’s what Erik Christensen is going through now, and the better Mitchell and Hagelin play then the harder it is to get back in the lineup. So it’s that two-fold thing of getting excited about the younger players but hoping the vets can be involved, too. It keeps you on your toes.”

Since Maloney made his comments a few weeks ago, Jeff Woywitka has been a healthy scratch after Bickel arrived, and Avery was reassigned when Rupp returned from knee surgery. Christensen will finally get a chance to get some ice time this weekend with the Whale.

But wins and losses aside, Gernander, Daigneault and Boller have accomplished the more important task of developing players for the parent club, something the organization hopes continues on both fronts in the second half of the season and includes long runs in the Stanley and Calder Cup playoffs.

But as Schoenfeld said/warned: “They’ve done a good job, but they have to stick to it because both teams are a long way from the finish line so it’s far too little early for anyone to be taking any bows.”

Tortorella proved that Monday when he sent his players back to the locker room because he didn’t like how practice started after a day-and-a-half off and a 35-minute video session to point out shortcomings in their Winter Classic win. Rupp said Tortorella decided “to push the reset button” and got the desired results.

“We didn’t want anything negative from practice to carry over into (Tuesday’s) game,” Rupp said. “One of our strongest assets is we don’t let things slide. Today was more coming in here pressing the reset button and getting us mentally into it, and I thought we practiced well after that and will carry that into (Tuesday’s) game.”

And they did. In one of the most entertaining games of the season, the Rangers beat the Coyotes as Henrik Lundqvist made 18 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped five of six shots in the shootout that was decided when center Derek Stepan scored in the sixth round on his first try this season after going 0-for-5 as a rookie a year ago. Marian Gaborik kept the Rangers alive in the third round of the shootout after having a penalty shot stopped by Mike Smith’s spectacular, lunging stick save – one of the best ever – with 1:50 left in overtime.

“I just tried to refocus, and I’m glad it worked out,” Gaborik said of his shootout success, which reflected on what Tortorella had desired in practice a day earlier.

Gernander wouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing as Tortorella if he saw any complacency setting in.

It’s the Rangers-Whale way these days.

NORFOLK ENDS FIVE-GAME HOMESTAND VERSUS WHALE

Norfolk has started a five-game homestand with two losses to Albany last weekend (5-4 in overtime and 3-1 in regulation) and a 3-2 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Tuesday night. The games Friday and Saturday night are the first of four between the Whale and Admirals, who visit the XL Center on Jan. 21 and March 10.

Admirals center Trevor Smith is third in the league in scoring with 18 goals and 26 assists and is plus-17. He’s followed by left wing Cory Conacher, who is fifth in the league and leads AHL rookies with 41 points (21 goals, 20 assists), which is six more than runner-up Audy-Marchessault. Defenseman Mark Barberio is third on the team in scoring (4, 29) and first in plus-minus (plus-20), followed by right wing Carter Ashton (15, 12) and center Tyler Johnson (13, 9).

Dustin Tokarski (14-9-0, 2.47 GAA, .901 save percentage, two shutouts) and Jaroslav Janus (7-5-2, 3.04, .893) have done the goaltending for the Admirals, who share the AHL’s third-best power play with the Whale.

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