SPOTLIGHT: ZUCCARELLO

Connecticut WhaleBY: Bruce Berlet

After a 5-3 victory over the Springfield Falcons on Dec. 31, the Connecticut Whale (19-15-3-5) had a six-point lead over the Adirondack Phantoms in the AHL’s Northeast Division and were within two points of the Eastern Conference’s top spot. But entering a game at the XL Center on Friday night against the surging Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Whale is on a nine-game winless streak (0-5-1-3).

Despite the slump, the Whale still has a nine-game points streak (5-0-1-3) at home since a 5-3 loss to the Hershey Bears on Dec. 9 and a one-point lead over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who had an eight-game winning streak ended in a 4-3 shootout loss to the visiting Atlantic Division-leading St. John’s IceCaps on Wednesday night. The Whale is two points ahead of Adirondack, which hosts Bridgeport on Friday night, and Albany, which is at Binghamton.

No one has been more frustrated during the recent tough times than wing Mats Zuccarello, who has missed the last four games and 17 of 18 with an injury.

Zuccarello resumed workouts with the Whale on Monday and showed how much he enjoys being on the verge of returning to the lineup Thursday as he playfully feigned fighting with fellow All-Star forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, another 5-foot-7 dynamo, and tapped out a few bars of “Brass Bonanza” with his stick on the sideboards while catching his breath on the bench.

“It’s been a long time since I had fun with hockey, so it’s nice to be back,” said Zuccarello, who will make his career All-Star debut Sunday and Monday in Atlantic City, N.J. “It’s frustrating because you want to try and help, but at the same time, it’s like I don’t know if I could have made anything different.

“I know the team goes in stretches up and down, so I don’t think we have any worries. I think we’re going to get back on track. Everybody goes through (bad) stretches, so I don’t think it’s a huge deal.”

Zuccarello had to be the most surprised of the 48 players named to participate in the AHL All-Star Classic. The skilled Norwegian playing his second season in North America had missed 10 games when he and rookie Audy-Marchessault were among the selections for the Eastern Conference team that will be compete in the skills competition Sunday at 3 p.m. and the All-Star Game on Monday at 7 p.m.

When selected, Zuccarello was tied for third on the team in scoring with right wing Andre Deveaux with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) despite missing the Whale’s first four games while with the parent New York Rangers and the 10 games after being injured December 9 vs. Hershey. Zuccarello resumed skating on his own Dec. 28, practiced with the team for the first time Jan. 4 and returned to the lineup for a game at Norfolk on Jan. 13, only to be re-injured after assisting on Aaron Voros’ goal in a 3-1 loss.

“You need some time to get back to where you were before you were injured, but it’s just nice to be back so I can do all I can to help the team win,” said Zuccarello, who is still the Whale’s fourth-leading scorer despite playing in only 19 games. “I’m getting close (to 100 percent) but probably not going to be at the top of my game. I still need some time to get into how I like to play before I got injured. It’s mainly physical, timing, stuff like that. I’m not going to revolutionize the team, but I hope to help them win games again.”

It’s especially good time for Zuccarello’s return since veteran center Kris Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer (15 goals, 24 assists), was injured in the third period of a 5-4 shootout loss to the Norfolk Admirals last Saturday night. Despite the injury, Newbury finished regulation and overtime and even took a shot in the skills competition.

“He’s a tough son of a gun, isn’t he?” Whale coach Ken Gernander said.

But Gernander didn’t rush Zuccarello back in the lineup.

“I think he’s more comfortable with the injury than he was last time coming back,” Gernander said. “He’s got to be able to perform because you don’t want to put him in a game where he’s not going to be able to perform to his standards. And a lot of times with a smaller guy, he has to use his agility and skating to keep himself from being put in a precarious position. But that being said, very few hockey players are 100 percent for 80 games, so he’s obviously pushing through some things but ready to go.”

Gernander said he and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller have worked on all facets of the game in four days of practice to try to help get the Whale out of their funk.

“I don’t think we’ve had one absolute glaring weakness where we haven’t been able to defend or generate any scoring,” Gernander said. “It’s a collection of little things, so we’re just trying to tighten up and hone things in all areas and had practices to have some flow, some offensive success and have done some battle drills and system work. We’ve been trying to keep things up-tempo with good execution so we’re ready to execute this weekend.”

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (25-12-2-4) had a six-game winning streak stopped by a 4-3 overtime loss to the Providence Bruins on Wednesday night but took a one-point lead in the East Division over Hershey, which is at Norfolk on Friday night. The Penguins have won eight in a row on the road since a 5-2 loss at Syracuse on Dec. 3, helping them to a 17-3-0-2 record away from the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

The Whale won the teams’ first meeting on Oct. 9, a 1-0 shootout victory as Chad Johnson made 41 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped three of five shots in the shootout, in which a goal by Audy-Marchessault was the winner. Audy-Marchessault is second on the Whale and third among rookies in scoring with 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists), 10 more than Deveaux (12, 14).

Right wing Randy McNaught has been practicing with the Whale since signing an AHL contract on Monday. The 6-foot-5, 221-pound native of Nanaimo, B.C., had been playing with the University of Calgary, where he was scoreless in 12 games. The Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2010 played only eight games with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants last season before sustaining a season-ending injury on Oct. 11 at Kamloops. Center Erik Christensen has returned to the Rangers after finishing a two-week conditioning assignment.

“McNaught was brought in so we could evaluate him and see where he’s at,” Gernander said. “We’ll make an assessment to see where he’s best suited to start (with the Whale or Greenville in the ECHL).”

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster includes the sons of two former Hartford Whalers defensemen, All-Star right wing Colin McDonald and rookie defenseman Philip Samuelsson. McDonald is a Wethersfield native and son of Gerry McDonald who leads the Penguins in scoring with 12 goals and 24 assists and is plus-14 in 39 games. He also is scoreless and plus-1 in two games with the Pittsburgh Penguins after leading the AHL with 42 goals last season while with the Oklahoma City Barons.

Samuelsson’s father Ulf played 16 seasons in the NHL with the Whalers, Penguins, Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, winning two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. Ulf, whose retired No. 5 hangs in the XL Center rafters, was a Hartford Wolf Pack assistant coach for two years before becoming an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes under former Whalers left wing Dave Tippett and is now head coach with MoDo in the Swedish Elite League. Philip, 20, was the Penguins’ second-round pick in 2009 after starring at Avon Old Farms and winning a gold medal with Team USA in the 2009 World Under-18 Championships. He played two years at Boston College, helping the Eagles win the NCAA championship in 2010 as a freshman, before signing a three-year, NHL entry-level contract. He continues to wear No. 5 and has one goal, seven assists and is plus-6 in his first 38 pro games.

The Penguins’ other leading scorers are left wing Bryan Lerg (17, 15), center Ben Street (15, 16), forward Eric Tangradi (14, 11) and former Whale right wing Jason Williams (5, 19). Former Wolf Pack left wing/enforcer Steve MacIntyre is scoreless with 16 penalty minutes in eight games. Scott Munroe (9-3-2, 2.57 goals-against average, .906 save percentage, three shutouts) and Brad Thiessen (16-11-2, 2.79, .890, two shutouts) have handled the goaltending for the Penguins.

The Whale’s five-game homestand continues Saturday night with the first meeting with Springfield since a 4-2 Falcon victory in Springfield Jan. 8, their second in as many nights and first in regulation after losing the first five meetings. The Falcons (19-20-1-2) had lost four in a row before a 4-2 victory at Worcester on Wednesday night as former Wolf Pack left wing Alexandre Giroux scored twice on eight shots and former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers had a goal and an assist.

Rookie right wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native and former standout at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, has eight goals in the last nine games, is fifth in rookie scoring with 23 goals and 10 assists and was named a starter for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game. Former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre leads the Falcons with eight goals and 29 assists, followed by Atkinson, Giroux (15, 14), Byers (9, 14), centers Nick Drazenovic (6, 17) and Ryan Russell (6, 15), the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2007 who is on recall to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and left wing Matt Calvert (8, 8). Former Wolf Pack center Ryan Garlock has four goals and nine assists.

Manny Legace, 38, the Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, is 10-13-1 with a 2.55 GAA and .910 save percentage and had been joined by Mark Dekanich (1-2-1, 4.00, .867), who returned Jan. 7 for a 5-4 shootout victory over the Whale after missing the first 33 games with a high ankle sprain and groin injury. But Legace (hip flexor) and Dekanich (ankle) were injured last weekend, leading to the recalls of former UMass standout Paul Dainton from the ECHL’s Reading Royals and fellow rookie Allen York from the ECHL’s Chicago Express. Dainton had 37 saves, including a penalty shot by Brandon Mashinter, in the win Wednesday night, improving to 2-2-0 with a 3.66 GAA and .877 save percentage in four games with the Falcons. He also is 6-3-3 with a 3.25 GAA and .896 save percentage with the Express and 1-2-0 with a 3.03 GAA and .933 save percentage with the Royals. York is 1-1-0 with a 3.94 GAA and .871 save percentage in five games with the Falcons and has also seen time with the Express and parent Columbus Blue Jackets. Audy-Marchessault has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in the seven games against the Falcons, while Giroux has one goal and five assists to lead Springfield against his former team.

It’s Trading Card Weekend, as 5,000 fans attending Friday’s game will receive a trading card set of Audy-Marchessault, Cam Talbot, Kelsey Tessier, Ryan Bourque, Jordan Owens and a historic tribute to New York Rangers captain and former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, sponsored by Webster Bank. On Saturday night, fans will receive a trading card set of Zuccarello, Newbury, Johnson, Wade Redden and Carl Hagelin, now with the Rangers, sponsored by Webster Bank. Audy-Marchessault and Zuccarello will sign autographs after the game and then head to Atlantic City. … College students can get discounted tickets to weekday Whale games with the “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.

HAMDEN NATIVE QUICK CONTINUES ALL-STAR PLAY

Hamden native and former Hamden High/Avon Old Farms/UMass standout Jonathan Quick continued his All-Star form with a 27-save performance in a 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators that kept the Los Angeles Kings within two points of the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks.

Quick’s bid to extend his league-high total of shutouts to seven was denied when All-Star captain Daniel Alfredsson scored his 16th goal at 8:37 of the third period. Quick is 21-12-9 with a 1.93 GAA and .934 save percentage in 42 games. Quick’s GAA and save percentage are fourth in the league behind St. Louis’ Brian Elliott (1.69, .938), Boston’s Tuukka Rask (1.82, .938) and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist (1.87, .937).

Lundqvist got to those numbers thanks to an unscheduled 22-save performance in a 3-0 victory over the visiting Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night that gave the Rangers the best record in the Eastern Conference (31-12-4) entering the All-Star break. Lundqvist was scheduled to watch Martin Biron, but Biron got the flu, leading to the Swedish standout playing and being backed up by Chad Johnson, called up from the Whale on an emergency basis and then returned to Hartford after the game. Lundqvist learned he was to replace Biron in the morning and then posted his fifth shutout of the season and 40th of his career, tying Dave Kerr for second on the Rangers’ all-time shutouts list behind Hall of Famer Ed Giacomin’s 49.

“I was already in vacation mode almost,” Lundqvist said. “I had time to regroup and think about what I had to do and how I had to play to have success today and it worked out. … Most importantly, we got two points going into the break, guys can relax and enjoy themselves. It was important to end it strong.”

Callahan scored the only goal Lundqvist and the Rangers needed 4:05 into the game, then John Mitchell tallied his fifth goal, third in five games, since being called up from the Whale on Nov. 24 at 13:22 of the second period off a nifty pass from former Whale defenseman Michael Del Zotto. Brad Richards clinched it with his first goal in eight games with 3:38 left off a steal and setup from Callahan.

“This game worried me,” said John Tortorella, who will be co-coach with San Jose’s Todd McLellan of Team Alfredsson, with Lundqvist as the assistant, in the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa on Sunday. “After an emotional game in Boston (3-2 overtime victory), a (Winnipeg) team that played back-to-back, it’s a little banged up, you wonder how your players feel about it. But I think that’s why we’ve gotten the points this year that we have so far because I don’t think we have looked by anything.”

Lundqvist, Hagelin, right wing Marion Gaborik and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi will represent the Rangers this weekend. Hagelin, who has eight goals and eight assists and is plus-13 in 29 games since being called up with Mitchell, was named to replace injured New Jersey Devils forward Adam Henrique on the Young Stars roster. Given Hagelin’s speed and the familiarity of Tortorella and Lundqvist with the Swede, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the goalie tab Hagelin for the speed-skating skills competition when the players are selected in the fantasy draft Thursday night at 8 (NBC Sports Network). Boston’s Claude Julien and his staff, which includes former Whalers players Doug Jarvis and Doug Houda, will coach Team Chara, captained by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, assisted by Toronto Maple Leafs wing Joffrey Lupul. It’s expected Chara, who hails from Slovakia, will opt for countryman Gaborik in the draft.

The six-event skills competition is Saturday at 7 p.m., and the All-Star Game is on Sunday at 3 p.m.

FORMER WOLF PACK CENTER TRADED TO SAN JOSE

The Florida Panthers traded former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Sean Sullivan on Thursday.

Kennedy, 25, has split the season between Florida and San Antonio. He had one goal and one assist in 27 games with the Panthers and first-year coach Kevin Dineen, the former Whalers standout right wing and captain who coached Kennedy with the Portland Pirates before he was traded to the Rangers and then joined the Wolf Pack. Kennedy also had three goals and six assists in 18 games with the San Antonio Rampage. In 112 career NHL games with Buffalo and Florida, he has 11 goals and 18 assists and also played in six playoff games in 2009-10 with the Sabres, registering one goal and two assists. He has 33 goals and 92 assists in 158 career AHL games with Portland, Connecticut, Rochester and San Antonio. He was the AHL’s leading scorer among rookies in 2008-09, when he had 67 points in 73 games playing for Dineen.

Sullivan, 27, has five goals and 19 assists and is plus-10 in 32 games with Worcester this season. The Boston native is in his fifth AHL season and has 38 goals and 110 assists in 288 AHL games with Worcester and San Antonio. He represented the Rampage at the 2010 AHL All-Star Classic.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Nice to see former San Jose and Worcester Sharks goalie Alex Stalock was finally back in net Saturday night for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, his first appearance since Feb. 4, 2010, when he sustained a potentially career-ending injury when a skate sliced a nerve behind his left knee in a game against Manchester. He finally resumed practicing Dec. 11, was sent to Stockton on a conditioning assignment and beat Las Vegas 7-5 despite allowing five goals on 29 shots. Stalock didn’t play Sunday, but the Thunder again beat Wranglers 4-2 despite being outshot by a staggering 50-14 margin. In his second start Tuesday night, Stalock stopped 29 of 30 shots in a 4-1 victory over the Idaho Steelheads. … Darien native and former Wolf Pack wing Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2003, had the winning goal and two assists in Lake Erie’s 4-1 victory over Hamilton. Jessiman’s 20th goal tied his career high with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2008-09 and 2009-10. His high with the Wolf Pack was 18 in 2007-08. … Rockford goalie Carter Hutton was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after allowing only five goals in four wins, stopping 121 of 126 shots as the IceHogs put together their longest winning streak of the season. He began the week with a 31-save effort in his first shutout of the season, 2-0 over Texas, as the IceHogs won more than two games in a row for the first time. A graduate of UMass-Lowell who started his AHL career with Worcester, Hutton is 9-5-1 with a 2.69 GAA, .911 save percentage and one shutout in 17 games this season. … Former Quinnipiac University standout wing Brandon Wong, who started last season with the Wolf Pack, had a goal and two assists as Greenville (24-16-2) beat Florida 6-3 Wednesday night to earn a share of first place in the ECHL’s South Division. … Former Wolf Pack left wing Devin DiDiomete was activated off injured reserve and scored a goal in the Chicago Express’ 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Cyclones last Friday night. The feisty DiDiomete also got a roughing minor, unsportsmanlike conduct minor and then a spearing major and game misconduct with 26 seconds left. He has four goals, five assists and a team-high 151 penalty minutes in 18 games. … Edmonton Oil Kings center Michael St. Croix, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick last June, was named the Western Hockey League Player of the Week for the second time and the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Week for the first time this season after getting six goals and four assists and being plus-7 in three wins. St. Croix, the son of former NHL goalie Rick St. Croix, started the week with a natural hat trick in a 5-0 rout of Prince George on Wednesday night and had another hat trick and two assists in a 9-2 romp over Prince Albert on Saturday night. He ranks third in the WHL in scoring with 31 goals and 46 assists in 48 games in leading the Oil Kings (32-11-1-4) to first place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. Right wing Christian Thomas of the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010 and son of former NHL wing Steve Thomas, was named CHL Player of the Week for Nov. 28-Dec. 4.

CONNECTICUT HALL OF FAME NIGHT ON MARCH 10

The Whale and Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame will host Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame Night at the XL Center on March 10 when the Norfolk Admirals are in town. A new class of members soon to be named will be inducted before the game at 7 p.m. The first class of inductees since 1990 also will be recognized on the ice during the first intermission. The Class of 2012 will be announced later this month, and fans will receive a special souvenir as 5,000 Hall of Fame posters will be given out courtesy of SuperCuts. For more information, visit www.cthockeyHOF.org.

NICE ‘WORK’ BY WHALE PLAYERS

Scott Tanski edged fellow rookie wing Ryan Bourque for the most “puck bucks” as the Whale’s ninth Tip-A-Player dinner and sports carnival raised $33,000 for Gaylord Specialty Healthcare on Sunday. Well done, guys and Whale staff.

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