SPOTLIGHT: WOLSKI AND WOYWITKA

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

Taking one step back in hopes of making two forward is a familiar refrain.

Left wing Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka are hoping that theory works in their quests to get more ice time with the New York Rangers or another NHL team.

Wolski and Woywitka accepted requests from the Rangers on Thursday for two-week conditioning assignments with the Connecticut Whale and then helped beat Albany and Hershey to end an 11-game winless streak (0-6-2-3) since the start of 2012 and gain a share of the Atlantic Division lead with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, whose 11-game point streak (10-0-0-1) ended with a 3-2 loss to Manchester on Saturday night.

Goalie Chad Johnson was stout in both games, stopping 59 of 62 shots, and left wing Tommy Grant had his first two-goal game as a pro and new center Casey Wellman chipped in an assist in a 4-1 victory at Hershey while on a line with All-Star Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and rugged Andre Deveaux. Wellman, who played two years at UMass, was acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Thursday for center Erik Christensen, who had a conditioning stint with the Whale from Jan. 11 to 23, and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013. Wellman’s father, Brad, was an infielder who played 441 games over eight seasons with the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Kansas City Royals in the 1980s, and his uncle, Tom Candiotti, is a former major leaguer noted for his knuckleball.

Wolski scored the winner in a 3-2 victory over Albany off a nifty give-and-go with All-Star Mats Zuccarello while on a line with Whale leading scorer Kris Newbury (17 goals, 24 assists). Wolski, 25, who is in the final year of a two-year, $7.6 million deal signed with the Phoenix Coyotes on June 28, 2010, had played in only nine games with the Rangers and was a healthy scratch the previous six since Jan. 15 after playing just three games following a return from injury. The Rangers acquired Wolski from the Coyotes for defenseman Michal Rozsival on Jan. 10, 2011.

“It’s the best thing for them,” Ranger head coach John Tortorella said of the conditioning stints. “Because if they do get an opportunity, or if we sit to make a change, or if there is an injury – you can bag skate them until the cows come home, it doesn’t help them – they need to play. We had to get their permission, and it was seamless. They wanted to go do it, and that’s a good sign.”

Continued solid play in Hartford could help Wolski crack the lineup of the NHL’s top team or get ice time elsewhere. But playing anywhere now is the only way to achieve one of those goals.

“The guys had been having a tough time – 11 in a row (without a win) is a long time – and I just wanted to come down, work hard and get back to feeling like myself again,” Wolski said. “I didn’t feel any butterflies, just felt kind of exhausted because I hadn’t played that much the last 12 weeks. I’m feeling a lot better physically. Now it’s just starting to play again, feeling the puck and getting my confidence back where it needs to be.”

Wolski said playing with NHL-caliber players is a helpful bonus.

“Newbs and Zucc are very good, very smart players, so it makes it a lot easier,” Wolski said.

Especially on his winning goal against the Devils when he worked the give-and-go from the right circle and put a perfect one-timer in the top left corner behind Keith Kinkaid.

“Zucc always has his head up, he knows where the puck needs to be, and I just got it off as quick as possible and found the right spot,” Wolski said.

Wolski accepted the conditioning assignment after contemplation with his agent.

“I wanted to think about it, and it was nice to get the All-Star break to go away and kind of get some rest and clear my mind a little bit,” Wolski said. “In the end, I knew it was probably the best thing for me. I’ve got to get on the ice. I’ve got to play. Practicing and skating is great, but it’s nothing like the game. And if your team is in first place and you’re winning every single game, it’s very tough to get the minutes that I need to get back to where I’m supposed to be to be to play (in the NHL).”

Newbury delighted in playing with Wolski and Zuccarello, who was a linemate before missing 17 of 18 games after sustaining an injury in a 5-3 loss to Hershey on Dec. 9.

“Wolski is great with the puck,” said Newbury, who ironically played with the Polish winger in his last game with the Rangers in Montreal. “He’s got great vision and great hands, so when you get it into his hands or Zuccarello’s hand, they both make good plays. I think as time goes by here and he gets into a little bit better game shape, he’ll be even more of a factor.”

Woywitka, 28, was claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 6 and got consistent playing time on the Rangers’ third pairing with Stu Bickel, who played well after being called up Dec. 19, until he was injured in a 3-2 victory over the Coyotes on Dec. 17. Before joining the Whale, Woywitka had missed 17 of the last 19 games, including the last 13 since a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Dec. 30.

“It was obviously nice to get out on the ice and to get in some action, play and start feeling comfortable again,” Woywitka said. “Obviously it’s nice to play those minutes and get into condition because you don’t get those minutes in the NHL. But it’s nice to get them here and contribute because it’s been over a month since I played. It’s been a tough go because you can skate all you want, but it’s not like playing a game.

“The first period (on Friday) I felt like I was getting my feet wet and wasn’t sure how it was going to go. It doesn’t matter what league you’re in, the American League is obviously a good league and you want to make sure you’re doing the smart things and not come down here and do too much, just do what you can do and play your game.”

“Wolski and Woywitka are obviously pretty good caliber players to have injected into your lineup,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “Wolski gave us a boost with the big goal (Friday night) and had another chance in the second (on a breakaway). You could see he’s a really skilled offensive guy, and Jeff shored up the defense and is a big body (6 feet 3, 215 pounds) who can log a lot of minutes for us, so like I said, they’re a good addition to our lineup.”

Wolski and Woywitka are scheduled to be with the Whale through games against the Syracuse Crunch on Tuesday night and at Springfield and Manchester on Friday and Saturday nights and at Bridgeport on Sunday afternoon. The Crunch (19-18-4-3) are 0-1-1-1 in their last three games, blowing third-period leads twice, and 1-3-1-1 in their last six starts, but have dangerous threats in left wing Patrick Maroon (22 goals, 26 assists), All-Star right wing Kyle Palmieri (25, 13) and center Peter Holland (16, 18). Former Wolf Pack defenseman Bryan Rodney is 4-15—19 in 38 games and former Wolf Pack forward Mark Bell is 6-10—16 in 35 games, but center Nick Bonino (6-16—22 in 19 games), a former standout at Farmington High, Avon Old Farms and Boston University, is on recall to the parent Anaheim Ducks.

BICKEL LEAVES HIS MARK(S)

Bickel certainly left his fist prints in fights with Wayne Simmonds and Tom Sestito in the Rangers’ 5-2 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday, their sixth in a row over the Flyers, including four and in the NHL Winter Classic.

Bickel received “high marks” from Tortorella after helping energize the Rangers (33-12-5) to a 4-0-1 run, a five-point lead over the Flyers in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand and a three-point lead over the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference with one game in hand.

“(Physical play) is a big part of our game,” Tortorella said. “That’s the way we have to play. When another team joins in, it mounts. Everybody gets involved. We’re the sum of our parts. That’s how we play. That’s the only way we can play. Everyone needs to join in in all areas like that.”

“It’s part of the game,” Bickel said of his pugilistic activities. “If I play a physical style, which is my game, I’m going to wind up doing that. It’s all part of the deal.”

And Bickel appeared to enjoy the physicality. He had a wide grin skating off the ice after his fight with Sestito, who got a rare game misconduct for three fights. And Bickel’s defensive partner Marc Staal, and fellow former Wolf Pack blueliner Michael Del Zotto, whose winner earned him the Broadway Hat, talked about how “hungry” Bickel seems to fight.

“It’s crazy,” Del Zotto said. “He’s probably one of the hungriest guys in the league to get a fighting major. He never backs up. It’s just amazing what he did for the team tonight.”

Del Zotto marveled at the strength and wildness Bickel puts into his punches, joking that he winds up from his heels. It led to Bickel’s right knuckles being bloody, and he said his hand was a little banged up.

But the Rangers again put the hurt on the Flyers thanks in part to former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov getting a goal off a deft deflection of a shot by All-Star defenseman Dan Girardi and two assists to end a 17-game streak without a point and forcing the turnover that led to Del Zotto’s winner. And All-Star wing Marian Gaborik was flying all game as he had a goal, an assist, a game-high eight shots and several key defensive plays in front of All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist (20 saves), who extended his career-best shutout streak to 182:37 before Brayden Schenn came out of the penalty box and scored on a breakaway at 12:02 of the second period.

“We have been neck and neck with those guys all year long,” said former Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky, who got into one of the three fights with Sestito and scored the back-breaking goal off Prust’s steal with 7:45 left to end a six-game pointless streak and make it 4-2. “Every game we’ve played against them has been physical, a playoff-type atmosphere and we knew it was going to be like that today. It’s always a fun game against those guys.”

WHALE TO SALUTE ALUMNI WHO GRADUATED TO RANGERS

The Whale and Whalers Sports and Entertainment will host “It All Starts Here” Night on Feb. 18, when the Worcester Sharks visit the XL Center. The night will pay tribute to players who spent time playing in the AHL in Hartford before moving on to the Rangers. It also will participate in USA Hockey’s “Hockey Weekend Across America” that is meant to spread the game throughout the country.

The night will include special ticket deals, as those wearing a youth hockey jersey to the XL Center’s Public Power Box Office will be able to purchase special $10 lower-level end zone seats. Also, 5,000 fans will receive an “It All Starts Here” poster, compliments of Webster Bank. The poster will feature Hartford Wolf Pack and Whale alumni who have made it to the Rangers, including former AHL All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, who is now the captain on Broadway. For more information, visit CTWhale.com.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Sharks coach Roy Sommer is one victory from becoming only the fourth coach to win 500 AHL games. Sommer, the dean of AHL coaches, is 499-495-90 in 14 seasons and trails Hall of Famers Fred “Bun” Cook (636), Frank Mathers (610) and John Paddock (589), who led the Wolf Pack to the Calder Cup in 2000. Sommer’s newest player is former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy, acquired from the Florida Panthers for defenseman Sean Sullivan on Friday. Kennedy had three assists as the Sharks split two games at St. John’s on Friday and Saturday night.

Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at TheAHL.com. Zuccarello and Audy-Marchessault represented the Whale, and Springfield Falcons rookie wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native who starred at Avon Old Farms and helped Boston College win a national title, was also on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears.

WHALE, FALCONS FANS RESUME SERIES FRIDAY

Before Friday game’s game, Whale fans will try to get off the schneid in their inaugural seven-game series against their Falcons counterparts. Falcons fans have won the first five games, with Game 6 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Friday at 5 p.m. The final game is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 4 p.m. at the XL Center and tickets ($16) will be available soon. For more information and tickets, visit facebook.com/whalefalconsfangame.

The series was 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. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first five games raised $750 for DBL.

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