SPOTLIGHT: BRENT THOMPSON

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

Brent Thompson could be in line for a Coach of the Year daily double.

The former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman was named ECHL Coach of the Year last season after leading the Alaska Aces to the regular season and playoff titles. Now Thompson is a leading contender for AHL Coach of the Year after guiding the Bridgeport Sound Tigers from seeming oblivion to challenging the Connecticut Whale for the Northeast Division lead.

Starting 2012, the Sound Tigers were last in the Eastern Conference and 14 points behind the first-place Whale thanks largely to injuries and call-ups to the parent New York Islanders that led to the signing of eight players to professional tryout contracts, some of whom Thompson knew from two seasons in the ECHL, especially in the Western Conference. But while the Whale struggled through an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January, the Sound Tigers put together a team-record, 11-game point streak (10-0-0-1) to vault into the division lead and the third seed in the conference.

The Whale has rebounded with a 5-0-1-0 run behind the stout goaltending of Chad Johnson and the addition of left wing Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka on conditioning assignments from the parent New York Rangers and center Chris Wellman in a trade with the Minnesota Wild for Erik Christensen and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013. The Whale’s only blemish was a 2-1 overtime loss Sunday to the Sound Tigers, who are now three points behind their intrastate rival with two games in hand.

“They’re an honest, hard-working hockey club,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said after the end of a five-game winning streak, tying the team’s season high.

Like Gernander, a former teammate on the Wolf Pack, Thompson dislikes losing about as much as he enjoys breathing. Neither has been pouting much later, and David Ullstrom’s screen shot only 37 seconds into extra time Sunday made the Sound Tigers 25-13-3-2, including 13-1-0-1 since the calendar changed.

“I know I’m a little goofy and very passionate about the game and what I do, and I’m not going to change,” a smiling Thompson said after Sunday’s win. “I love coming to the rink every day, and I do hate losing – and you can ask my kids. Losing a board game bothers me just as much as losing a hockey game. I hate losing in any situation. It really does bother me, and I think our guys realize that.”

Thompson also likes that his players have set the standard for the team.

“They played great hockey during this stretch,” he said. “They have set a high standard for themselves, and why settle for anything less? I think that’s what we did against Manchester (in a 3-2 loss Feb. 4). We settled for a casual game, and it angered me to hold them accountable. They know better than that. They can play better than that, and it’s all effort. If you don’t give the effort, which is a skill in my mind, then you’re not going to be successful in this league because the American League is competitive every night. If you don’t give your 100 percent, you’re not going to be successful.”

After beating the Whale 6-2 on the day after Thanksgiving, the Sound Tigers were in the thick of the Atlantic Division race at 10-7-2-0. But they went 2-10-1-1 the rest of 2011 to plummet into the division cellar. Then came the equally stunning turnaround in the other direction that former Wolf Pack wing/enforcer Trevor Gillies said can be traced to maturity and an intensity spearheaded by Thompson and assistant coaches Matt Bertani and West Haven native and 2002 AHL MVP Eric Boguniecki, who is in his first season in Bridgeport after being a player-coach for Thompson in Alaska in 2009-10.

“It’s not hard to see that early in the year there was a lot of young talent with a lot of skill, but you have to learn the pro game, and I have to give the coaches credit on that,” Gillies said. “I’ve played 13 years, and I’ve never practiced as hard as we do here. Our practices are intense, we battle almost daily and the coaches work with guys afterwards. It’s a real treat. Even at my age (32), they’re pulling me aside to do extra stuff.

“I played against Brent and Bogie, and they were hard-working players. We have an exciting group that I think can really do something. We’ve got a lot of talent mixed in with a couple of old guys like myself and (Trevor) Frischmon and (captain Jeremy) Colliton, and we’ve got great goaltending, a tough team and good defense. Everyone just buys into the system, we play it to a T and we believe we can win every night. We have all the ingredients to be a team that can go really far in the postseason.”

Thompson said Boguniecki’s experiences in the NHL and AHL and Bertani playing in college give them a good perspective on all levels of the game.

“We lean on each,” Thompson said, “and I think we have a pretty good mix as far as chemistry and being able to handle the different personalities of a guy being down one day and needing to pick him up and a guy being too high and knocking him down and showing him video. I think it has been a good fit and the guys have responded and worked hard, which is a product of the Islanders getting the right players.”

Colliton said the team has been building on how they want to play all season as far as attention to detail, high pressure and being unselfish.

“Sometimes when you’re losing, and even when you start playing better, you don’t necessarily get the breaks and the wins right away,” Colliton said. “But as a group, we always felt we were on the right track, and then all of a sudden when things do turn around, you get the momentum. And we haven’t taken any short cuts or looked for the easy way out, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to stay on such a good streak.”

The Sound Tigers also were helped by the return of players such as Colliton and high-scoring Justin DiBenedetto from injuries, and several players being reassigned by the Islanders. That gave them added depth and competition, not to mention the solid production and maturing of many of the PTOs, including forwards Scott Howes, Kael Mouillierat and Blair Riley that Thompson knew from the ECHL’s Western Conference.

“We’re kind of scoring by committee, and I think that’s what you need,” Colliton said. “We have skill, of course, but we don’t have a guy who’s going to get three points every night. We’re just playing well defensively, and we’ve got four lines that can play and are working extremely hard. We can usually win if we get three goals.”

Two major reasons for the Sound Tigers’ resurgence are All-Star wing Casey Cizikas and goalie Kevin Poulin, who were named Reebok/AHL Player of the Month and Goaltender of the Month in January and were standouts in the win over the Whale on Sunday.

Cizikas led all AHL scorers with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) and was plus-14 and named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week three weeks ago after recording three consecutive three-point games, including getting a goal and two assists in the third period at Syracuse on Jan. 28 as Bridgeport rallied for a 5-4 shootout victory. He finished January by scoring a goal for the Eastern Conference in an 8-7 shootout loss to the Western Conference in the All-Star Game on Jan. 30. He was helped offensively by wing Rhett Rakhshani (six goals, nine assists, plus-14), who was reassigned by the Islanders on Monday, and defenseman Matt Donovan (two goals, 10 assists, plus-13).

Poulin was 6-0-1 with a 1.52 GAA, .949 save percentage and three shutouts while stopping 205 of 216 shots in seven appearances in January. He began the month by recording three consecutive shutouts and keeping the opposition off the scoreboard for a franchise-record 221 minutes and 54 seconds. He made 21 saves in a 4-0 victory over Worcester on Jan. 2, 24 saves in a 4-0 win at Manchester on Jan. 4 and 31 saves in a 4-0 victory at Portland on Jan. 7. Poulin, who set an AHL season high with 51 saves in a 6-2 win at Adirondack on Jan. 27, also earned two NHL recalls in the month, going 1-1-0 in two starts for the Islanders.

Thompson said the hot goaltending of Poulin and rookie Anders Nilsson helped breed confidence, especially in the special teams and many of the PTOs who started out trying to show their stuff and are still with the team.

“There’s always something that you add, and a lot of young prospect have really been stepping up,” said Thompson, who even brought in a goalie from the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League as an emergency backup. “A guy like Cizikas has put this team on his shoulders. He’s a player and reminds me of (former Wolf Pack right wing and Rangers captain Ryan) Callahan. Somewhere at some point, he’s going to have a really good NHL career.”

The youthful Sound Tigers also had to get accustomed to Thompson’s sometimes bombastic disposition.

“I think maybe some guys weren’t used to it, but I think it’s what we needed,” Colliton said. “He has an extremely high standard, is very demanding and it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re an older guy or a rookie. He holds guys accountable, and we’re all going to play this certain way. And you know what? The biggest thing that he’s brought us is accountability. He expects us to win, we have that feeling where we expect to win as well, and we’re not taking no for an answer as a team.

“For the young guys, they couldn’t have a better environment to come into. In my opinion, winning is the most important skill that you can learn here. We’re a development team, but as the same time for me, winning is the most important skill we can learn, and that’s their mentality here. You can see it, and guys are learning what it takes and everything else just takes care of itself. Individual success comes with team success, and we’re doing everything we can to win so individuals are having success.”

Thompson said belief in the system and the team’s leadership have been key factors for the Sound Tigers.

“We’re very team oriented and believe in each other, and I think that’s a function of the leadership,” he said. “The leaders understand that we truly care about where we’re going as an organization and where we’re going as a team.”

That included during the bad stretch when Thompson often felt the Sound Tigers played well but just didn’t get a break early on.

“I was more concerned with how we played and how hard we played,” Thompson said. “We knew there was going to be an adjustment period because of the systems and buying into the systems and every guy doing it the right way. The effort has always been there. I’ve been impressed since the first day of training camp that our guys work (hard) every practice. They’re the hardest-working group of guys I’ve ever been around, and I enjoy it every day.

“We weren’t getting the results early, but I promised them they would get the results if they stayed the course and just learned. It’s teaching. We’re just taking it one step at a time. We’re just trying to teach the system and just keep working on it and working on it and working on it and eventually it’ll hopefully sink in.”

It has.

FORMER WOLF PACK PARENTEAU MAKING HIS MARK

While the Sound Tigers and Whale have turned around their seasons, former Wolf Pack right wing P.A. Parenteau has finally got a legitimate shot in the NHL with the Islanders.

After being drafted in the ninth round in 2001 by Anaheim, Parenteau spent most of his first seven pro seasons excelling in the AHL but never got much of a chance at the next level. But the always confident Parenteau is one of hockey’s best passers and now has become among the NHL’s leading setup men while taking more of a leadership role with the youthful Islanders.

Parenteau, signed as a free agent in July 2010, actually didn’t get much of a shot with the Islanders until Jack Capuano was elevated from the Sound Tigers to interim coach on Long Island on Nov. 15, 2010, replacing Scott Gordon. Capuano, who had the interim tag removed on April 12, 2011, watched Parenteau operate for the Wolf Pack, especially on the power play and in the 2007-08 season when he finished third in the AHL in scoring with 34 goals and 47 assists and was named to all-league second team.

“I think (Capuano) knew what I could do,” Parenteau told ESPN.com. “There was a pretty good rivalry there.”

Last season, Parenteau finished second on the Islanders in scoring with 20 goals and 33 assists. He has picked up his pace even more this season, averaging nearly a point a game (51 in 56), and his 39 assists are already a career high in the NHL and fifth in the league. Tuesday night, Parenteau was named the No. 1 star after his brilliant deflection of Milan Jurcina’s pass 1:36 into the third period was his 12th goal and the winner and later assisted on Matt Martin’s empty-net goal in a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

“It was a great overall team effort, and that is what we’re going to need down the road,” Parenteau said after the Islanders’ fourth straight win away from Nassau Coliseum.

Playing with close friend John Tavares, the first overall pick in 2009, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner and Frans Nielsen has helped.

“When I make a nice play around here, it doesn’t get wasted,” Parenteau said. “It’s been a long road, but I’m a pretty confident guy.”

Now the Islanders face the issue of re-signing Parenteau, who could become an unrestricted free agent July 1. They recently signed Nielsen, a former Sound Tigers forward who has 26 points, to a four-year, $11 million contract extension. The Islanders reportedly haven’t started negotiating with Parenteau, but it’s hard to believe general manager Garth Snow would let the wing walk for nothing, especially since he wants to stay.

“I really like where this team is going now,” Parenteau said.

LUNDQVIST BETTER THAN EVER

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist solidified his bid for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie and Hart Trophy as league MVP on Tuesday night with a season-high 42-save shutout of the Boston Bruins in a 3-0 win that increased their Eastern Conference lead to nine points.

Former Wolf Pack players Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Artem Anisimov scored, with Callahan getting his sixth goal in a four-game winning streak and 23th of the season, tying his career high last season, when he missed 22 games with a broken hand and foot. But the No. 1 star and recipient of the Broadway Hat rightfully was Lundqvist, who got his NHL-high seventh shutout of the season, one more than Hamden native and former Avon Old Farms standout Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.

“He was pretty – I don’t even know what the word is – unbelievable,” said former Whale defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who goalmouth pass set up Callahan’s power-play goal.

Unbelievable indeed, considering the Rangers were outshot 18-3 in the third period, 32-8 in the final 40 minutes and 42-20 overall and out-attempted 34-5 in the third, 63-14 the last two periods and 79-31 overall.

“I thought we defended really well, but that’s all we did and then when we had breakdowns Hank was there,” coach John Tortorella said. “Henrik should have six hats on tonight.”

Lundqvist set a career high for saves in a shutout win – he stopped 45 shots in a 1-0 shootout loss – and is now four shutouts shy of his season high in 2010-11 in quest of a first Stanley Cup title. His latest masterpiece enabled him to improve to 27-11-4 with a 1.77 goals-against average, second in the NHL, and a league-best .941 save percentage.

“I have been more determined this year,” Lundqvist said. “The clock is ticking. This is my Year Seven now. I’m excited about this group, how hard they work and how well they play under pressure, and I feed from that.”

The Rangers (37-13-5) are certainly a hard-working bunch, led by fireplug Callahan. They’ve won four in a row and eight of 10 against the Bruins, are a staggering 20-5-1 since Dec. 17 and 19-7-3 on the road, winning five of their last six starts in Boston. And they are within sight of finishing first in the conference and winning the President’s Trophy for most points in the league for the first time since 1994, when they ended a 54-year Stanley Cup drought.

“This team is a lot different than years past,” said former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi, who is part of the Rangers’ top pairing with McDonagh. “We don’t want to lose more than one or two in a row. That’s what has created some separation.”

KREIDER HELPS BC WIN ANOTHER BEANPOT TITLE

Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, is accelerating his play again for Boston College as the most important part of the campaign approaches.

In his 100th collegiate game Monday night, Kreider stole the puck in center ice and set up a shorthanded goal by Wallingford’s Pat Mullane in the first period, scored a power-play goal in the second and celebrated Bill Arnold’s winner with 6.4 seconds left in the first overtime as the third-ranked Eagles beat No. 2 Boston University 3-2 to win a third straight Beanpot Tournament and fourth in five years. It might be a good harbinger for the Eagles as the winner of the last four Beanpots has won three NCAA titles, including BC in 2008 and 2010, the latter when the roster included AHL All-Star and all-rookie candidate Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms standout playing with the Springfield Falcons.

Kreider has five goals and five assists in the last five games, all wins, and now has a team-high 19 goals and 16 assists for the Eagles (19-10-1, 13-7-1 in Hockey East). And he strutted his stuff in all situations Monday night in front of Rangers president and GM Glen Sather, assistant GM Jeff Gorton, director of player personnel Gordie Clark and NHL Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Cheshire native Brian Leetch, who attended the game with son Jack.

“Chris has the strength and speed of a pro,” Clark told the New York Times this week. “He has a pretty rare ability to create offense on his own, and he has developed every aspect of his game while in a great college hockey program. He has a chance to be a valuable player for us in the near future.”

Jess Rubenstein of The Prospect Park speaks glowingly of the 6-3, 225-pound Kreider.

“He is not just a guy who skates fast and can score goals,” Rubenstein said. “He is a rock solid two-way player who is a threat at both ends of the ice. He plays defense, he goes into corners and fights for the puck just like he goes into traffic and sets up in the crease. And while his speed is first rate, put him out of the power play with Derek Stepan and look out. Those two are good friends who’ve already shown a very, very good chemistry with each other on the ice (for Team USA).”

WHALE HOST FALCONS, SHARKS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY NIGHT

The Whale will try to start another winning streak Friday night, when they host the Springfield Falcons. The Falcons (23-23-2-2) are eight points behind the Whale after a bizarre weekend in which they lost 3-2 in overtime at home to the Whale on Friday night, lost 8-1 at Bridgeport on Saturday night and then rebounded to beat visiting Manchester 5-1 on Sunday as All-Star forward Cam Atkinson, former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux and Wade MacLeod each had a goal and an assist to back the 24-save effort of former UMass goalie Paul Dainton.

Atkinson, a Greenwich native who starred at Avon Old Farms and helped Boston College win two national championships, is second on the Falcons in scoring and among AHL rookies in goals with 27. His 41 points are fifth among first-year players and two fewer than Whale All-Star forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who is tied for third. Former All-Star center Martin Pierre leads the Falcons in scoring with nine goals and 35 goals, followed by Atkinson, Giroux (17, 20), former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers (10, 14), Matt Calvert (11, 11) and Nick Drazenovic (6, 16). Dainton is 6-3-1 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. Manny Legace, 39, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, is 10-16-1, 2.84 and .902.

The Whale won the first five meetings with their I-91 rival and then went 0-2-0-1 before the 3-2 win Friday night when Wojtek Wolski scored at 1:04 of overtime. Audy-Marchessault, a solid contender for the AHL All-Rookie team with Atkinson, has taken over the Whale scoring lead with 18 goals and 25 assists, followed by center Kris Newbury (18, 24 in 39 games), former Falcons right wing Andre Deveaux (13, 17) and All-Star Mats Zuccarello (10, 20). Chad Johnson played all six games in the Whale’s recent resurgence, stopping 180 of 189 shots, to improve to 15-10-5, 2.42, .919 with one shutout. Cam Talbot is 9-11-0, 2.96, .900 with two shutouts. Audy-Marchessault has a staggering 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) against the Falcons, while Atkinson (5, 3) and Giroux (1, 7) have led the Falcons against the Whale.

After playing the Falcons, the Whale hosts Worcester (2315-4-5) on Saturday night and visits Providence (23-22-3-3) on Sunday afternoon. On Saturday night, the Whale and Whalers Sports and Entertainment will host “It All Starts Here” Night, which 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. Part of the initiative is also to provide opportunities for those who have not tried hockey, resulting in more people playing the game at all levels. Whale staff will participate in “Try Hockey for Free” clinics Saturday at Newington Arena (8:00 a.m.) and the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford (10:30 a.m.).

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, all fans who attend will receive a Whale TV poster, compliments of Webster Bank. The poster will feature theme of the night, “It All Starts Here”, with former Wolf Pack and Whale players and staff who have made it to the Rangers, including Callahan, Hagelin and Brandon Dubinsky. For more information, log on to CTWhale.com.

The Whale and Sharks, who have won two straight games and three of four entering a team at Portland on Wednesday night, have split two games in Worcester. Sharks coach Roy Sommer became only the fourth coach to win 500 AHL games Saturday night when Worcester won 3-2 in a shootout at Hershey. After a 5-2 victory over Portland on Sunday, Sommer, the dean of AHL coaches, is 501-496-90 in 14 seasons and trails only Hall of Famers Fred “Bun” Cook (636-413-122), Frank Mathers (610-512-134) and John Paddock (589-438-98), who led the Wolf Pack to the Calder Cup in 2000.

Sommer, who also ranks fourth all-time in games coached (1,082), first assumed his post as the Sharks’ top development coach in 1998 and has coached more than 100 players who have spent time in the NHL, including Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Doug Murray, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Miikka Kiprusoff, Brad Boyes, Christian Ehrhoff, Evgeni Nabokov, Johan Hedberg and former Wolf Pack wing Mikael Samuelsson. He also has 28 Calder Cup wins and guided the Canadian team to victory in the 2000 AHL All-Star Game.

Sommer’s first career win came on Oct. 17, 1998, a 6-4 victory over the Albany River Rats. David Cunniff, the son of former Whalers wing and assistant coach John Cunniff, played for Albany that night and has been Sommer’s assistant coach since 2002. No. 500 came in dramatic fashion as his newest player, former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy, scored his first goal as a Shark with 1:16 left in regulation before Brodie Reid converted in the seventh round of a shootout and Tyson Sexsmith finished 7-for-7 in the shootout for the win. Kennedy, acquired from the Florida Panthers for defenseman Sean Sullivan on Jan. 26, has two goals and five assists in six games with the Sharks, who are led in scoring by center Mike Connolly (10, 19), left wing John McCarthy (12, 16), defenseman Matt Irwin (8, 18) and right wing Jack Combs (11, 12), though McCarthy is on recall to the San Jose Sharks. Sexsmith (10-8-5, 2.14, .924) and rookie Harri Sateri (11-8-0, 2.58, .908, two shutouts) are sharing the goaltending with veteran Antero Niittymaki (2-3-0, 3.01, .890) on loan to the Syracuse Crunch.

The Whale is 3-1-0-1 against the Bruins (23-22-3-3), who have lost four of their last five games and are led by rookie right wing Carter Camper (11, 24), center Josh Hennessy (15, 15), rookie left wing Craig Cunningham (10, 11) and defensemen Matt Bartkowski (3, 17) and rookie David Warsofsky (2, 18), though Hennessy is on recall to Boston. Left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has four goals, eight assists and a team-high 99 penalty minutes. Anton Khudobin (18-16-3, 2.57, .920, two shutouts) and Michael Hutchinson (4-9-0, 2.52, .920) have handled most of the goaltending.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

  • College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “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.
  • Former Rangers and Wolf Pack defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti had a point in 11 consecutive Charlotte Checkers games from Jan. 12 to Friday, the longest scoring streak by an AHL blueliner in nearly three years. Sanguinetti, the Rangers’ first-round pick (21st overall) in 2006, had five goals and 10 assists as the Checkers went 8-3-0-0. He has scored all six of his goals and 14 of his 22 assists on the power play, which ranks third in the league at 21.1 percent. His last even-strength goal came on Nov. 19, 2010.
  • Former Wolf Pack wing Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2003 who scored 20 of Lake Erie’s 121 non-shootout goals this season, signed with Abbotsford on Monday after his second 25-game tryout contract with the Monsters expired. The 20 goals tied his career high with Milwaukee in 2008-09 and 2009-10. His season high for goals with the Wolf Pack was 18 in 2007-08.
  • Former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane was suspended three games for a boarding incident in Hershey’s loss to Worcester. He will miss games at Providence on Friday night, Manchester on Saturday night and Bridgeport on Sunday. Bears forward Joel Rechlicz also was suspended one game for a cross-checking incident in the same game. He won’t play at Providence.
  • Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at www.theahl.com. Zuccarello, Audy-Marchessault and Atkinson were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by Kane, captain of the Bears.
  • Marc Vallerand had two goals and former Wolf Pack players Brandon Wong and Jyri Niemi each scored once as the Greenville Road Warriors beat Gwinnett 6-3 Tuesday night to move within two points of the first-place Gladiators in the ECHL’s South Division. Wong, a former standout at Quinnipiac College, also had an assist and a fight only six seconds into the game for the “Gordie Howe hat trick.” Jason Missiaen, who joined the Whale at the end of last season and was in training camp this fall, had 32 saves for the Road Warriors (30-18-1-2).
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