WHALE SINK PIRATES SHIP

Connecticut Whale     VERSUS     Portland

BY: Bruce Berlet

Special teams often are the difference at all levels of hockey these days, and the Connecticut Whale proved that again Friday night against the Portland Pirates.

Andre Deveaux and Brendan Bell scored the game’s first two goals with the man advantage, then the Whale got three tallies from secondary sources in a 5-1 victory before 4,722 at the XL Center.

“It was a good team effort,” said center Kelsey Tessier, who set up Andreas Thuresson’s goal with a clearing pass off a Pirates defender’s neck and capped the scoring off a brilliant centering pass by Tommy Grant. “All the lines came out hard, and it’s good to have everyone contributing. Grant has been stepping up his game, and his confidence is up so we just have to give him the puck as often as we can because he’s hot the last three games (four assists, including two Friday night). And (Scott) Tanski has been grinding it real well, which makes my job easier.”

Tessier also cited goalie Chad Johnson (26 saves), who returned after missing most of the previous three games with an injury and excelled early when the Pirates had the better jump.

“Chad gave us momentum,” Tessier said. “It wasn’t our best start, but Chad was there for us and stood on his head. Even the start of the third period wasn’t good, but Chad was there. And I give our defense a lot of credit for moving the puck so well.”

Coach Ken Gernander also lauded Johnson and the hustling Tessier, Grant, Tanski, Jordan Owens and Thuresson, who comprise most of the third and fourth lines but were major contributors this night.

“The power play got things started, and it’s always good if you can keep that special teams’ differential,” Gernander said, alluding to the Whale being 2-for-4 with the man advantage and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill. “We got goals from a lot of different sources, which was important because the more sources the harder it is shut down a team. We were pretty good defensively, and I really liked Johnner’s game, especially at the start on the power play.

“Goaltenders are often judged on the ones you let in, not always the ones you save. But if a guy is having a good night, you remember the good saves he made early to keep you in it or to preserve the lead late. When he’s a bit off, you’ll remember that third one that never should have got in. But the bottom line is winning games, and his play has been very good and very important for us of late.”

Johnson is 6-1-0 in February as the Whale (27-17-5-5) rebounded from a 4-3 loss at Providence on Sunday that ended an eight-game point streak (7-0-1-0). They have now split four games with the Pirates and increased their Northeast Division lead to two points over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who lost 2-1 to the host Springfield Falcons in a shootout.

“They have some pretty skilled forwards in (Patrick) O’Sullivan and (Andy) Miele who move the puck really well and find seams all over the ice,” Johnson said. “We expected them to come out strong on the road, and there were some bounces where they made some good plays, but I think we were in good position so when I do make a save, the guys were there to clear the rebounds. There weren’t a lot of second opportunities, so it makes it easier on everybody.

“The power play is kind of our identity, but we also got two goals from guys who don’t always contribute (goals) but work hard and do the little things. It’s always good to have guys get rewarded for their hard work. The Tessier line with Grant and Tanski battles all the time so for them to get a goal was awesome.”

The Pirates (24-24-3-3) have lost three in a row, six of seven (1-5-1-0) and nine of 12 (3-8-1-0) since a four-game winning streak in late January. They have allowed the second-most goals in the league (181) and were missing four of their top defensemen, including captain Dean Arsene, who started his AHL career in Hartford. It forced the Pirates to sign defensemen Corey Syvret and Mark Louis, who made his pro debut.

The Pirates had the best scoring chances early, but Johnson denied Brett MacLean at the doorstep at 7:23 during the game’s first power play and then made rapid-fire saves on O’Sullivan and Mathieu Brodeur off a 3-on-2 with 8:57 left in the first period.

The Whale then had a golden opportunity to take the lead on a 5-on-3 power play for 1:12 after Nick Ross was called for hooking at 14:41 and Eckford for interference at 15:29. The Whale failed to get a shot on Justin Pogge for the first 1:05 of the two-man advantage before Deveaux slammed in All-Star Mats Zuccarello’s goal-line pass off a setup by Tim Erixon. It was Deveaux’s 18th goal and 13th on the power play, tying him for the league lead with the Hershey Bears’ Jacob Micflikier and Falcons’ All-Star rookie right wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native who starred at Avon Old Farms and Boston College and was called up by the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in the day.

“Two bad penalties, and you can’t give those guys a 5-on-3,” Pirates coach Ray Edwards said. “I thought we did really well killing it off for 45 seconds, but you can’t play two men down against those guys.”

The Pirates nearly tied it early in the second period, but Johnson flicked out his left pad to stop Ross’ screen shot from the left point at 31 seconds and got his right pad on Matt Watkins’ rush down right wing at 2:52. The Whale then took a 2-0 lead on their third power play thanks to a fortuitous bounce. Zuccarello’s pass off the left boards into the slot found Bell, who half-whiffed on a backhander, but Evan Bloodoff inadvertently poked the puck into his own net at 4:04. It was Bell’s seventh goal, most among Whale defenseman.

“It’s all about angles,” said a smiling Bell, who also beat the Pirates 3-2 on a breakaway goal at 3:29 of overtime on Nov. 23. “Zucc said he was going to put it in anyway.”

The Pirates then had an golden opportunity to get on the board when they got a 5-on-3 for 1:12 but managed only one shot on Johnson, who was plenty alert to stop MacLean’s point-blank deflection of O’Sullivan’s pass at 6:32.

The Whale then increased their lead off another unlucky bounce for the Pirates. Tessier’s clearing pass hit Eckford in the neck, and as the defenseman lay on the ice in the neutral zone, Thuresson picked up a loose puck, broke in on a 2-on-1 and beat Pogge high to the glove side for his 12th goal at 7:59.

“I was quite lucky (to get an assist), but I felt bad for (Eckford) because I was just trying to dump the puck and he was right in my way,” said Tessier, who missed one game in December after taking a puck to the face in practice. “Obviously it was good for us, but I went over, gave him a tap and said I was sorry. There was no cut, so I was happy he got right up.”

“Last month we probably wouldn’t have got that break,” Johnson said, alluding to the Whale suffering through an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January. “It’s funny how things happen when you’re working hard. You get those lucky breaks, and it’s weird how you can get chances sometimes and other times it just doesn’t go for you.”

Pogge (19 saves) kept the Pirates in the game as he denied Tessier’s close-in deflection with 9:10 left in the period and robbed a wide-open Ryan Bourque in front after a nifty three-way passing play with All-Star Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and Casey Wellman. But the Whale continued to press and padded their lead when Chris McKelvie raced down left wing and fired a shot wide left, the carom going to Owens for a quick stuff into the right side of the net for his fifth goal with 1:08 left.

The Pirates finally broke through at 5:32 of the third period on a sixth-attacker goal during a delayed penalty on Sam Klassen as Miele got the puck to Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who circled into the slot and beat Johnson high to the stick side for his seventh goal.

The goal energized the Pirates, but Johnson made two strong stops and Miele hit the post with 7:08 left during Portland’s fourth power play. Tessier then capped the scoring when he jammed in Grant’s centering pass off a setup by Tanski with 3:45 left.

JOHNSON, BELL RETURN

Johnson and Bell returned to the Whale lineup from injuries. Johnson, who started every game in the Whale’s eight-game point streak, was pulled after the first period of a 6-3 victory over the Falcons last Friday night and then sat out a 3-1 win over Worcester and a 4-3 loss at Providence on Sunday. Cam Talbot remained the Whale’s other goalie as Jason Missiaen was reassigned to Greenville of the ECHL on Wednesday. Bell missed the last two games after being injured when charged into by Falcons center Cody Bass, who received a three-game suspension and had to miss games against Bridgeport on Friday night, the Whale on Saturday night and at Portland on Sunday. Bell replaced Blake Parlett and was paired with Pavel Valentenko. The Whale’s other scratches were left wing Sean Avery and injured wings Francois Bouchard and Chad Kolarik.

Watkins rejoined the Pirates lineup after being reassigned by the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday following his NHL debut in a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night after getting nine goals and 18 assists in 48 games with Portland. But with the defensive corps depleted, the Pirates signed Louis (one goal, one assist in 27 games with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia) and Syvret (four goals, four assists in 50 games with the ECHL’s Trenton Titans), the younger brother of Peoria Rivermen defenseman Danny Syvret. Louis was signed to an amateur tryout contract and Syvret to a professional tryout contract. The Pirates needed Louis and Syvret because Michael Stone and David Rundblad were on recall to the Coyotes and injuries to Maxim Goncharov and Arsene, who started his AHL career with the Hartford Wolf Pack but had to sit out what would have been his 498th AHL game over 10 seasons because of an upper-body injury sustained in a 5-3 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday. The Pirates also scratched injured center Brock Trotter, their leading scorer with 14 goals and 24 assists, center Colin Long and former Wolf Pack wing Ryan Hollweg, who had surgery this week to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Forward Alex Bolduc also was on recall to the Coyotes.

The crowd again included Craig Patrick, senior advisor of hockey operations for the Blue Jackets, who have the biggest remaining prize before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, All-Star left wing Rick Nash. The Rangers are among the finalists for Nash’s services.

WHALE VISIT SPRINGFIELD SAT. – ATKINSON CALLED UP

The Whale completes this weekend’s play Saturday night at Springfield (25-25-2-2), which they’ve beaten in their last two meetings and are 7-2-0-1 against in their 12-game series this season. Audy-Marchessault has a staggering 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 10 games against the Falcons, while veteran center Kris Newbury has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in only six games.

Center Martin St. Pierre (10, 38) leads the Falcons in scoring, followed by Atkinson (29, 16), and former Wolf Pack wings Alexander Giroux (18, 22) and captain Dane Byers (13, 14). Atkinson leads the Falcons in scoring against the Whale with nine points (six goals, three assists), while Byers has four goals, including in a 6-3 loss last Friday night. But the Whale won’t have to worry about Atkinson after he was recalled after the Blue Jackets traded centers Antoine Vermette and Jeff Carter to the Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday and Thursday. Atkinson was tied for the AHL lead in power play goals (13) and ranked second in goals and was fourth among AHL rookies in points, three behind Audy-Marchessault. Atkinson had played in five games with the Blue Jackets earlier this season and scored his first NHL goal Oct. 10 against Vancouver. The Blue Jackets host Nashville on Saturday night. To replace Atkinson, the Falcons called up wing Chris D’Alvise from the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, where he had two goals and four assists in seven games after missing most of the season because of a concussion sustained in training camp. Veteran Manny Legace, 39, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993 with an 11-17-1 record, 2.74 GAA and .875 save percentage, and rookie Paul Dainton out of UMass (7-4-0, 2.98, .893) are doing the goaltending now. Dainton had 26 saves and stopped four of six shots in the shootout as the Falcons rallied for the much-needed win Friday night.

The Whale is off Sunday and Monday before hosting Worcester on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Fans can purchase tickets on game day for $10 at the Public Power ticket office at the XL Center. … The Whale is hosting its first Hockey ’n Heels Ladies Night on Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Russian Lady in Hartford. Appetizers and drink specials will be available as several Whale players will be on hand to offer insight on hockey. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and $35 tickets will include a ticket to the Whale game against the Sound Tigers on March 9, a picture with the players and a Hockey ’n Heels T-shirt. Fans must be at least 18 years old, and tickets must be ordered by Monday. For more information or to order tickets, contact Ashley Ford at 860-728-3366 or Ashley.ford@ctwhale.com. … The starting time for the home game against Providence on April 1 has been moved from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m. And that’s no April Fool’s Day joke.

DIFFERENT LOOK FOR SOUND TIGERS, ISLANDERS

The Sound Tigers and parent New York Islanders had different looks Friday night when they played the Falcons and Rangers.

The Islanders recalled AHL All-Star center Casey Cizikas from Bridgeport to replace Josh Bailey (back spasms), removed defenseman Travis Hamonic from injured reserve after needing surgery for a broken nose that sidelined him nine games and returned defensemen Ty Wishart and rookie Aaron Ness and goalie Kevin Poulin, who had filled in for flu-ridden Evgeny Nabokov. Cizikas led the Sound Tigers in assists (29), points (44) and plus/minus (plus-25) thanks to getting nine goals and 15 assists and being plus-19 as the Sound Tigers went 16-1-0-1 since Jan. 1 as he was named Reebok/AHL Player of the month for January. The Sound Tigers also recalled defenseman Benn Olson from Greenville of the ECHL, released defenseman Wes Cunningham from his professional tryout contract and reassigned him to the Road Warriors and signed forwards Scott Howes, Blair Riley and Kael Mouillierat and defensemen Steve Oleksy and Jon Landry to AHL contracts after they had been on PTOs. The Sound Tigers will be without wing Tomas Marcinko, suspended three games for a boarding penalty in a 3-0 victory over Albany on Monday, and wing Rhett Rakshani, injured in a 2-1 shootout win over Hershey on Sunday. Finally, the Tampa Bay Lightning claimed right wing Tim Wallace off waivers after he had one assist in 31 games with the Islanders and nine goals and 11 assists in 24 games with the Sound Tigers.

The new-look Islanders blew a pair of two-goal leads but beat the Rangers 4-3 in a shootout as former Wolf Pack wing P.A. Parenteau had two goals and linemate Matt Moulson got the winner in the shootout against former Islanders goalie Martin Biron. Parenteau has 56 points, three more than his previous career high last season. Marion Gaborik scored the Rangers’ second goal and assisted on Derek Stepan’s tying tally with 3:20 left in the second period. Nabokov had 33 saves and stopped three of four shots in the shootout. Despite their third loss in four games, the Rangers increased their Atlantic Division lead to eight points over the idle Boston Bruins. They had won their last three starts against the Islanders by a combined 11-4 score.

Stu Bickel, who started the season with the Whale, moved back to defense from right wing, replacing Steve Eminger as wing Ruslan Fedotenko returned to the lineup after missing six games with a suspected concussion. Eminger and Anton Stralman were benched in the third period of a 2-0 loss at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. Left wing Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka remained healthy scratches after two-week conditioning assignments with the Whale. Bickel, who has had his share of scraps with the Whale and Rangers, played despite receiving a nasty cut across the bridge of his nose in the dressing room after the morning skate when a skate was inadvertently knocked off its hook at a locker stall and fell into Bickel’s face. After a quick trip to the trainer’s room and a few chuckles about the incident, Bickel was OK – minus the blood on his nose.

When asked about picking Bickel over Eminger, Rangers coach John Tortorella said, “I don’t think we’ve been consistent enough (on defense). Stralman’s in. I wasn’t crazy about his game (Tuesday) night. Emmy sits, and we’ll see where it goes from there. We’ll give Bic a chance to play defense and not just at forward.”

Andrew Gross of The Record and Herald News in New Jersey jokingly asked Tortorella if he had to remind Bickel to stay near the blue line. One of the Rangers’ best scoring chances Tuesday night came when Bickel skated down low with center Brian Boyle cocking his stick for a point slap shot even though he was being used as a defenseman on the shift.

“He thought he was a forward when we put him out there on defense, it was pretty scary,” said Tortorella, who often can’t contain his enthusiasm for Bickel’s gritty game and the affection he seems to have for the guy as a player. “He almost scored, but he wasn’t supposed to be there. Boyle’s played defense, maybe that confused him.”

Bickel also laughed about the play and said it would have been great had Boyle taken a slap shot that he deflected in off him for his first NHL goal. He added, again with a laugh, that it wouldn’t be confusing to him which position he was suppose to play Friday night. He also is supposed to scrap, and he did just that with Mike Martin only 2:24 into the game.

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