It’s one of the oldest cliché’s in hockey, “You build your team from the net out.” The emergence of the New York Rangers certainly starts with Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. For the Connecticut Whale, their resurgence from a horrendous January where they didn’t win a game (0-6-3-2), certainly starts and ends with the performance of Chad Johnson.
There’s no other way to describe it; Johnson is on a tear. After leading his team to a 2-1 shootout victory in a Tuesday morning matinee at the XL Center over the Worcester Sharks, the Calgary, Alberta native has posted a sparkling 7-1-1 record with a 1.49 goals-against average and an eye-popping .952 save percentage stopping 276 of the 290 shots he faced.
“He’s been great. He’s been a very important part of our recent success. You guys (the media) can use whatever adjectives or superlatives that you want, but he has been very good for us; He’s been very solid and like I said, he’s been a big factor in our turnaround in February,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said of his 25-year old goaltender after the game.” He’s playing well right now and getting the job done, whether it be an off night or like a slow night where he doesn’t face as many shots but makes the big saves. He’s had games in this stretch where early on he’s kept us in it until we got our bearings. And he’s had some games in this stretch where he’s made a couple big saves late to preserve a lead. So he’s been strong for us.”
“This year early on I had a good (run),” Johnson (17-11-5, 33 saves, 4/5 in shootout), who was in very good spirits after the game said. “I’ve felt good all year even the games we weren’t winning. Obviously when you’re winning and playing well, you’re looked at a lot better and when you’re losing and playing well, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing well. So I think right now, it’s like we’re getting wins, so it looks obviously better for me when you’re winning and playing well. You get more attention and more I guess recognition in some sense. So I feel good about all my games. I think we’re just all playing really well right now. So, early on I think I was playing well too in the first month there, even December. Yeah, I felt comfortable all year. So I just think we’re all playing really well right now.”
Rangers Goaltending guru, Benoit Allaire has visited with the Whale netminders according to Gernander, “A couple of times over the last month.” Johnson said there’s been nothing specific that Allaire has focused on with him. He said that his advice has been direct. “He said to just keep going and compete and do what I’ve been doing all year, and kind of my whole life almost; just play every game, every period hard and do what you can do to help the team.” Johnson said.
It’s certainly noticeable to his teammates as well.
Kris Newbury, who had the primary assist on Mats Zuccarello’s goal in the last minute of the first period and the Whale’s only regulation goal and also scored the game winner in the shootout with a backhanded pirouette past Tyson Sexsmith (10-11-5, 21 saves 3/5 in the shootout), tipped his cap to his team’s goaltender. “He’s been good for us for the past month. He’s giving us a chance to win every game which is great and today we found a way to get him the two points and he deserves a lot of the credit that’s for sure.”
Mike Vernace, who played in his first game for the Whale since coming over in a trade from Florida for Wojtek Wolski late last week and had the secondary assist on Zuccarello’s goal, was also impressed with his new netminder. “He’s a really good goalie. He’s very calm and you know a very good presence back there. I was just having practice with him (Monday) and played (Tuesday) and he’s a good guy and he’s a really good goalie and like very sound technically and he can communicate well with the D and that’s important. One of the most important things is the D and goalie communication and that’s something we’ll always work on.”
Most of the game’s action came in the first period. Worcester came out early and hard on their hosts and at 9:15 into the period struck first. Already leading in shots 5-1 Sharks captain, Mike Moore fired a shot from the right circle that the game’s Third Star Nathan Moon got a stick on and redirected down. The puck bounced right over to left win Brandon Mashinter who was there to stick it into the net just past Johnson’s right leg.
Things stayed that way until later in the period. With just 49.2 seconds left, Vernace made a pass from the left point over to the right circle to Newbury. The Whale assistant captain got behind Moon and was able to redirect Newbury’s pass right off the blade of his stick and just over the pad and under the blocker of Sexsmith for his 12th goal in 33 games.
But the turning point of the game came at 6:22 of the second period. The Whale began a stretch of 4:49 where they could just not stay out of the penalty box. They nearly buried themselves with penalties. They took four consecutive penalties over that span giving the Sharks two five-on-three man-advantages. The first two-man advantage for the Sharks lasted 46 seconds when Zuccarello took a high sticking call with defenseman Pavel Valentenko already in the penalty box on a boarding call and then a second for 26 seconds when Vernace was caught hooking John McCarthy streaking up the slot with Zuccarello still in the sin bin.
But some excellent penalty killing by the Whale and strong stops by Johnson limited the Sharks to a total of five shots over the span and no goals.
“I think a moment like that kind of gets you into the game,” Johnson said of the long penalty kill stretch. “They’re so good defensively that it’s hard to get goals on them, so I think we did a good job killing the penalties . It was a big moment of the game.”
Johnson stood strong for the Whale in the third period. The Whale didn’t get many strong scoring chances off their eight shots in the period, but Worcester had a couple of great chances.
With 7:12 left, McCarthy came up the left wing and got behind the Whale defense and fired a hard wrister that rang hard of the post and then with 2:47 left, Moore came in alone out of the right corner of the Whale’s zone and Johnson stood tall taking down Moore’s two shots before help arrived to end the play.
The Whale had the overtime period’s best scoring chance with just 12 seconds left as Newbury and Casey Wellman had a two-on-one down low that was denied by a strong defensive play.
In the shootout, Zuccarello made it look easy again with his third goal in three attempts zipping a perfect wrister from the middle of the slot past the glove of Sexsmith. After Brodie Reid was denied by a Johnson pad, Wellman was denied for the Whale. Johnson turned aside John Sheppard for the Sharks and Brendan Bell missed high with his shot. Jack Combs was rejected with a stick save by Johnson and then Jonathan Audy-Marchessault made an impressive looking spin-a-rama but his shot went wide of the net. Mashinter tied it up for Worcester when his wrister blew over the Johnson’s blocker bringing up Newbury.
“Zuccs told me what to do. He’s the ‘Shootout Master,’” A laughing Newbury said. Newbury credited his left-winger pointing to him on the bench as he skated back.
When Johnson held his ground on Tony Lucia, the Sharks’ right-winger saw no clear opening and his shot for the right corner missed sending the Johnson to his first shootout win after losing three straight going back to late November.
The Whale start March with two road games, Friday night against Portland and then a Sunday afternoon battle with Manchester.
Bill Ballou made the trip down from Worcester and filed this story for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
(Standings provided by TheAHL.com)
* In the crowd were Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe and his newly inducted into the Hall-Of-Fame son Mark. Also in attendance was former Whalers wing and announcer Tom Rowe, who is now a scout for the Carolina Hurricanes, and his son Jason, who like his father is a scout only for the San Jose Sharks
* In a touching move, the Whale surprised Ron Dubois with a commemorative plaque for this this final game as a timekeeper in Hartford. Dubois is retiring after having worked five years as a timekeeper in the NHL and he ended his work with UConn last year.
* Irene Lieto’s national anthem, usually wonderful and filled with energy, struggled as her microphone wasn’t working. Then people tried to join in but it sounded garbled and quite frankly at times painful to listen to. In a first that we’ve ever heard, it was mentioned jokingly in Ken Gernander’s post-game when talking about playing in the morning. “I don’t think that National Anthem would ever have been confused with one in the old Chicago Stadium.” It got a big laugh from the assembled media.
* Be sure to listen to the audio of Kris Newbury. Pretty entertaining stuff. Also, you can get to know Mike Vernace in our conversation with him also in the audio section.
Zuccarello – Newbury – Deveaux
Bourque – Wellman – Audy-Marchessault
Grant – Tessier – Tanski
Owens – McKelvie – Prough
Valentenko – Vernace
Bell – Nightingale
Redden – Klassen
(Assistant Captains Bold and Italicized)
Francois Bouchard – Broken Wrist – Indefinite
Tim Erixon – Neck Strain – Day-to-Day
Andreas Thuresson – Undisclosed – Day-to-Day
Sean Avery – Healthy Scratch
1. CT – C. Johnson
2. CT – K. Newbury
3. WOR – N. Moon
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Ryan Hersey (46)
Jon McIsaac (39)
Paul Simeon (66)
Kevin Redding (16)
Bob Crawford is on with the air with the pre-game show from Portland on Friday night at 6:50pm and then at 2:50pm Sunday for the Monarchs contest. You can hear all the action on WCCC.com.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.
For Ticket information for all home games, call (860) 548-2000.
Worcester Sharks 1 at CT Whale 2 (SO) – Status: Final SO
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 – XL Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Worcester 1 0 0 0 – 1
Connecticut 1 0 0 0 – 2
1st Period-1, Worcester, Mashinter 12 (Moon, Moore), 9:15. 2, Connecticut, Zuccarello 12 (Newbury, Vernace), 19:10. Penalties-Bell Ct (holding), 7:15; Pelech Wor (roughing), 17:32; Audy-Marchessault Ct (slashing), 17:32.
2nd Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Valentenko Ct (boarding), 6:22; Zuccarello Ct (high-sticking), 7:36; Vernace Ct (hooking), 9:11; Sheppard Wor (hooking), 12:12.
3rd Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Newbury Ct (high-sticking), 0:58; Ct (hooking), 8:33.
OT Period- No Scoring.Penalties-No Penalties
Shootout – Worcester 1 (Reid NG, Sheppard NG, Combs NG, Mashinter G, Lucia NG), Connecticut 2 (Zuccarello G, Wellman NG, Bell NG, Audy-Marchessault NG, Newbury G).
Shots on Goal-Worcester 7-14-9-4-0-34. Connecticut 5-8-8-1-1-23.
Power Play Opportunities-Worcester 0 / 6; Connecticut 0 / 1.
Goalies-Worcester, Sexsmith 10-10-6 (22 shots-21 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 17-11-5 (34 shots-33 saves).
Referees-Ryan Hersey (46), Jon McIsaac (39).
Linesmen-Paul Simeon (66), Kevin Redding (16).