SPOTLIGHT: GOALIES

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

The AHL’s two hottest teams in February resided in Connecticut, and their successes could be traced right to the goalies.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Connecticut Whale were a combined 17-3-1-1 in the Leap Year Month and entered March tied for the Northeast Division lead, though the Sound Tigers have two games in hand.

In a close call for Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month announced Thursday, the Sound Tigers’ Anders Nilsson edged the Whale’s Chad Johnson, who won the award in October, though his numbers were better in February.

Nilsson was 6-0-1 with a 1.26 goals-against average, .955 save percentage and one shutout as the Sound Tigers (30-18-3-3) went 8-1-0-1 in February to remain the league’s most torrid team with a stunning 18-1-0-2 record from the start of 2012, which is six more wins than they had in their first 33 games. Former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson is in his first season as Sound Tigers coach and a leading candidate for Coach of the Year after the way his team has rallied while playing with as many as eight players who had signed professional tryout contracts.

Much of that is thanks to Nilsson, whose remarkable month included setting a franchise record with his eighth consecutive win in a 2-1 shootout victory over Hershey on Feb. 19. A day later, he earned his first AHL shutout with 26 saves in a 3-0 victory over Albany and extended his scoreless streak to 141 minutes, 41 seconds during a 35-save effort in a 2-1 shootout loss at Springfield on Feb. 24.

Nilsson, who has not allowed more than two goals while going 10-0-1 in his last 11 starts, was a third-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2009. The 21-year-old native of Lulea, Sweden, is 15-6-2 in 23 games with the Sound Tigers, ranking eighth with a 2.32 GAA and sixth with a .925 save percentage. He made his NHL debut with the Islanders earlier this season, appearing in two games, and was recalled Wednesday and replaced by Nick Niedert, who has played for four teams in three leagues this season, including the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League.

Johnson was 7-1-1-0 with a 1.49 GAA while stopping 276 of 290 shots (.952 save percentage) in February despite missing nearly three games because of an injury sustained in the first period of a 6-3 victory over the Falcons that went to reliever Cam Talbot. Those numbers were even better than Johnson had in October, when he was 3-0-2 with a 1.69 GAA and .942 save percentage. He entered March with a 17-11-2-3 record, 2.32 GAA, .922 save percentage and one shutout.

“Besides two games, I feel I’ve played really well all year, even the games we weren’t winning,” Johnson said after making 33 saves and stopping four of five shots in a 2-1 shootout victory over Worcester on Tuesday. “Sometimes you don’t get bounces, and you don’t make all the saves you’d like to, but I’ve felt good about my game all year. Obviously when you’re winning and playing well, you’re looked at a lot better. When you’re losing and playing well, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing well. So right now, we’re getting wins, so it obviously looks better for me when you’re winning and playing well. You get more attention and more recognition in some sense. Early on, I think I was playing well and feeling comfortable, but I think we’re all playing really well right now.”

Johnson said Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has had simple advice in recent visits from New York.

“He said to just keep going and competing and doing what I’ve been doing all year,” Johnson said. “I’ve tried to play every period hard and just tried to stay in the moment more, not looking ahead. Five-on-3, all you care about is killing the penalty, not the next period or two shots from now, just making that next save. That’s the biggest thing for me, and I feel over my whole life, that’s when I play best, just worrying about that one period and the next shot and the next save and having that confidence that no one can beat me. That’s where I try to consistently have my mindset on a nightly basis.”

Whale coach Ken Gernander said Johnson has been “a very important part of our recent success.”

“You can use whatever adjectives or superlatives that you want, but he has been very good, very solid and a big factor in our turnaround in February,” Gernander said, alluding to the Whale not winning in January (0-6-3-2). “He’s just playing well and getting the job done, whether it be a slower night when he doesn’t face as many shots but makes the big saves. He’s had games in this stretch where he’s kept us in it early on 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.”

Gernander said having a goalie perform at such a high level permeates through the team.

“I don’t know if it has a direct effect on how you play, but it’s certainly uplifting if maybe you made a mistake and the guy can bail you out,” Gernander said. “Or it can be deflating if you’re playing well and something sloppy gets in. And let’s face it, being success and winning is a lot better environment than when you’re struggling, so if you’ve got a guy who is giving you a chance to win night in and night out, it helps everything in general.”

Newbury lauded Johnson after the Whale (28-18-5-5) improved to 3-1 against the Sharks (24-20-4-6).

“He has been good for us for the last month,” Newbury said. “He’s giving us a chance to win every game, which is great. Anytime you have a goalie playing the way Chad is, it’s always in the back of your mind that you have a chance to win every night. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than usual to get a goal to help him out, but he’s keeping us in. We found a way to get him the two points, and he deserves a lot of the credit, that’s for sure.”

The division co-leaders begin March on the road, as the Whale, who are on a 9-2-1-0 run, play at Portland on Friday night and at Manchester on Sunday afternoon before returning for a game against the Sound Tigers on March 9 at the XL Center, where they are on a six-game winning streak and have the AHL’s best home winning percentage of .731 (16-4-2-4).

The Sound Tigers start a four-game road trip with games at Albany on Friday night and Providence on Saturday night before they visit Worcester on Tuesday night and finally the Whale.

Grand Rapids Griffins left wing Chris Minard and Manchester Monarchs right wing Linden Vey were named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Month and Rookie of the Month.

Minard had eight goals and five assists and was plus-7 in 10 games, including a hat trick in a 7-4 victory over San Antonio on Feb. 12, giving him eight points in three games. Minard, who missed the first three months of the season because of an injury, has 12 goals and five assists and is plus-9 in 17 games since returning to the Griffins lineup.

Vey had six goals and eight assists and was plus-9 in 12 games for the Monarchs, including two goals, an assist and team-record plus-5 rating in a 7-6 victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Feb. 23. He capped the month with the winning goal and an assist in a 4-3 victory over Providence on Sunday. Vey, 20, a native of Wakaw, Saskatchewan, has team-high 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games.

CALLAHAN OUT; SCOTT MAKES RANGERS DEBUT

Newly acquired John Scott makes his Rangers debut Thursday night, replacing captain and former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan, who is out with a bruised foot sustained when he blocked an Ilya Kovalchuk shot in a 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Monday. Callahan’s empty-net goal off a strong play by rookie left wing Carl Hagelin, who started the season with the Whale and tallied his 11th goal off a Callahan assist Monday night, was his career-high 25th of the season.

The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Scott, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks just before the 3 p.m. trade deadline Monday for a fifth-round pick in June, said after the morning skate Thursday that he hopes to make a good first impression by minimizing his mistakes and not getting in anyone’s way. Scott was scheduled to play on line with John Mitchell, called up with Hagelin in November, and rugged Mike Rupp. Ironically, Mitchell and Rupp were the two players that Scott was involved with in the Rangers’ 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks on Feb. 16, when he drew a boarding penalty against Mitchell and a roughing call against Rupp.

Ruslan Fedotenko was moved from his spot alongside Mitchell and Rupp into Callahan’s spot on Brad Richards’ right with Hagelin. The other lines remained intact: Artem Anisimov-Derek Stepan-Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky-Brian Boyle-Brandon Prust.

Scott said it was “weird” to look at his helmet and see a No. 94 patch on it, honoring the late Derek Boogaard. Scott was not only Boogaard’s teammate with the Minnesota Wild, but the two were roommates and close friends, so he is still troubled and shocked by Boogaard’s death from an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs on May 13.

Coach John Tortorella said the Rangers are not considering bringing anybody up from Whale in case Callahan’s absence is long term. Tortorella added he did not consider moving Stu Bickel, called up from the Whale on Dec. 18, back up to forward and inserting Steve Eminger into the lineup.

“I thought Emmy had struggled since the injury and we changed the defense,” Tortorella said. “That’s why Bic’s in and Bic’s played pretty well and that’s why Emmy’s out.”

GERNANDER, LEETCH AMONG SEVEN NEW HALL OF FAME MEMBERS

Gernander and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native who spent most of his 16-year NHL career with the Rangers, will be among the seven new members of the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. Others to be honored during the first intermission of the Whale-Norfolk Admirals game on “Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame Night” are former Whalers goalie Mike Liut and right wings Blaine Stoughton and Pat Verbeek, three-time Olympian and all-time NCAA women’s leading scorer Julie Chu, a native of Fairfield, and the late William E. Barnes, one of the founders of the New England Whalers. Fox 61’s Rich Coppola will emcee the induction ceremony.

“Obviously it’s nice to be recognized, and it’s a little different that some of those players are NHL guys,” said Gernander, whose No. 12 is the only number in Wolf Pack/Whale history to be retired to the XL Center rafters. “I’ve spent more time in Connecticut than anywhere else, so I’m pretty fortunate in that regard. Any time that you get recognized I don’t think it’s so much the individual as it’s the people he has been fortunate enough to be associated with. It’s been a first-class organization for a parent club as far as the New York Rangers go. We’re always given every opportunity to succeed and excel here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with so many good players and to coach so many good players that I just feel very fortunate. I think it’s just more or less a byproduct of all the great people that I’ve been able to work with.”

Gernander has been with the Wolf Pack/Whale franchise since 1997, when the Rangers moved their top affiliate to Hartford from Binghamton, N.Y., where he played for three seasons. After retiring in 2005 as the AHL’s all-time leader with 123 playoff games and the league’s career scoring leader among American-born players with 624 points in 973 games, Gernander had his number retired on Oct. 8, 2005 as he began two seasons as an assistant coach under Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld. Gernander took over as head coach on July 23, 2007 and is trying to lead the Whale to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

The Class of 2012, the first inductees since 1990, will join the eight members of the storied Hartford Whalers Hall of Fame that have been adopted by the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. The seven new members will be inducted at the game against the Admirals, and fans will receive a special souvenir of the night as 5,000 Hall of Fame posters will be given away, courtesy of SuperCuts.  For more information, visit CTHockeyHOF.org.

Fans also can sponsor a local youth to attend the game on Faith and Family Night by making a $12 donation to Hockey Ministries International Northeast that support chapel programs through the AHL, including with the Whale, and Christian hockey camps for boys and girls. Music will be provided by Scarlet Fade. For more information, contact Rick Mitera, AHL chapel coordinator of Hockey Ministries Northeast at 860-817-6440 or rmitera@hockeyministries.org.

Meanwhile, former Wolf Pack assistant coach Mike Busniuk and former players Peter and Ferraro will be inducted into the Binghamton Hockey Hall of Fame on March 17. Busniuk was a longtime assistant coach with John Paddock, and they guided the Wolf Pack to their only Calder Cup title in 2000. The Ferraros are twins who were drafted by the Rangers in the first and fourth rounds in 1992 after helping the University of Maine win the national championship with a 42-1-2 record. Peter played 36 games in the Wolf Pack’s first season in Hartford, 1997-98, and Chris played one game in 2006-07.

FALCONS FANS GO FOR THE SWEEP

Falcons fans will go for a series sweep in their seventh and final meeting with their Whale counterparts on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 4 p.m. at the XL Center. Tickets ($16) and more information are available at 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 $850 for DBL. … 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 can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats. … Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at www.theahl.com. The Whale’s Mats Zuccarello and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and the Falcons’ Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native, were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears. Atkinson was recalled by the Columbus Blue Jackets last Friday.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RONNIE

Finally, I officially know I’m getting old when Ron Francis turns 49 Thursday. The Whalers made Ronnie Franchise the fourth pick in 1981 as an “afterthought” as they were all set to take Bobby Carpenter until the Washington Capitals made a last-minute trade and plucked him at No. 3 behind Dale Hawerchuk and Doug Smith.

I was fortunate to be covering the Whalers when Francis was called up from Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League early in the 1981-82 season to join and befriend Hall of Famer Dave Keon, Greg Millen and Mark Johnson. The rest, as they say, is history as Ronnie became the face of the franchise as it emerged from the depths of its existence (19-54-7 in 1982-83) to their only Adams Division title in 1985-86 after the acquisition of Liut.

The Whalers traded Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to Pittsburgh for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker on March 4, 1991, helping the Penguins win successive Stanley Cup titles. As fate would have it, Francis returned to his original organization as a free agent in 1998, signing with the Carolina Hurricanes, who had moved from Hartford the previous year. He spent the next 51/2 seasons padding his franchise records and still ranks first all-time in Whalers/Hurricanes history in points, goals, assists and games played. His 1,175 points are double that of runner-up Kevin Dineen.

Ronnie captained the Hurricanes to a surprise appearance in the 2002 Stanley Cup finals and scored the winning goal in overtime of Game 1 before losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. He is the only player in NHL history to be named to captain two separate franchises (Hartford/Carolina and Pittsburgh) in two separate periods.

Ronnie finished his career playing 12 regular-season games and 12 playoff games with the Toronto Maple Leafs as he was traded to allow him one last run at the Stanley Cup. He retired before the 2005-06 season with 1,798 points, fourth in NHL history behind fellow Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe.

His Whalers No. 10 was raised to the XL Center rafters on Jan. 6, 2006, along with the No. 5 of Samuelsson, then a Wolf Pack assistant coach, and No. 11 of Dineen, then coach of the Portland Pirates. Ronnie’s No. 10 Hurricanes jersey was retired 22 days later, and he was also pictured in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ring of Honor that formerly circled the upper level of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection on June 28, 2007, inducted on Nov. 12 and spent two years on the Hurricanes’ coaching staff before becoming the franchise’s director of hockey operations.

So best wishes to one of the classiest individuals that I’ve been fortunate to know and cover in more than four decades in journalism.

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