SPOTLIGHT: BATTLE LINES DRAWN IN THE ICE

Bruce BerletBy: Bruce Berlet

Connecticut’s two AHL entries have reached a share of first place in the Northeast Division from quite different directions, yet neither is anywhere near clinching a playoff berth, something both coaches and former Hartford Wolf Pack teammates have espoused on numerous occasions.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers hold a tie-breaker lead over the Connecticut Whale, making their ninth of 10 meetings in the GEICO Connecticut Cup on Friday night at the XL Center that much more significant. The Sound Tigers (32-20-3-5) were in the division cellar after a 2-10-0-1 slide from Thanksgiving to the end of 2011, but a stunning 20-2-0-2 run vaulted them into first place before they lost three straight last weekend for the first time this season, the first two via shootouts, starting against the Whale.

“The guys have worked really hard, but we really haven’t done anything yet,” Sound Tigers first-year coach and former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson said before a 4-3 shootout loss to the Whale last Friday night.

Meanwhile, the Whale (31-20-5-5) had a six-point division lead entering 2012 before an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January dropped them behind the Sound Tigers. But the Whale has rallied with a 12-4-1-0 run to tie the Sound Tigers, who have a game in hand and own the first tie-breaker, which is most non-shootout wins (28-25).

The closeness of the two teams doesn’t end there either, as the Sound Tigers have scored only three more goals than the Whale (185-182) while allowing only four more (173-169). And each team has a goalie named Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month, the Whale’s Chad Johnson in October and the Sound Tigers’ Anders Nilsson in February. Johnson was called up again by the parent New York Rangers on an emergency basis Thursday to back up Martin Biron because Henrik Lundqvist was still slowed by the flu and had to miss a critical showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins and superstar center Sidney Crosby, playing his first game since Dec. 5 and only the ninth of the season because of post-concussion symptoms. The Rangers also were again without right wing and captain Ryan Callahan (right foot) and another former Whale/Wolf Pack, defenseman Michael Del Zotto (right hip).

The Sound Tigers are 5-1-1-1 against the Whale, though three of the wins have come in overtime or a shootout. The Whale is 3-0-0-1 in four home games against the Sound Tigers, including last Friday night, when Kris Newbury scored a sixth-attacker goal with 4.9 seconds left in regulation before Johnson stopped three shots in a shootout as All-Star Mats Zuccarello, Casey Wellman and Brendan Bell were scoring for the Whale.

But after playing with as many eight players on professional tryout contracts because of injuries and call-ups, the Sound Tigers are a lot more whole as Nilsson and rugged wing Micheall Haley were reassigned by the parent New York Islanders on Monday, though captain Jeremy Colliton is doubtful and fellow forwards Scott Howes and Kael Mouillierat questionable because of injuries. The only players on the Sound Tigers’ “Clear Day” list still with the New York Islanders are All-Star wing David Ullstrom and center Casey Cizikas. The Whale are currently without Zuccarello, who was called up by the New York Rangers on Sunday.

Cizikas (15 goals, 29 assists, plus-25 in 51 games) is the Sound Tigers’ leading scorer, followed by defenseman Matt Donovan (7, 28), right wing Rhett Rakhshani (13, 21 in only 35 games with a six-game point streak), left wing Justin DiBenedetto (17, 12), Colliton (11, 16) and Ullstrom (19, 4). Nilsson (15-6-2, 2.32 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, one shutout) and Kevin Poulin (17-15-3, 2.94, .903, two shutouts) are the goalies.

The Sound Tigers’ work ethic has impressed the Whale the most.

“They have decent personnel, especially when Cizikas and Ullstrom are there, and they’re a hard-working team,” said Whale coach Ken Gernander, who used just that style of play to become one of the seven new inductees into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame last Saturday night. “A lot of their players who complement their high-end players are really hard-working and hard-nosed guys who have that desperation or hunger or what have you.

“Teams that are hard working are always in the game, so if you make a mistake or two, they’re going to capitalize on it. And they have a pretty good defensive corps, as do we, and have good goaltending, just as Chad has been going well for us lately.”

Johnson has got a good up-close look at the Sound Tigers, having started six of the eight games against the intrastate rival, including the last four.

“From start to finish, they’re always coming after us, especially on the forecheck with a lot of speed,” said Johnson, who is 3-2-1 against the Sound Tigers. “And they play a really good team game. It’s hard to kind of get them out of position or get really good quality scoring chances because they’re always in good position and just play a sound game together. It’s really hard to generate anything or sort of sustain any momentum because their team is really structured and on top of you all the time, especially on the forecheck for our defense.”

The Sound Tigers have rebounded from their poor start largely because of players that were signed to PTOs and later AHL contracts that Thompson had known from coaching in the ECHL, where he led the Alaska Aces to the regular season and playoff titles last season.

“They don’t give you a lot of time and space to make plays, so when a team can do that consistently throughout a game, you’re going to have success if you’re skilled or not,” Johnson said. “Some of their (top) guys are called up right now, but with the way they play, it doesn’t really matter who’s in the lineup. That’s why after (last Friday night’s) game, we said it was probably one of the hardest games we played and hardest battles we’ve had all season because of how physical they were.”

Players such as Howes, Mouillierat, Steve Olesky, Jon Landry, Russ Sinkewich and Blair Riley have graduated from the ECHL and become integral parts of the Sound Tigers’ success. But the injuries to Colliton, Howes and Mouillierat caused the Sound Tigers to sign right wing Ethan Cox, who played for Thompson last season and with the Alaska and Reading this season.

“If you can skate, you can play for that team because they’re well structured and obviously well coached,” Johnson said. “You can generate a lot of good scoring chances and win a lot of games just from your hard work. If you dump the puck and battle in the corners, you’re going to generate scoring chances no matter who you are.”

It’s similar to the Whale’s so-called fourth line of Tommy Grant, Jordan Owens and Scott Tanski, which is constantly in the opposition’s face providing energy and more offense lately.

“They’re always consistently one of our top lines because of their work,” Johnson said. “They’re always going in there banging bodies, getting pucks and winning battles, so you’re going to get scoring chances. That’s why they’ve been so consistent and given us such momentum. And that’s why Bridgeport does so well because all four of their lines do that, so there’s no letup or our team a chance to get any momentum. That’s why we have to work even harder to generate any momentum.”

Newbury (21, 32) is the Whale’s leading scorer, followed by All-Star rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (20, 31), Wellman (20, 17, including six goals and six assists in 12 games with the Whale), right wing Andre Deveaux (19, 18), Zuccarello (12, 24) and defensemen Tim Erixon (2, 30) and Bell (7, 23). Audy-Marchessault leads the Whale in scoring against the Sound Tigers with six goals and four assists. Johnson (20-13-5, 2.36, .922, one shutout) has started the last eight games and 15 of 17 while Cam Talbot (11-12-0, 2.92, .904, two shutouts) has backed up.

Despite a 3-1 loss to the Norfolk Admirals last Saturday night that ended a seven-game winning streak at the XL Center, the Whale still has the AHL’s best home winning percentage at .714 (17-5-2-4), including only two regulation losses in their last 19 games (12-2-2-3). Five-thousand fans will receive the third and final set of Whale trading cards, sponsored by Webster Bank, of Deveaux, Wellman, Erixon, Tanski and Pavel Valentenko, along with Gernander on a Wolf Pack card.

Thompson told Mike Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post that every game takes on added intensity and energy this time of the season, especially when the teams are tied for first place and involved in a possible four-point swing.

“They’ve got great goaltending, great defense, so we want to be strong on the puck and don’t want to give up easy chances, make them work for everything they get,” said Thompson, who played with Gernander in the Wolf Pack’s first two seasons (1997-99).

Haley, scoreless in nine games with the Islanders after getting 14 goals and eight assists in 44 games with Bridgeport, said the Sound Tigers want to regain the roll that they were on before last weekend and get ready for the playoffs.

“Obviously they’ve got some forwards who can score,” Haley told Fornabaio. “You can be all over them, and it takes one shift (for them to score). Every time we play, it’s a physical game, an emotional game, so we’ve got to be ready. … We don’t want to think too far ahead. When we’re playing our way, the outcome is usually in our favor. As long as we play our game, we should be good.”

Despite the importance of Friday night’s game, the Whale also has key conference matchups with the Springfield Falcons on Saturday night and the Portland Pirates on Sunday afternoon as part of a five-game homestand, which ties a season high.

Entering the 12th and final meeting with their I-91 rival, the Whale is 7-3-0-1 against the Falcons (28-28-3-3), including 3-1-0-1 at the XL Center. But Springfield won the last meeting 2-0 on Feb. 25 at the MassMutual Center behind 30 saves by former UMass standout Paul Dainton, the Falcons’ only shutout this season and the first time the Whale had been blanked since the second game of the season

The Falcons have lost five of six (1-3-1-1) and host Portland before visiting the Whale. They have struggled since All-Star wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native and former standout at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, was called up by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 27 and former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers last Saturday.

Former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre (10, 46) leads the Falcons in scoring, followed by former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux (23, 25), Atkinson (29, 15), Byers (14, 16), center Matt Calvert (13, 13), defenseman Brent Regner (2, 23) and center Nick Drazenovic (6, 18 in only 28 games). Drazenovic is one of numerous players that the Falcons have been without for long stretches because of injuries or call-ups. Rugged forward Cody Bass is out for the season after having surgery on his right shoulder on Thursday. Dainton (10-8-1, 2.90, .896, one shutout) and 39-year-old Manny Legace (11-17-1, 2.83, .903), the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, have handled most of the goaltending. Audy-Marchessault has a stunning six goals and 13 assists in 11 games the Falcons, while Giroux leads the active Falcons in scoring against the Whale with six goals and three assists.

Five-thousand fans will receive green Whale koozies, courtesy of Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.

Entering the sixth of eight meetings with Portland, the Whale is 2-2-1 against the Pirates, winning in overtime and regulation at the XL Center. The Pirates (28-27-3-3), who are fourth in the Atlantic Division and two points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, are led by All-Star left wing Brett Sterling, who has 24 goals and 27 assists, including two goals and one assist in four games with Portland after the St. Louis Blues loaned him from the Peoria Rivermen for former All-Star wing Patrick Sullivan. At the same time, goalie Peter Mannino and forward Kenndal McArdle were loaned to Portland from St. John’s for All-Star center Brock Trotter, the Pirates’ leading scorer who was injured and has yet to play. Sterling is followed in scoring by rookie center Andy Miele (11, 32), the Hobey Baker Award winner last year at Miami of Ohio, right wing Brett MacLean (18, 17), defenseman Nathan Oystrick (10, 21) and right wings Matt Watkins (9, 21) and Ryan Duncan (14, 15). Erixon leads the Whale in scoring against the Pirates with five assists, while Miele has seven assists against the Whale. Mannino (5-6-0, 2.99, .909, one shutout) and Justin Pogge (13-13-3, 3.25, .883) are the Pirates’ goalies after Curtis McElhinney was injured and traded to Columbus as part of the trade that sent veteran center Antoine Vermette to Phoenix.

Fans are encouraged to bring their skates for a postgame skate.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Left wing Andrew Yogan and defenseman Peter Ceresnak will finish their Ontario Hockey League seasons with Peterborough on Sunday. Yogan, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2010, has eight goals and seven assists in the last six games to increase his season totals to 37 goals and 36 assists and is plus-5 in 64 games. Yogan, 21, had two goals and an assist in the Whale’s last two regular-season games last season. Ceresnak, 19, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in 2011, has six goals and 10 assists in 59 games. Yogan and Ceresnak are the only Rangers picks not to qualify for the CHL playoffs.

ADMIRALS CLOSE IN ON AHL WINNING STREAK RECORD

The Norfolk Admirals spotted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton an early lead and then rallied for a 4-1 victory on Wednesday night to run their winning streak to 16 games, two shy of the AHL record.

Center Tyler Johnson, the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week last week, started a run at a second straight award with a goal and two assists to increase his rookie totals to 25 goals and 30 assists in 63 games. He has 10 goals and 17 assists and is plus-15 in the 16-game winning streak. Jaroslav Janus had to make only 12 saves to notch his franchise record-tying eighth consecutive victory while filling in for Dustin Tokarski, the AHL wins leader who made his first NHL start for the Tampa Bay Lighting on March 8. Janus became the first Admirals goalie to win three times in three days last weekend, with the second being at the XL Center on Saturday night, when he had 26 saves.

The Admirals (43-18-1-2), who joined the league in 2000-01, have tied for AHL’s second-longest winning streak. It’s the longest streak since the Syracuse Crunch won a record 18 straight regular-season games from March 9 to Oct. 17, 2008. During the Crunch’s streak, they won 15 games to end the 2007-08 regular season and three games to start the 2008-09 season. The longest AHL winning streak in a season was 17 in a row by the Philadelphia Phantoms from Oct. 22 to Nov. 27 2004, and the Admirals tied the 16 straight by the Baltimore Skipjacks in 1984-85. The Admirals will try to tie the single-season record Friday night at Charlotte. If they win that game, they could tie the all-time record when they host the Checkers on Sunday afternoon.

The Admirals have set a franchise record with eight consecutive road victories, passing the previous mark of seven from Dec. 29, 2002 to Feb. 7, 2003. They’ve outscored the opposition 64-27 since a 4-2 loss at Springfield on Feb. 5 and lead the league in points (89), goals scored (230) and goal differential (plus-65) as they have opened a 10-point lead in search of their first East Division title since 2003. … In another amazing series of stats, all 18 skaters who played for the St. John’s IceCaps in a 6-0 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs on Wednesday night finished as a plus player, led by defenseman Paul Postma and Jason DeSantis at plus-2. Spencer Machacek had three goals, including the winner, on six shots, which was half the number for the Bulldogs, who were outshot 47-12. Eddie Pasquale had to make only 12 saves for his third shutout of the season. Fifteen of the 18 Hamilton skaters finished as minus players. … Before the loss to the Admirals, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won three consecutive shootouts last weekend in Providence, Bridgeport and Springfield. The Penguins’ shooters were only 5-for-14, but Scott Munroe (10-for-10) and Patrick Killeen (4-for-5) stopped 14 of 15 attempts. All-Star right wing Colin McDonald, son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman and announcer Gerry McDonald, scored on all three of his chances after being 5-for-20 in his career. Cal O’Reilly had been 2-for-8 but went 2-for-3 in those shootouts.

NEW ICING RULE IN NHL

NHL general managers made a good move at their meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., when they recommended the adoption of hybrid icing to the competition committee in June. It will give linesmen the authority to whistle an icing play dead if a defenseman beats an opposing forward to the faceoff dot as they race for the puck.

The GMs plan to tweak the rule that already exists in the NCAA and the United States Hockey League, but their intent is to eliminate collisions that have led to serious injuries and that several defenseman, including Rangers and former Wolf Pack blueliner Michael Del Zotto, have spoken out against.

But the GMs rejected the idea of reinserting the red line to prevent two-line passes. They will ask the AHL to test the concept of the ringette line, which is painted across the top of the faceoff circles that players must cross before passing the puck past the red line.

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