For most of the season, Tommy Grant, who wears No. 10, has been part of the Connecticut Whale’s “energy line” with another second-year pro, center Kelsey Tessier, and rookie wing Scott Tanski. Whenever the Whale needed a lift, coach Ken Gernander didn’t hesitate to send out the gritty, inexperienced trio, as they’re all mature beyond their years.
Tessier and Grant sit in adjacent stalls in the XL Center locker room and often chat about how to improve their games. Grant is usually the inquisitor, but Tessier is happy to be a sounding board.
“What I’ve found out about Grant is that he’s a guy who listens,” said Tessier, named the Whale’s Unsung Hero by the media in his rookie season. “You can say stuff to Grant, and he takes it. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to tell you to back off or says, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ He keeps everything to himself and wants to know what everyone thinks.
“It’s one of those things where he says, ‘Hey, Tess, I want you to be here when I do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Awesome, I’ll be there.’ When one says something to the other in different situations, now we know. If we never had that situation happen, then we talk on the bench and make sure that this is what we want to do. My junior coach always said communication eliminates duplication. Talking just makes it so much easier for everyone. If you accept what the other person thinks and what I think, then it just makes our bond that much stronger on the ice. And then he goes out there and uses everything with his skill. He’s been playing awesome for us.”
Grant said Tessier’s words of wisdom have been pretty basic.
“We just talk about little things like where we want pucks and different kind of passes that we want to make,” Grant said. “It’s maybe little things that coaches might not necessarily talk about but things that just help each other.”
Whatever Tessier has been saying has certainly helped enhance Grant’s offense the past month. And when Tanski was replaced by All-Star rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault for a game against the Portland Pirates on Sunday, Grant put together his first four-point game in six years with two goals and two assists, and he and Tessier were each plus-3. The four points were two shy of the franchise record for a regular-season game, and Audy-Marchessault’s second goal of the game and 22nd of the season off a rebound of Grant’s shot with 2:05 left in regulation got the Whale to overtime after they blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
Cam Talbot, making his first start in 11 games since Feb. 19, then stopped six shots in overtime and the four he faced in the shootout as the Whale pulled out a 5-4 win that gave them a four-point lead in the Northeast Division over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers heading into Friday night’s rematch with the Pirates at the XL Center.
“Grant had a great game (Sunday), and I just think my linemates were terrific with Marchessault shooting the puck all the time and scoring,” Tessier said. “We have to give him the puck and give Grant the credit because his feet were moving. When Grant’s feet are moving, he’s deadly out there. I like playing with him because we click well, and I know where he is on the ice and he knows where I want (the puck).”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Grant had three assists in seven games with the Whale at the end of the 2010-11 season after completing his four-year career at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Two of the assists came in his debut while on an amateur tryout contract, and Grant and the Ranger organization agreed to terms on an NHL free-agent contract three days later.
Grant had eight goals, 10 assists and 35 penalty minutes in 61 games with the Wolf Pack/Whale last season, but his best day since his junior days on Sunday gave him 10 goals and 12 assists and a plus-4 rating in 62 games this season despite playing mostly on the “energy line” and killing penalties.
But that has changed lately as the 25-year-old Grant, with help from his locker-room neighbor Tessier, improved his all-around game, got to play on one of the two main power-play units and has four of his 10 goals and four of his 12 assists in the last seven games.
“I think it has a lot to do with confidence and just going to the net more and trying to get in better scoring areas,” Grant said. “Before I was just trying to chip pucks in and hit everything that moved. Now it’s kind of trying to make a little mixture, and obviously playing with Tess and Marchie, they’re skilled players that can make plays in high traffic areas. When you’re playing with skilled players, you’ve got to find a way to get shots and make things happen.
“Early in the year, I was struggling not only offensively but defensively as well. I tried to worry about being good in my own zone so I could get more ice time and get more trust out of the coaches, and that has kind of led to getting more chances offensively. I’m coming down lower in the zone and when we’re breaking the puck up has allowed me a little more time and space and to use my speed more effectively. If I go through a bad period, it usually stems from being bad in my own zone or not coming back. If I’m coming back nice and low, then I get more time and more space to make plays. And you can see more of the ice, so I’m just trying to work on that as much as I can. I’m trying to help out more and (still) be good covering my point man, and I think that’s gone a long way as well.”
Grant and Tessier have looked to increase their offense since All-Star wing Mats Zuccarello was recalled by the Rangers on March 12, opening more ice time in all situations. Zuccarello followed veteran John Mitchell and rookie wing Carl Hagelin, who have helped the Rangers to the lead in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference since they were called up on Nov. 18.
“There’s no way to fill those guys’ voids, especially Zucc being the last to go up as a forward,” Grant said. “That guy does so much offensively, and I think it’s going to take more than one or two guys to fill that void. All of us – Tanski, (Jordan) Owens, Ryan (Bourque), myself – are going to get a better chance to prove ourselves, and we have to kind of answer the bell.
“And if they’re going to put me on the power play like they have the last couple of games, that’s an offensive situation where if you’re not going to contribute offensively then you’re going to be off that. So I’m just trying to take advantage of the situation, and whether guys come back or more guys go up, everybody has to kind of step up their games, especially with playoffs coming. And every team in our league is fighting either for a higher seed or a playoff spot, so every game is going to be tough. Guys are going to get a good chance here and just have got to kind of rise to the occasion.”
Tessier was a major offensive threat in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, excelling with Audy-Marchessault and Bourque with the Quebec Remparts before being traded to Moncton and helping the Wildcats win the league title and a spot in the 2010 Memorial Cup with 14 goals and 16 points in 21 games. His 30 points were second most and 14 goals third best in the playoffs.
“When big players are gone is when guys like Grant and I and others who were here last year have to step up our game,” said Tessier, who has 10 goals and 17 assists and is plus-5 while playing in all but one of the Whale’s 64 games. “That’s when we have to prove we can play in this league. We played a lot of minutes (Sunday), so when coach puts us on the ice, we have to perform and make sure we’re the second line out there. We’ve got to play like a second line and put the puck deep with a little bit of our mixture.
“And we’re on the power play now, so you have to change your role a bit but not much. You’ve still got to keep it simple, work hard and be a tenacious line. But at the same time, we can create a little more offense. Just be more poised and make sure, ‘We can do this.’ Give a little confidence, pat each other’s back and say, ‘Hey, let’s go, boys.’ ”
Gernander has let Grant “go” more the past few weeks and was quick to explain why.
“Tommy gets all the credit,” Gernander said. “There was a large stretch there where he and Tess and Tanner were a good energy line and, more than anything, worked hard. From that they generated a little bit of success, and the more responsibility that Tommy has been given, the better he has become.
“Guys who are given more opportunity are guys who have earned it. You talk to him at points here and there, but a lot of it is the athlete. He earned more and more ice time, and as he got more and more ice time, he seemed to blossom. He’s just kind of worked his way into the role and is playing very well right now.”
YOGAN ARRIVES ON A HIGH
Andrew Yogan and Peterborough Petes teammate Peter Ceresnak needed nine hours to get to Hartford thanks to an unusually lengthy stop at customs on the U.S.-Canadian border.
“He’s Slovakian, I’m from Florida and we’re going to play hockey in Hartford, so they pulled us out of the car and everything,” Yogan said with a wide smile after his second practice with the Whale on Thursday. “They must have thought we were smuggling something. We didn’t have a note, so they wondered if (Ceresnak) was doing illegal stuff. It was just crazy.”
But when Yogan finally arrived in Hartford on Tuesday night, he had loads of enthusiasm, especially off his final game in juniors on Sunday. Yogan notched a memorable “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” of four goals, one assist and a fight in an 8-6 victory over Oshawa and right wing Christian Thomas, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010 who had a goal and an assist. Yogan also was plus-4 and had a game-high seven shots, but the Petes (27-34-3-4) were eliminated from the playoffs in the last week of the season, so he and Ceresnak headed for Hartford, signed ATO contracts and began practicing with the Whale on Wednesday.
“That was pretty neat,” Yogan said of his swansong with Peterborough. “I was real happy with ending juniors with a bang, and it was nice to leave my mark on the OHL.”
Yogan, a 20-year-old from Boca Raton, Fla., was named OHL Player of the Week after getting four goals and four assists and being plus-4 in three games to finish March with 17 points in seven games. The Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2010 finished the season with career highs in goals (41), assists (37) and points (78) and was plus-8 with 96 penalty minutes in 66 games to end a five-year OHL career with 96 goals, 90 assists and 287 penalty minutes in 240 games with the Windsor Spitfires, Erie Otters and Petes.
Yogan got several weeks of pro experience a year ago. After missing most of last season with an injury, the 6-foot-3, 203-pound Yogan had two goals and earned No. 1 star in his pro debut, a 4-3 Whale loss to Bridgeport on April 9. He also had an assist in his other Whale appearance the next day, a 6-3 loss to Norfolk.
“I was here for awhile last year, and that kind of gave me a big confidence boost and made me feel like I had an advantage over the guys in juniors this season,” said Yogan, a Florida Panthers fans as a kid. “I learned about the speed of the game and how much space you can buy yourself. Playing against less experienced guys in juniors kind of exposed me a little more, and it got easier as the season went along.
“I’m excited because I had the experience here last year and know a lot of the guys so I’m a little more comfortable. But I still have to earn my stripes, work hard and get some respect.”
Yogan has practiced on a line with Andreas Thuresson and Jeff Prough and is being counted on for some of the offense that he displayed with Peterborough.
“We’re going to kind of work him into things, and the more he’s able to do, the more responsibility he’ll be given,” Gernander said. “Given that he has some offensive numbers, that’s where he’s going to have to show some playmaking ability. We don’t expect him to get a hat trick every night, but we hope to get some offense from him. And on the flip side, in learning the pro game he’s going to have to do the little things like finish his checks and be responsible defensively and make sound, timely decisions based on game situations.
“There’s going to be a learning curve as far as understanding the professional game, and then whatever gifts or strengths you have that got you drafted for and earned you a contract coming out of juniors, you’re going to have to find ways to exhibit them as well. It’s not like he’s your little brother and you’re going to carry him along. He’s going to be expected to pull his weight. He has to display the things he did well in juniors and then work hard on the little things that are expected of every pro.”
The 6-3, 209-pound Ceresnak, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in 2011 from Trencin, Slovakia, had six goals, nine assists, 64 PIMs and was minus-1 in 61 games in his first junior season. Barring injuries, the 19-year-old Ceresnak isn’t likely to get as much playing time as Yogan since the Whale already have six healthy defenseman even after Blake Parlett was reassigned to Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday. Plus, Tim Erixon is on recall to the Rangers, though the rookie appears as if he’s there to stay after playing three games while others have been healthy scratches.
“Things can change quickly in hockey, so you never know,” Gernander said when asked about Ceresnak’s possible ice time. “Right now he’s just gaining that experience, getting to know the guys and getting acclimated to the organization and pro hockey. We’ll just constantly monitor and evaluate things.”
Meanwhile, Thomas finished the regular season with 34 goals and 33 assists in 54 games. Thomas, who was suspended for 10 games, and the Generals will meet Central Division champion Niagara in the first round of the playoffs starting Thursday night.
Another Ranger draftee with NHL ties, Edmonton Oil Kings center Michael St. Croix, was named to the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference Second All-Star Team. St. Croix, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2011, set franchise records for goals (45), assists (60) and points (105) as he finished eighth in the WHL in scoring. St. Croix is the son of former NHL goalie Rick St. Croix and younger brother of Chris St. Croix, who played for the Wolf Pack in the 2001-02 season. Michael and the Oil Kings face Kootenay in the first round of the WHL playoffs starting Friday.
ANOTHER THREE-IN-THREE FOR WHALE
The Whale, 14-5-1-0 in its last 20 games, has another three-games-in-three-days routine this weekend, starting with the return of the Pirates (29-28-3-4), who are in a desperate chase for the last few Eastern Conference playoff spots with nine teams. They’re 12th with 65 points, three behind Syracuse, which holds the eighth and final postseason berth, two back of Worcester and Albany and one behind Springfield. Portland and Worcester each has one game in hand on the other teams.
After the roller-coaster ride to victory Sunday, the Whale (33-21-5-5) has an AHL-best 19-6-2-4 record at home and is 3-2-1-0 against the Pirates, with the three wins coming at the XL Center in regulation, overtime and the shootout. Audy-Marchessault (four goals, two assists), Grant (3, 3) and Tessier (2, 4) share the team lead in scoring against the Pirates. Portland is led by All-Stars Brett Sterling (25 goals, 27 assists) and Andy Miele (13, 33), who has one goal and seven assists against the Whale. Hustling wing Ryan Duncan assisted on two goals by former Rangers prospect Ethan Werek on Sunday before being hospitalized after Casey Wellman’s skate accidently sliced his face early in overtime. Duncan needed 45 stitches during 41/2 hours of surgery at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford to repair the damage. Werek, a rookie wing, has three goals and four assists in his last five games after getting four goals and four assists in his first 51 games.
Duncan, fourth on the Pirates in scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists in 55 games, forward Brett MacLean, third with 18 goals and 17 assists, and Nathan Oystrick, first among defensemen with 10 goals and 21 assists, are questionable this weekend, while defenseman Maxim Goncharov is out indefinitely with a concussion.
It seems amazing that Duncan could actually play Friday night.
“I knew I was hit by a skate, but I thought it was just the boot of the skate,” Duncan told Paul Betit of the Portland Press-Herald after returning to practice Wednesday. “I didn’t think it was the blade. It felt like I just got kicked in the face, like I got punched. I started bleeding, but I thought it must be just a pressure wound. When I skated to the bench, I could see the reaction of my teammates. I guess it (looked) pretty bad, so I figured I got caught by the blade.”
Duncan immediately pressed a towel to his face and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. After only two days off, Duncan rode the stationary bike and lifted weights Wednesday. He has a four-inch, crescent-shaped scar starting just to the right of his nose and running above his left lip to his left check.
“It’s good I didn’t have any (other) symptoms, like a concussion,” Duncan said. “It’s just basically the cut, and I just have to wait and see how the swelling goes. If it goes down, I’ll toss on the cage and hopefully get back on the ice.”
When Duncan does return, he’ll wear a metal cage or a full shield, as he did at the University of North Dakota. In 2007, he won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player after leading UND to the national title. After graduating in 2009, he spent his first two pro seasons with Salzburg EC in the Austrian Elite League.
“We thought at first there was an orbital fracture, there might be some nerve damage,” Pirates coach Ray Edwards told Betit. “Right now it doesn’t look like any of that, but there was a lot of trauma to a small area of his face. … He’s hanging in there. It was a very traumatic experience for him. He’s a tough little bugger. If I know him, he’s going to want to play, but if all depends on the swelling.”
The Whale hosts Providence on Saturday night and visits Bridgeport on Sunday afternoon. They’re 3-2-0-1 against the Bruins, winning the first three meetings and losing the last three, and 4-2-2-1 against the Sound Tigers entering the final game of the GEICO Connecticut Cup season series. The Bruins (28-30-3-4) are a longshot for the playoffs with the next-to-worst record in the Eastern Conference and will be without center/captain Trent Whitfield, recalled by the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. He was replaced by center Max Sauvé, a nemesis for the Whale in the past.
The Sound Tigers (32-24-3-5) are in a 0-5-0-2 slide after a stunning 20-2-0-2 run that vaulted them from last to first in the division and are four points behind the first-place Whale with 12 games left for each team. Left wing John Persson, the New York Islanders’ fifth-round pick in 2011 from Sweden, made his pro debut in a 3-0 loss at Binghamton on Wednesday night. The Sound Tigers also signed free-agent center Tyler Gron, the Northern Michigan’s leading scorer this year (37 points), to an ATO. The Sound Tigers will be without goalie Anders Nilsson and left wing Micheal Haley. Nilsson, the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month in February who returned from the Islanders last week, twisted his ankle in a 5-2 loss at Worcester on Sunday and is out 7-to-10 days. The Sound Tigers signed Dan Clarke, a senior at Quinnipiac University, to an ATO. Haley was suspended three games with Worcester defenseman Mike Moore after they fought after leaving the penalty box after an initial fight Sunday. … Houston Aeros goalie Joe Fallon was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week last week after allowing only five goals on 125 shots while going 4-0-0 with a 1.20 goals-against average and .960 save percentage. It was the Aeros’ first four-game winning streak of the season and included making 32 saves in regulation and overtime and stopping six shootout attempts in a 1-0 victory over Abbotsford. He’s 5-1-0 with a 2.05 GAA and .931 save percentage in eight appearances since joining the Aeros on March 3. … Former Wolf Pack defenseman Tomas Kundratek had six points (three goals, three assists) for the Hershey Bears in wins over Adirondack and Albany last Friday and Saturday. He has career highs in goals (11) and points (19) in 43 games since being acquired from the Whale for Francois Bouchard on Nov. 8.
MEMORABLE 27TH BIRTHDAY FOR CALLAHAN
Former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan has a thing for scoring on his birthday.
Callahan ended a delicious, end-to-end thriller with the injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night with his 27th goal of the season on his 27th birthday at 2:42 of overtime, giving the Rangers a 2-1 victory.
The Rangers’ captain became only the seventh player to score an overtime winner on his birthday, and this one involved four former Wolf Pack players. Callahan beat Ty Conklin from 30 feet in the slot off a terrific pass from defenseman Michael Del Zotto after a setup by wing Brandon Dubinsky, who has revived his game the past few weeks after struggling most of the season. In 2009, Callahan had two goals on his 24th birthday, which just happens to be his number. He’s the only Ranger to score an overtime winner on his birthday.
“It’s a great play by everyone involved,” said Callahan, who had a game-high eight shots and blocked two shots, including a dangerous chance by defenseman Niklas Kronwall with 1:03 left in regulation after thwarting Pavel Datsyuk’s shorthanded breakaway midway through the second period. “It was a good birthday gift. They tried to set me up in the second, and I missed a wide-open net. I had to respond back.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella gushed about Callahan.
“He just had an unbelievable third period and overtime,” Tortorella said. “He does so much for the hockey club. It’s fitting that he gets the winning goal. I thought Ryan Callahan was our best player.”
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist concurred after making 26 saves and having the only assist on Brad Richards’ power-play goal that came on an end-to-end rush and tied it with 5:02 left in the first period.
“He’s been incredible, and that block at the end of the game,” Lundqvist said after notching his first win over the Red Wings. “A couple of highlights there for Cally, first with that huge block for us and then scoring the game-winner. That’s the way he plays right now, and it’s big for us.”
Callahan recently missed six games because of a sore right foot from blocking a shot.
“We’ve been playing well,” said Callahan, whose previous high for goals was 24 last season, when he missed 20 games because of injuries. “Right from that (Colorado) Avalanche game, I thought we were playing well even though we lost. I think we’re starting to get our groove back, and we’re starting to play how we want and how we were playing earlier in the year. It’s an important time of year, and we’ve got to keep building and keep going.”
The Red Wings played without Nicklas Lidstrom (foot), Jimmy Howard (groin), Johan Franzen (back), Darren Helm (knee), Jonathan Ericsson (wrist), Joey MacDonald (back) and Jakub Kindl (upper body). Conklin was filling in for Howard and MacDonald after being called up from Grand Rapids earlier in the day.
CONGRATULATIONS TO GIRARDI, DEMICHIEL
Congratulations to former Wolf Pack defenseman and good guy Dan Girardi on being the Rangers’ nominee for the Bill Masterson Memorial Award, given by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
“It means a lot,” said Girardi, who narrowly edged former Wolf Pack defenseman Marc Staal for the nomination. “I feel like I’m an ideal candidate for the Masterton Trophy. I’m pretty excited. I really didn’t know too much about it. I looked up a little bit today. When I woke up from my nap, my agent texted me and said, ‘You’re nominated.’ I was like, ‘Oh, all right. I’ll take it.’ I knew what it was, but I took a little deeper look and it means a lot to be nominated.
“I’m dedicated, I’ve gone through a lot from where I’ve been to this point. I feel like it’s a good description for how I want to act as a hockey player and as a person.”
Girardi, 27, grew up in Welland, Ont., and played his junior hockey with the London Knights of the OHL, where he won the 2005 league championship and Memorial Cup. After going undrafted in 2003, he signed a contract with the Rangers and joined the Wolf Pack for the 2005-06 season. Girardi was called up to the Rangers for good during the 2007-08 season and has missed only two games because of injury since then. He replaced Staal as an alternate captain at the start of the season when Staal was out because of post-concussion symptoms.
More kudos to Avon native Jared DeMichiel on helping the Rochester Institute of Technology women’s hockey team win its first Division III title Saturday night when the Tigers avenged a loss in the 2011 final with a 4-1 victory over Norwich.
DeMichiel was an assistant coach of the team that celebrated again Tuesday when it was officially announced the program was leaping to Division I, obviously looking for better competition. The Tigers were 54-3-3 with one national championship and the runner-up finish the past two seasons. They were 28-1-1 this season, setting a Division III record for wins but won’t be eligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament the first two seasons.
DeMichiel backstopped RIT to a surprise berth in the men’s Frozen Four in 2010. After a brief pro career in the AHL and ECHL, DeMichiel returned to his alma mater to work with the women’s team. If at first …
DeMichiel will become an assistant coach with the Nazareth College men’s team this fall and certainly has a tough act to follow.