If there’s one thing that you learn from being around Connecticut Whale head coach Ken Gernander is that he is NOT one to make excuses. Gernander sees opportunities for role players to have their chance to step up and rise to the occasion.
After the New York Rangers recalled forward Andre Deveaux from the Connecticut Whale, opportunities were created for other players to get more ice time. When Deveaux was suspended for a hit to the head of Florida Panthers forward Tomas Fleischmann in a 2-1 loss Wednesday night and the ineffective play of Eric Christensen, that created opportunity for forwards John Mitchell and Carl Hagelin and they were recalled Thursday night.
(Oops Update…Just realized this posting was still sitting in the draft section of the blog from Friday night and that it was never posted… our apologies)
Despite 65 minutes of spectacular goaltending from the Bridgeport Sound Tiger’s netminder Kevin Poulin, ultimately it was the Connecticut Whale’s Brendan Bell who’s breakaway goal with just 6.8 seconds remaining in overtime would prove to be the difference maker giving the New York Rangers AHL affiliate a 3-2 overtime win at the XL Center Friday night.
Bell started the play in his own end behind the net after admittedly getting away with what could have been a tripping call on Sound Tigers captain Jeremy Colliton. “I might have gotten a little lucky that I didn’t get called for a penalty. My stick kind of got caught in (Colliton’s) skates. But with the time that was left on the clock I thought, ‘Why not?’ Their D-man and forward (Ty Wishart and Matt Donovan respectively) kind of got crossed up at the blueline and there was a big lane. Even if we didn’t get the puck, because we didn’t have full possession at that point, I figured there was only about 5 seconds left on the clock and they weren’t going to get anything anyway, so I took a shot and it works out.”
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
The Connecticut Whale had been, to paraphrase Annie Savoy (New York Rangers’ fan, Susan Sarandon) in the film Bull Durham, “for whatever reason, were playing hockey with joy and verve and poetry.”
9,276 witnesses at the XL Center on Saturday, on a night that the franchise honored Gordie Howe and his family no less, watched the Connecticut Whale come crashing off the wall like Humpty Dumpty and put forth one of their worst efforts of the season in a fight filled, undisciplined and very sloppy 5-1 loss to the visiting Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
From the minute they took the ice for the first time on October 3, 1997 the heart of this team has been personified by Ken Gernander.
He was a coach on the ice and in the locker room as well.
When his playing days ended, it was a surprise to no one that he went behind the bench, first as an Assistant Coach under General Manager Jim Schoenfeld and then in 2007 became the Head Coach.
During his playing days, Gernander was a fierce competitor who demanded the best out of himself and his teammates and was a coach on the ice. As a head coach, there are very few people in his position that take losses harder than he does.
In Bridgeport Friday night, in front of 5,338 at the Arena at Harbor Yard, his Wolf Pack team closed the books after a 13 year and 1,177 run with perhaps one of the team’s most disappointing games ever as they surrendered three goals in 5:16 of the final 6:21 of the game and went on to lose 1-0 in a shootout on Jeremy Colliton’s goal and dropped another one-goal game, 4-3.
The shootout was nothing short of embarrassing for this team of New York Rangers prospects. Of the seven shooters who had attempts, four of them didn’t even hit the net. Totally unacceptable by anyone’s standard, especially Gernander’s.
On Colliton’s shot in the seventh round of the shootout, he went five hole as many of his teammates had done and were stopped by Chad Johnson.
“It hit my stick.” Johnson said while staring out at the ice. “I was trying to be patient as possible. It kind of hit my stick and went through my legs. I thought I was down quick enough, but it somehow found a hole underneath me.”
Gernander wasn’t in much of a mood for talking.
“I’m disappointed, upset whatever that it happened tonight,” He said referencing his team’s third period collapse and shootout loss.
The Wolf Pack were at an advantage before the game even started as they were going to be going to battle against a Bridgeport squad that was decimated by injury. The Sound Tigers were missing seven regulars, defensemen Dustin Kohn and Mark Katic, left wingers Justin DiBenedetto, Jean Bourbeau and Andy Hilbert, centerman Rob Hisey, and right wing enforcer Jeremy Yablonski, all missed the game with injuries. The team’s most veteran player, left winger Jon Sim was not going to play either, having been recalled by the New York Islanders due to Trent Hunter’s severe knee injury that may likely keep him out the rest of the season.
The first period was back-and forth. Neither team was able to establish any real territorial advantage. The Pack did get two power play opportunities but were unable to mount any kind of offensive thrust. The best scoring chance of the period came when Jeremy Colliton rushed the puck up the right wing side around veteran Wade Redden and fired a backhander on Wolf Pack starter Chad Johnson (24 saves, 5-10-2) that the Calgary native denied.
Midway through the second period, the Wolf Pack took command of the game.
At 10:22 with the Pack in the offensive zone, Tim Kennedy in the right wing corner pushed the puck to Dale Weise. The Pack’s top prospect then bolted with the puck behind the net heading to the left side and made a hard pass into the slot where Mats Zuccarello was waiting. “The Norwegian Hobbit” one-timed the puck beautifully past Mikko Koskinen (29 saves, 3-5-0) for his ninth of the season.
The visitors doubled their lead with just 1:50 left in the second frame after killing off both a 4-on-3 and 5-on-4 power play. Ryan McDonagh got his second assist of the season when he fed Ryan Garlock who advanced the puck to Chad Kolarik. The newly acquired sniper put on the after-burners up the left wing side. He first got past defenseman Dustin Friesen and then beat his partner Mark Wotton with a shot form the left circle that beat Koskinen high over the blocker to the short side.
Shots were even at 19 each as the period ended with the Wolf Pack comfortably leading 2-0.
The lead became three on the Wolf Pack’s first shot of the final period on almost an identical play to Zuccarello’s goal with Kris Newbury in Weise’s role and Justin Williams in for Zuccarello.
It was 3-0 and the Wolf Pack were in excellent shape to finish their run with a win, until things went very south in a hurry.
With just under 7 minutes to go, Newbury took an offensive zone draw in the right wing circle. He won the puck back and it was sent round the boards to the left to Williams. That’s when things got funky.
“We’ve got a 3-0 lead and control puck possession,” Gernander said. “All we had to do is turn and get the puck deep, and the play is dead. It’s something that has been addressed again and again.”
Williams didn’t do that however. He took the puck and came back out to the blue line where he was greeted by Rhett Rakhshani and defenseman Wes O’Neill.
“It was uncalled for. It’s game management, and for us not to put that puck deep is a selfish play. You’ve got to get the puck deep or get it to the defenseman so he can get it deep. Somebody has to make a big play, but they didn’t.”
Rakhshani stripped Williams of the puck and the Pack sniper fell down. Rakhshani slid the puck over to O’Neill who got in-between the point men, Pavel Valentenko and newcomer Stu Bikel who was playing in his first game with the Wolf Pack. O’Neill came straight up the middle with a step on Valentenko and headed for the Wolf Pack net. Valentenko lifted O’Neill’s stick and he spun around. Rakhshani had his legs taken out by Bickel and they crashed all into the net. The replay made it appear as if O’Neill touched the puck but never got a shot off. The puck slid away from O’Neill when Valentenko lifted his stick and it was Rakhshani, who, while crashing into the net as he did almost simultaneously with O’Neill’s spin, took a poke at it giving the appearance that O’Neill had shot the puck. He didn’t.
Referee Chris Cozzan didn’t know what to call at first. He did have his arm up before the shot went off to perhaps call a hook on Valentenko. But after some time eventually called for O’Neill to be given a penalty shot.
Redden saw the play from the Wolf Pack bench. “I thought (Valentenko) made a great play to come back and lift (O’Neill’s) stick,” he said. “It wasn’t a hook or anything. He hustled back and lifted his stick.”
Newbury made the case for his teammates to the referee, but the call stood. Gernander didn’t like the call, but said, ““(O’Neill) was in the clear, but in my mind, it never should have got to that.”
On the ensuing penalty shot, O’Neill, a stay at home defenseman by trade who had just a single assist in his four games with the Islanders AHL affiliate came straight up ice and beat Johnson high under Johnson’s blocker for his first goal of the season.
“It’s a pretty simple play,” Gernander said. “It can’t happen. They were given some emotion, some life, a goal, an opportunity. I’m quite frustrated, disappointed, upset or whatever that it happened.”
If Gernander was angry then, he must have been on a slow boil 21 seconds later when Rakhshani, who was completely alone in the slot put a shot on goal that had an unchecked Brandon Svendsen screening Johnson beat the Pack netminder and cut the lead to one.
“With six minutes left or five minutes left, you just have to play simple hockey” Johnson said. “It’s that kind of game where you don’t need any more goals or do anything. It’s just get the puck deep and play as strong defensively as you can.
“They didn’t quit. You have to give it to them they kept playing and forechecking and playing that soft spot in the high slot, and getting some chances there. It paid off for them on that second goal (Rakhshani) had all the time in the world there in the slot and went low blocker.
Redden, was just as bewildered as the rest of his teammates. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “We were in total control of the game, and then let them back into it. I don’t know. We’ve got to be able to stay calm in those situations. Being up two goals still. We had some panic I think and they score another one and then we’re on our heels…we’ve just got to make plays in those situations.
“We let our foot off the gas a bit and gave them a penalty shot and boom it changes the whole kind of feel of the game and they got some life and then boom they answer right back again. It’s fine to give up one (goal), but we gotta be able to shore things up, be smart, be sound and not give up that next one.
“A few times tonight after they made it 3-2 we had a few plays where if we just bared down and get the puck out we’re out of trouble and probably kills another 30 seconds and we lose the battle and they keep the puck in our zone it’s just determination I think is a big thing. I think we’re a little lackadaisical at times at it kills us.”
With Koskinen on the bench for an extra attacker and just 1:05 left on the clock, both Valentenko and Jared Nightingale went behind the net to challenge Rakhshani. The Tiger’s winger found Josh Bailey in the left wing circle. Weise got right in his face as both Zuccarello and Kennedy had their attention on Bailey and didn’t see O’Neill all by himself on the right wing just below the circle. Bailey, in Bridgeport to find his game after struggling for a while with the Islanders, made one of the best cross ice-passes in recent memory through traffic, including his own player, Colliton, and put the puck right on O’Neill’s stick. O’Neill settled the puck, which he described as, “coming in hot” and put it into the net. Johnson extended his glove, but had no chance and the game was tied.
The Pack composed themselves enough to play decent hockey in the extra period and seemed to take control of the game, but as has been the issue all season long with this team, when they have faced adversity they break down and can’t score goals. In OT they had three shots on goal but could not put one in the net.
“Everybody is just shocked, disappointed, angry, frustrated. It’s kind of hard to explain having a three-goal lead with some six minutes left and you end up losing in a shootout 4-3? I don’t know, in pro hockey it’s just unacceptable.
“(Saturday) is going to be a huge test for us. We played alright tonight and got a lot of shots on (Koskinen) but you gotta win hockey games. That what it comes down to…we’re just not winning games, a 3-0 lead…I don’t know what to say? It’s SO frustrating.”
Maybe new laundry and a big crowd will wake this team up and get them going in the right direction.
In the past couple of weeks, the team has changed personnel, sending out a disgruntled defenseman in Nigel Williams; lost their Captain who had requested a trade, brought in a couple of new faces and are changing their team name, colors and jersey.
If all of that doesn’t, it’s uncertain what else could be changed at the XL Center.
* Over their 13 year history, Hartford compiled a record of 571(W)-346(L)-66(T)-49(OTL)-30(SOL) in the regular season. They were 57-58 in 22 playoff series. They won their only Calder Cup title in 2000.
* This was the first meeting of the two teams with Pat Bingham at the helm of the Sound Tigers. He replaced Jack Capuano who took over as the interim head coach of the New York Islanders when Scott Gordon was relieved by Garth Snow of his duties on November 15th.
* The Wolf Pack had a chance to get to .500 for the season on the road, but left at 4-5-0-2.
* The loss keeps the Wolf Pack in the Atlantic Division cellar, two points behind the Sound Tigers who have a game in hand on their intra-state and franchise rivals.
Zuccarello – Kennedy – Weise
Grachev – Newbury – J. Williams
DiDiomete – Tessier – Kolarik
Soryal – Garlock
Brodie Dupont – Leg Laceration – Day-to-Day
Tyler Donati – Healthy Scratch
Lee Baldwin – Healthy Scratch
Chris McKelvie – Healthy Scratch
Oren Eizenman – Healthy Scratch
1. BRI – J. Colliton
2. BRI – W. O’Neill
3. BRI – J. Bailey
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Chris Cozzan (18)
Glen Cooke (6)
Brent Colby (7)
The back end of the home-and-home against Bridgeport and the birth of the Connecticut Whale on Saturday night at 7pm. Then Sunday, John Paddock returns to Hartford to coach for Adirondack for the second day of Connecticut Whale hockey. Bob Crawford will have the pregame at 6:30 Saturday and 4:30 Sunday with game time at 5pm.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.