By Bob Crawford
That the Connecticut Whale swept division-champion Bridgeport, a team that had played better than .700 hockey since the turn of the New Year, was surprising enough. That they did it without their regular-season scoring leader, Kris Newbury, registering a point, and with second-leading scorer Jonathan Audy-Marchessault being held to one goal, borders on amazing.
Secondary scoring became primary in the three wins against the Sound Tigers, and the biggest contributor was Marek Hrivik, with his four goals in the last two games. Not far behind on the stepping-it-up scale, though, was Ryan Bourque.
Bourque added plenty of hustle, effort and speed to the Whale throughout his rookie season, but the offensive numbers didn’t exactly flow easily for the younger son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. Ryan Bourque scored a total of six goals in 69 regular-season games, with two of those coming in a 6-3 win over Springfield February 17, and totaled 14 regular-season points. He tasted immediate offensive success in the postseason, however, notching a key insurance goal in the Whale’s 3-0 win in Game One in Bridgeport, after having set up Jordan Owens for a score earlier in the game. Bourque then found the net again in the Game Three clincher in Hartford, giving him three points in the series’ three games.
“Everyone’s accountable, but we need to just focus on our role and our job,” Bourque said of himself and players like Owens, Hrivik and Kelsey Tessier, who assisted on both of Bourque’s goals. “And we’re going to be matched up against those (opposing) teams’ top lines when we’re on the road, and it’s just important that we kind of flip the page and kind of bring the pace to them. If we can play in their end (of the ice), we’re doing our job, and we know our big guys and our leading scorers are going to do their jobs.”
Although he is only 21, Bourque has played in a number of huge games already in his hockey career, most notably an overtime win for Team USA over Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 World Junior Championship. He was still amazed and energized, however, by the increase in intensity in the Calder Cup playoffs compared to the regular season.
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“It was crazy, I’ve never really experienced anything like that,” Bourque said. “You don’t really realize it until you’re actually there in the moment, how cool of a feeling it is. It’s different than the regular season, and it’s so much fun going into the playoffs. It’s a whole new level, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Bourque enjoyed a strong chemistry in the first round with Tessier, who was Bourque’s Junior hockey teammate with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for part of the 2009-10 season. Bourque and Tessier were not regular linemates in the Bridgeport series, but found themselves together several times late in games when the coaches shortened the bench, and hooked up on a pair of third-period scoring plays.
The first of those was in Game One, when Bourque buried a rebound of a Tessier shot off the rush. While it looked simply like a fine save by Sound Tiger goaltender Kevin Poulin, according to Bourque it was a set play, where Tessier was intending to put the puck off the goaltender’s pads to create a fat rebound for his fellow forward.
“We do that drill hundreds of times during the regular season and throughout the week (in practice),” Bourque said. “It’s kind of, play it off the left pad for him (Tessier, on that particular play), but depending on the side you’re coming on, you try to place it at an angle where it will pop out for the guy that’s going hard to the net. It was a loose puck that Tess beat his guy to, but at the same time he was at a really tough angle to get a scoring chance. So he knew that if he could put it on net low, on his pad, it would probably have a good chance to pop out to me. That’s what he was trying to do, and I was fortunate enough to beat my man to the puck and lucky enough for it to go in.”
That players nowadays have to resort to banking the puck off the goalie’s pads to generate scoring chances is a good indication of how few and far between those opportunities are in today’s game, especially in the postseason.
“It really is a game of inches, and you’ll see it even watching the NHL playoffs now, how very hard those chances are to come by,” Bourque said. “You’ve just got to capitalize and make the most of them and just keep chipping away, because a lot of the goals you see in playoffs are either grimy, greasy goals or goals that you’re going to get from rebounds or screens, or whatever it is. But that’s playoff hockey and that’s when it’s at its best.”
Tessier had a fine series in his own right, scoring a breakaway goal that touched off the Whale’s three-goal, third-period burst in Game One in addition to his two setups of Bourque. Tessier and Bourque are similar both in stature and in their approach to the game, and Tessier was not surprised that the two read off one another well.
“You want to just keep playing your simple game with anyone,” Tessier said, “and my chance came with Bourqueie, and we played a few times together in the past and in Juniors, so we kind of click a little bit. The first [Bourque goal] was off the (goaltender’s) pad and I saw him going wide side of the net, so I threw it off the pad, and the second one he did all the work. I just had to pass it across for the open net for him. He’s working hard, and just makes it look a lot easier than what it is.
“He’s playing just with high confidence and making sure that he’s keeping the play simple and moving his feet, and that’s what makes him a great hockey player. That’s how he was in Quebec also, when I played Juniors with him.”
Whale head coach Ken Gernander was happy to see Bourque get rewarded on the scoresheet for what has been a consistent commitment to giving a full effort every night.
“I don’t know if things just kind of fell into place for him, he got on a roll, or what have you, but he’s been a hard worker all season long,” Gernander said. “It’s important to get scoring from everybody, and it was a great boost for our team to get goals from Bourque, Hrivik, Owens, Tessier.
“I’m not going to fault him (Bourque) for his work ethic or his habits or anything like that. That wasn’t the issue. It’s just one of those things where the production wasn’t off the charts, but you felt that there was a little bit more there, and if things fell into place for him that there could be a little bit more offense.
“He wasn’t on the power play a lot of nights and different things like that, and it wasn’t that you were asking him to actually physically exert himself more, it’s just that there were times when things weren’t falling into place.
“A lot of times, too, the last thing to come around for forwards is the offensive play. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of that extra fraction of a second getting your shot off quicker, or changing your (shooting) angle so that someone has to move to make a save or the lane doesn’t get shut down on you. It’s just little subtleties of offensive play that sometimes are the last to come around.”
Now that the numbers have started to flow better for him, at the most important time of the year, Bourque’s confidence has certainly received a boost, and with the recent additions to the Whale roster from the Junior and college ranks, he is now surrounded by a crowd of guys right in his age group.
“It is a competition to try to value your spot,” said Bourque of there being so many excellent young prospects around, “but it’s a great environment to have here, to have these young kids, including myself, and the guys that we’ve had all year and the guys that we’ve had come in from Junior or college, or whatever it is. It’s just a great environment to have, and to be able to share ideas with each other, and for those guys that are coming in, try to help them out and ease them into this organization and environment, it’s a lot of fun.
“For me, to have a bunch of veterans out here all year long, to have kind of a youth movement come in, it’s fun for me. I’m always trying to act a little more mature and above my age, but now I can act my age and kind of mess around with the young guns, and it’s a lot of fun for me.”
That fun has translated into excellent production for the indefatigable Bourque, and Gernander likes the look of the balance that gives his lineup, emphasizing that his regular-season scoring leaders weren’t exactly no-shows in the sweep of Bridgeport.
“They still played big roles,” Gernander said of the likes of Newbury and Audy-Marchessault. “You look at the attention they were given on the road there in Bridgeport, with that checking line (Bridgeport’s trio of Trevor Frischmon centering Justin DiBenedetto and Sean Backman), and they have a lot of defensive responsibilities. They’ve become two of our better penalty-killers, things of that nature. Everybody was contributing in one shape or another, and actually Marchie (Audy-Marchessault) had the big first goal to get us off on the right foot in Game Two. So who knows, maybe if they had needed to be called on at a different point in time in the series, it (offensive numbers) would have come, but they’ve played sound defensively and done a lot of good things.”
The Kids are Alright
Sound Tiger head coach, and former Hartford Wolf Pack blueline warrior, Brent Thompson several times during the series referred to the Whale as a “veteran team”, and beat writer Mike Fornabaio pointed out in Wednesday morning’s Connecticut Post that Wade Redden’s career total of NHL playoff games-played outstripped the AHL playoff game total of the Sound Tigers’ entire roster.
This is certainly true, but what is also true is that it was the Whale’s youngsters who did the majority of the heavy lifting in Connecticut’s win, at least in terms of stats.
Let’s not forget, Cam Talbot is only a second-year pro and had never started a pro playoff game before Thursday. And of the ten total goals the Whale scored in the three games, seven came from rookies, including four from Hrivik, who is an undrafted tryout player, and Casey Wellman, Sunday’s overtime hero, is only a second-year man as well.
With Christian Thomas and J.T. Miller having logged significant time for the Whale in the series, fellow Ranger draftee Shane McColgan having come out of the WHL and pitched in some quality shifts, and tryout finds Hrivik and Steve Moses making impacts on the scoresheet since their arrival, it seems as though the Ranger scouting department is on a roll as far as making astute judgments.
“It’s critical to what we do,” said Gernander of the depth of quality talent drafted and uncovered by the Rangers. “They’re good players, there’s lots of potential there, but off the ice they’re good quality kids. And that helps as far as us being able to work with them, but I think it makes a big difference in their development, too, when they’re good kids, receptive kids, disciplined. I think the organization has done a great job in that regard.”
Rangers Prepare for Game Seven, Hope Callahan is OK
Game Seven of Rangers vs. Ottawa is set for 7:00 PM on Thursday, the second of three Eastern Conference Game Sevens (how’s that for a great first round?).
The Rangers will be hoping for a repeat of the Conference Finals from the Cup year of 1994, when they beat New Jersey on the road in Game Six, in the Mark Messier “guarantee” game, before “Mat-teau! Mat-teau!” at Madison Square Garden in Game Seven.
One dark cloud from the rousing win in Ottawa in this year’s Game Six was an injury to Ryan Callahan, who hurt a finger blocking a shot (what else?) in the third period. Callahan sat out the Rangers’ practice today, in what was termed a “maintenance day” to the New York media.
Having to play two do-or-die games this early in the playoffs is certainly a stern character test, but if the Blueshirts pass it, their workmanlike, even-keeled approach will receive another affirmation.
“We haven’t changed,” gritty forward Mike Rupp said to New York reporters. “There’s been no panic. There’s been no celebration. So, it’s been good, we’ve just gone about it. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”