By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – Timing really can be everything in life – and especially in sports.
On Monday, the Connecticut Whale added gifted wing Mats Zuccarello, reassigned by the parent New York Rangers after being a healthy scratch in their last two Stanley Cup playoff games. Then on Tuesday, the Whale added another gifted wing, Chad Kolarik, who returned after missing 17 consecutive games and 26 of 28 with an injury.
Meanwhile, the Portland Pirates lost All-AHL right wing Mark Mancari to another recall to the Buffalo Sabres, leaving only center/captain Matt Ellis and defenseman Dennis Persson as reinforcements from their parent club.
So the Whale appeared to have gained an edge for Game 4 of the teams’ tightly contested Atlantic Division semifinal Tuesday night at the XL Center. Then again, the Pirates had lost their only game in the best-of-seven series with Mancari and Persson, victimized on the Whale’s tying-breaking and insurance goals in Game 3.
Then five minutes into the game, Whale right wing Dale Weise left for the night when crosschecked into the boards by AHL Rookie of the Year Luke Adam without a penalty being called. Whale coach Ken Gernander said he didn’t know the extent of the injury to Weise and that he hoped Weise would be able to play in Game 5 Thursday night at Portland.
So the end result of all the comings and goings? Kolarik and Zuccarello each had a goal and an assist to support another strong penalty killing effort and goaltending by Dov Grumet-Morris as the Whale beat the Pirates 3-1 before 2,581, tying the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
“They made big plays at key times,” Gernander said of the return of the Whale’s two most skilled players. “That’s what you would hope they would do in that situation.”
Kolarik, admittedly a bit rusty after playing only two games since Feb. 13, misfired on his first shot, then took advantage of the first of the game’s four 5-on-3 power plays to put the Whale ahead to stay when he beat David Leggio between the legs from the left circle with 4:28 left in the first period off a pass from Jeremy Williams.
“It’s a cliché, but if you can’t get up for playoff hockey you don’t have a pulse,” said Kolarik, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 11 for former Hartford Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers. “It was exciting to get back in there, and I was playing with two great players (Zuccarello and Kris Newbury), so it’s pretty easy to play with those two.
“I should have scored on the first shot (with 5:50 left in the period) because it was a great pass by Zucks, but I don’t have a good one-timer and was a little rusty for sure. But it was good to get that first one and get a little confidence going. It was good to get that 5-on-3 because it makes it a lot easier when you have a lot of time with the puck. You get your hands back a little bit, and once you get that goal, you get the adrenaline going and the confidence up. A guy with confidence is tough to stop.”
Kolarik, who had 21 goals and 20 assists in 49 games with the Whale and Springfield Falcons, set up the clinching goal when he stole the puck from Corey Fienhage and Colin Stuart, who had collided, and made brilliant cross-slot pass to Zuccarello for a quick finish into an open net at 4:48 of the third period. It was Zuccarello’s first goal since he scored twice for the Rangers against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 6. Kolarik now has the most points against the Pirates this season (five goals and six assists).
“I had good energy, and it was a great team win,” said Zuccarello, who scored his first goal in six with the Whale since Dec. 15. “Without the good job by Dov and the penalty killing, it would have been a different game. But they’re playing awesome, and we’re the lucky ones to get to chip in with the goals.”
The Whale’s penalty kill was 7-for-7, making it 24-for-24 since allowing two goals on the Pirates’ first three power plays in Game 1.
“A guy like Pavel Valentenko blocked probably 100 shots and some of the other defensemen blocked shots, too, along with the forwards chipping in,” Zuccarello said. “We just played really good. We got a few too many penalty minutes (16), but that’s life. We played good on the penalty kill, and they got one lucky goal, but that happens.”
Gernander also commended the penalty killing.
“We’ve done a really good job, but you don’t want to have to rely on it,” he said. “Some defensemen have really sacrificed their bodies to block some shots, and that takes a lot of courage night in and night out. They’ve done a good job in that regard, but we’d like to give them a little bit of a breather, maybe not take so many penalties.”
The Pirates had the better of the play at the outset, with Grumet-Morris (19 saves) making a good stop on Adam’s rush off right wing at 4:32. Just 32 seconds later, the Whale lost Weise, who immediately skated off to the locker room.
The Whale nearly took the lead at 6:24, but Valentenko’s one-time laser from the left point hit the crossbar behind a screened Leggio. But the Whale did break through with two seconds left on a 5-on-3 power play for 1:12 when Kolarik took a pass from Williams and fired a shot that beat Leggio between the legs with 3:28 left in the period. Zuccarello got the secondary assist.
The Pirates nearly tied it on a carryover power play into the second period, but Grumet-Morris made a brilliant glove save on T.J. Brennan’s bid off the right point off a turnover at 32 seconds. The Pirates then got a 5-on-3 power play for 1:10, but the Whale allowed only one shot thanks to brilliant penalty killing by Mitchell, Newbury, Wade Redden and Stu Bickel.
Moments after the Pirates’ ensuing 5-on-4 expired, Evgeny Grachev poked the puck ahead to Mitchell, who broke in alone, deked Leggio to the ice and slipped in a forehand shot for his team-high third goal of the playoffs at 4:45.
A series of penalties gave both sides odd-man advantages, but the only serious threat was the Pirates’ Paul Byron from 20 feet in the slot on another 5-on-3 power play. When Grumet-Morris stopped the bid with 6:52 left in the period, Byron put his hands to his head in disbelief.
Leggio was alert to stop Carl Hagelin’s one-timer with 2:05 to go, then the Whale caught a break when Jacob Lagace shot high off a perfect goal-mouth setup by Ellis with 12 seconds left.
Leggio robbed Kelsey Tessier from 10 feet in front at 3:56, then 37 seconds later, Grumet-Morris made a stellar save on Derek Whitmore’s backhander off a right-wing rush.
After Zuccarello made it 3-0, the Whale had another 5-on-3 for 1:27, but Leggio made four saves to keep it close.
Three seconds after the Whale killed a sixth shorthanded situation, the Pirates finally broke through as Mark Voakes took a pass from Corey Tropp and beat Grumet-Morris high to the stick side from 35 feet in the slot with 7:37 left.
“Those are pretty hollow (victories), especially when you lose,” Pirates coach Kevin Dineen said of Voakes’ goal. “We need to get production out of those areas (power play), and it’s not happening right now. It’s pretty obvious (we’re struggling). We tried to address it in our personnel. Now we need to make sure we have the right people on the ice.”
Hagelin hit the post off a Tessier pass with 3:37 left, and the Pirates then had yet another power play and pulled Leggio with 2:09 left for a 6-on-4. But the Whale allowed only one shot on Grumet-Morris, assuring the Pirates’ playoff road losing streak would reach six games. They haven’t won away from home since their opener at Providence in 2009.
“We had some guys on our line who can put the puck in the net and are confident doing it,” said Newbury, who is scoreless in the playoffs after leading the Whale in scoring in the regular season with 61 points despite playing 11 games with the Rangers. “But wins are what’s most important. It doesn’t matter who puts the puck in the net if you get the win.
“The bench got shortened a little bit (after Weise was injured), so guys are going to play a little more. Missing a guy like that out of your lineup hurts, so guys jumped on board and did what they had to do to get the victory.”
NEW PLAYERS BRING MORE LINE CHANGES
With Zuccarello in from New York and Kolarik back in the lineup, Gernander again revamped his four lines after scratching centers Francis Lemieux and Ryan Garlock. Zuccarello and Kolarik were alongside Newbury, while Brodie Dupont moved from wing to center between Williams and Hagelin, who signed an amateur tryout contract after he captained Michigan to the NCAA title game. On the other two lines, Mitchell centered for Grachev and Weise, and Tessier moved from wing to center between Derek Couture and Tommy Grant, another of the Whale’s seven ATO signees. The Whale’s three defensive pairings remained intact: Redden-Jared Nightingale, Valentenko-Blake Parlett, Bickel-Tomas Kundratek.
The Whale’s other scratches were goalie Jason Missiaen, defensemen Jyri Niemi, Dylan McIlrath and injured Michael Del Zotto and forwards Justin Soryal, Kale Kerbashian, Shayne Wiebe, Andrew Yogan and injured Devin DiDiomete and Todd White.
“We had some real tough decisions as far as who wouldn’t be in our lineup tonight,” Gernander said. “Dale is obviously a guy we would be counting on to provide us some offense and be a real solid player for us. If he can’t go the next game, we have a couple of guys waiting the wings probably chomping at the bit to get it.”
Rugged Lagace and Travis Turnbull replaced Mancari and Igor Gongalsky. The Pirates also scratched defensemen Brian O’Hanley, Jeff Dimmen and Drew Schiestel and forwards Joe Whitney, Dennis McCauley and Shawn Szydlowksi. … McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, turns 19 on Wednesday. … All 16 teams that qualified for the postseason played Tuesday night, tying April 26, 1996, as the busiest night in Calder Cup history. … The crowd included what could have been one of the best lines in NHL history: Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Adam Graves. In a total of 3,852 games in 73 NHL seasons, the trio combined for 1,682 goals, 2,858 assists for 4,540 points – with 4,819 penalty minutes tossed in for good measure
GIRARDI – DAN, NOT JOE – GETTING BETTER WITH TIME
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi is one of the best success stories in all of sports.
Though Girardi was a member of the London Knights that won the Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup in 2005, injuries kept him under the radar of most scouts. And the stay-at-home defenseman still flew under some peoples’ radar as late as two years ago.
“When I first came here, I was calling him Joe Girardi,” a smiling Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York media, confusing him with the New York Yankees manager. “No lie. For a whole meeting.”
In July 2006, the Rangers signed Girardi – Dan, not Joe – to an AHL contract, but he started the season with the Charlotte Checkers, who were then in the ECHL. But injuries to several Hartford Wolf Pack defensemen gave Girardi a shot at the AHL.
Girardi joined the Wolf Pack in November and played so well that he was on Broadway the next season, after several Rangers defensemen were injured. He made his NHL debut on Jan. 27, 2007 and played 37 regular-season games and 10 playoff games, though he didn’t score his first NHL goal until the following season. It came against the Atlanta Thrashers on Oct. 18, 2007.
On Feb. 16, 2008, Girardi signed a two-year contract extension with the Rangers worth $3.1 million. On July 9, 2010, he signed a four-year deal with the Rangers worth $13.3 million. Now he’s part of the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing with another former Wolf Pack player, Marc Staal, the team’s No. 1 pick (12th overall) in 2005.
Girardi, 26, has proven good things really can come to good guys who wait. And he has earned a nice paycheck the hard way, battling bigger guys in front and often causing coaches, teammates and fans to shudder when he falls in front of laser shots as he did Sunday during the Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
With the game tied 1-1 in the second period, the Capitals were on a 3-on-2 rush when Marcus Johansson, trailing the play, took a drop pass that left him with lots of open space. He had so much time that when he stepped into his slap shot it threw off Girardi’s timing on his block attempt.
But Girardi held his ground and rolled over into the shot, absorbing the shot in his back, an area that doesn’t have much protection. Seconds later, he could be seen wincing in pain on the bench but never missed a shift. It was one of five blocks for Girardi that helped the Rangers pull within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series entering Game 4 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I kind of slid and he kind of delayed for a second,” Girardi told the New York media. “I got it in the back, but there’s not much you can do there. I’m just trying to get in the way of the shot.”
“He’s got (guts) as big as the building,” Tortorella said at the Rangers practice facility, which is nearly 105,000 square feet. “The shot he blocked on that late 3-on-2 and the guy came in late, that’s a huge play.”
Girardi’s subdued style contrasts sharply with Staal, one of four brothers in professional hockey, three of whom are in the NHL. But Tortorella and the rest of the Rangers are delighted to have such an effective player, who led the NHL with 236 blocks this season.
“He’s one of the more underrated players in this league, I’ll tell you that right now,” Tortorella said. “I think Marc gets a lot of the notoriety. Danny wasn’t drafted and all that stuff. But he’s a good player. He continues to get better.”
Girardi’s style also has enabled Staal to join the rush more this season, as he had seven goals and a career-high 29 points in 77 games.
“He’s solid every game,” Staal said. “He’s physical, he blocks a ton of shots. He’s a lot of fun to play with. He makes it a lot easier on me. He’s been great all year long. With a bigger stage in the playoffs, everyone starts realizing how talented a player he is. … I think the experience helps. He sits back a little more, allows me to get into the rush when I feel the opportunity to jump in. Communication is a big thing for us, too. We talk a lot on the ice and on the bench just to work things out if they’re not going our way.”
Girardi and the Black-and-Blueshirts faithful hope things continue to go the Rangers’ way Wednesday night.
“It’s still 2-1 for them, but I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction to get a little momentum here,” Girardi said, referring to the victory Sunday on former Wolf Pack wing Brandon Dubinsky’s goal with 1:39 left. “We just have to come out hard (in Game 4).”
Like as hard as Dubinsky bear-hugged the first teammate he ran into after his winner Sunday, a guy named Girardi, Dan Girardi.
QUICK CONTINUES STELLAR PLAY INTO THE PLAYOFFS
The stout play of Hamden native and former Avon Old Farms standout Jonathan Quick during the regular season has continued into the postseason for the Los Angeles Kings goalie.
After a tough 3-2 overtime loss in Game 1 against the host San Jose Sharks on Thursday night, Quick made 34 saves in a 4-0 victory Saturday night that was the first shutout for a Kings goalie since Felix Potvin blanked Colorado 5-0 in Game 5 of a first-round series in 2002.
Quick was strongly supported by defenseman Drew Doughty, 21, a Norris Trophy finalist last year who had two goals and assisted on those by defenseman Jack Johnson and Kyle Clifford. Doughty, the second overall pick in 2008, tied the franchise playoff record by a defenseman set by Paul Coffey in 1992. He already has five goals and six assists in only eight playoff games.
“We had a lot of adversity before this game with two of our top centers out,” said Doughty, referring to Anze Kopitar, who sustained a season-ending broken ankle March 26, and Jarret Stoll, suspended for a game for a check from behind on defenseman Ian White in Game 1. “I guess a lot of people probably didn’t think we had a chance, so I guess we showed those people wrong.”
The Kings relied heavily on Quick, a defense corps that had three, four assists and 11 blocked shots and an effective power play (2-for-6) to tie the Western Conference quarterfinal series at 1. Games 3 and 4 are in Los Angeles on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
“The right guys stepped up and produced at the right time,” Kings coach Terry Murray said.
“Guys dug in,” Quick said. “We had a big effort from everyone in the locker room. At the end of the day, it’s just one win. We need three more to move on. We’re looking forward to Game 3 and looking forward to getting the same result.”
Quick is 1-1 in his first playoffs with a 2.40 goals-against average and .933 save percentage after going 35-22-3, 2.24, .918 with six shutouts in the regular season.
“For us to have a chance, Quick is going to have to be our best player and our defense is going to have to play like it has most of the year, and that includes our forwards, too,” defenseman Rob Scuderi told ESPN.com. “I thought everybody came back and it was a total team effort.”
WHALE 3, PIRATES 1
Portland 0 0 1 – 1
Connecticut 1 1 1 – 3
First period: 1. Conn, Kolarik 1 (Williams, Zuccarello), 16:32 (pp).
Penalties: Adam, Por (hooking), 4:58; Tropp, Por (hooking), 11:16; Tropp, Por (tripping), 14:34; Adam, Por (tripping), 15:22; Valentenko, Ct (interference), 18:52.
Second period: 2. Conn, Mitchell 3 (Grachev), 4:45. Penalties: Grachev, Ct (interference), 1:52; served by Hagelin, Ct (bench minor-too many men), 2:43; Ellis, Por (interference), 10:43; Zuccarello, Ct (slashing), 11:05; Grachev, Ct (elbowing), 12:10; Fienhage, Por (hooking), 16:41; Grant, Ct (roughing), 16:41.
Third period: 3. Conn, Zuccarello 1 (Kolarik, Parlett), 4:48. 4. Port, Voakes 2 (Tropp), 12:23. Penalties: Biega, Por (tripping), 6:16; Conboy, Por (roughing), 6:50; Grant, Ct (roughing), 10:20; Tessier, Ct (high-sticking), 16:43.
Shots on goal: Portland 5-9-6-20. Connecticut 12-8-10-30; Power-play
opportunities: Portland 0 of 7; Connecticut 1 of 7; Goalies: Portland, Leggio 2-2-0 (30 shots-27 saves). Connecticut, Grumet-Morris 2-2-0 (19-18); A: 2,581; Referees: Chris Ciamaga, Ian Croft; Linesmen: David Spannaus, Luke Galvin.