By Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander has to hope his season-long plea for more discipline sinks into his players’ heads before the playoffs start Thursday night in Portland, Maine.

CT WhaleThe Whale started like a tortoise in their regular season finale Sunday and then helped the Norfolk Admirals by taking three penalties in the first 171/2 minutes that led to two power-play goals against on the way to a 6-3 loss before 4,825 at the XL Center.

After Marc-Andre Pouliot converted Mattias Ritola’s pass at 9:26 as the Admirals had 11 of the game’s first 12 shots, Paul Szczechura and Blair Jones scored power-play goals to give Norfolk a 3-0 lead after a first period in which it had a staggering 20-4 shot advantage.

In an attempt to wake up his team after a stern first-intermission lecture, Gernander replaced Dov Grumet-Morris, the Whale MVP, at the start of the second period with Cam Talbot, and it paid immediate dividends when John Mitchell scored 1:02 into the second period. But a wide-open Ritola took a pass from Jones and scored into an open net only 2:13 later, and the Admirals were on their way to ending a three-game losing streak and 1-6-1 run.

“The change wasn’t necessarily a reflection on our starting goalie,” Gernander said. “I don’t think he was getting a lot of help, and I don’t think he had a lot to gain from playing the last two periods the way we were playing in front of him. And you want a bit of a ‘send a message’ that you can’t play the next 40 minutes the way we played the first 20.”

Was he more disturbed with the way the team was playing or that it was continuing to take penalties?

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“Both, and it goes hand in hand,” Gernander said. “When you’re playing your best hockey, you don’t make poor decisions and don’t take penalties. When you’re playing your best hockey, usually you’re in the other team’s offensive end, creating chances and forcing them to take penalties.

“When you put yourself behind because of taking penalties, you’re overtaxing some (players), you’re taking others out of the flow. You can’t be successful when you’re shorthanded all night.”

Despite finishing second in the league in penalty minutes – 1,749 to 1,927 for Albany, which finished with the AHL’s worst record (32-42-1-5) – the Whale (40-32-2-6) finished third in the Atlantic Division behind Portland and Manchester and will play the first-place Pirates in the first round of the playoffs, starting Thursday night in Maine. The Whale was 5-3-0-0 against the Pirates, coached by former Hartford Whalers standout right wing and captain Kevin Dineen, but six games were decided by one goal, including three overtime wins for the Whale.

“We’ve had great games with Portland, and that’s what I would expect moving forward, that everything is going to be a close, tight-checking game,” Gernander said. “Usually both teams are fairly physical and like to grind it out, and that’s what we’re expecting.”

Grumet-Morris said the turning point of the season was a lengthy meeting after a 9-2 loss at Toronto on Feb. 9 in which Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller were “very blunt” and “players were blunt and honest with themselves.” The Whale then went on a 16-8-0-1 run that moved them into playoff contention, and a berth was achieved with a 4-1 victory at Bridgeport on Friday night.

“I think we had a great run to get into the playoffs, which was huge because it was in doubt for a long time,” Grumet-Morris said. “Now that we’re in, we feel focused, and we’ll see how we show up on Thursday. Portland is going to be ready, and (the Cumberland County Civic Center) is a difficult place to play because I know from playing there for and against Portland. It’s going to be a monumental challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”

But what about the team’s poor finish?

“Three games ago, I thought we played a great road game,” Grumet-Morris said, alluding to Friday night. “We gave up 21 shots and were great on the penalty kill so I took that as a positive. The last two games is more of an aberration in terms of the lineup, as well as the way we played and the other teams played. Often times that happens and I don’t think it’s indicative of the players. And as long as you intellectually understand that, emotions want to win. But intellectually understand it, accept it, make your corrections and move on. I don’t think it should necessarily be a concern.”

But Nightingale admitted the Whale must be more disciplined, especially with the playoffs usually having close games often decided by special teams.

“We’ve been addressing coming out with a good start and obviously we didn’t, getting into the box and penalty trouble,” Nightingale said. “We’ve been stressing that, but we can also learn from that, get it out of our system and be ready to go (in the playoffs). Now we can’t really dwell on that, and we won’t.

“They’re a skilled team that plays very well in their building, but we’ve had success there this year. So we have to stick to our game plan and do what we do best, which is crash and bang and keeping it simple and getting off to a good start. That first period is going to be critical, along with staying out the (penalty) box.”

The Admirals (39-25-9-7) qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2007 but had lost three in a row and seven of eight before Sunday. But the closing win might have proved costly because the Admirals leapfrogged Binghamton and into fourth place in the East Division and will have to play division champion and overall league leader Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (59-21-0-1) instead of Atlantic Division runner-up Manchester (44-25-4-6). The Penguins set franchise records for wins and points (117), and Brad Thiessen and John Curry won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for being the goaltenders on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the regular season (183).

The Admirals hardly looked like a team that had one win since March 26 in the first period. Grumet-Morris held them at bay for nearly half the period before Ritola stole the puck from Nightingale and got it to Pouliot, who broke in alone and beat a sprawling Grumet-Morris at 9:26 for his team-leading 25th goal.

After Grumet-Morris stopped Johan Harju’s breakaway with 6:33 left in the period, the Whale penalties started. The Admirals made it 2-0 on a five-on-three at 15:46 when Szczechura tipped Troy Milam’s one-timer from the left circle past Grumet-Morris, who had lost his stick.

Then with the Admirals on their third power play, the Whale got their first real scoring chance, but a sprawling Jaroslav Janus (17 saves) reached back into the crease to stop Evgeny Grachev’s blast from the right circle off a 2-on-1 with Ryan Garlock with 1:41 left in the period.

The Admirals then increased their lead to 3-0 with a second power-play goal as Jones lifted Pouliot’s cross-crease pass under the crossbar with 38 seconds to go.

The goalie change temporarily turned the tide early in the second as the Whale pressed at the outset and made it 3-1 when Mitchell took a pass from Derek Couture, skated into the Admirals zone around Vladimir Mihalik and beat Janus to the stick side at 1:02.

But the Admirals then scored on their first two shots of the period for a 5-1 lead. Jones picked up the rebound of his shot that deflected off Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko and passed through the slot to the left circle to a wide-open Ritola for an easy finish into an open net at 3:15. Just 2:19 later, James Wright made a brilliant blind backhand pass from behind the net to a wide-open Szczechura in front for a one-timer on which Talbot again had no chance.

The Whale made it 5-2 when junior newcomer Andrew Yogan got the puck to the right point to Valentenko, who scored through a screen.

Talbot kept the Whale in it when he stopped Levi Nelson’s breakaway and a wide-open Stefano Giliati with 4:32 and 4:01 left in the second period.

The Whale finally got their first power play midway through the third period. After Janus made a sprawling save on Yogan’s bid for his third goal in two games off a nifty setup by Dale Weise, the Whale got to 5-3 as Jyri Niemi broke in off the point and one-timed Grachev’s pass from behind the net past a helpless Janus with 8:04 left.

But the Admirals clinched the win when Mike Angelis stole the puck from Mitchell and chipped it past a diving Talbot with 2:24 left.

“We’ll relax for a few minutes tonight, get reenergized or recharged and obviously put the last couple of games behind us and focus on playing our best game starting on Thursday,” Gernander said. “I don’t know if we want to use the tapes from the last two days specifically. I think we want to focus more on bringing our best game.

“We might make corrections based on what we saw the last couple of games, but for the most part I think we’ll probably want to stress what positives, what attributes, we bring to the table and draw out our best game for Thursday night.”


The Whale lineup included three recent signees – forwards Tommy Grant and Yogan, who scored his first two goals in a pro game in a 4-3 loss to Bridgeport on Saturday night, and defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010. They replaced regulars Wade Redden, Kris Newbury and Blake Parlett. The Whale also scratched newcomers Kale Kerbashian and Shayne Wiebe and injured Michael Del Zotto, Chad Kolarik, Devin DiDiomete and Todd White. With Redden and Newbury scratched, Weise and Dupont joined Nightingale as alternate captains. The Admirals scratched Cedrick Desjardins, who is injured, Pat Nagle, Kevin Quick, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Tim Marks, Matt Fornataro and former Wolf Pack wing Mitch Fritz, who was assisting on the bench.

Now after missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season, the Whale will begin postseason play for the 13th time in 14 seasons against the Pirates (47-24-7-2) on Thursday night at 7. The Pirates clinched first place with a 3-2 shootout victory at Albany on Saturday night and ended the season with a 2-1 overtime loss to Springfield on Sunday.

The best-of-seven Whale-Pirates series continues in Maine on Saturday at 7 p.m. before the teams travel to Hartford for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday at 6 p.m. and April 19 at 7 p.m. If necessary, Game 5 will be at Portland on April 21 at 7 p.m., Game 6 at the XL Center on April 23 at 7 p.m. and Game 7 at Portland on April 25 at 7 p.m.

The Pirates, who closed the season with seven games in nine days, are currently without their top goalie (Jhonas Enroth), top defenseman (Eddie Shore Award winner Marc-Andre Gragnani) and top forward (Mark Mancari, the AHL All-league right wing), all of whom are with the parent Buffalo Sabres, who qualified for the NHL playoffs. Mancari (32 goals, 32 assists) and Gragnani (12, 48) are the Pirates’ No. 1 and 3 scorers. Center Luke Adam, the third consecutive Pirates player to be named AHL rookie of the year, is the remaining top scorer with 29 goals and 33 assists, followed by center Paul Byron (26, 27), veteran Mark Parrish (17, 34) and left wings Derek Whitmore (27, 20) and Colin Stuart (16, 27). With Enroth in Buffalo, the goaltending is being shared by David Leggio (22-12-0, 2.80 goals-against average, .911 save percentage, three shutouts), Jeff Jakaitis (4-1-1, 3.19, .904) and John Muse, who earned his first pro victory by making 33 saves in regulation and stopping four of five shots in a shootout Saturday night.

Tickets for the Whale’s first two games are on sale at and through Ticketmaster Charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. Playoff ticket packages that include tickets for all 16 possible home playoffs games, plus rollover options and incentives for season tickets next season are available at 860-726-3366. More information is available at


Grumet-Morris and Nightingale each received two of the Whale’s team awards presented after the game.

Grumet-Morris (13-5-1, 2.12 goals-against average, .923 save percentage, one shutout) was named MVP and Fan Favorite. He was quite the addition since originally signing a professional tryout contract with the Whale on Oct. 18 while helping Greenville get off to the best start in the ECHL and eventually finish second overall and win the Eastern Conference title. He didn’t play with Portland and Grand Rapids after signing PTOs with those teams, and then rejoined the Whale for good on Feb. 3, winning an AHL career-high seven consecutive games at one point.

“It’s definitely an honor and very humbling, considering it was my peers who did the voting. I definitely appreciate that,” Grumet-Morris said. “I didn’t know Fan Favorite was a category, but it’s always nice when people appreciate the work that you do. It’s also appreciated by me, especially when I’ve been here only half a (season). That has strong meaning to me.

“But that’s something you tend to look at more after the fact, after the whole journey. It’s not over yet. We still have a new season to begin, and I hope we can continue the success that we’ve had.”

Nightingale (two goals and six assists in 71 games) received the Bob Girouard Character Award and Mary Lynn Gorman Community Service Award after being named the Whale’s AHL Man of the Year for his community relations work. Nightingale never puts up gaudy offensive numbers but was part of the team’s No. 1 defensive pairing with Redden, kills penalties and is always ready to stick up for teammates.

“It’s a great honor whenever you’re recognized by your peers,” Nightingale said. “It’s nice, but I also think there are a lot of guys deserving of it, especially the character award. We’ve got a room full of character guys, so to be recognized like that is very nice.”

Rookie Kelsey Tessier (10 goals, 18 assists and plus-2 in 75 games), who played all three forward positions and helped kill penalties, received the Unsung Hero/Seventh Player Award. Besides being solid on a checking line, Tessier, like Nightingale and Grumet-Morris, did a lot of community relations.

The players chose the MVP and Girouard Character Award, the Whale staff picked the Gorman Community Service Award, fans selected the Fan Favorite via a poll on the Whale website and Facebook and the media selected the Unsung Hero/Seventh Player Award.

Whale team leaders were: games played, Valentenko, Justin Soryal, 79; goals, Jeremy Williams, 32; assists, Newbury, 44; points, Newbury, 61; power-play goals, Williams, 15; game-winning goals, Newbury, Williams, 5; shorthanded goals, Grachev, Kolarik, 2; plus-minus, Valentenko, Grachev, plus-21; penalty minutes, Devin DiDiomete, 303; shots, Williams, 239; goalie wins, Chad Johnson, 16; goals-against average, Grumet-Morris, 2.12; save percentage, Grumet-Morris, .923; shutouts, Johnson, Talbot, 2.


Wethersfield native and Oklahoma City Barons right wing Colin McDonald, son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, scored a power-play goal with 2:32 left in a 6-3 loss to Houston on Sunday to win the AHL goal-scoring title with 42. McDonald finished one goal ahead of former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes of the Hamilton Bulldogs. He passed Dawes with a career-high four goals on Friday night and one on Saturday and Sunday. His 42 goals were eight more than he scored in his first three pro seasons combined, with his previous high being 12.

Former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke of the Binghamton Senators, named the AHL’s MVP on Friday, won his first league scoring title with 86 points despite not playing the final three games because of a shoulder injury. Locke finished eight points ahead of former Wolf Pack wing and two-time MVP Alexandre Giroux. Dawes tied for fifth with 72 points despite playing 13 NHL games with the Atlanta Thrashers and Montreal Canadiens, who acquired him on Feb. 24.

Other AHL leaders included Locke, assists, 65; McDonald, power-play goals, 19; Giroux and Justin Azevedo, Manchester, game-winning goals, 8; plus-minus, Sean Collins, Hershey, plus-29; and shots, Denis Hamel, Adirondack, 266. … Former Wolf Pack left wing/captain Dane Byers finished the season with an AHL-record 85 games played, two more than Paxton Schulte in 1995-96 with the Cornwall Aces and Saint John Flames. Byers played for the Wolf Pack, Springfield Falcons and San Antonio. … The 2011 Calder Cup Challenge, aimed a testing a fan’s knowledge and skill of predicting outcomes in the playoffs, is available at … Sean Berkstresser’s goal at 6:22 of the second overtime gave Greenville a 2-1 victory over visiting Elmira on Saturday night, advancing the Road Warriors to an ECHL Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Wheeling Nailers. Berkstresser got the series-clinching goal after Chris McKelvie, who was reassigned by the Whale last week and scored the winner Friday night, won a faceoff forward in the right wing circle for slap shot. The Road Warriors, who share an affiliation with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, won the first-round series 3-1 against an Elmira team that included former Whale center Oren Eizenman and goalie Jared DeMichiel of Avon, who attended Avon Old Farms and Rochester Institute of Technology, a surprise entry in the 2010 Frozen Four. The Road Warriors open the semifinal series Thursday at home.


After notching a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils and Martin Brodeur on Saturday afternoon to finish the season on an 11-4-1 run, most Rangers players gathered to watch Tampa Bay play Carolina, chants of “Let’s Go Lightning!!” still echoing in their ears.

The Lightning, coached by Rangers coach John Tortorella when they won the Stanley Cup in 2004, must have been listening as they blitzed the host Hurricanes 6-2, assuring the Rangers would have the eighth and final seed and not miss the playoffs for the second straight season. They will face the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round, starting Wednesday night.

“A pretty significant portion of guys got together, the superstitious ones stayed away,” Rangers captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury, who scored on his first shift in his first game since Feb. 3 after knee surgery, said on a conference call Saturday night. “I have to say that we’re all pretty excited and thrilled for the opportunity to play the Capitals.

“For a lot of guys it was a long day with a range of emotions. Watching the game next to Hank (goalie Henrik Lundqvist) is something I don’t want to do again. He was pretty intense, but we’re all happy to be going to the playoffs. … I think it will do a ton (for the future of the organization). You look up and down our roster, there’s a ton of young guys, guys that haven’t played in the playoffs, though probably the last six, eight, 10 games, it’s been like playoff games. It’s a terrific opportunity for the (Derek) Stepans, the (Michael) Sauers, the (Ryan) McDonaghs, and it’s a great thing for our organization that they’ll get to experience it at such a young age.”

A year ago, the Rangers were eliminated on the final day of the season when they lost a shootout to the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost their season finale 4-3 to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday and needed help from the Minnesota Wild to earn the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. They got it when the Wild beat the Dallas Stars 5-3, giving the Blackhawks a shot at the Vancouver Canucks, who finished with a league-high 117 points, 10 more than runner-up Washington.

Rangers playoff tickets go on sale Monday at noon, with a maximum of four per round per person to try make them available to as many fans as possible. Tickets will be available at and Ticketmaster charge-by-phone at 866-858-0008.


Norfolk             3 2 1 – 6
Connecticut      0 2 1 – 3

First period: 1. Nor, Pouliot 25 (Ritola), 9:26. 2. Nor, Szczechura 21 (Milam, Barberio), 15:46 (pp). 3. Nor, Jones 24 (Pouliot, Ritola), 19:22 (pp). Penalties: Niemi, Ct (hooking), 13:55; Nightingale, Ct (slashing), 15:06; Valentenko, Ct (tripping), 17:35.

Second period: 4. Conn, Mitchell 8 (Couture, Valentenko), 1:02. 5. Nor, Ritola 9 (Jones), 3:15. 6. Nor, Szczechura 22 (Wright, Harju), 5:34. 7. Conn, Valentenko 5 (Soryal), 13:10. Penalty: Williams, Ct (roughing), 15:59.

Third period: 8. Conn, Niemi 3 (Grachev, Couture), 11:56 (pp); 9. Nor, Angelidis 20, 17:36. Penalty: Gudas, Nor (boarding), 10:00.

Shots on goal: Norfolk 20-11-6-37. Connecticut 4-8-8-20; Power-play opportunities: Norfolk 2 of 4; Connecticut 1 of 1; Goalies: Norfolk, Janus 2-5-1 (20 shots-17 saves). Connecticut, Grumet-Morris 13-5-1 (20-17); Talbot 11-9-2 (17-14); A: 4,825; Referee: Marcus Vinnerborg; Linesmen: Jim Briggs, Luke Galvin