By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – The Hamilton Bulldogs scored on three of their first six shots in the opening 6:02, and then netted the last four goals of the game, in a 7-3 victory over the Connecticut Whale before 6,018 at the XL Center on Friday night.
The Whale (21-17-2-5) rallied from the early deficit to tie on Jason Williams’ 5-on-3 goal 31 seconds into the second period. But the Bulldogs would then score four times in the game’s final 21:58.
Coach Ken Gernander wasn’t about to use having six players, including five forwards, on call-ups to the parent New York Rangers as an excuse.
“This left a bad taste in our mouths,” Gernander said. “I’m a lot disappointed in our start. On the three goals, there were a lot of mistakes, and there were quite a few guys who weren’t ready right from the get-go. When our margin for error is pretty slim right now, you can’t afford that.
“I’m not going to single anybody out, but I was definitely upset with some of the goals and some of our guys’ play. I’m not happy with our team game and obviously our team defense when you give up seven. We’re a better defending team than that, and if there’s any person who’s going to be singled out, I think it was pretty poor from start to finish.”
Gernander also hasn’t happy with some of the Whale’s penalties, which led to an early 5-on-3 on which Brendon Nash produced a 3-0 lead and goaltender Chad Johnson’s quick exit in favor of Pier-Olivier Pelletier, who signed a professional tryout contract on Wednesday after being 6-9-4 with a 3.33 goals-against average in 21 games with Laredo of the Central Hockey League.
Was Gernander’s quick hook because of Johnson or the team?
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“Both. Both,” Gernander said. “I didn’t like the first two goals, and the third was a 5-on-3. It was a pretty tough game for Pelletier. I thought he did all right for a bit, and then their chances started to come at the end. I’m not going to be as judgmental or critical of his game as Chad because he’s been around all season with us.
“I don’t know what effect the first goal had, but we’ve been a pretty resilient bunch and battled back with some good special teams goals. But when you’re not 100 percent mentally engaged, it kind of lapses. You gather it back in because there’s going to be repercussions if you keep playing like that. We battled back, but then it goes again. There’s a lot of room for improvement, a lot of things that were less than acceptable.”
But having the Rangers’ roster now include defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forwards Mats Zuccarello, Dale Weise, Kris Newbury, Chad Kolarik and Brodie Dupont, scheduled to make his NHL debut Saturday, wasn’t in Gernander’s mind.
“We’re not asking guys to reinvent themselves or create a new game for themselves overnight,” Gernander said. “For the most part, everybody has been here, everybody knows the system, so I think they should just be able to adhere to what we’re asking them to do, play within themselves the best they can, win your one-on-one battles, make sound decisions with the puck. They might sound rather trivial, but that’s all that was asked of them.”
Hamilton coach Randy Cunneyworth, who played five seasons with the Hartford Whalers, said adhering to the system is why the Bulldogs (25-13-1-4) have been able to win four in a row after losing their top two scorers, All-Stars David Desharnais (10 goals, 35 assists) and former New Canaan High and Taft School-Watertown standout Max Pacioretty (17, 15), on recalls to the Montreal Canadiens.
“We’ve had some changes, but what is great about the guys is they’ve bought into the system,” Cunneyworth, whose team beat Rochester 7-0 in its previous outing Tuesday. “They’ve seen how seamlessly guys a few years ahead of them have gone up and worked into Montreal’s system. I think they envision themselves doing the same thing in due time, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
The Whale fell behind 3-0 in the opening 6:02, when the Bulldogs’ Hunter Bishop, Aaron Palushaj and Nash scored on six shots, causing the quick departure of Johnson.
Just 1:40 into the game, Bishop took a drop pass from Gabriel Dumont and beat Johnson high to the stick side. Then on the Bulldogs’ first power play, Nash passed to Palushaj, who got around Whale defenseman Michael Del Zotto and flipped a backhander that trickled in through Johnson’s legs at 3:05. The Bulldogs completed their early burst on a 5-on-3 as Ben Maxwell found Nash in the left circle at 6:02 for a 3-0 lead.
Johnson was pulled in favor of Pelletier, signed to a PTO as a replacement for Cameron Talbot, who sustained high ankle sprain in a 6-3 victory over the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Sunday.
The Whale quickly responded as Ryan Garlock raced down right wing and flipped a seemingly harmless backhander from the goal line extended that somehow got between All-Star goalie Curtis Stanford and the post 49 seconds after Pelletier appeared. The goal ended a 128:31 shutout streak for the veteran Sanford, who came in off back-to-back 22-save shutouts that had lowered his league-leading goals-against average and save percentage to 1.67 and .940.
The Whale got to 3-2 at 14:48 on a 5-on-3 when Evgeny Grachev converted the rebound of a shot by Tim Kennedy, who had peeled himself off the ice after being crosschecked into the boards by Brett Festerling without a penalty being called.
The Whale nearly tied it on their next power play, but Stanford made stellar stops on Jason Williams’ deflection and Garlock’s rebound. On an ensuing Bulldogs rush, Pelletier stopped Dany Masse, but referee Mark Lemelin awarded Masse a penalty shot because of a hook on Tomas Kundratek with 3:29 left. But Pelletier stopped Masse’s shot to keep it a 3-2 game.
“Pelletier’s stop was a rallying point for a window of time,” Gernander said, “but it didn’t sustain us through the course of the game.”
The Whale got a golden opportunity to get even or take the lead when Dumont slammed Devin DiDiomete into the boards, earning a 5-minute major and game misconduct with 3:02 left. Chris McKelvie, recalled from Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday, came to the defense of DiDiomete and got two minutes for roughing and five minutes for fighting.
All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams hit the crossbar with 29 seconds left in the period, but the Whale tied it 31 seconds into the second period as Wade Redden rushed into the offensive zone and dropped a pass to Jason Williams, who beat Sanford to the stick side.
The Whale then had two good chances to take their first lead, but Sanford denied Kennedy in the slot and Jason Williams off the wing. Then at 6:28, Jeremy Williams hit the post.
The Bulldogs nearly regained the lead with 4:04 left in the period, but Pelletier stopped Palushaj’s one-timer and Alexander Avtsin’s rebound. After Sanford robbed Grachev coming out of the right corner, the Bulldogs reclaimed the lead for good when Avtsin found a wide-open J.T. Wyman in front for an easy finish with 1:58 left in the period.
The Bulldogs again displayed their quick striking power with three goals in 5:58 to start the third period.
Masse got inside of Del Zotto and deflected Alex Henry’s shot past Pelletier at 1:03 for his first goal of the season, then the Bulldogs got their second 5-on-3 goal when Ben Maxwell beat Pelletier high to the glove side at 5:20. Then at 7:01, Maxwell deflected in Palushaj’ shot.
Garlock also said missing six players was no excuse for such an effort, which should improve at Springfield Saturday night.
“We had a real good week of practice,” Garlock said. “Maybe there were guys playing in positions they’re not used to, but everybody has to look at it as an opportunity, and we’re all going to have the same opportunity (Saturday) night. It’s an opportunity that guys might wait for all year, myself included. I’m loving all these minutes I’ve been getting, and I know a lot of guys who are feeling the same way.
“We still have a lot of good players in the locker room who are more than capable of winning a lot of games. They’re a team that we don’t see often. We know they’re a real good team, and we just had a few lapses that ended up costing us.”
REDDEN, NIEMI RETURN FOR WHALE
Redden and rookie Jyri Niemi rejoined the Whale defensive corps after missing seven and three games, respectively, with injuries. Redden started the game paired with Jared Nightingale, a new alternate captain since Kris Newbury was called up by the Rangers. Niemi split playing the point on the power play and regular shifts with different partners. The Whale’s only scratches were injured goalie Cameron Talbot and center Todd White. … The Bulldogs, coached by former Hartford Whalers wing Randy Cunneyworth and defenseman/captain Randy Ladouceur, scratched forwards Andrew Conboy, Olivier Fortier and Ian Schultz. … The AHL announced Grand Rapids Griffins forward Ilari Filppula and Peoria Rivermen forward T.J. Hensick have been added to the Western Conference roster for AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. They replace Bulldogs leading scorers Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. … The Whale’s eighth Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is at the XL Center on Sunday from 4-7 p.m. Dinner provided by area restaurants will be served by the Whale players, who will be available for autographs and pictures and competing for “tips” to benefit Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. The event also will include a silent auction and inflatables and games in a carnival setting. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children, and walk-ins are welcome. For more information, go to the Whale’s official website, www.ctwhale.com.
VIRTUE, HALL RETURN ‘HOME’
Brittany Quish of Bristol had a keepsake special for Terry Virtue and Todd Hall to sign: their pictures on Page 37 of the Hartford Wolf Pack’s fifth anniversary program.
“Which one is which?” said Quish, a longtime Wolf Pack fan.
“I’m the good-looking one,” offered the always impish Virtue.
Turns out Hall was the clean-shaven guy and Virtue had a beard, which resembles the goatee he now wears while an assistant coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack, whose owners include former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid.
“It’s scary looking at these old-time pictures,” a smiling Hall said of a photo of him wearing No. 6 in 1997-98 before having No. 19 during his last three seasons.
Hall, an assistant coach with the third-ranked Hamden High hockey team that won the state Division I title the last two years, scored the winning goal in the Wolf Pack’s 4-1 victory over the Rochester Americans in Game 6 of the Calder Cup finals in 2000.
Virtue and Hall were close friends and members of the championship team who were in the XL Center atrium before the game sharing stories and jokes with fans while signing autographs prior to dropping the ceremonial first puck.
Virtue scored the most famous goal in franchise history, an overtime tally in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals that beat Providence and got the Wolf Pack to the finals. One young fan told Virtue that he had just seen a replay of the game, which brought a smile to the former defenseman’s face.
“It’s nice that some of the folks still remember me,” said Virtue, who helped the Wolf Pack win the Calder Cup the year after he did likewise with the Providence Bruins. “I have a goatee like the one on my bobble head with Worcester, and I think I had one at times in Hartford.”
After a game against Barrie on Thursday night, Virtue and his wife and son drove through a blizzard to Rochester, N.Y., stayed overnight and then proceeded to Hartford on Saturday morning. His son, Brayden, wants to see St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, where he was born, on Saturday, his 10th birthday, before the family heads for Worcester, Mass., where Virtue will be one of the first six inductees into the Worcester Hockey Hall of Fame on Saturday night at the DCU Center. It’s “Salute to the IceCats Night,” the name of the AHL franchise that preceded the Sharks in Worcester, and Virtue will be inducted with former Whalers wing Scott Young, Kelly O’Leary, Eddie Bates, Larz Anderson and Marvin Degon Sr., father of former Wolf Pack defenseman Martin Degon. … The Whale announced Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park, who played for the Rangers and Boston Bruins, would be making a special appearance for a Jan. 29 game against the Portland Pirates, coached by former Whalers star and captain Kevin Dineen. Park will greet fans and sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. before dropping the first puck. He also will be playing in the Whalers-Bruins legends game Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford as part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl.” That game will be followed by the Whale-Providence Bruins game at 7 p.m.
FORMER WHALERS ARE EVERYWHERE
The Bulldogs are coached by former Hartford Whalers defenseman Randy Cunneyworth and his assistant, former captain/defenseman Randy Ladouceur. Cunneyworth previously coached the Bulldogs and Rochester Americans and was an assistant with the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers. Ladouceur previously was an assistant with the Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes, the head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals and an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Whale faced two former Whalers a day after their parent club, the New York Rangers, lost 4-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes, who are coached by former Whalers coach Paul Maurice and Hall of Famer Ron Francis, who holds virtually every Whalers offensive records.
KOLARIK GETS POINT IN RANGERS DEBUT
Wing Chad Kolarik picked right up where he left off in his New York Rangers debut Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. Kolarik had the primary assist on Brandon Prust’s goal in a 4-1 loss. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, called up from the Whale on Jan. 3, also got his first NHL point with the secondary assist. It was the first time two players recorded their first NHL point on the same goal since Nov. 28, 2009, when Edmonton’s Colin McDonald, a Wethersfield native and son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, scored on an assist from Ryan O’Marra at Vancouver.
Kolarik had four shots in his first game since he had two shorthanded goals and two assists in the first period of the Whale’s 6-3 victory over the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Sunday. He set a franchise record for shorthanded goals in a period and tied a team record for shorthanded goals in a game and points in a period. McDonagh has had a plus or even rating in seven of his eight NHL games, recording a plus-7 in that span.
“I’d much rather get a win,” Kolarik told reporters after the game.
Ditto for McDonagh.
“I’d definitely trade it for a win, any day of the week,” McDonagh said. “It’s cool, in and of itself, getting your first milestone, your first point. It’s nice, I guess, but I’d rather get a win – especially against these guys. They’re close, right behind us.”
The Hurricanes, in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, closed to within five points of the Rangers, who are in sixth with 57 points. Carolina has played two fewer games than the Blueshirts, who play Saturday night in Atlanta, where the eighth-place Thrashers trail them by three points after getting a point in a shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
The Rangers would have had a much better chance if they counted fights. Prust and Kris Newbury, one of four Whale players on recall, scored unanimous decisions over Jay Harrison and Ryan Carter. Newbury and Kolarik each played 8:48, tying for the lowest total on the Rangers, but they were the two players who most impressed coach John Tortorella. Newbury and Kolarik started on a line with Dale Weise, who is on his second recall from the Whale. Kolarik later replaced captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury on a line with Prust and Brian Boyle, arguably the most improved player in the NHL. Wing Mats Zuccarello played with rookie center Derek Stepan and newcomer Wojtek Wolski.
Wing Brodie Dupont was a healthy scratch after being called up for the first time in his four years in the Rangers organization on Wednesday night. But he had another classic call-up tale. He was at the movies Wednesday night watching “The Dilemma” and could not feel his cell phone vibrating in the pocket of his hoodie. The Rangers finally reached him through his girlfriend, and Dupont caught a 6:45 a.m. flight to Raleigh, N.C. He warmed up for Thursday’s game but didn’t play.
“We have to teach the young players,” Tortorella said. “There are maybe slight differences as far as where they were playing with the minor-league team and us. But it’s not going to change our style. We’ve always tried to defend first. I thought we were sloppy, and it really started with some of our better players. So we have some work to do there, though I liked some of the offense we got going. But we can’t run and gun. We’re not going to run and gun.
“I like Newbury. I like Kolarik. He’s going to get an opportunity. Newbury is going to get an opportunity. Weise has done a pretty good job. Newbury and Kolarik are going to stay in the lineup. Not sure with Dale. We might try Brodie. Again, Dale hasn’t done anything wrong, but I also want to look at Dupont maybe in a role and see where that goes.”
Dupont’s NHL debut during the Rangers’ hectic pre-All-Star stretch of five games in seven days could come Saturday night in Atlanta or Monday night in Washington.
FALCONS FREE OF FORMER TEAMMATE
The Whale visits the Falcons on Saturday night at 7:30 in the latest edition of the always intriguing I-91 series. The Whale is 1-1-1-1 against the Falcons (19-20-1-3), their lone victory being 5-2 at the MassMutual Center in the teams’ last meeting on Nov. 19 as Kolarik got some revenge with two goals and an assist against his former team. It alleviated the angst that Kolarik felt after former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers, the man for whom Kolarik was traded eight days earlier, set up the tying goal and scored the clinching shootout goal to give the Falcons a 4-3 victory.
Despite his trade, Kolarik remained popular among his former teammates, many of whom stopped to say hi and offer congratulations as he waited outside his old locker room.
Kolarik has 13 goals, 10 assists and is plus-6 in 25 games since the trade despite being injured for two games.
“I missed a few games, but I’ve actually felt better since I’ve got back (on Jan. 7),” Kolarik said. “If you look at the (five) games that I’ve played since I got back, it’s been a struggle to put up points for myself and we haven’t done that well since I’ve been back (no points and 1-3 until Sunday), but I’ve been getting the chances. I was talking to (Whale play-by-play man Bob Crawford) before the game and he’s like, ‘It’s good that I’m calling your name a lot.’
“It’s a little frustrating, but my feet felt good, the mental side of my game was good and I think the (five) days off might have helped me a little. Things went my way and things went our way (Sunday), so that’s good.”
But not before overcoming a common malady for talented goal-scorers who are barely missing the net instead of burying their chances.
“You grip the stick a little bit tighter,” Kolarik said with a smile. “It’s like squeezing stuff out of a banana.”
But Kolarik squeezed the stuffing out of the AHL’s top team, who came to town on a seven-game winning streak and with a staggering 32-8-0-0 record in the first half of the season.
The Falcons, who ended a four-game losing streak with a 6-5 victory over Charlotte on Friday night, are led by center Trevor Smith (14 goals, 15 assists), who has two goals in four games since being acquired on Jan. 4 from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Nate Guenin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2002, right wing Tomas Kubalik (14, 13) and Byers (8, 17), who has five goals, 11 assists and is minus-2 in 30 games with Springfield. Rookie John Moore leads Falcons defensemen in scoring (2, 14) and will represent the team in the AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. Former Wolf Pack goalie David LeNeveu (11-11-2, 3.00 goals-against average, .895 save percentage) is 3-1 against his former team, stopping 106 of 117 shots, including 84 of 90 in the third victories.
WHALERS-BRUINS LEGENDS FACE OFF ON FEB. 19
Park and fellow Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, headline the Bruins legends team that will play against the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. before the Whale faces the Providence Bruins at 7 p.m. The doubleheader is part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, where construction of the rink began Monday. In case of bad weather, the Whale-Bruins game will be played Feb. 20 at the XL Center.
Other early commitments for the Bruins team are former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 season in Beantown and two with the Rangers, Reggie Lemelin, Ken Hodge, Don Marcotte, Rick Smith, Bob Sweeney, Lyndon Byers, Cleon Daskalakis, Jay Miller, Bob Miller (no relation) and Ken “The Rat” Linseman, who was a member of the Whalers as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Early commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, former captain Russ Anderson, Blaine Stoughton, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Norm Barnes and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne. Emile “The Cat” Francis, a coach and general manager with the Rangers and Whalers, will be back behind the bench again.
Celebrities scheduled to play with one of the legends teams include Michael Keaton, Alan Thicke and David E. Kelley, son of New England and Hartford Whalers coach and general manager Jack Kelley and the writer of the 1999 hit film “Mystery, Alaska,” which was produced by Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Howard Baldwin and his wife, Karen. “Mystery, Alaska” cast members slated to appear are Michael Buie, Scott Richard Grimes, Jason Gray-Stanford, Kevin Durand, Fred J. Dukes and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonough, Kevin Zegers and the Hanson brothers – Steve, Jeff and Dave – who were the comedic linchpins of the classic movie “Slap Shot.”
Tickets ($20 to $85) for the doubleheader can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366. They also can be purchased online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com.
Bulldogs 7, Whale 3
Hamilton 3 1 3 – 7
Connecticut 2 1 0 – 3
1st Period-1, Hamilton, Bishop 1 (Dumont, Nash), 1:50. 2, Hamilton, Palushaj 7 (Nash, Sanford), 3:05 (PP). 3, Hamilton, Nash 3 (Maxwell, Klubertanz), 6:02 (PP). 4, Connecticut, Garlock 2 (Del Zotto), 6:51 (SH). 5, Connecticut, Grachev 9 (Kennedy, Del Zotto), 14:48 (PP). Penalties-Nightingale Ct (interference), 2:12; Bickel Ct (boarding), 4:33; Nightingale Ct (cross-checking), 5:41; St. Denis Ham (hooking), 11:16; Carle Ham (high-sticking), 13:25; Klubertanz Ham (cross-checking), 14:10; Dumont Ham (major – boarding, fighting, game misconduct – boarding), 16:58; McKelvie Ct (roughing, fighting), 16:58.
2nd Period-6, Connecticut, Williams 3 (Redden, Williams), 0:31 (PP). 7, Hamilton, Wyman 12 (Avtsin), 18:02. Penalties-Urquhart Ham (tripping), 5:22; Henry Ham (high-sticking), 12:37; Kundratek Ct (boarding), 14:47.
3rd Period-8, Hamilton, Masse 1 (Henry, Klubertanz), 1:03. 9, Hamilton, Maxwell 7 (Nash, Klubertanz), 5:20 (PP). 10, Hamilton, Maxwell 8 (Palushaj, Festerling), 7:01. Penalties-served by Chappell Ct (bench minor – too many men), 3:46; Garlock Ct (tripping), 3:46; Palushaj Ham (holding), 10:19; Bishop Ham (high-sticking), 13:27.
Shots on Goal-Hamilton 9-7-12-28. Connecticut 14-8-9-31.
Power Play Opportunities-Hamilton 3 / 6; Connecticut 2 / 9.
Goalies-Hamilton, Sanford 17-7-1 (31 shots-28 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 13-14-3 (6 shots-3 saves); Pelletier 0-1-0 (22 shots-18 saves).
Referees-Mark Lemelin (84).
Linesmen-Kevin Redding (16), Derek Wahl (46).