By Bruce Berlet
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – After allowing a team season-high seven goals-against in a 7-3 home loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday, the Connecticut Whale improved all facets of their game in a 5-1 road victory over the Springfield Falcons on Saturday night before 6,232 at the MassMutual Center.
Goalie Chad Johnson, pulled after allowing three goals on six shots in the loss to Hamilton, denied Chris D’Alvise’s semi-breakaway and rebound at 45 seconds after allowing two goals on the first two shots Friday night.
While Johnson was bouncing back with 35 saves, Evgeny Grachev notched his first hat trick and Devin DiDiomete his first two-goal game as the Whale (22-17-2-5) improved to 2-1-1-1 against the Falcons (19-20-1-3), who lost their fifth game in six starts.
“Things like (Friday) night happens, there are going to be games like that, and I can’t worry about, just come out and battle and help the team win games, which is what I wanted to do tonight,” said Johnson, named the game’s No. 3 star. “I just played like (Friday night’s) game didn’t happen and played for today.
“I didn’t worry about what I did positive or negative from the previous day. It’s worrying about preparing for the next game, and that’s kind of what my focus was tonight. It’s important to get that first save. (Friday) night a guy came down, shot through some traffic and beat me, and they kind of had momentum off that. We knew we had to have a good first period, and that definitely meant me having good period, too, and making saves when I had to. There were some bouncing pucks, but you just have to follow through and be smooth and crisp. We got the two points, which is most important.”
Grachev put the Whale ahead to stay with two goals in 29 seconds late in a first period off a wrist shot to the top corner and strong move for a shot into an open net off a second assist from Tim Kennedy.
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“The hat trick was nice, but I want to thank my teammates who shared the moment with me and for sure my linemates (Kennedy and All-Star Jeremy Williams),” said Grachev, who has 11 of his 12 goals and five of his six assists since returning from the Rangers on Nov. 8. “Good teams find a way to come back after a tough night, and we did tonight. And good for Chad. He really came back after a tough night. He’s a pro and knows how to handle stuff. … The last few weeks here, I’ve played better and scored some goals.”
The Falcons nearly duplicated the Bulldogs on Friday night, but Johnson made a terrific stop on D’Alvise breaking down the slot at 45 seconds. Jeremy Williams then had a quality chance off a Wade Redden pass at 4:21, but Swedish rookie Gustaf Wesslau (14 saves) slid across to make the stop in his first appearance against the Whale.
The Whale then allowed only one shot on back-to-back Falcons power plays, but Johnson made an alert save with 8:04 left in the period on a screen shot by Kyle Wilson, reassigned to Springfield by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.
Grachev then got his rapid-fire goals for a 2-0 Whale lead. On the Whale’s first power play, Del Zotto got the puck to Kennedy, who burst into the left circle and dropped a pass to Grachev, whose wrist shot beat Wesslau to the glove side with 5:50 left. It extended Grachev’s goal-scoring streak to three games, tying the team high this season.
Off the ensuing faceoff, Kennedy’s bad-angle shot deflected off Falcons defenseman David Savard to Grachev, who picked up the loose puck and it into an open net with 5:21 to go, enabling the Whale to shoot .333 in the first period (2-for-6).
Chris McKelvie, recalled from Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday, nearly gave the Whale a 3-0 lead at 3:48 of the second period, but Wesslau slid across to deny his backhander.
But the Whale did take a three-goal lead at 10:48 off some real hustle work by the line of DiDiomete, Ryan Garlock and Bretton Cameron, signed to a Professional Tryout agreement earlier in the day from the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL. Strong forechecking led to DiDiomete banging in the rebound of Cameron’s shot from 25 feet in the slot at 10:48.
The Falcons got only one shot in the opening 16:23 of the second period, but it was a wraparound goal by Wilson, who had raced down the left wing and got a step on Whale defenseman Jared Nightingale.
Johnson kept the Whale ahead with a nifty right pad stop on Wilson off a pass from Tom Sestito with 3:10 left in the period. Wesslau then made the save of the game to keep the Falcons in the game with 17.7 seconds to go as he denied a wide-open Kennedy from 15 feet in the slot off a brilliant behind-the-back pass from Grachev.
But the Whale got lax in the final seconds of the period, and Johnson was alert to deny Wilson off a pass from Byers, acquired Nov. 8 for wing Chad Kolarik, who was called up by the Rangers on Thursday.
The Falcons got their fourth power play early in the third period, but Johnson made bang-bang saves on Sestito’s shot from the right circle and Wilson’s rebound at 1:28. Johnson then stopped Wilson out of the right corner at 4:29 and D’Alvise off the left wing on a 2-on-1 at 5:06.
Trevor Frischmon drew a goaltender interference penalty for running Johnson at 6:10, but the Whale goalie stayed in and made good stops on Byers and Wilson during the Falcons’ fifth power play.
DiDiomete got his first two-goal game into an empty net with 1:13 left, and Grachev completed his first pro hat trick off a pass from Jeremy Williams with 49.6 seconds to go.
“Everyone recognized who had the tough nights (Friday) night, and the good thing to see was the guys in the room and on the bench acknowledge one another for their ability to come back or the desire to improve upon (Friday) night, which are good signs from team perspective,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “I thought there were a lot of good bounce back efforts by a number of people, starting with Chad, who made the big stops early and again in the third when it was 3-1.
“I didn’t show them any film, just addressed one or two individual plays that had a recurring theme. Chad made some good saves, the defense broke up some really good opportunities with plays net-front and active sticks, and I don’t think we allowed as many opportunities via special teams, turnovers, little things like that. Everything was better tonight. And the message is no different (Saturday night) than (Friday) night. There are opportunities for guys for an increase in responsibility and role. The onus is on the guys to take advantage of it.”
DiDiomete led that category as he came within inches of his first pro trick during a last-minute power play that he wouldn’t have been on if so many players hadn’t been called up.
“Anytime guys get called up or there are injuries, I’ll have an increased role on the team, and it’s nice that (Gernander) trusts me to put me on the ice in situations like that (at the end),” said DiDiomete, who doubled his goal output for the season. “It’s good to be contributing after (Friday) night obviously was not a good game for us. (Johnson) was definitely our best player. He played really well. We needed him, and he was there for us.”
WHALE SIGNS CAMERON TO PTO
Cameron was signed to a professional tryout contract to give the Whale 12 forwards with five on recall to the Rangers. Cameron, who was in Whale training camp, had a team-high 13 goals, 10 assists and was plus-10 in 29 games with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL. Last season, Cameron had a team-high 40 goals and 27 assists in 68 games with Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League. The Whale again went with seven defensemen, but Jyri Niemi played at left wing alongside McKelvie and Oren Eizenman. The Whale scratched wing Chris Chappell, recalled from Greenville of the ECHL on Thursday, and injured goalie Cameron Talbot and center Todd White.
… One of backup goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier’s teammates with Laredo of the CHL before he signed a PTO with the Whale on Wednesday was Aaron Boogaard, younger brother of Rangers wing Derek Boogaard. Both are enforcers and own a hockey fighting camp that they do in the summers to teach would-be enforcers how in protect themselves. Derek is one of seven Rangers forwards to be sidelined for significant time this season and why five Whale forwards have been called up. The latest, wing Brodie Dupont, made his NHL debut Saturday against the Atlanta Thrashers on a line with call-up center Kris Newbury and captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury. Dupont replaced Dale Weise, a healthy scratch.
… Wilson made his Falcons debut after being sent down by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. Wilson, 26, had four goals and seven assists in 31 games with the Blue Jackets after being a free-agent signing on July 2. He played the past three seasons in the Washington Capitals organization and has four goals and nine assists in 31 NHL games with the Capitals and Blue Jackets. The Falcons scratched Tyler Murovich and injured Mike Blunden, Mike Commodore, Tomas Kana, Kyle Neuber, Michael Ratchuk, Nikita Filatov, Chris Francis and Trevor Smith, who had two goals in three games with Springfield before sustaining a foot injury.
POMPEA SEES FIRST FALCONS CAME AS OWNER
Charles Pompea became the Falcons’ majority owner on Dec. 21. He has undergraduate and Masters degrees from the University of New Haven and used to watch the New Haven Blades. He now spends his summers in Old Saybrook and winters in Jupiter, Fla. He got seriously interested in buying into the Falcons on Oct. 10, when he played in a charity golf tournament with longtime team official Bruce Landon, a former goalie with the New England Whalers who remained president and general manager.
“I met Bruce two years ago, and then we played in a tournament, and I didn’t believe what they said,” said Pompea, a retired steel executive. “The team wasn’t doing very well, but I saw how loyal the fans were. I said this is one of the lowest-drawing fan bases in the AHL, so if we could give them a little excitement and show people how much fun they can have at one of these games, I think we can fill this place up or get 4-5,000 people a game.”
TIP-A-PLAYER DINNER SUNDAY
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, visit www.ctwhale.com.
WHALERS-BRUINS LEGENDS FACE OFF ON FEB. 19
Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team that will play against the 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.
Park also will make a special appearance Saturday night before the Whale hosts the Portland Pirates and former Whalers star Kevin Dineen. Park will meet and greet fans and sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then drop the ceremonial first puck.
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.
WHALE 5, FALCONS 1
Connecticut 2 1 2 – 5
Springfield 0 1 0 – 1
1st Period-1, Connecticut, Grachev 10 (Kennedy, Del Zotto), 14:10 (PP). 2, Connecticut, Grachev 11 (Williams, Kennedy), 14:39. Penalties-Bickel Ct (interference), 8:28; Kundratek Ct (hooking), 11:38; Mayorov Spr (goaltender interference), 13:57.
2nd Period-3, Connecticut, DiDiomete 4 (Cameron, Garlock), 10:48. 4, Springfield, Wilson 1 13:36. Penalties-Soryal Ct (holding), 6:36.
3rd Period-5, Connecticut, DiDiomete 5 18:47 (EN). 6, Connecticut, Grachev 12 (Williams), 19:10. Penalties-Bickel Ct (tripping), 0:14; Frischmon Spr (goaltender interference), 6:10; Del Zotto Ct (tripping), 8:03; Regner Spr (tripping), 19:29.
Shots on Goal-Connecticut 7-4-8-19. Springfield 10-7-16-33.
Power Play Opportunities-Connecticut 1 / 3; Springfield 0 / 5.
Goalies-Connecticut, Johnson 13-14-3 (36 shots-35 saves). Springfield, Wesslau 6-8-1 (18 shots-14 saves).
Referees-Geno Binda (22).
Linesmen-Chris Low (88), Frank Murphy (29).