By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – The Portland Pirates played beat the clock on the power play Saturday night and came away with one of their most stirring victories of the season.
Left wing Derek Whitmore took a pass from behind the net from Corey Tropp about 35 feet in the slot and beat Connecticut Whale goalie Chad Johnson high to the glove side with 7.5 seconds left to give the Pirates a 3-2 victory before 10,872 at the XL Center.
“I came off the bench and tried to find the seam,” Whitmore said after scoring his 19th goal. “(Defenseman) Nick Crawford was working the puck down low. Tropp made a good play to the slot. I knew there wasn’t much time, and I tried to shoot it past the guy coming out at me (Chad Kolarik) and was able to find the back of the net.”
Johnson’s head dropped after allowing a goal set up by Dale Weise’s interference penalty with 1:38 left. It earned Weise a post-game, closed-door meeting with coach Ken Gernander.
“It was a great game and hugely disappointing,” Gernander said. “Their goalie (David Leggio) played good, but we had a lot of guys who really worked hard, paid the price and did extra duty when we shortened the bench.”
Weise admitted that his penalty was ill-timed.
“Obviously not a smart play by me,” said Weise, playing his third game since being one of six players reassigned by the parent New York Rangers earlier in the week. “I’m an emotional player, and sometimes I cross the line. I crossed the line tonight, and it cost us the game. I don’t feel good about it, but it’s a mistake, and I’ll learn from it.”
Weise’s mistake led to the Pirates (29-14-4-1) finishing 2-for-3 on the power play as they won their fifth in six starts and remained one point behind Atlantic Division-leading Manchester, which beat Bridgeport, 3-2. Leggio had 36 saves for his second straight win over the former Hartford Wolf Pack, the other being a 21-save shutout in a 3-0 victory at home on Jan. 14.
Meanwhile, the Whale (22-20-2-5) lost their third in a row and fifth in seven starts to fall 13 points behind the Monarchs. More importantly, they fell one point behind Worcester, which beat Providence, 3-2. The Whale also has lost four in row and six of seven at home after eight consecutive wins at the XL Center. They’re 11-12-2-1 at home and 11-8-0-4 on the road.
Besides Weise, no Whale player was more upset than Johnson (21 saves).
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“The guy made kind of a good shot past Kolarik, and I just kind of caught it at the last second and just didn’t have enough time to react to it,” Johnson said. “It’s really disappointing because it was a big moment in the game. I talked to Kolarik, and he doesn’t know how it got by him. He was in good position, it’s just the guy found some way to get it by him and then I picked it up late and it beat me. It’s tough. When they score a late goal like that, you can’t do much with seven seconds left.”
Pirates coach Kevin Dineen reiterated Gernander’s thoughts about the quality of the game and was delighted his team could pull out such a win in its eighth game in 11 days, especially after losing two more players, defenseman T.J. Brennan and right wing Maxime Legault, to injuries.
“Except for the one game, all the games against them have been extremely tight,” Dineen said. “There’s a heck of a lot of talent on the ice with good goaltending at both ends in a game with a real, real physical tone to it. We were fortunate to go two-for-three on the power play, which is a huge night for us. We talked before the game that we had to have some power-play production in order to have some long-range success. I don’t think there was much designed play. There was a lot of effort more than anything else.”
Especially on the Pirates’ first power-play goal 59 seconds into the third period when Luke Adam, who left immediately after the game for the AHL All-Star Classic in Hershey, Pa., poked the puck behind the net to Tropp, who found Matt Ellis alone 15 feet in front for a quick finish for his ninth goal and first since being reassigned by the parent Buffalo Sabres on Friday.
The goal seemed to invigorate the Pirates, and Johnson had to be sharp to stop Ellis’ backhander at 6:14. The Whale then tied it on their third power play as Brodie Dupont got inside Crawford and deflected Kris Newbury’s centering pass from the right corner past Leggio with 7:56 left.
The Whale outshot the Pirates 10-1 in the opening 14:20 but actually fell behind 1-0 when NHL veteran Mark Parrish outworked several players for the puck in the right corner and passed into the slot to a wide-open Crawford, who beat Johnson to the glove side with a shot that went in off the post.
Evgeny Grachev, a threat throughout the game thanks to the passing of linemate Tim Kennedy, nearly tied it 50 seconds later, but his deflection went off the post. But the Whale continued to press and got even when Jason Williams made a lead pass to Kelsey Tessier, who outmaneuvered defenseman Dennis Persson and feathered a pass that All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams buried into the top corner at 5:25 for his 22nd goal and 40th point, both team highs.
Grachev nearly gave the Whale the lead, but his bid out of the corner and rebound were both turned aside by Leggio with 8:24 left in the period. Johnson made his best save of the period during the Pirates’ first power play when he stopped Parrish in front with 1:32 to go.
After Johnson denied Tropp cruising in off the right point at 5:28 and Ellis hit the post 36 seconds later, the Pirates escaped the second period tied despite being outshot 13-5 thanks to Leggio. First, he made what might be the save of the season at 6:58 with a glove stab off Grachev, set up alone in front at 15 feet off a pass from behind the net by Kennedy, who was named to the 2009 AHL all-rookie team after leading all rookies in points (67) and assists (48) while with the Pirates and beat his former team with back-to-back overtime goals on Dec. 29 and 31.
Leggio stopped a good Kennedy bid at 7:31 and denied Grachev from 20 feet in the slot at 11:08. The Pirates goalie then got lucky when Dupont stole a Pirates cross-ice pass and raced off on a breakaway, only to be caught from behind with 3:42 left in the period.
Given those reprieves, the Pirates regained the lead on Ellis’ goal, then survived Dupont’s equalizer to win on Whitmore’s late heroics.
GARLOCK RETURNS AS WHITE OUT AGAIN
Center Ryan Garlock returned to the Whale lineup after missing two games with the flu and was reunited with feisty, hard-working wings Devin DiDiomete and Justin Soryal, who started the night first and eighth in the league in penalty minutes. Garlock replaced veteran Todd White, who was injured in a collision with Dupont in the first period of Friday night’s 4-2 loss to the Monarchs. It was White’s second game back after missing four with another injury. The Whale also scratched center Oren Eizenman, defenseman Jyri Niemi and injured goalie Cam Talbot (fifth game with high ankle sprain) and wing Chris McKelvie (foot surgery). … Defenseman Tim Conboy returned for the Pirates after serving a two-game suspension. But the Pirates were without injured All-Star defenseman Drew Schiestel, Travis Turnbull, Brian Roloff, and Marc-Andre Gragnani, hurt in a 4-2 loss at Providence on Friday night. To combat the injuries, the Pirates signed defenseman Kyle Bushee to a tryout contract on Friday.
After the game, Jeremy Williams left for Hershey and his first All-Star appearance at the Giant Center. The Pirates’ representative is Adam, who has 12 goals and 14 assists in 27 games with the Pirates and three goals and one assist in 18 games with the parent Buffalo Sabres. Williams and Adam were named to the Eastern Conference team and traveled together to Hershey. Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers and New Haven Nighthawks defenseman Gerry McDonald, is a Western Conference All-Star and started the night tied for second in the league in goals with Charlotte’s Jerome Samson with a career-high 23, four behind Pirates’ right wing Mark Mancari, the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week last week after getting back-to-back hat tricks last Saturday and Sunday. McDonald is one goal ahead of former Wolf Pack wings Nigel Dawes of the Chicago Wolves and the Oklahoma City Barons’ Alexandre Giroux, who is captain of the Western Conference team. Williams was tied for sixth with the Hershey Bears’ Andrew Gordon.
Williams and Adam will play for first-time All-Star coaches Mark French and assistant Troy Mann, who earned the honor by virtue of the Hershey Bears winning the 2010 Calder Cup for the second consecutive year. Rookie head coaches John Hynes of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Jared Bednar of Peoria will be co-coaches of the Western Conference team because their teams had the best record in the Western Conference as of Jan. 16.
The AHL Hall of Fame Class of 2011, to be inducted Monday at 11 a.m., is Mitch Lamoureux, Larry Wilson and the late Harry Pidhirny and Maurice Podoloff, who grew up in New Haven, graduated from Hillhouse High School and Yale and became the first person to be president of two professional league simultaneously (AHL and then NBA). AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau, former coach of the Bears and now coach of the Washington Capitals, will be the keynote speaker, and AHL graduate and 2008 Foster Hewitt Award winner Mike Emrick will be master of ceremonies.
WHALE ENDS HOMESTAND FRIDAY NIGHT
After the All-Star break, the Whale’s four-game homestand ends Friday night against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who completed their worst calendar month in franchise history (1-9-2-1) with a 3-2 loss to the Monarchs on Saturday night. The Whale then will play a home-and-home set with Portland, Saturday night at 7:05 in Maine and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the XL Center.
Former Hartford Whalers and 1986 NHL All-Stars Mark Howe and Brian Propp and ex-Whaler Alan Hangsleben will be at the XL Center on Friday night. They will hold a private, “meet and greet” reception with Whale season ticket holders and “Outdoor Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” festival ticket purchasers before the game (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and then drop the ceremonial first puck. Hangsleben also will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium during the second intermission with selected Whale players.
Friday is the 25th anniversary of the 1986 NHL All-Star Game at the Hartford Civic Center. Howe and Propp were with the Philadelphia Flyers and played on the Wales Conference team that beat the Campbell Conference 4-3 in overtime. Propp, who finished his 15-year NHL career with the Whalers, scored the first Wales goal. It was one of four All-Star appearances for Howe, the son of hockey legend Gordie Howe who was at the XL Center on Friday night scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, a job he has done since retiring from the Red Wings in 1995.
Next Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., the Grand Rink at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods will host a skate with Hangsleben and former Whalers Doug Roberts and Garry Swain, former Bruins Bob Miller and Tom Songin and Whale mascot Pucky. Fees are $10 for adults with a $5 skate rental, and $6 for children with a $2 skate rental. Hot beverages and photo opportunities are included, as well as the chance to win tickets to the “Harvest-Properties.com Whale Bowl” on Feb. 19.
HALL OF FAMER PARK MEETS FANS, DROPS PUCK
Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park greeted fans, signed autographs and dropped the ceremonial first puck before the game Saturday night. Park and fellow Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, headline the Bruins legends team that will play the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. in the opener of a doubleheader that’s part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” on Feb. 11-23 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The Whale will play Providence at 7 p.m., and in case of bad weather, that game will be Feb. 20 at the XL Center.
MORE BELATED HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ‘THE GREAT ONE’
I previously mentioned knowing I’m old when I’m wishing Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky a belated happy 50th birthday from Wednesday. Watching a 17-year-old Gretzky play his final game with the Indianapolis Racers against the New England Whalers in 1979 and being fortunate to cover the Howes when they came to Hartford and “Mr. Hockey” was still going strong at 52 against the likes of a 19-year-old Gretzky in a NHL All-Star Game were fond memories.
I was equally as fortunate to witness one of the greatest feats in sports history when Gretzky recorded five points in four consecutive games in 1982, including one goal and four assists against the Hartford Whalers on what was designated as “Feed Gretzky Night” in Edmonton before the Oilers embarked on a seven-game road trip. He was two goals shy of tying Phil Esposito’s season record of 76, and after scoring once in the first two periods, he played virtually the entire third period, staying on the ice while the Oilers’ other four skaters changed. He failed to get No. 76, but barely, whiffing on a wide-open, goal-mouth crossing pass with 45 seconds left when the puck hit a chip of ice and bounced over his stick. I can still hear – and feel – the groans reverberating through Northlands Coliseum. Heck, even I was disappointed and upset, and there’s not supposed to be any cheering in the press box.
Then after covering a Whalers game in Vancouver on Saturday night, Hall of Fame announcer Chuck Kaiton and I took a red-eye flight to Detroit for the Oilers’ game against the Red Wings on Sunday night. Despite being shadowed by Paul Woods, Gretzky scored No. 76 and added four assists. Then it was on to Buffalo, where Gretzky broke the record, was saluted on the ice by Esposito and then demonstrated why he was considered a classier act off the ice than on it. A mob of reporters awaited Gretzky after the game, but knowing his hometown reporter, future Hall of Famer Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal, needed some comments ASAP, Gretzky pulled Matheson and this reporter, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, into the back of the locker room shower and spoke with us for several minutes. It gave Jim and myself a jump on the opposition and helped immensely with deadline issues.
Now Gretzky is 50, and he and wife Janet have five children, including 22-year-old Paulina, 20-year-old Ty and 18-year-old Trevor, all of whom used to travel the NHL circuit, closing on Broadway when dad played three seasons with the Rangers before the curtain came down with “The Great Goodbye” on April 13, 1999. How appropriate! No. 99 retired in 1999. The most stunning statistic of Gretzky’s endless number of records in a mind-boggling career? If you take away all of the record 894 goals that he scored, his record 1,963 assists would still make him the NHL’s all-time scoring leader by 76 points over former Oilers teammate Mark Messier (1,887).
Later in 1999, on Nov. 22, Gretzky became the 10th player to bypass the three-year waiting period for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which announced he would be the last player to do so. He was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2000, and his No. 99 was retired league-wide at the NHL All-Star Game. It was only the second number retired league-wide by a major North American sports league, the other being Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 by Major League Baseball in 1997. In 2002, 14 years after “The Trade” to Los Angeles, the Kings held a jersey retirement ceremony and erected a life-sized statue of Gretzky outside Staples Center. The ceremony was delayed until then so owner Bruce McNall, who had recently finished a prison sentence, could attend.
Two years earlier, Gretzky had agreed to purchase a 10 percent stake in the Phoenix Coyotes in a partnership with majority owner Steve Ellman, taking on the roles of alternate governor, managing partner and head of hockey operations. He became head coach on Aug. 8, 2005, with associate head coach and former Whalers defenseman Ulf Samuelsson taking over in training camp in 2009 during an ownership dispute. Gretzky hasn’t had any official ties to the NHL since he stepped down as coach and head of hockey operations on Sept. 24, 2009.
Gretzky insists he holds no grudge toward the NHL or anyone connected with the league while continuing his connection from afar. Let’s hope the NHL never lets it come to that. No. 99 will always be No. 1 in my mind. Players today and forever should always remember that being an ambassador for the game like “The Great One” and “Mr. Hockey” should be the ultimate goal.
PIRATES 3, WHALE 2
Portland 1 0 2 – 3
Connecticut 1 0 1 – 2
First period: 1. Port, Crawford 4 (Parrish, Bowers), 3:02. 2, Connecticut, Williams 22 (Tessier, Williams), 5:25. Penalties-Byron Por (cross-checking), 6:46; McCauley Por (fighting), 9:18; Soryal Ct (fighting), 9:18; Brennan Por (delay of game), 11:28; Gongalsky Por (fighting), 14:20; DiDiomete Ct (fighting), 14:20; Weise Ct (roughing), 17:55.
Second period: No scoring. Penalty: Newbury, Ct (boarding), 19:33.
Third period: 3. Port, Ellis 9 (Tropp, Adam), 0:59 (pp). 4. Conn, Dupont 9 (Newbury, Weise), 12:04 (pp). 5. Port, Whitmore 19 (Tropp, Crawford), 19:52 (pp). Penalties: Conboy, Por (roughing, roughing), 10:52; Williams Ct (elbowing), 10:52; Weise Ct (interference), 18:22.
Shots on goal: Portland 7-5-12-24. Connecticut 12-13-13-38; Power-play opportunities: Portland 2 of 3; Connecticut 1 of 3; Goalies: Portland, Leggio 13-4-0 (38 shots-36 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 14-17-3 (24-21); A: 10,872; Referee: Chris Brown; Linesmen: Kevin Redding, Brent Colby.