By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – It was hardly a super goal on Super Bowl Sunday, but the Portland Pirates were more than happy to accept it.
The Connecticut Whale would have been, too.
Instead, defenseman T.J. Brennan picked up a loose puck near the blue line, skated toward the corner and fired a bad-angle shot that hit goalie Chad Johnson, then the post and the keeper’s leg before trickling into the net with 3:12 left to give the Pirates a 3-2 victory over the Whale before 3,458 at the XL Center.
“As I was skating in, I saw two guys (Colin Stuart and Corey Tropp) crashing the net, so I just wanted to get the puck on the net, and that’s what I did,” Brennan said. “When I skated around (the net), I saw the puck was over the goal line because (Johnson) never had control of it. Thank God it counted.”
Much like Derek Whitmore’s power-play goal with 7.5 seconds left that gave the Pirates a 3-2 victory in their previous visit to the XL Center on Jan. 29.
Brennan’s score decided a fifth one-goal game between the teams this season, with the Pirates (30-15-4-1) evening the series at three after blowing an early 2-0 lead. It helped alleviate the pain of a 4-3 loss at home Saturday night, when the Pirates surrendered three one-goal leads. But this time they prevailed and moved within two points of idle Atlantic Division-leading Manchester.
The loss prevented the Whale (24-21-2-5) from passing Worcester for third place in the Atlantic Division, but they remained five points ahead of fifth-place Providence, which lost 4-3 to Charlotte. The Whale have lost five of their last six games at home, fell to 12-13-2-1 overall at home, and are 12 points behind Manchester and 10 back of the Pirates.
No one felt worse about Brennan’s fortuitous goal than Johnson.
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“It was just an ugly goal, just a bad goal,” Johnson said. “(Brennan) just came down the wing, hit the post and the puck kind of went on my right pad. I really didn’t get a good look at it, but it was just kind of sitting on my leg. I tried kind of leaning forward because I could feel it kind of rolling down the side of my leg. I didn’t know if it was over the line or not. I heard the whistle, and then I saw the ref coming into the picture and he’s pointing goal, goal, goal.
“It’s a tough goal. There are (three) minutes left in the game, and it was one I probably have to play a lot differently. I felt I was in good position, it just somehow got by me and hit the post. I didn’t really give him anything to shoot at except the post, and it got by me. Then it was a play down by feet, so I just tried to cover up all the holes that I could wherever I thought the puck was, and when I looked behind me, the puck was sitting right over the line a little bit.
“All these games (with the Pirates) seem to come down to the last five minutes, when teams obviously pick it up because it’s kind of like an overtime atmosphere. It’s tough because we had our chances and played good in a back-and-forth game, but it just comes down to a bad goal. I’ve got to have those. This time of year it cost the team getting a point, so it’s just disappointing.”
Pirates coach Kevin Dineen, who saw his share of good and bad goals during his years as a standout right wing and captain with the Hartford Whalers, wasn’t about to complain about his team passing another survival test.
“It wasn’t a masterpiece, but you never critique the two points,” Dineen said. “We were in a game where we got so badly outplayed in one period (the second), but I liked our response in the third. I’m just so respectful of the talent over there that you’re trying to weather the storm sometimes. Some of the play over there, specifically (former Pirates center) Tim Kennedy, who’s NHL-worthy, playing fabulous hockey and making a pretty good career against us, is a credit to their team.
“But we didn’t play a great game, didn’t respond to the amount of effort and pressure they were putting on us. We looked like the team that played three games in three days, but I liked our last seven or eight minutes. There was a lot of emotion that went into that game, and I think we responded well. Their best players were the best players and hardest-working guys this weekend, and I can’t say the same thing about my group. But that’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes your identity comes from your worker-bees, and they certainly got it done for us this weekend.”
After Brennan got the tie-breaker, David Leggio (33 save) made stellar stops on Wade Redden and Evgeny Grachev with 1:43 and 1:32 left. The Whale then pulled Johnson for a sixth attacker, and Leggio preserved the victory when he stopped Jason Williams cruising in off left wing with 1:02 left. After a Whale timeout, Williams’ deflection with eight seconds to go went just wide right.
But fortunately for the Pirates, Brennan’s shot somehow found its way into the net.
“It’s really tough when you feel after those first two goals that you really took control of the game,” said Kennedy, who scored the Whale’s first goal. “It’s just one of those kind of fluke goals that can beat you and leaves a sour taste in your mouth. We didn’t have the best start, but after that, they had their chance here or there, but I thought we really carried the play.
“It’s just a tough loss because we’re trying to catch those guys, and that’s two points that I think we should have.”
As for his success against his former team, Kennedy smiled and said, “I think they (the parent Buffalo Sabres) are still paying me. I’ve definitely had some pretty good games against (the Pirates), but I think that’s just because when you’ve played for a team and are playing against your own friends, you get up a little more for it. We’ve had some pretty good games against them, but it still hurts not to win.”
The Whale might have won if they hadn’t gone without a power play for only the second time in 14 seasons, the other being on Nov. 17, 2007, when they won 3-2 at Lowell. But they were fortunate Johnson was ready at the start as he made a big save off Brian Roloff just 15 seconds into the game and a good right-pad stop on All-Star Luke Adam at 1:32. Leggio then had a right-pad save on Whale All-Star Jeremy Williams at 4:13 before the Pirates scored twice in 2:31.
Justin Bowers broke a scoreless tie at 13:47 when he cruised through the slot and deflected Igor Gongalsky’s shot from the right circle past Johnson. A few shifts later, Adam dropped a pass to NHL veteran Mark Parrish, whose shot from 30 feet in the slot deflected off the stick of Whale center Kris Newbury and past Johnson with 3:42 left in the period.
But just 46 seconds later, Kennedy again haunted his former team. Defenseman Jyri Niemi passed from the left point to the right circle to Kennedy, who maneuvered into position and beat Leggio to the far stick side for his third goal in six games against the Pirates this season. The previous two were overtime game-winners on Dec. 29 and 31.
“It was a nice pass from Jyri, but this time the goalie took away the glove side so I had to go stick side and caught him cheating a little bit,” said Kennedy, named to the AHL all-rookie team in 2008-09 when he led all rookies in assists (49) and points (67) while with the Pirates.
Johnson kept it a one-goal game with glove save on Roloff at 1:36 of the second period, then Leggio denied Chad Kolarik breaking in off right wing at 7:09. The Whale then lost a bid to tie when Kelsey Tessier lost the puck on a breakaway at 9:14.
On the ensuing shift, Johnson robbed Roloff in the slot and redirected the puck to Kolarik, who raced down right wing on a 2-on-1 and took a shot from the top of the circle that beat Leggio to the far stick side at 10:04 for his 20th goal. It was his third goal in two days against the Pirates and fourth in six games against Portland since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Springfield Falcons for Hartford Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Nov. 11.
Johnson, who got his second assist of the season on Kolarik’s goal, kept it tied when he stopped Dennis McCauley in close with 3:26 left in the period before Leggio denied Jason Williams in front with 1:58 to go. A backhander by the Pirates’ Tim Conboy found the net moments after the second-period horn sounded.
Kolarik threatened again off a pass from Kennedy 3:32 into the third period, but Leggio came out to keep the game tied. After the teams sparred for several minutes, Johnson got his shoulder on a right-circle blast with 7:48 left by Mark Mancari, who leads the AHL with 28 goals.
The teams then searched for the slightest opening that might make the difference, and Brennan found it.
“You have two pretty equally matched teams, and your start isn’t up to par and the last shot on goal is one I’m sure Chad would like to have back,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “I guess that can be the difference, can’t it?
WHALE SCRATCH SAME FOURSOME
The Whale again scratched goalie Cam Talbot (high ankle sprain), center Todd White (concussion) and wings Dale Weise (undisclosed injury) and wing Chris McKelvie (foot surgery). The Pirates scratched forward Travis Turnbull (shoulder) and two defensemen, All-Star Drew Schiestel (knee) and Alex Biega (knee). … This was the Whale’s last game at the XL Center until March 2, when they play the Springfield Falcons. They host the Providence Bruins on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m., but that’s at Rentschler Field in East Hartford and follows a 4 p.m. between the Hartford Whalers legends and the Boston Bruins legends in the start of the Harvest-Properties.com “Whale Bowl.” Army plays AIC in a college game at 1 p.m.
The Whale’s ensuing home game is March 11 against the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, as they play 10 of their next 12 games on the road, including their only trips to Toronto, Hamilton, Ontario, and Charlotte, N.C. They leave Tuesday for Toronto, where they face the Marlies on Wednesday morning at 11:00, trying to avenge a 4-0 loss at home in the teams’ first meeting on Nov. 9, in which rookie goalie Jussi Rynas made 33 saves. The Marlies (24-20-0-7), who are battling for a playoff spot in the North Division, are led by veteran center Mike Zigomanis (eight goals, 24 assists), left wing Fabian Brunnstrom (14, 13), rookie center Nazem Kadri (9, 16) and defenseman Matt Lashoff (7, 18). Rynnas is 9-13-3 with a 2.79 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and one shutout. … The Whale’s Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival raised $32,000 for the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. Center Ryan Garlock and defenseman Jared Nightingale collected the most “Puck Bucks” for doing various activities as the team increased its eight-year take for Gaylord to about $285,000. The Whale and Gaylord families thank all the fans who attended, all the volunteers who donated their time and all the restaurants that provided the food and drink. As usual, it was “A Whale of a Time” for a terrific cause that has benefitted so many people. … Sunday was the 31st anniversary of the first NHL game in the rebuilt and enlarged Hartford Civic Center, a 7-3 Whalers’ victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
WOMEN HUSKIES, HUSKIES TIE IN PRELIM
The recent record snowfall gave several local college teams, especially UConn, a chance to practice and play in the XL Center. And they even got to hear the Whalers’ famed theme song, “Brass Bonanza,” as the UConn teams skated out before each period.
The UConn men’s and women’s teams began working out in Hartford on Wednesday when the Freitas Ice Forum on the UConn campus was deemed unsafe until snow and ice was removed from the roof. The teams will practice at the XL Center at least one more day before hopefully staying on campus.
The UConn men lost 5-3 at the XL Center on Saturday night, and the UConn women tied Northeastern 2-2 in the preliminary to the Pirates’ 3-2, win thanks largely to junior goalie Alexandra Garcia of Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Garcia had 33 saves but didn’t take a loss when Taylor Gross’ 30-foot shot from the slot trickled through Northeastern goalie Leah Sulyma’s legs at 5:08 of the third period. Stephanie Raithby, who scored UConn’s first goal, missed the net on a breakaway 18 seconds into overtime, and Kristi Kehoe, who scored Northeastern’s first goal on a nifty backhander, hit the crossbar at 1:24.
UConn, coming off a 3-2 overtime loss at Boston College on Saturday, is 12-16-2 overall and 8-7-2 in Hockey East. Northeastern is 14-9-5, 6-7-4.
The UConn teams will be part of the historic “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” that is scheduled to begin Friday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. “UConn Day” is Sunday, when the alumni plays at 9 a.m., followed by the men’s team facing Sacred Heart at 1 p.m. and the women meeting Providence at 4 p.m. … UConn freshman forward Alexandra Vakos of Hamden was named Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Month for the month of January. Vakas had three goals, all game-winners, and three assists in nine games. She had a career-high three points (one goal, two assists) in a win over Robert Morris.
HARVEST-PROPERTIES HOCKEY FEST 2011 STARTS THIS WEEK
The “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” is scheduled to begin Friday at 4 p.m. with the first of 30 outdoor games between the girls’ teams from Hotchkiss School (Lakeville) and Cushing Academy (Ashburnham, Mass.), the opener of a tripleheader.
The featured attraction is the Harvest-Properties.com “Whale Bowl” on Feb. 19, when celebrities will participate in a game between the Whalers legends and Bruins legends at 4 p.m., followed by the Whale-Providence game at 7 p.m. In case of bad weather, the Whale-Bruins game will be played Feb. 20.
Hall of Fame defensemen Brian Leetch, a Cheshire native, and Brad Park headline the Bruins legends team. Other commitments are Enfield native Craig Janney, former captain Rick Middleton, who played 12 seasons in Boston and 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 for a few moments as he passed through in a multi-player trade with Philadelphia and Edmonton that included Mark Howe leaving Hartford for the Flyers. Derek Sanderson will coach the Bruins team.
Commitments for the Whalers team are WHA Hall of Famer Andre Lacroix, John McKenzie, whose No. 19 is retired in the XL Center rafters, Blaine Stoughton, Pat Verbeek, John Anderson, Garry Swain, Bob Crawford, Chris Kotsopoulos, Jim Dorey, Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson, Mark Janssens, Bill Bennett, Jeff Brubaker, Fred O’Donnell, Terry Yake, Scott Daniels 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, and Norm Barnes and former captain Russ Anderson will be assistant coaches.
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 and Cameron Bancroft, along with Neal McDonough, Kevin Zegers, Bobby Farrelly, David Henrie 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.
The official charity of the Hockey Fest is “Sam’s Race for a Place,” a fund-raising effort spearheaded by West Hartford resident Samantha Udolf that benefits the Ronald McDonald House. Since Udolf, a successful competitive skier, founded Sam’s Race for a Place in June of 2008, it has generated donations of more than $43,500.
The Ronald McDonald House is a non-profit charity operating since 1991 that helps hundreds of families and children enjoy the comforts of home while they await treatment at area medical facilities. Udolf became familiar with Ronald McDonald House and its good works while volunteering there, and she conceived Sam’s Race for a Place after learning it is independently-funded and depends on grass-roots campaigns for nearly all of its support.
For more information about Sam’s Race for a Place, visit www.samsraceforaplace.com. Donations also can be made through that web address. Besides the games, the Hockey Fest will include “Whale Town” featuring exhibitors, games and the Whalers Mobile Hall of Fame.
MR. TOUGH GUYS
Don’t ever say hockey players or even coaches aren’t the toughest hombres in all of sports. Getting stitched up and returning to the ice by the next period is common for most players. But Worcester Sharks coach Roy Sommer earned special kudos Friday night.
Sommer, whose 13 seasons in the San Jose organization is the AHL’s longest coaching run, sustained a broken nose when a deflected puck hit him in the face during the first period of a 4-3 shootout victory over Manchester. Sommer immediately went to his knees and was escorted to the locker room, where he was treated by trainer Matt White. Sommer soon returned to the bench with Q-tips sticking out of his nostrils and a piece of tape across his nose for the rest of the game.
“Never saw it coming,” Sommer told Worcester Telegram & Gazette writer Bill Ballou. “Even if I had, I’m not sure I could’ve gotten out of the way, not with the cat-like reflexes I’ve got.”
Sommer said it wasn’t his worst injury behind the bench. An opposing player once tried to tomahawk one of his players and missed.
“I got El-Kabonged,” Sommer said.
Sommer was back behind the bench Saturday night, when the Sharks beat Providence 2-0 behind 20 saves from rookie Carter Hutton, who notched his first pro shutout in his 16th pro game. Hutton was playing because the Sharks’ No. 1 goalie, Alex Stalock, was injured late in Friday night’s game.… Former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya relieved Matt Climie in the third period, made 13 saves in regulation and overtime and then stopped all five Lake Erie shootout tries to lead visiting San Antonio to a 5-4 victory Saturday night. Defenseman Garrett Stafford scored the only shootout goal, as the Rampage won their fourth consecutive game and are on a 6-0-1 run to tie Milwaukee for first place in the West Division. … Rookie center Nick Bonino, who excelled at Farmington High and Avon Old Farms, scored twice as Syracuse beat league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 4-2 Saturday night. … Former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes scored his 23rd goal and Stratford native Jaime Sifers had two assists to help the Chicago Wolves beat Peoria 4-2 Saturday night. … The Monarchs (31-16-1-4), who got 26 saves from rookie All-Star Martin Jones in a 4-0 victory at Albany on Saturday night, are 11-1-1-0 against the two Connecticut teams (5-0-1-0 vs. Bridgeport and 6-1-0-0 vs. the Whale) and 20-15-0-4 against the rest of the league. … The Sound Tigers will take over operations of Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport from Centerplate if they receive approval from the city council Monday night. Sound Tigers president Howard Saffan, who is also the senior vice president of operations for the parent New York Islanders, said the tentative agreement was reached after six months of negotiations. “With the New York Islanders going into the entertainment business with Nassau Coliseum, which we took over the management of last year, we wanted to take advantage of our relationships and pursue the entertainment industry in Fairfield County,” Saffan told Mike Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post. If the Sound Tigers win approval, they would take over the original lease, which runs until 2021. Mayor Bill Finch’s office said Centerplate will continue to provide food and beverage services while the team will book the arena. A 4-1 loss to the Falcons on Saturday night was the Sound Tigers’ sixth in a row and dropped them to 1-11-2-1 in 2011. … The Falcons postponed a scheduled game Tuesday night against the Sound Tigers to Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. It was rescheduled to allow crews time to remove snow and ice from the MassMutual Center roof and the surrounding area. The rescheduled date also gives the crews more time to completely execute the changeover from the Disney on Ice Show that occupied the building last week back to the original ice surface.
MILFORD NATIVE QUICK CONTINUES WINNING SHOOTOUT WAYS
Hamden native Jonathan Quick continued to build on a stellar season Saturday night as he stopped five consecutive shootout attempts, two with help from a post, as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Calgary Flames 4-3 to improve to 2-0-1 on a 10-game road trip.
After allowing two goals in the skills competition, the Flames couldn’t score again on Quick, who made a spectacular, falling-backwards glove stop on Curtis Glencross in the fourth round on the way to going 6-0 in shootouts and ending Calgary’s six-game winning streak. Quick (24-14-1, 2.14 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, career-high five shutouts) is only the third goalie in Kings’ history to win 20 games in a season, joining Rogie Vachon and Kelly Hrudey.
Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff also allowed two quick goals and then stopped four shots before Justin Williams beat him after getting a goal and two assists in regulation. It was the Kings’ first win in Calgary in 11 tries since Dec. 21, 2005, and moved them into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, one point ahead of the Flames.
PIRATES 3, WHALE 2
Portland 2 0 1 – 3
Connecticut 1 1 0 – 2
First period: 1. Port, Bowers 4 (Gongalsky, McCauley), 13:47. 2. Port, Parrish 8 (Adam, Tropp), 16:18. 3. Conn, Kennedy 10 (Niemi), 17:04. Penalties: Nightingale, Ct (slashing), 0:15; Kolarik, Ct (unsportsmanlike conduct, misconduct-unsportsmanlike conduct), 7:11.
Second period: 4. Conn, Kolarik 20 (Johnson), 10:04. Penalties: None.
Third period: 5. Port, Brennan 6 (Stuart, Tropp), 16:48. Penalties: None.
Shots on goal: Portland 15-9-8-32. Connecticut 12-10-13-35; Power-play opportunities: Portland 0 of 2; Connecticut 0 of 0; Goalies: Portland, Leggio 14-4-0 (35 shots-33 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 15-18-3 (32-29); A: 3,458; Referees: Francis Charron, Geno Binda; Linesmen: Paul Simeon, Derek Wahl.