By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – After a commendable four-week stretch in which they earned 17 of a possible 24 points while playing 10 of 12 games on the road and another at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, the Connecticut Whale’s major objective Friday night was to start improving their work and results at the XL Center.
Winning seven of 10 starts away from home in the most demanding stretch of the season pleased coach Ken Gernander, but playing better than .500 at home in 10 of their remaining 16 games was paramount if the Whale was to return to the Calder Cup playoffs after missing for the first time in their 14-year history last season.
But after scoring 14 goals in the previous three games, the Whale lost 2-1 to the Hershey Bears, as veteran center Brian Willsie scored the winner and assisted on Kyle Greentree’s goal before 5,819.
“The start was pretty important, and it wasn’t what I expected,” Gernander said.
“We just didn’t play our game,” said center Kris Newbury, who scored the Whale’s goal but took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 1:49 left and his team on a power play. “We just didn’t work hard enough, and that’s basically what it came down to. We had a good third period, and I think we could have put more pucks on net when we had some chances in the first two periods. But you’re not going to beat a team like when you only play one period.”
The injury-riddled and shorthanded Whale (32-25-2-6) had won four in a row, had a standings point in nine of 11 games (8-2-0-1) and was 8-3-0-1 in the most demanding stretch of the season from Feb. 9 to Tuesday night. That included 7-3-0-0 on the road as they reached their high-water mark this season of eight games over .500 while playing the previous three games a man shy of the 18-skater limit because eight players were ailing.
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But Friday’s loss dropped the Whale into a third-place tie with the Worcester Sharks (30-23-4-8), a 3-1 winner over the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs, in the battle for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the division. The Sharks are at the XL Center on Saturday night for the start of a home-and-home set with the Whale, who remained within one point of the Binghamton Senators (33-25-3-4), the fifth-place team in the East Division who lost 8-3 at Norfolk on Friday night.
The two-time defending champion Bears (39-22-2-4), who were missing three key injured players, ended a three-game pointless streak. They extended their point streak when leading after two periods to 28-0-0-3 and swept the season series, having won the first meeting with the then Hartford Wolf Pack, 4-3 in Hershey on Nov. 21.
And despite more energetic play, the Whale were limited to three shots in the third period, matching their low for any period this season.
“They do a good job of not giving you a lot,” Whale veteran defenseman Wade Redden said. “They have numbers back in the neutral zone and kind of make you get it in and work for it, and I don’t think we did that enough to put pressure on them and create some chances. They don’t give you anything easy, so you have to go in and get it back. It’s tough to create against those teams, but you have to find a way.”
The Whale had a golden opportunity to take an early lead at 5:29, but veteran Nolan Schaefer (23 saves) made bang-bang stops on rebound bids by Francis Lemieux and Kelsey Tessier off Derek Couture’s shot. Cam Talbot (22 saves) then kept it scoreless when he stopped David de Kastrozza’s breakaway at 7:15 and NHL veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray breaking in off the left point at 9:07.
But the Bears took the lead for good after Willsie won the ensuing faceoff from Newbury. Andrew Kozek tipped the puck into the slot to Greentree, who maneuvered between Whale defensemen Pavel Valentenko and Blake Parlett and beat Talbot between the legs from 25 feet at 9:11.
With the Bears on their second power play, Talbot (20 saves) kept the Whale close when he denied Willsie alone in the slot with 1:26 left in the period. Schaefer then made a brilliant glove stab off Redden as he cruised down the slot with 13.7 seconds to go.
Schaefer again kept Hershey ahead with a sprawling save on Tessier’s backhander at 6:40 of the second period. As often happens, the Bears took a 2-0 lead only 69 seconds later as Greentree found Willsie at the far blueline, and the crafty center got behind Redden, skated into the right circle and beat Talbot to the far corner for his team-leading 26th goal.
“It was a bad change,” Redden said. “We kind of got mixed up.”
The Whale’s only serious threat the rest of the period came when Newbury found Brodie Dupont cruising through the slot, but Schaefer again made an alert save with 5:26 left.
After shuffling their lines and defensive pairings for the third period, the Whale immediately showed more energy and got to 2-1 on a quick counterattack. Ryan Garlock, back after missing four games with an injury and moved from center to wing at the start of the third period, broke down the left side and passed across the ice to Chad Kolarik, who had missed nine games with an injury. Kolarik then skated into the right circle, found Newbury breaking down the slot and the Whale’s leading scorer got inside Bears defenseman Dmitry Orlov and put a backhander between Schaefer’s legs at 5:36 for his 13th goal and 49th point.
“(Garlock) made a heck of a pass to Kolarik, who made a nice pass to me,” Newbury said. “I just wanted to get it on net, and it went five-hole, so we’ll take those.”
The Whale nearly tied it at 7:59, but Schaefer came out to deny Grachev breaking in off the left wing. Then after a Jared Nightingale turnover, Talbot kept it a one-goal game when he stopped Ashton Rome’s shot from the left circle and Maxime Lacroix’s rebound bid at 9:08.
The Whale got a power play when Mathieu Perrault was called for slashing with 2:30 left, but that was negated when Newbury got the unsportsmanlike penalty for shooting the puck on net after the whistle had sounded.
The Whale pulled Talbot for an extra attacker with 1:33 left but failed to get a shot, with Willsie, the game’s No. 1 star, blocking Parlett’s final bid from the left point with three seconds to go.
“I thought we played better in the last period, but you don’t get rewarded for one period of play,” Gernander said. “I don’t think we finished enough checks, I don’t think we won enough battles for pucks and I don’t think we challenged enough wide on entry (into the offensive zone).
“I thought (Schaefer) had a pretty good glove. We had some opportunities, but I still think we could have done more to generate and create more ourselves. Quite honestly, a lot of chances he saw, and there wasn’t enough second and third opportunities.”
The Whale is 19-11-0-4 on the road but fell to 13-14-2-2 at the XL Center with nine of their last 15 games at home, starting Saturday night the critical matchup with the Sharks.
“We’d like to have an identity at home to make this a terrible place for a visiting team to come in and play, and now we’re back to one game below .500,” Gernander said.
“It’s frustrating because you obviously want to do well in your home rink,” Redden said. “I don’t think it’s an issue. We have more games at home left than on the road, so we definitely have to be a lot better here.”
WHALE FINALLY AT FULL STRENGTH
The return of Kolarik and Garlock gave the Whale a full lineup for the first time in four games dating to a 3-2 victory over Springfield on March 2. Kolarik, the Whale’s third-leading scorer (20 goals, 20 assists), started on right wing alongside center John Mitchell and Grachev, while Garlock was reunited with feisty wings Justin Soryal and Devin DiDiomete. In the third period, Kolarik skated with Newbury and Garlock, while Mitchell was between Grachev and Tessier.
The Whale continued to be without All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams, their second-leading scorer (team-high 25 goals, 19 assists), center Todd White, wing Chris McKelvie and defensemen Michael Del Zotto, Tomas Kundratek and Jyri Niemi. The Bears scratched perennial All-Star center Keith Aucoin, the AHL’s fourth-leading scorer (64 points), Andrew Gordon, the team’s fourth-leading scorer (22, 24), All-Star and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Lawrence Nycholat (5, 22), Steve Pinizzotto, Trevor Bruess, Dmitri Kugryshev, Zach Miskovic, Dylan Yeo, Phil Oreskovic and Dany Sabourin. … Bears coach Mark French won his 100th game in his second season. He’s 100-39-1-7 overall, after being 60-17-0-3 last season and leading the Bears to their second consecutive Calder Cup.
WHALE STARTS HOME-AND-HOME WITH SHARKS AT XL CENTER
After hosting the Sharks on Saturday night, the Whale is at the DCU Center in Worcester on Sunday at 3 p.m. The Whale is 4-1-0-1 against the Sharks, capped by a 7-2 drubbing at Worcester last Sunday that tied their season high for goals. Redden had his first two-goal game since before the NHL lockout in the 2004-05 season, while Weise had a goal and two assists and Dupont had four assists, a personal best of assists and points in a pro game. He had a team-high seven points (one goal, six assists) in the six games against Worcester.
“I don’t think we have to say too much,” Redden said of the key matchups with the Sharks. “I think everyone is excited and looking forward to the challenge. We’re put this game behind us. We’ve had a good stretch, so we want to get back to doing those things we’ve been doing well to be successful. We did some of them (Friday night). We had some chances but probably put the puck on net as often as we should have. The more shots you get the more likely you’re going to score, so we’ll get back to that (Saturday night).”
Said Newbury: “Everyone realizes the importance of the games, but you just have to prepare like it’s any other game. We have to go out, outwork them and do things that they’re not doing or they’re doing better and hopefully have more pucks on net. We’ll definitely be stressing to shoot the puck more on the net and have that second guy drive the net for the rebound. Hopefully it’ll be sitting there to bang in. We played a good game that last time we were in their building, so I’m sure they’re going to come in here and be fired up. Any team would like to have a better home record than we do, but we just have to approach this last (five weeks) just like it’s any other game. If you’re on the road or what not, you have to find a way to win hockey games. That’s what it has come down to this last month. It’s no different, but maybe the playoffs have started a little bit early for us.”
The Sharks are led by All-Star right wing Jonathan Cheechoo (18 goals, 29 assists), a 56-goal scorer for the San Jose Sharks in the 2005-06 season who missed his sixth consecutive game Friday night because of an ailing back. The Sharks signed Cheechoo to an AHL contract last Sunday, allowing him to be on their Clear Day list.
The Sharks’ other top scorers are center Michael Swift (17, 18), left wing T.J. Trevelyan (14, 20), defenseman Sean Sullivan (12, 20) and right wing Dan DaSilva (13, 19). No. 1 goalie Alex Stalock (19-17-4, 2.63 goals-against average, .907 save percentage, no shutouts) is out for the season with nerve damage in his lacerated left leg that required surgery, so the Sharks have been rotating rookies Tyson Sexsmith (1-2-1, 2.92, .901, no shutouts) and Carter Hutton (6-3-2, 2.97, .896, two shutouts) and veteran Daren Machesney (2-3-1, 3.20, .882, two shutouts). The Whale shot 7-for-19 against Machesney on Sunday, a day after he had 34 saves in a 2-0 victory over Charlotte.
Besides being eliminated from the playoffs two years ago, the Wolf Pack/Whale is 14-4-0-2 at the DCU Center, including 2-0-1 this season. Sunday was the Sharks’ second-worst loss at home to the 7-1 beating they got from the Wolf Pack on Dec. 8, 2007.
JERSEY AUCTION TO BENEFIT MARCH OF DIMES
Saturday night could be a hat trick of happiness and benefit for Whale fans. They not only can watch their favorites in a key matchup with Worcester, but they also can win players’ jerseys and help a great cause at the same time.
During the game, fans can bid on jerseys on display throughout the evening. Winners will be announced at the end of the game and invited on the ice to receive their jersey, meet the players and have photos taken. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes, which works to help develop stronger, healthier babies. The auction has raised nearly $20,000 in the first two years.
“The annual jersey auction has been a great event for our March of Dimes family and the hockey community,” said Deb Poudrier, executive director of the March of Dimes Greater Hartford Division. “The Whale organization has been an incredible supporter of the March of Dimes, not only with the jersey auction but as a March for Babies sponsor and team as well. They truly are a great community partner.”
The March of Dimes is the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. Visit www.marchofdimes.com or www.nacersano.org for the latest resources and information.
A TRIPLEHEADER: TWO GAMES AND PUCKY BOBBLEHEAD
Fans can also enjoy another tripleheader next Saturday.
The first Guns & Hoses Game between police and fire departments from Greater Hartford will be played at 4:30 p.m., followed by the Whale against archrival Providence at 7 p.m.
Plus, 3,000 lucky fans will receive a bobblehead of Whale mascot Pucky courtesy of Click It or Ticket.
So arrive early and enjoy a doubleheader of action and a lasting memento that youngsters will enjoy for years.
HOCKEY MINISTRIES NIGHT AT WHALE GAME
Hockey Ministries International Northeast is sponsoring 2011 Faith & Family Night at the Whale’s game against the Charlotte Checkers on March 25. Upper bowl seats are $10, and Scarlet Fade will perform a postgame concert.
To order tickets, contact AHL Chapel Coordinator Rick Mitera at 860-817-6440 or email@example.com. When someone buys a ticket through Hockey Ministries, they receive a $2 coupon for parking. For more information on Hockey Ministries, visit www.hockeyministriesnortheast.org.
WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON MARCH 26
The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” at the XL Center on March 26 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be lowered and then raised and re-retired as he and his sons, Mark and Marty, whom he played with for seven seasons in Houston and Hartford, look on. The matriarch of the family, Colleen Howe, who died in 2009, will be honored.
“That old (jersey) is a little worn,” Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said. “I think we’ll have a big crowd. I love Ronnie Francis (the only Hall of Famer to play mostly with the Whalers), but Gordie is the one who put the team on the map. He needs to have the respect of the people coming out to see him, and it’ll be a great opportunity for it.”
Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Francis), 11 (Kevin Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.
The Howes played together for the first time with the Houston Aeros in 1973 before coming to Hartford and signing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in 1977. Howe ended his legendary 32-year career in the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80), when he had 15 goals and 26 assists and was named a NHL All-Star for the 23rd time while helping the Whalers make the playoffs at 52 years old.
Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford because of the weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHARKS EXTEND AGREEMENT TO STAY IN WORCESTER
Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment has exercised its option to extend its license agreement with the SMG management group and the City of Worcester for two years. The original contract, signed in 2006, was a 10-year deal structured as a 5+2+3 (five-year lease with an option to extend for two years to 2013 and again for an additional three years to 2016).
Before this season, Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien assembled a group of local business leaders, the “Power Players,” to rally a renewed commitment from fans and supporters throughout Greater Worcester. These individuals succeeded in obtaining commitments for new season ticket holders, flex voucher customers and corporate sponsorships.
“As promised, the Sharks have brought momentous hockey, family fun and an overall great fan experience to the DCU Center,” Sandy L. Dunn, general manager of the DCU Center, said in a statement. “The quality of the product both on and off the ice is tremendous. The Worcester Sharks are an engaged partner in the business community, and they’ve actively worked with local charities, including the establishment of their own programs like ‘Reading Is Cool’ and ‘Sharks Charities.’ As a local business, they’ve significantly contributed to improving the local economy.”
As one of 30 AHL franchises, Worcester joins an elite group of cities on an international sports stage. More than 35 players have moved from Worcester to the NHL. To date, attendance is up 26 percent and ticket revenue is up 28 percent over last season.
BEARS 2, WHALE 1
Hershey 1 1 0 – 2
Connecticut 0 0 1 – 1
First period: 1. Her, Greentree 23 (Kozek, Willsie), 9:11. Penalties: Wellar, Her (hooking), 9:20; Soryal, Ct (roughing), 13:41; Baldwin, Ct (tripping), 17:40.
Second period: 2. Her, Willsie 26 (Greentree), 7:49. Penalties: Carroll, Her (roughing), 9:47; Soryal, Ct (roughing), 9:47; Greentree, Her (holding), 17:39.
Third period: 3. Conn, Newbury 13 (Kolarik, Garlock), 5:36. Penalties: Lacroix, Her (fighting), 16:17; Couture, Ct (fighting), 16:17; Perreault, Her (slashing), 17:30; Newbury, Ct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:11.
Shots on goal: Hershey 10-7-5-22. Connecticut 11-10-3-24; Power-play opportunities: Hershey 0 of 3; Connecticut 0 of 3; Goalies-Hershey, Schaefer 11-18-2 (24 shots-23 saves). Connecticut, Talbot 10-4-2 (22-20); A: 5,819; Referee: Chris Cozzan; Linesmen: David Spannaus, Derek Wahl.