By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – Fortuitous bounces abounded Saturday night at the XL Center, and veteran center Francis Lemieux’s changeup in the eighth round of a shootout proved the most telling blow.
Lemieux, who helped set up Derek Couture’s first AHL goal this season, slowly skated in on Anton Khudobin and beat the Providence Bruins goalie high to the glove side to give the Connecticut Whale a stirring, come-from-behind 4-3 victory before 9,103.
It was Lemieux’s first AHL shootout goal and gave the Whale (35-26-2-6) their seventh win in nine starts and their high-water mark of nine games over .500 this season. It also gave them a four-point lead over the Worcester Sharks, a 5-3 loser at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, in the battle for the third and final guaranteed spot in the Atlantic Division playoff race. The Whale remained one point ahead of Binghamton, which is in fifth place in the East Division and beat slumping Springfield, 2-0.
“That’s my move,” Lemieux said. “I told (Kelsey Tessier) on the bench that if (coach Ken Gernander) is sending me, I’m going East Coast speed so the goalie isn’t expecting that, so that’s what I did. I was coming pretty slow, just waiting for the goalie to make a move and shoot over his shoulder.
“I had just one thing in mind, and I was ready to do that the whole time. I was just waiting on the bench for the tap on the back, and I got it and made it work. This is the first year that I’m actually going in the shootout, and my confidence has been building.”
Lemieux also made it work while with the Florida Everblades in a victory over the Greenville Road Warriors, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate.
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“When it worked, I just stuck with it,” Lemieux said. “(Khudobin) is catching with the left hand, so it’s easier for me because it’s his blocker side and tougher for him to reach over his shoulder. So I was just coming slowly and just waiting for him to put his shoulder down.”
Dov Grumet-Morris (34 saves) extended his AHL career-best win streak to five games when he stopped Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman in Round 8. Jamie Arniel had given the Bruins a 1-0 lead in Round 3, but Dale Weise tied it in Round 4. It stayed even until Lemieux’s first winner with the Whale.
“It feels good to contribute,” said Lemieux, the ECHL’s leading scorer when he left the Everblades but goalless with two assists in 14 games with the Whale. “Couture got a big goal for us that got us back in the game, so it was good for our whole line to create offensively. We’re just trying to work hard every night. We know we’re there to create some energy and scoring chances and not make any mistakes mentally, and that’s what we did tonight. We were first on the puck all night and finished our hits, and it worked well for us.”
The Whale got to overtime when Evgeny Grachev took a pass from John Mitchell in center ice, broke in 1-on-3 and took a shot from the top of the left circle that glanced off Khudobin’s glove and trickled into the net with 3:26 left in regulation. When Grachev realized he had scored his 16th goal of the season, he made like Tiger Woods and pumped his right arm several times.
“We were shorthanded, I was going down the (left wing) and I saw (Khudobin) go down to one knee,” Grachev said. “I got a fortunate break and the shot went off his glove. We had a lot of heart. It was tremendous to come back. When you get a goal like that, you get pumped up.”
The Whale’s 600th regular-season victory in their 14-year franchise history – they’re 600(W)-361(L)-66(T)-49(OTL)-33(SOL) – came after an evenly played first period that ended in a 1-1 tie thanks to a pair of somewhat fluky power-play goals.
After Mitchell lost the puck after splitting the Bruins defense and breaking in alone, the Whale’s recent acquisition’s one-timer of a cross-crease pass from Blake Parlett into the right circle knuckled into the far corner at 10:15.
The Bruins got even on their second man advantage when Zach Hamill’s 40-foot shot from the slot deflected off of Whale defenseman Jared Nightingale’s skate and Whale nemesis Maxime Sauve’s shin pad to Trent Whitfield at the left post, and the Providence veteran captain had an easy finish into an open net with 1:38 left in the period.
The Bruins took the impetus early in the second period, just as the Whale had done Friday night in a 1-0 victory at Manchester. The Bruins had a 7-1 shot advantage in the opening 81/2 minutes but were unable to beat Grumet-Morris. First, Kirk MacDonald raced around Parlett shorthanded but had his backhander from in close stopped at 1:26. Grumet-Morris then made sprawling save on All-Star Jamie Arniel’s rebound at 5:44 and robbed MacDonald off a 2-on-1 at 8:38 that had the Bruins wing shaking his head.
The Whale finally showed some semblance of life as Ryan Garlock raced down the left wing and tried a wraparound that went just wide at 9:52. Then at 10:54, Khudobin flicked out his stick to deny Kris Newbury and smothered a good Brodie Dupont bid.
But defenseman Stu Bickel took a roughing penalty out near his own blue line, and the Bruins made him and the Whale pay with another fluky goal as Andrew Bodnarchuk’s shot from the left point deflected off Dupont to Jordan Caron alone at the right post with 6:34 left in the period.
The Bruins extended their lead to 3-1 with 4:38 to go when Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman deftly batted the puck out of midair and past Grumet-Morris.
But 60 seconds later, a snake-bitten Couture got credit for the game’s fourth fluky goal when his backhander went in off of MacDonald’s stick for Couture’s first AHL goal in nine games with the Whale this season, after Pavel Valentenko’s slap shot went off Lemieux to the rugged right wing.
“I’ve had three breakaways and two good, solid opportunities from the slot, and that’s the one that goes in?” Couture said. “But that’s how the game works sometimes. Each line has to chip in, and we felt good out there.”
Still, the Whale was fortunate to escape the second period down only one goal after being outshot 14-7.
“I made some (good) saves in the second period,” Grumet-Morris said. “If they had got one or two of those, the game could have been out of reach. Then we did a great job on the penalty kill in the third period, and that was a great goal by Grachev. We really needed these two points. That’s the only thing that matters at this point.”
Grumet-Morris kept the Whale close when he stopped Whitfield off a 3-on-2 at 6:48 of the third period before Couture fanned on pass from Lemieux on a 2-on-1 at 10:51. Grumet-Morris then kept it 3-2 when he stopped MacDonald’s screened shot from 20 feet in the slot with 4:41 left.
The Bruins then appeared to have a chance to put the game away on their fourth power play after Bickel was whistled for high-sticking with 4:02 left, but Grachev dramatically changed the course of the game.
“That obviously was a big goal for us,” Gernander said. “We didn’t want to take a penalty that late in the game. The emphasis was that we were going to kill this off and then we’ll make a push, but luckily we got the shorthander.”
Grumet-Morris enabled the Whale to get to overtime when he smothered MacDonald’s jam attempt off a Nightingale turnover with 2:01 to go. After allowing the soft goal by Grachev, Khudobin kept the Bruins alive when he somehow got his right arm on Parlett’s laser from 30 feet in the slot off a setup by Newbury at 2:20 of overtime. Grumet-Morris then got the Whale to the shootout when he again denied MacDonald’s seventh shot on a 2-on-1 with nine seconds left.
“Dov has played really strong for us,” Gernander said. “He got the shutout in Manchester (2-0 on Friday night), so we came back with him, and he had a big game tonight and was really clutch in the shootout. He was real poised and real solid, and we stuck with it to the end. Part of mental toughness or a playoff mentality is that there are going to be hops or bad breaks throughout the course of a game, and you can let it defeat you or you can overcome or, if it’s in your favor, capitalize on it. But a lot of times that’s just a mindset.”
Lemieux earned the game’s No. 1 star and Grumet-Morris the third as the Whale improved to 4-6 in shootouts and 6-21-0-2 when trailing after two periods, with three of those wins coming in the last three weeks.
“I’m obviously happy with the two points, but we were fortunate,” Gernander said. “As every day passes, you’re going to have to get better and better because obviously the stakes are higher. Everybody is building an improving and playing a little closer to playoff-type hockey. We know we’ve got better and have to bring better.”
WHALE SCRATCHES SAME FIVE
The Whale again scratched forwards Chad Kolarik, Todd White and Chris McKelvie and defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Jyri Niemi. The Bruins scratched center Kyle MacKinnon, left wing Antoine Roussel and defensemen Nathan McIver, Boris Valabik and Kevan Miller.
SPRINGFIELD VISITS SUNDAY AFTERNOON
The Whale completes a busy weekend Sunday at 3 p.m. with the first of back-to-back games against the Falcons (30-35-2-3), whose loss to Binghamton extended their season-high slide to 0-9-0-1 since the loss of rugged wings Tom Sestito and former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers via deals at the trade deadline. The Falcons were challenging for their first playoff berth since 2005 before the freefall that has existed since a 4-1 victory over Portland on Feb. 26. Their only point since then came on March 5 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Whale, who are 4-1-1-1 against Springfield and have won four in a row with three games left in the I-91 series.
The Falcons are led by rookie right wing Tomas Kubalik (21, 23), veteran centers Trevor Smith (18, 22) and Ben Guite (13, 25) and rookie left wing Maksim Mayorov (18, 13). Smith has six goals and seven assists but is minus-17 in 23 games with the Falcons since being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 4 for defenseman Nate Guenin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2002 who never played in the organization before signing a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2006 after four years at Ohio State. Former Wolf Pack captain/center Greg Moore has one assist in seven games since being part of the Sestito trade. Former Wolf Pack David LeNeveu (16-18-2, 2.98, .895) and Gustaf Wesslau (12-16-1, 3.17, .898) are sharing the goaltending. Fans are encouraged to bring their skates for a postgame skate that will include some Whale players.
The Whale and Falcons have a rematch Wednesday before the first-year Charlotte Checkers, the Whale’s former ECHL affiliate, make their second XL Center appearance on Friday and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers visit next Saturday to end the homestand. The Whale then plays successive games at Providence on March 27 and April 1. … At the request of the City of Bridgeport and Fairfield University, the Sound Tigers have moved their game against Binghamton at the Webster Bank Arena on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to allow the Stags men’s basketball team to host a second-round NIT game against Kent State at 12:30 p.m. Any fans who have purchased a ticket to Sunday’s game can use the ticket for the game against Binghamton and will also receive a free ticket to the Fairfield-Kent State game by showing their ticket to the Sound Tigers’ game to a representative at the Webster Bank Arena box office. Fans can get their ticket to any remaining four Sound Tigers home games by bringing their ticket stub from Sunday’s game to the box office. … Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald, scored three goals for his first professional hat trick in visiting Oklahoma City’s 5-1 road win over Rockford on Friday. McDonald, who had never scored as many as 20 goals in a season, passed the 30-goal plateau and now ranks third in the AHL with 31 goals in 69 games. … Chris Chappell, who played with the Whale earlier this season, had a goal and Chris Beckford-Tseu made 27 saves as the Greenville Road Warriors beat the Cincinnati Cyclones 5-0 Friday night to clinch their first ECHL playoff berth. Defenseman Lee Baldwin, reassigned to Greenville by the Whale on Thursday, assisted on the first of Matt Schepke’s two goals. Beckford-Tseu had his first shutout of the season after being claimed off waivers from Victoria earlier in the week. The Road Warriors (40-21-4) have a shared affiliation with the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY NEXT SATURDAY
The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” when the Sound Tigers visit Saturday. 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.
A new banner saluting the Howes, hockey’s first family, will also be raised to the rafters and area fans will be able to salute the Howe clan for their contributions to hockey in general and the Hartford market in particular.
“In a lot of ways, Gordie Howe really put Hartford on the hockey map,” Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said. “He brought true greatness to the city and helped usher the Whalers into the NHL. We feel that now is the perfect time to honor him and his legendary family with so many great things going on with the Whale, the Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest having been such a momentous event, and so much excitement around hockey in Connecticut right now.”
Prior to the game, fans can meet Gordie and get a personalized autographed book and photo by purchasing a copy of the colorful 185-page book “Howe No. 9.” The book sells for $70, and he will sign copies starting at 5:30 p.m. in the XL Center atrium. 2,000 fans will receive a free commemorative 36-page Gordie Howe tribute program full of color photos and stories.
Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron 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.
“I think the next test of this market will be on Howe Family Night,” Baldwin Jr. said. “People should come out and show Gordie the respect that he deserves. It’s one of the biggest nights of the season, and I agree with (Hartford Courant sports columnist) Jeff Jacobs that it’s the time when the tire meets the road. It’s a big game on our schedule, and we don’t have a lot of games left. I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t have 10,000 people.”
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.
Tickets for all Whale games are available at the XL Center box office, through Ticketmaster Charge-by-Phone at 1-800-745-3000 and on-line at www.ctwhale.com. Tickets start at $7 at the XL Center ticket office on game day. Fans who did not attend the Whale’s outdoor game against Providence because of the frigid 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 Jr. at [email protected].
HOCKEY MINISTRIES NIGHT AT WHALE GAME
Hockey Ministries International Northeast is sponsoring 2011 Faith & Family Night at the game against Charlotte. 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 protected]. 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.
FIRST TEE OF CONNECTICUT DAY ON APRIL 3
The Whale will host First Tee of Connecticut Day on April 3, when the Portland Pirates are at the XL Center at 3 p.m.
Level 200 tickets are $12, with the First Tee of Connecticut receiving $5 from each ticket sold. To purchase tickets and help local youngsters interested in improving their golf game and life skills, contact Nick Criscuolo at 860-728-3366 or [email protected].
WHALE 4, BRUINS 3 (so)
Providence 1 2 0 0 0 — 3
Connecticut 1 1 1 0 1 — 4
First period: 1. Conn, Mitchell 5 (Parlett, Grachev), 11:15 (pp). 2. Prov, Whitfield 13 (Sauve, Hamill), 18:22 (pp). Penalties: Mitchell, Ct (tripping), 1:33; Laliberte, Pro (hooking), 9:21; Bodnarchuk, Pro (roughing), 17:11; DiDiomete, Ct (slashing, roughing), 17:11; LaVallee-Smotherman, Pro (elbowing), 19:47.
Second period: 3. Prov, Caron 10 (Bartkowski, Hamill), 13:26 (pp). 4. Prov, LaVallee-Smotherman 13 (Whitfield, MacDonald), 15:22. 5. Conn, Couture 1 (Valentenko, Lemieux), 16:22. Penalties: Bickel, Ct (roughing), 12:42.
Third period: 6. Conn, Grachev 16 (Mitchell, Redden), 16:34 (sh). Penalties: Whitfield, Pro (roughing), 0:29; Newbury, Ct (roughing), 0:29; Sauve, Pro (slashing), 2:05; Bickel, Ct (high-sticking), 15:58.
Overtime: No scoring. Penalties: None.
Shootout: Providence 1 (Hamill NG, Sauve NG, Arniel G, Whitfield NG, Caron NG, MacDonald NG, Laliberte NG, LaVallee-Smotherman NG), Connecticut 2 (Mitchell NG, Williams NG, Grachev NG, Weise G, Redden NG, Newbury NG, Kundratek NG, Lemieux G).
Shots on goal: Providence 12-14-9-2-0-37. Connecticut 9-7-10-3-1-30; Power-play opportunities: Providence 2 of 4; Connecticut 1 of 3; Goalies: Providence, Khudobin 24-13-2 (29 shots-26 saves). Connecticut, Grumet-Morris 9-3-1 (37-34); A: 9,103; Referee: Ghislain Hebert; Linesmen: Jim Briggs, Derek Wahl.