By Bob Crawford

The Connecticut Whale now “hurry up and wait”, as they enjoy the rewards of having won their first-round series against Bridgeport in three straight games, and in a span of only four days.

CT WhaleSince completing their sweep of the Sound Tigers on Sunday, the Whale have been joined by the Toronto Marlies, Oklahoma City Barons and Abbotsford Heat as AHL teams to have advanced out of the first round, but the Whale-Bridgeport series remains the only Eastern Conference matchup to have been concluded.

The Hershey Bears kept their season alive at home Wednesday night, defeating the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 4-3 in overtime, and avoiding a sweep.  In the other Eastern Conference series’, both of which were also in action Wednesday, top-seeded Norfolk downed Manchester, 5-2, in Manchester, and second-seed St. John’s also won, 5-1 at home over Syracuse.  All three of those battles resume Friday, so the Whale could know their next opponent before they go to bed Friday night.

If both Norfolk and St. John’s win again Friday, then the Whale will play the Admirals in the Conference Semifinals, regardless of who wins between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey.  If either the Admirals or IceCaps lose, then word will have to wait until after Saturday’s action, as a series loss by either Norfolk or St. John’s would pit the Whale against the Penguins/Bears winner, and if both the top seeds were to blow their 2-1 leads and lose their series’, the Whale would play Syracuse in the next round.

No matter what happens, the Whale are most likely looking at close to a week more of game idleness before their next series starts.  Getting a break is certainly not a bad thing either, with plenty of bumps and bruises that could use some time to heal.

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“Especially for an old guy like me, a couple of days off really helps, to get the body back where it needs to be,” Whale defenseman Brendan Bell said Thursday, after the Whale returned to practice after two days of rest.  “But we know that when we’re out there, we’ve got to go hard, to keep your legs going, to keep your wind, stuff that’s important come next week when we’ve got to go (play) again.  It’s kind of that fine line, of trying to get that rest but also trying to get your work in when you need it.

“It’s tough to do, especially when you get the intensity up and ramp it up come playoff time, and then you’ve got to cool off for seven or ten days or whatever it’s going to be.  It’s difficult to keep that intensity up in practice, but that’s important.  We try to do some team-building stuff, we had a golf outing last week, probably go for dinner once we find out who we’re playing here.  You try to keep things status quo and keep the intensity up and not let things get too lax.”

From a coaching perspective, the Whale staff is doing its best not to get caught up in thinking too much about who the next opponent will be, and simply focusing on keeping a positive frame of mind.

“I think the important thing right now is to focus on our team, try to stay in good shape and in good spirit as well,” Assistant Coach J.J. Daigneault said Thursday.  “Obviously we’ll know by Saturday who we’re playing and then we have enough time to sit down and scout and start adjusting.  We’ll have four days until the next series after Saturday, so there’s plenty of time to do our scouting then.

“We’ve been practicing for the past two days.  Tomorrow (Friday), we have a plan to scrimmage.  We have plenty of guys, we have some extra players who came out from college, some young kids that came out of Junior that the organization wanted us to have a look at.  So we have ten defensemen, probably six lines.  We’re going to have a full-ice scrimmage, to keep the players sharp.

“I think it’s important for the guys to stay sharp, push themselves and stay ready.  Saturday might be a day off for us.  We’re not sure yet, but we might just have the guys stay home and relax and enjoy themselves and their families, and then back to work on Sunday.”

As the man who calls the shots for the Whale’s defense crew, Daigneault is extremely proud of the effort in the opening-round series, which saw the Whale give up a total of only three goals in the three games, and put up shutouts in the first two.

“I broke down the first game (on tape),” he said, “I’m breaking down the second game right now, I’m three-quarters into it, and I kept preaching to the players on the ice to try to limit secondary chances.  We gave up some scoring chances from wide drives and some scoring chances from around the net, but very rarely did they get a secondary chance.  So the defensemen did a good job either taking the first shot away, or they did a good job of eliminating (opposing attackers and their sticks) in order not to give up a secondary chance.”

The blueliners themselves are also encouraged by how the first round played out.

“I think our defense is probably the backbone of our team,” Bell offered.  “We’ve got a lot of guys who are veterans back there, guys that have played a lot in this league, obviously a couple of guys like myself, Wade (Redden) and Nightie (Jared Nightingale), who are older than most.  I thought we did a really good job, we upped our game in the playoffs and we didn’t give them much.  Talbs (goaltender Cam Talbot) was a wall through the first two games, giving up 40 shots was too many, but when you’ve got him stopping everything, that goes a long way.  It’s nice to see when guys perform like that.”

The one player who probably would have most preferred to avoid a long layoff was Talbot, who carried a red-hot hand throughout the victory over Bridgeport, after a very strong finish to the regular season.  The second-year man stopped 127 of the 130 shots he faced in the first round, and now has a 0.97 goals-against average and a 96.9% save percentage in his last nine appearances, going back to the regular season.

“I think you have to stay focused, and just keep working hard in practice,” Talbot said, when asked how he was trying to keep his roll going.  “The biggest thing for a goalie, I think, is the mental preparation behind us, so you can’t really tail off during practice.  You’ve got to stay focused for the next nine or ten days, and just wait to find out who our opponent is and prepare for them.”

According to Daigneault, who enjoyed several long NHL playoff runs as a player, including a Stanley Cup championship with Montreal in 1993, if the Whale as a team can maintain that focus, the rewards could be tremendous.

“As a hockey player, for anybody that’s gone far in the playoffs, your game improves every series,” he said.  “The team improves, the structure, the system, everybody plays better, and individually you play better.  So if guys understand that, they’re willing to put in the work in practice during the week that we have right now, in the game they’re going to reach their full potential if we advance again.”

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