FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

By Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale reached the AHL All-Star break on a bummer after their most disheartening defeat of the season.

But a 3-2 loss to the Portland Pirates on Derek Whitmore’s power-play goal with 7.5 seconds left before 10,872, the second largest crowd of the season at the XL Center, didn’t erase the often hard-to-fathom job that coach Ken Gernander, assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller and the players have done in keeping the Whale and parent New York Rangers challenging for playoff spots.

The Rangers have already lost a staggering 193 man-games to injuries, compared to only 78 games last season, and the casualties have included a Who’s Who on Broadway, especially at forward, starting with Vinny Prospal’s off-season knee surgery and another operation on Oct. 18 that has caused him to miss all 49 games. The injury list has also included captain/Trumbull native Chris Drury, Marian Gaborik, Alex Frolov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Eric Boogaard and former Hartford Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. Former Pack defenseman Dan Girardi even had a 330 consecutive games-played streak end last week, but he and Callahan are expected to return Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Rangers’ plethora of injuries opened up lots of roles on Broadway, and eight Whale players have helped keep the parent club in the Atlantic Division title hunt. And with the development of players such as Ryan McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko, coupled with the improvement of former Wolf Pack players Girardi, All-Star Marc Staal, Michael Sauer and Matt Gilroy, the Rangers could trade veteran Michal Rozsival for 24-year-old wing Wojtek Wolski.

Meanwhile, in Hartford, McDonagh and forwards Mats Zuccarello, Dale Weise, Chad Kolarik, Kris Newbury, Evgeny Grachev, Brodie Dupont and AHL All-Star Jeremy Williams earned call-ups from the Rangers, who won more than they lost with all the graduates. Rangers coach John Tortorella recently said one of the real untold stories of the season has been the excellent job that Gernander and his staff have done in preparing the Whale players for the Rangers. And until losing six of eight games leading into the All-Star break, the Whale has challenged for the Atlantic Division lead but is now fighting to hang on to a playoff berth.

So what does Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld think about the Whale’s showing in the first 49 games?

“I guess it’s pretty easy to measure if you look at the job the guys have done that we called up to New York,” Schoenfeld said before Saturday night’s game. “That’s what (the Whale) is for. First and foremost, they’re here to develop players to become Rangers, and the second criteria is to have the guys you call up ready to contribute. I think they’ve done a good job in both cases with the development and call-up preparation. It was a good job by the (Whale) staff and a good job by the players to make sure they were prepared and ready. The Rangers won more than their share with the Whale players’ help. It’s fantastic because that’s what we’re here for.”

The Rangers’ satisfaction was demonstrated again Sunday when they recalled Del Zotto, Newbury and Grachev from the Whale, who called up wing Tyler Donati from Elmira of the ECHL for the third time this season. Del Zotto had seven assists in 10 games in two reassignments to the Whale, while Newbury had one assist in seven games with the Rangers and Grachev was scoreless in eight games. Donati is scoreless in nine games with the Whale, who are off until Friday night at home against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

Daigneault, who handles the defense, has been instrumental in developing McDonagh, Kundratek and Valentenko with help from veteran Wade Redden and then was in charge of getting Del Zotto back on track. Del Zotto, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008, was a member of the NHL all-rookie team last season, when he was fourth overall and led team defensemen in scoring with nine goals and 28 assists in 80 games. But he struggled at the start of this season and changed places with McDonagh on Jan. 3 with the hope the 20-year-old could improve his overall game, most notably consistency, decision-making and physicality.

After getting the seven assists in eight games with the Whale, Del Zotto returned to the Rangers because of the rare injury to Girardi. Tortorella’s message to Del Zotto before he headed to a second stint in Hartford wasn’t any different than it was the first time.

“He just said to keep working hard, and I can only take it a game at a time,” Del Zotto said. “He said I should pretty much work on the same thing, consistency. I thought the last couple of days before I got called up I was playing well, and there’s not really much I can do other than work hard. I can’t control any decisions.

“At first I was a bit nervous, but then I felt comfortable. Then in the second game, I felt really good and back where I used to be.”

Daigneault made sure Del Zotto got lots of ice time as he averaged nearly 30 minutes thanks in part to playing 35 minutes in an overtime victory against Norfolk after rookie defenseman Jyri Niemi went out with an injury midway through the first period. At one point, the Whale had only three defensemen because of Niemi’s injury and penalties, so Daigneault had Del Zotto kill an entire two minutes.

“In New York, he wouldn’t play in overtime, but here he got to play in every situation, obviously on the first power-play until and on the penalty kill,” Daigneault said. “Just playing a lot and making some mistakes and making some good plays enable him to improve.”

Daignault also emphasized defensive zone coverage.

“Michael is a very gifted kid,” Daigneault said. “He’s got very good skills, and what he was able to bring to the Rangers last season was a good first pass out of the defensive zone. What I wanted down here is for him to keep being efficient with that first pass, but not spectacular. Spectacular might be a big word, but at times, because he has such good skills, he’s able to find guys in the neutral zone with the aerial pass and things like that.

“But in the NHL, sometimes those passes are picked off. That’s what happened in some of his games with the Rangers. Those are the kinds of things that you have to stay away from as much as possible, which is why I try to use the word efficiency. Usually the first available outlet is the best one. He has played some good hockey, but I think he’s going to be even better if he focuses on a few things. At times he has tried to do too much.

“For him to go back to the Rangers and stay there for many, many years, he has got to avoid those three very good games and three sub-par games. Consistency over the course of maybe 20 games is going to be a good indicator of which direction he is going.”

Some of Del Zotto’s problems have stemmed from too great expectations after a rookie season in which he led Rangers defensemen in scoring but was also minus-20, worst on the team. McDonagh had similar inconsistencies in the first quarter of his first pro season in Hartford.

“McDonagh does a lot of subtle things like being strong on the puck and along the boards, but he wasn’t like that at the start of the season,” Daigneault said. “Then I showed him some clips and told him to stop doing certain things. There was a point early in the season when I wouldn’t use him at the end of a period or a game if we were up a goal because I could see he was just getting his feet wet in the AHL. He was projecting a lack of confidence, and then I started to put him in those situations and he was good at shutting people down. But it took 20 games.”

Del Zotto was more defensive-minded in his second go-round with the Whale, and that is part of what pleased Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld.

“He’s back on track as far as an incremental upgrade of his entire game,” said Schoenfeld, who saw Del Zotto play three of his first 10 games with the Whale and the two games on his first recall to the Rangers. “As has been documented, it’s a tough position being the last line of defense before the goalie, so your mistakes are glaring. And because of his ability, Michael also adds an offensive element to his game, and when you’re put on the power play, you have to produce, and if you aren’t, you look at somebody else.

“But you don’t have to be off much to suffer greatly in both areas, and that’s all it was. He wasn’t dreadful. He was just a little off his game for our expectations, and I think for his expectations. And we just felt the best thing for Michael was to go find his best game. It had nothing to do with sending a message. It was strictly hockey. He was not one of our top six (defensemen) in New York, so why have a young kid in and out of the lineup? So we wanted him to go find his best game, and I think he has done that.”

Schoenfeld said Del Zotto went from having a bad game at Portland (minus-3 in a 3-0 loss on Jan. 14) to rebounding against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (plus-4 in a 6-3 victory) and then continued on.

“I think he has gotten on track, and the biggest indicator was when he came to New York,” Schoenfeld said. “You prioritize, and most good offense comes from good defense on every player. It’s when you start forcing something that’s not there that it starts backfiring on you.”

Things backfired mighty on the Whale on Saturday night after Weise took a bad interference penalty with 1:38 left that led to Whitmore’s winner and a post-game closed-door meeting with Gernander.

“Their goalie (David Leggio) played good,” Gernander said, “but we had a lot of guys who really worked hard, paid the price and did extra duty when we shortened the bench and to have someone take it upon himself to be undisciplined is disappointing. A lot of guys played a strong game, but it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if you end up losing because of (lack of) discipline.”

Weise concurred with his coach.

“Obviously not a smart play by me,” said Weise, playing his third game since being one of six players reassigned by the Rangers last 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 game in six starts to remain 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 to fall 13 points behind the Monarchs. More importantly, they dropped into fourth place, 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, the worst record among the top four teams in the division, and 11-8-0-4 on the road.

The Whale and rest of the AHL are off until practice on Thursday, and then their four-game homestand ends Friday at 7 p.m. against the Sound Tigers (19-23-3-3), 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 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 invited “Outdoor Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest 2011” 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 held since retiring from the Red Wings in 1995.

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.

WHALE’S WILLIAMS ON TARGET, HELPS EASTERN CONFERENCE WIN

Williams was the only player to hit all four targets in the corners of the net to win the accuracy shooting contest in the All-Star skills competition Sunday at the sold-out Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

Williams batted .500 (4-for-8), while Portland’s Luke Adam, who traveled to Hershey with Williams and his fiancée after Saturday night’s game, and Hershey’s Andrew Gordon each had three hits. It was one of four individual titles as the Eastern Conference, captained by Sound Tigers defenseman/captain Mark Wotton, scored a 19-7 victory over the Western Conference, captained by former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux of Oklahoma City who helped the Bears win two Calder Cup titles.

“It was a little nerve-wracking, but it was fun,” Williams said of his victory in his first All-Star event.

Williams also was denied by the Western Conference’s Jake Allen of the Peoria Rivermen in the breakaway relay. Williams made his first All-Star appearance after clinching a fourth consecutive 20-goal season and couldn’t help but jab Newbury, a close friend and a teammate in the Toronto, Detroit and Rangers organizations since 2004.

“I’ve been able to play on some good teams,” Williams said during a post-victory television interview. “I’ve got a guy who I’ve played with for about seven years in Kris Newbury. It has been nice to be able to play with him. He’s quite the passer, so I think he’d take a lot of credit for most of my goals.”

Williams, who also owes plenty of credit this season to slick-passing Tim Kennedy, said it has been nice to hear “Brass Bonanza,” the theme song of the Hartford Whalers and Whale played before every period and after every Whale goal.

“It has been really good since we changed the name (16-9-0-2), and we’ve got a lot more fans out,” Williams said. “It’s not quite looking like Hershey yet, but we’re getting there and I think the fan support from Connecticut has been great.”

Hershey leads the AHL in attendance at 9,435, but the Whale has improved from 18th to 12th (5,048 for 26 games) since Whalers Sports and Entertainment assumed control of the business operations and rebranded the team from the Wolf Pack to the Whale on Nov. 27. Their average attendance for the 13 games since then has been 6,691. The franchise hasn’t averaged more than 5,000 since 2005-06, when they were 15th at 5,045. The team record is 7,221 in their second season, 1998-99.

Former Whale defenseman Brian Fahey of the host Bears, the last replacement player named to the All-Star Classic, won the hardest shot contest at 96.9 mph after being given a third chance because he missed the net the first two times. Other winners were Manchester defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov, fastest skater (14.197 seconds), and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goalie John Curry, top goaltender (75 percent, 21 of 28 shots).

Western Conference forward Linus Klasen provided an ESPN Top 10 highlight reel moment in the breakaway relay when the Milwaukee Admirals’ top scorer (20 goals, 19 assists) skated left inside the blue line, completed a 360-degree spin with the puck and then beat Manchester goaltender Martin Jones between the legs.

Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers and New Haven Nighthawks defenseman Gerry McDonald, is a Western Conference reserve after scoring a career-high 24 goals, three behind Pirates’ right wing Mark Mancari (27), the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week last week after getting back-to-back hat tricks, and one back of Giroux. Williams’ 22 goals is tied for fifth with former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes of the Chicago Wolves.

Williams is playing for first-time All-Star coaches Mark French and assistant Troy Mann, who earned the honor by virtue of the 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.

AHL Live (ahllive.com) and NHL Center Ice will air the All-Star Game live on Monday night at 7. MSG Plus HD will show the skills competition at 5 p.m. Monday, followed by the All-Star Game. NESN will show the game Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Emrick, the lead announcer for NHL games on NBC and Versus as well as the TV voice of the Devils, will handle the play-by-play alongside Craig Laughlin, former AHL and NHL wing and longtime commentator for Comcast SportsNet’s live game coverage of the Washington Capitals. Bears broadcaster John Walton will be the rink-side reporter for the All-Star Game.

WHALE/AHL LEFTOVERS AT THE BREAK

The Whale is the AHL’s most penalized team (1,103), led by the individual leader Devin DiDiomete, who has 187 minutes, 10 more than former Wolf Pack wing Francis Lessard. Justin Soryal, usually one of DiDiomete’s linemates, is seventh with 158 minutes. … Kelsey Tessier, who played a strong game Saturday night, ended a five-game pointless streak with a nifty assist on the Whale’s first goal by Williams. … Kennedy’s five-game point streak (one goal, six assists) ended Saturday night but not for lack of trying. He set up Grachev for several excellent scoring chances, most notably at 6:58 of the second period when he stole a pass in center ice, raced into the offensive zone, pirouetted around Pirates defenseman T.J. Brennan and passed to a wide-open Grachev, whose point-blank bid from 15 feet in the slot was gloved by Leggio. That helped end Grachev’s four-game, goal-scoring streak, a team high this season, and five-game point streak (seven goals, one assist). .. Giroux capped off an impressive January with three goals and two assists in a 5-2 victory over visiting Chicago on Saturday night. Giroux had 12 goals and 12 assists in 15 games in January and is now second in the AHL in goals (25) and points (58) in 50 games. McDonald, a linemate, had a goal and two assists for a career-high three points as he kept alive his streak over not going scoreless in three straight games for the first time since Nov. 6-9. The third member of the line, former AHL All-Star Brad Moran, also had a goal and two assists.

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