HARTFORD, CT – There’s bad luck, and there’s REALLY bad luck.
Then there’s the bizarre one-in-a-million bad luck that Connecticut Whale wing Mats Zuccarello suffered Thursday night in Game 5 of the Atlantic Division semifinals against the Portland Pirates at Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
As “The Norwegian Hobbit” chased a puck along the boards late in the first period, two fingers on his left hand got caught in the photographer’s camera hole in the plexi-glass, resulting in a broken hand that will sideline him four-to-six weeks, ending his first season in North America unless the Whale or parent New York Rangers make long, long runs in the playoffs.
“I was going with speed and tried to brace myself on the glass and my fingers went in the hole (about four inches wide),” a disheartened/philosophical Zuccarello said Friday as he watched most of his teammates participate in an optional skate at the XL Center wearing a cast on his left hand and lower part of his arm. “I couldn’t believe it happened, but I knew something was wrong right away. But that’s hockey. Things happen.”
Zuccarello, sent down by the Rangers on Monday after being a healthy scratch in two straight Stanley Cup games, said he will see a specialist on Monday to determine if he will require surgery. He hopes the Whale is playing Game 7 in Portland that night after tying the best-of-seven series at three games each Saturday night at the XL Center.
Whale coach Ken Gernander was outwardly upset when discussing the Whale’s latest lack of discipline that led to Mark Parrish’s fluky but decisive power-play goal in a 5-4 loss to the Pirates in Game 5 on Thursday night in Portland. After falling behind 3-0 and 4-1, the Whale roared back to tie it at 4 on goals by Kris Newbury, Chad Kolarik and Brodie Dupont, who was set by a brilliant pass from behind the net by Kelsey Tessier. But five seconds later, Dupont took what Gernander called “a stupid (tripping) penalty” and never played again despite the Whale being without Zuccarello and right wing Dale Weise, injured when crosschecked into the boards by AHL Rookie of the Year Luke Adam early in Game 4 without a penalty being called.
Weise might return Saturday night to replace Zuccarello, but if Weise can’t play, center Ryan Garlock or defenseman-turned-forward Jyri Niemi might replace him.
“It keeps coming back to little things,” Gernander said of the Game 5 loss. “A majority of our guys battled like crazy all night, and then penalties or some little mistakes take you out of it.”
Gernander pulled former Pirates goalie Grumet-Morris after a rare subpar effort in which he allowed three goals on 16 shots, the first being All-AHL right wing Mark Mancari’s 50-foot shot that the team MVP said he didn’t see until it was too late.
“It’s nice when you design a play like that where you want to get the puck to Mancari and he takes that shot from the blueline,” Pirates coach Kevin Dineen said. “That’s not exactly the way it was drawn up, but that’s playoff hockey. You’ve got to put pucks on the net and see what happens. You need your big players playing, and the guys that are on the power play have got to come through. This was certainly a very special teams’ oriented hockey game.”
Cam Talbot replaced Grumet-Morris after Adam scored off Mancari’s rebound 45 seconds into the second period for a 3-0 lead that matched the Pirates’ early advantage in Game 1, which they held on to win 3-2.
The goal came 31 seconds after Grumet-Morris was staggered and needed a minute to recover from Matt Ellis’ shot from the top of the right circle striking his facemask.
“I don’t know if it was he being stunned or it wasn’t his night,”
Gernander said in explaining the goalie change.
Grumet-Morris said the shot to the facemask didn’t affect his play, and he didn’t have a problem with Gernander going to Talbot, who got the loss after allowing two goals on 24 shots.
“It’s not my job to make the goalie changes; that’s the coach’s job,”
Grumet-Morris said. “My job is to stop pucks, and I needed to stop more. … (The change) was the right decision for the coaching staff. It turned the team around, and we came back and tied the game, so it absolutely was the right thing. As a competitor, I’ll always want to stay in as long as I can, but I had no problem with the change.”
But Newbury, an alternate captain who had two goals and an assist and was named the game’s No. 3 star, had a problem with the Whale still taking ill-advised penalties that prove costly 85 games into the season.
“Same old story, we take too many penalties,” Newbury said of the team that was second in the AHL in penalties in the regular season to Albany, which didn’t make the playoffs. “They’ve got guys who have experience who put the puck in the net, and it seems like the same guys coming through every night. Sooner or later, we’ll hopefully stay out of the (penalty) box. We’re taxing some of our players, including myself, with killing penalties and playing on the power play and even strength.
“The more we can stay out of the box, the more it’s going to benefit us and get everyone in the game more often. We worked too hard to battle back to put ourselves in a spot like that to lose the game.”
The Whale got excellent fill-in work from their newest addition, wing Carl Hagelin, who captained Michigan to the NCAA title game two weeks ago and is playing his eighth consecutive week of playoffs. In only his fourth pro game, Hagelin used his speed to create several good scoring chances, assist on Newbury’s goal though he didn’t get one and nearly tied the game with three seconds left after being inserted into Zuccarello’s spot alongside Newbury and former Michigan teammate Chad Kolarik. Kolarik scored his second goal in as many games after being out of the lineup since March 12, missing 17 games in a row and 26 of 28 because of a hamstring injury.
“Obviously he skates well so he can pressure the puck, and I think he’s intelligent enough to take good routes or good angles,” said Gernander, who spent several minutes chatting with Hagelin near the end of the optional skate. “And I think he’s been pretty tenacious. If the puck turns over or changes direction, he stops and is right back after it.
On Newbury’s goal, he pressured the defenseman, and the puck went up in the air. And he could have tied the game in the last seconds. Every step of the way, where you give him a little bit more and a little bit more responsibility, he has shown well.”
Hagelin, one of seven players to sign an amateur tryout contract because his entry-level deal doesn’t start until next year, said he thought he had given the Whale a dramatic last-season tie. Pirates goalie David Leggio was clueless on his 35th and final save, looking over his shoulder to see if the puck was in the net.
“I thought it was in, and so did (John Mitchell),” Hagelin said. “We both saying afterwards, ‘I don’t know how he (Leggio) saved it.’ I know it went through his legs, but then he must have turned his back foot and saved it on the goal line. Too bad.”
Hagelin said he felt badly for Zuccarello.
“That’s annoying,” Hagelin said. “I’d only played one game with him, but he looked really good. He’s a key player that we lost.”
But one man’s loss can be another man’s gain, and Hagelin took advantage of his new-found status on one of the Whale’s top two lines alongside Kolarik and Newbury, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season (11 points) despite playing 11 games with the Rangers.
“It was fun, and we created some chances and did some good work down low,” said Hagelin, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in 2007. “Newbs got that one goal, and they did a good job on the power play (on Kolarik’s goal). I think we played well the last period and should have had one at the end, but it’s a new day tomorrow, and I think we have a good chance.”
Hagelin was delighted to have a chance to play with such just quality players while before used almost as he was at Michigan, which won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association title, NCAA Midwest Regional and lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth on April 9 in the championship game in St. Paul, Minn.
“It felt good, and it’s fun when you get the coach’s confidence like that,” Hagelin said. “You just want to go out and do everything you can to help the team. Obviously I played with good players, so that makes it easier. But for me, it’s just go out, skate a lot and create chances. I try to create chances down low, win puck battles, find people in the slot and then come back hard and make sure I don’t get scored on. There’s nothing worse than a minus.
“But this is where the fun is. Everyone wants to be in the playoffs, and I don’t want to be a hero. I want to be on a team that’s successful and goes far. There’s nothing better.”
But Thursday night was especially disheartening after Gernander used only nine forwards in the third period with Weise and Zuccarello injured and Dupont and Derek Couture not playing. Weise and Zuccarello didn’t skate Friday, but Dupont and Couture participated in the optional.
Meanwhile, Dineen was happy with the go-ahead victory, especially getting two power-play goals, the first ending a 0-for-24 drought. But Dineen knew his team had some things to work on before Saturday night.
“You get a three-goal lead, and look what happens whether it’s here, the Rangers game or Los Angeles game,” Dineen said, alluding to a 3-0 New York lead ending in a 4-3 double-overtime loss to Washington on Wednesday night and a 4-0 Kings lead becoming a 6-5 overtime loss to San Jose on Tuesday night. “No lead is safe in the playoffs, and we proved that theory tonight. So at the end of the day, we have to clean up. They certainly worked hard and our big guys came through big, so you have to give a lot of credit for that.”
While the Whale was depleted by the loss of Weise and Zuccarello and the benching of Dupont, the Pirates were aided by the return of Mancari, who was named the game’s No. 1 star and the No. 2 star in the AHL after getting a goal and two assists after returning again from the parent Buffalo Sabres and was. Defenseman Dennis Persson, also back from the Sabres, had three assists, including on the winner when his centering pass deflected off the skate of Whale defenseman Pavel Valentenko and right to Parrish for a quick finish past Talbot. Travis Turnbull and Dennis McCauley, who returned after missing 15 of 16 games with a shoulder injury, also scored for the Pirates.
“What’s been enjoyable in three years with Mark and spending a lot of time together is how I’ve seen such a maturity as an individual,”
Dineen said. “He’s had some tough circumstances because he’s got a lot of frequent flyer miles going on the Buffalo-to-Portland trip. But that was the kind of effort that we need, and that’s got to continue through the lineup.”
Parrish said his winning goal was instinctive.
“The power play’s been struggling obviously,” he said. “You’ve got to simplify and get to the net, get pucks to the net and get bodies to the net. Hopefully something will be laying there and somebody will capitalize.”
Dineen said he liked his team’s play in the last 10 minutes but not in the second period, when the Whale scored three times despite being outshot 17-15.
“There were a lot of things for the instructional manual to get better at,” Dineen said. “But we know what they’re bringing. I don’t think there are any surprises in this series. You get Mancari back in the lineup and McCauley comes back after being out for three weeks and immediately contributes on the first goal where he drives the net and then makes a heck of a move on the third goal. It’s your role players, it’s your top players, it’s a full team effort.
“Again, I’m happy with the effort in a very special-teams-oriented hockey game, but I think there’s still some areas that we have to clean up.”
The Whale will have to continue the home-team victory run if they are to force Game 7 on Monday night at 7 at Portland. And they hope to get a crowd approximating the 6,260 who showed up Thursday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center after only 3,102 and 2,581 were at the XL Center for Games 3 and 4.
But history says even a victory Saturday night might not be good enough. In Calder Cup history, the Game 5 winner has won 91 of 115 best-of-seven series (79.1 percent).
Game 6 tickets are available at the XL Center ticket office, through TicketMaster Charge-by-Phone at 800-745-3000 and online at www.ctwhale.com. Season tickets for 2011-12 are on sale with special early-bird discount. Visit the Fan Center in the XL Center behind Section 101 during a game or call 860-726-3366 for more information.
A ‘WHALE’ OF A REPLACEMENT
Pirates defenseman T.J. Brennan is doubtful after a leg-on-leg hit in Game 4 on Tuesday. He was wearing a walking boot on his right foot Thursday night, and Dineen said he’s day-to-day and will be re-evaluated as needed.
Dineen commended Brennan’s replacement, Brian O’Hanley, saying, “I thought he stepped in and played a whale of a game. He showed a lot of poise out there, and I’m very, very proud of the game that young man gave us.” That prompted Maine Hockey Journal writer Chris Roy to ask Dineen, “No pun intended?” Dineen gave Roy a quizzical look. When Roy repeated “a whale of a game” – with emphasis on “whale” – Dineen smiled and said, “Yeah.” The repartee brought a chuckle from the assembled media. Brennan, a Boston College grad, was solid in his first AHL playoff game while paired mostly with Corey Fienhage and assisted on McCauley’s goal in the second period. … Thursday night’s game was the ninth one-goal game in 13 meetings between the teams this season and the first time in the playoffs either team scored more than three goals. Three games have been decided by two goals, including Games 3 and 4, and the Pirates won 3-0 at home on Jan. 14. … The Whale is trying to win their first first-round series since beating Manchester in seven games in 2006. They then lost to Portland, Providence, Portland and Worcester before missing the playoffs for the first time in their 14-year history in 2010. … Dineen, on trying to break the home team’s grip on the series Saturday night: “We’d love to say we’re not going to see you guys (the media) for awhile, but the way this series has played out, it gets down to that margin for error being very, very tight.”