BERLET SPOTLIGHT: PLAYOFF PREVIEW

BY: Bruce Berlet (Special to Howlings)

So how close were the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Connecticut Whale this season?

Even closer than the 58 miles separating the Webster Bank Arena and XL Center.

In 10 games between the intrastate rivals, the Sound Tigers scored 33 goals, the Whale 30, with each team getting an extra goal via a shootout win.

In the often odd era of three-point games, each team had winning records against the other. The Sound Tigers were 6-2-1-1 against the Whale, winning all five games at home; the Whale was 4-2-3-1 against the Sound Tigers, winning the last four at the XL Center after a shootout loss in their home opener Oct. 15.

Eight games were decided by one goal, including the last five, and six games went to overtime or a shootout, with the Sound Tigers gaining two more points in extra time. The Sound Tigers are 4-6 in the six playoffs they’re reached, and the Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale is 11-12 while qualifying in 14 of 15 years since they replaced the departed Hartford Whalers after they left for North Carolina.

An intriguing sidebar is that  the teams are being coached by former Wolf Pack teammates who specialized in grit, intelligence and smarts in their playing days. Brent Thompson, a rugged defenseman, is in his first season with the Sound Tigers. Thompson was named ECHL Coach of the Year last season after leading the Alaska Aces to both the regular season and playoff titles. Ken Gernander, a do-everything forward and the only Wolf Pack captain in their first eight seasons, is a recent inductee into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame and whose five-year run as Wolf Pack/Whale coach is the longest in franchise history.

But the Sound Tigers appeared to have two edges in the teams’ first matchup since the Sound Tigers joined the American Hockey for the 2001-02 season. They were 9-2-0-0 down the stretch while getting eight players back from injuries and the parent New York Islanders, compared to 3-5-2-2 for the Whale, who limped to the finish line without injured right wing Andre Deveaux and defensemen Brendan Bell and captain Wade Redden. And All-Star wing Mats Zuccarello won’t be back after he broke his wrist during a call-up to the New York Rangers. But Deveaux, Bell and Redden are healthy again and will play in Game 1 of the best-of-five Eastern Conference quarterfinal Thursday night in Bridgeport, which should help the offensively challenged Whale, who scored more than three goals only once in the last 12 games, a 5-4 shootout loss to the visiting Manchester Monarchs on Friday night.

The franchises seemed destined to meet in the Sound Tigers’ first season after they battled for the AHL’s overall lead to the last weekend, drawing large crowds in each home venue on the final two days, with Bridgeport winning the East Division title as it did the Northeast Division this season. But Hamilton ousted the Wolf Pack in the conference semifinals two years after they won the only title in Hartford hockey history, leaving the Wolf Pack’s sweep of the Beast of New Haven in the first round of the 1998 playoffs as the only clash of state AHL teams.

But now after 110 games over 11 seasons, the top affiliates of the archrival Islanders and Rangers will finally see each other in the postseason.

“I don’t think there’s much difference in our teams, but we like the matchup and feel confident that we can beat them,” said veteran center Kris Newbury, voted Whale MVP by his teammates after sharing the team scoring lead with All-Star rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. “We’re both fast up front and we both have a couple of skilled guys, so I think it’ll come down to who’s most disciplined and plays their systems the best.

“And everyone is healthy, which is what you want going into the playoffs. You want everyone to be on the same page and feeling good, and hopefully everyone feels that way and is ready to go. Whoever comes to play and works the hardest and stays the most disciplined will have the upper hand and the most success.”

The third-seeded Sound Tigers (41-26-3-6) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when Islanders coach Jack Capuano was in Bridgeport and the Wolf Pack/Whale missed the postseason for the only time in franchise history. The Sound Tigers were 2-10 in December and in last place, 12 points behind the first-place Whale, before an eight-game winning streak, longest of the season, started an 18-1-0-2 run in January and February. Meanwhile, the sixth-seeded Whale (36-26-7-7) lost a franchise-record 11 straight games (0-6-3-2) in January, but a five-game winning streak, longest of the season, keyed a 7-0-0-1 run that regained the division lead. The teams took turns in the top spot the remainder of the season, with the Sound Tigers pulling away at the end.

The Sound Tigers haven’t won a playoff round since 2003 and failed to reach the postseason in four of the last eight seasons. While the Wolf Pack/Whale have missed the playoffs only once in their existence, they haven’t won a series since they beat the Manchester Monarchs in seven games in 2006 before losing to the Portland Pirates and coach Kevin Dineen, the former Whalers right wing and captain, in six games.

Redden, a 15-year veteran completing his second season in Hartford, had a simple explanation for what will be needed to advance to the second round.

“They play hard and work real hard and have some good players, some of whom have joined them from the Islanders,” Redden said. “We’re going to have to play smart, limit our mistakes as much as we can, play real hard and find a way to score some goals. It’s a simple plan, but they’re a good team that comes hard, so we have to get back and get out and not let them play to their strengths.

“We’ve always had some good battles with them, so we have to make good, sound plays in our end coming up the ice and play in their end as much as we can.”

Newbury (25 goals, 39 assists in 65 games) and Audy-Marchessault (24 goals, 40 assists in 76 games) were the point leaders against the Sound Tigers with three goals, 10 assists and six goals, six assists and will be on a line with Christian Thomas, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010 who had one goal and one assist in five games after signing an amateur tryout contract after the Oshawa Generals were eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. Deveaux, who finished fourth on the team with 40 points (20 goals, 13 on the power play, 20 assists in 59 games) while playing mostly with Newbury, Audy-Marchessault and Zuccarello, will be with second-year pros Tommy Grant and center Kelsey Tessier, recipient of the Seventh Player/Unsung Hero Award from the media and two community service awards.

Center Casey Wellman had nine goals and 13 assists in 31 games after being acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 3 and will be between youngsters Marek Hvirik (one goal in eight games) and Steve Moses (two goals in eight games), who signed ATOs after finishing their seasons with Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the University of New Hampshire. The Whale’s other line will be Jordan Owens between Andreas Thuresson and rookie Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and younger brother of Hershey Bears left wing Chris Bourque, an All-AHL first-team selection after leading the league in assists (66) and points (93).

The Whale’s biggest edge is on defense, where they have five veterans and rookie Tim Erixon, the son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon who started the season on Broadway after playing three pro seasons in his native Sweden. Bell and Redden are likely to be one defensive pairing, with Erixon paired with Jared Nightingale and Pavel Valentenko with Mike Vernace, a solid contributor since acquired from the Florida Panthers on Feb. 25.

Chad Johnson was 4-2-1 against the Sound Tigers with a 2.58 goals-against average and .916 save percentage, but Cam Talbot will start Thursday night after playing well in three of the Whale’s last four games, allowing only four goals, starting with his fourth shutout of the season, a 26-save performance in a 1-0 victory at Hershey on April 8. Johnson (22-18-6, 2.49, .919, one shutout) and Talbot (14-15-1, 2.61, .913) were among only four goaltending tandems to play all 76 games for their teams. The others were Jeff Zatkoff and Martin Jones in Manchester, David Leggio and Drew MacIntyre in Rochester and Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus in Norfolk, which closed the season with a professional hockey record 28 consecutive victories. They haven’t lost since a 4-2 defeat at Springfield on Feb. 5 and open their series Friday night against Manchester.

“The difference in the season was (the Sound Tigers’) tenaciousness on the puck,” Johnson said. “Consistently through every game, they came at us really hard, got pucks deep and would sort of beat up on us at times. They always skate hard through the neutral zone with a lot of speed, so we have to match their intensity and grit. We also have good team speed, so we have to use our speed, sort of take it to the next level and make sure we stay together and consistent and as hard on them as they played on us.

“All year, we struggled a bit against teams where things got a little more physical and maybe a little chippier. That puts a lot of pressure on our defense, and while we have a lot of skilled defensemen, it’s hard for them when the forwards are coming really hard and not giving a lot of time to make plays. So we have to get to those gritty zones and winning battles down low, but I think we’ll be ready because we had a good week of practice. In my three years here, it’s been pretty intense, and I’d compare it to the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, where it’s going to be pretty gritty and chippy.”

Johnson didn’t get any argument from some of the Sound Tigers family.

“It’s a heated rivalry,” Thompson told Mike Fornabaio of the Connecticut Post. “It’s a matter of who plays their systems better than the other one.”

“It’s been a great battle all year,” said defenseman Matt Donovan, who spent time with the Islanders and was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team. “Obviously that comes with being rivals. It should be a great series.”

Right wing Rhett Rakhshani, one of a half-dozen Sound Tigers players called up by the Islanders, led a balanced Bridgeport attack with 20 goals and 29 assists in 49 games. He was followed by rookie center Casey Cizikas (15, 30 in 52 games), rookie defenseman Matt Donovan (10, 35 in 72 games), wings Justin DiBenedetto (20, 21 in 55 games) and Tony Romano (12, 22 in 60 games) and centers David Ullstrom (24, 6 in 40 games), Trevor Frischmon (11, 17 in 69 games) and captain Jeremy Colliton (11, 16 in 41 games), who is still out injured.

Cizikas, who tied for the AHL lead among rookies with a plus-26 rating, was even or better in his last 21 games, and DiBenedetto (four goals, three assists) and Donovan (two goals, five assists) led the Sound Tigers against the Whale. Donovan, named to the AHL All-Rookie Team, Aaron Ness (5, 22 in 69 games), rookie Jon Landry (2, 18 in 34 games), Ty Wishart (5, 14 in 71 games), Calvin de Haan (2, 14 in 56 games) and rookie Steve Oleksy (1, 14 in 50 games) are the keys on the Sound Tigers’ defense.

The Sound Tigers’ likely lines are John Persson-Cizikas-Rakhshani, DiBenedetto-Frischmon-Sean Backman, Ullstrom-Brock Nelson-Tomas Marcinko and Michael Haley-Kael Mouillierat-Blair Riley. The defensive pairings should be de Haan-Wishart, Donovan-Oleksy and Ness-Mark Katic. Romano is “in residence” because he wasn’t put on the Sound Tigers’ “Clear Day” list.

Goalie Kevin Poulin (26-18-4, 2.79, .912, three shutouts) was 6-2-1 against the Whale with a 2.56 GAA and .926 save percentage and started the 13 of the last 14 games. He and Kenny Reiter are available to Thompson as rookie Anders Nilsson (15-8-2, 2.42, .921, one shutout), who had several call-ups, has been out since March 18 with an ankle injury. Reiter, a free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth, made 26 saves in his first Sound Tigers start Saturday night in 3-2 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

“It’s good to go in against a team like (the Whale),” Rakhshani said. “We’ll be prepared.”

Gernander said he had his team focus on staying sharp and fresh and reviewing things that could be beneficial this week. He expects more close games but with a different cast of characters, though both sides have good knowledge of the other’s personnel. The Whale could use Chad Kolarik to help the offense, but while the right wing has been healthy for weeks after recovering from a torn ACL sustained in Rangers training camp, he’s not eligible because he wasn’t on an AHL roster by Feb. 27.

“Everybody is going to have guys who are banged up; it’s hockey in April and part of the equation,” Gernander said. “But I think everyone here is available to us, so we’ve got some options. But both teams have multiple personnel changes, so the two teams squaring off Thursday night have never faced each other. But the fact that the series was so close and the games in the series were so close means there’s some pretty good parity and it should be a good series.

“You can’t predict what the determining factor is going to be, but I would think they’re going to be close, hard-fought games, and obviously the team that’s working the hardest and investing the most is going to have the upper hand. It’s pretty much what you would expect out of a playoff game.”

Especially between two so closely matched teams.

MILLER APPARENTLY HEADED TO HARTFORD

Forward J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011, is expected to join the Whale after the Plymouth Whalers were eliminated by the Kitchener Rangers in Game 7 of their OHL second-round series Tuesday night.

“It has yet to be determined, but that would be something that could come,” Gernander said.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post tweeted Miller will be joining the Whale on Friday, while others reported Miller is on his way, but did not say when.

Miller had two goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games after being the Whalers’ best player in the regular season with 25 goals and 37 assists in 61 games. The 19-year-old is now eligible to sign an ATO and join previous signees Moses, Hrivik, Shane McColgan, Andrew Yogan and Peter Ceresnak. Ceresnak was the only newcomer not to play, and he was released from his ATO on Wednesday. He and Yogan signed after the Peterborough Petes failed to qualify for the OHL playoffs, with Yogan going scoreless in four games before sustaining a foot injury. He returned to practice Wednesday with the “Black Aces,” the extras who work out after the regulars.

When asked about the young newcomers after the regular-season home finale Friday night, Gernander said, “Those players are fairly similar in that they have good energy when skating and (they’re) not necessarily oversized physically. But they’re tenacious on the puck, and they can all shoot the puck. I think they’ve brought a good shot of energy and enthusiasm to us.” Redden also has liked what he has seen. “They’ve been looking good and ready to go,” Redden said. … The only other former teammate that Gernander has gone against as a head coach is Dallas Eakins of the Toronto Marlies. Gernander and Thompson played together in 1997-98 and 1998-99, when Thompson won the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award as AHL Man of the Year for his community service. “You don’t really make contact with the other’s team coach that often, but I’ve bumped into him out and about in Connecticut once or twice and had a nice conversation,” said Gernander, a gritty, tenacious, hate-to-lose player like Thompson. “We talked about a little bit of everything, our teams and families.” One of Thompson’s assistants is West Haven native Eric Boguiniecki, who is in his first season behind the bench after ending his playing career in 2009-10 playing for Thompson in Alaska. … The first round of the playoffs is always a tough sell because matchups and dates usually aren’t known until days before they start, so group sales are virtually impossible. But both teams should be helped by the rivalry and the cities being less than an hour apart. “It’s the series we always wanted to see,” Sound Tigers president Howard Saffan told Fornabaio. “For both teams, it’s exciting. Season ticket renewal for the playoffs has been very strong. Playoffs, you tend not to have groups, and especially when it’s 80 degrees out, it’s that much harder. But you couldn’t ask for a better matchup than this.”

GOOD NEWS: TORRES SUSPENDED INDEFINITELY

I’ve been on the case of NHL Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan for some of his recent suspension decisions. But I applaud Shanahan for suspending Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres, a one-time member of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers by the way, indefinitely for his vicious, jump-off-his-skates hit on Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa at 11:42 of Game 3 of their Western Conference first-round series Tuesday night, pending an in-person hearing Friday.

The hearing had been planned for Wednesday in the NHL’s office in New York but was deferred at the request of Torres and the NHL Players’ Association. I can only imagine the defense they’re going to try to present after Hossa was knocked from the game, taken off on a stretch, hospitalized, released and won’t play in Game 4 on Thursday night.

Blackhawks coach and former Whalers defenseman Joel Quenneville rightfully called the hit “brutal,” which is exactly what you can say about no penalty being called on the play.

Hossa had just passed the puck at center ice when Torres came out of the Chicago zone and hit Hossa with his left shoulder. Hossa fell to the ice in front of the Blackhawks bench and was motionless for about a minute. He was attended to by the Chicago team doctor and trainer and two EMTs. He was conscious and talking to the doctor as he left the ice before he was transported by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

After the game, the Blackhawks released a statement from head team physician Dr. Michael Terry: “Marian Hossa suffered an upper-body blow in the first period of tonight’s game. After initial evaluation on the ice, he was taken by ambulance to the hospital for further testing, which yielded encouraging results. He has been released from the hospital and we are monitoring him closely at home. We anticipate a full recovery in a timetable yet to be determined.”

That was good news to his teammates, who were livid about the hit and lack of a penalty to Torres.

“Any time you see a teammate and a good friend, someone you’ve had some great experiences with, it’s tough when you see him laying on the ice like that,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said.

But Seabrook should like that Torres should get a multiple-game – if not season – suspension considering he’s a repeat offender. At least he better get multiple games or I’ll be on Shanahan’s case again.

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