BY: Bruce Berlet, Exclusive to Howlings
After watching flashy rookie left wing Chris Kreider play and score in the first period of the Connecticut Whale’s preseason finale Sunday, San Jose Sharks associate head coach/Hockey Hall-of-Famer/nine-time Stanley Cup champion Larry Robinson said, “Man, that guy can fly.”
Then after the low-key Kreider completed his first hat trick since high school with the winning goal on another laser from the left circle, former Whale All-Star wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault correctly offered, “He’s got a great shot.”
It’s more than coincidence that after the Whale scored only two goals in losses in their first two preseason games, they had seven tallies in two victories with Kreider in the lineup, including 4-3 over the Worcester Sharks at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford Sunday afternoon.
Kreider, 21, the New York Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 who jumped into the pro hockey waters with five goals and two assists in 18 playoff games with the parent club in their drive to the Eastern Conference finals this spring, scored once in each period while again playing on the No. 1 line with veterans Kris Newbury and Chad Kolarik, back after missing last season with a torn ACL in his left knee sustained on the second day of training camp.
“A lot of puck luck, especially on the second (goal), and the first one, too,” said a smiling Kreider, who joined the Rangers in April after helping Boston College win its second national championship in three years and is the only Blueshirt player to join the Whale. “I’m not satisifed with my game, but I’m happy with the group of guys I’m with. (But) it’s it’s just an exhibition game, right? Obviously whenever you get on the ice, you want to win. But at the same time, it’s preseason. And the key words are pre … season.”
Kreider said he doesn’t think he really appreciated his time with the Rangers, who got within two wins of the Stanley Cup finals, won by the Los Angeles Kings, led by Hamden native and former Hamden High and Avon Old Farms standout goalie Jonathan Quick, named the Conn Smyth Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
“I just tried to keep my head down and work hard,” Kreider said. “It’s so fast. Sometimes you’re making good decisions, sometimes you’re not. You never really had time to assess where your game is at. But the pace of the play (is different than in college). The players are obviously faster, but the puck’s moving so fast and you have to know what to do two steps ahead of the game. You always have to be ready.”
Kreider insists he still has plenty to learn and welcomes the chances, especially playing with veterans such at Newbury and Kolarik.
“Each new level of play, there’s a different kind of flow to it,” Kreider said. “When to circle, continue on with the forecheck, when to finish the guy, when to stop and get back up ice. Little things.”
But while Kreider tried to downplay his first three-goal game since his days at Philipps Academy in Andover, Mass., Robinson and Audy-Marchessault weren’t the only folks duly impressed with the speedy, 6-foot-3, 230-pounder, who also had the clinching, empty-net goal in a 3-1 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms on Saturday.
“He had a good night,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “Those are two of his assets, that wide speed and that shot, and you have to accentuate your positives and tweak – not that he has any real deficiences – the areas of the game that everyone can improve incrementally. But when you have a strength, you have to exploit it. But (the AHL) is a grind. The success he had with the Rangers is a little bit different in that you’re kind of thrust into it and running on adrenaline. You had success, so you’re feeling confident, and now part of it is dealing with the grind and dealing with being a professional and dealing with being competitive night in and night out.
“The key is consistency, and there might be nights or stretches where things aren’t going your way and all the chips don’t fall into place, and now part of being a professional is not give up anything (defensively) and you have to fight through and still make your off-night a productive night for the team. And there’s always improvement to be made, and with enough healthy respect for this league, you can improve at this level, too. There’s a lot of good players around, so there’ll be more than enough competition.”
But Newbury has already seen enough of Kreider to know the youngster can be something special at any level.
“He’s a guy who can really move, so for our line to be successful, you want the puck in his hands with as quick as he can go,” said Newbury, who played in his second straight game after missing three days with a bruised knee sustained on the opening day of camp. “And he obviously demonstrated (Sunday) that he has a great shot. I’m looking forward to starting the year on that line and getting some chemistry early.”
Kreider’s speed is similar to that of fellow left wing Carl Hagelin, who started his rookie pro season in 2011 with the Whale, was called up Nov. 23 and played some with the Rangers’ top guns, All-Star Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards. Hagelin again would have been a good fit for the Whale but would have had to clear waivers because of his age (25), which the Rangers knew wasn’t going to happen.
“When Carl was down last year, we kind of had a set play where he would take off and I would just rip it off the boards to the other end, and he was usually the first guy to get to it and created a lot of scoring chances by doing that,” Newbury said. “I think Chris is going to be the exact same way. Playing with him a little on the penalty kill, when I get the puck, my first option is to look for him because I know he generates a lot of speed. Hopefully we can keep this going.”
The Kreider-Newbury-Kolarik line was the only one that Gernander kept intact throughout the game and should be the Whale’s offensive catalyst until the NHL lockout ends – if it ever does. The three are likely to be the first additions/call-ups to the Rangers at forward, along with 19-year-old J.T. Miller, who scored one of the Whale’s three power-play goals in five tries after getting the only tally in a 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Wednesday night.
“Newbury and Kolarik are experienced players,” Gernander said, “and so, too, is Kreider, even if it’s not at the AHL level. He has played in a lot of situations, so I’d probably classify him as an experienced player. So they should be a line that should have some success.”
Gernander also used Kreider to kill penalties, often alongside Newbury, and Kreider and Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011, were the forwards on the ice in the final minute as the Whale tried to protect a one-goal lead in a 4-on-4 situation. When training camp began, the Rangers had to determine if Miller would remain with the Whale or return to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Rangers president/general manager Glen Sather & Co. will all need a collective lobotomy if Miller isn’t in the lineup Friday at 7:30 p.m. when the Whale opens the franchise’s 16th season at the XL Center in Hartford against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“Miller is a very saavy player, Kreider has that speed, and they both have physical strength,” Gernander said. “They’re good hockey players, and they’re going to play in all situations.”
Gernander also continued to have youngsters Miller, Andrew Yogan (20) and Kyle Jean (22) play together much of the game. After getting a career-high 41 goals and 78 points with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, the 6-3, 203-pound Yogan played four games with the Whale last season before being injured. The 6-4, 203-pound Jean wasn’t drafted after four years at Lake Superior State but earned his first pro contract after a strong showing in the Rangers development camp after the NHL draft in late June.
“I wanted to see (that line) generate some offense, and I think they’ve done that,” Gernander said of the Miller-Jean-Yogan tandem. “And I wanted to see steady improvement. As preseason goes along, there are some things that they grasp quickly and should improve in those areas. And along with that, the level of competition gets better and better because everyone is getting close to their opening-day roster. As long as they are able to show improvement and compete and hang with the opposition, it’s an encouraging sign.”
Kreider put the Whale ahead to stay 7:36 into the game when he took the puck from Sharks defenseman Matt Pelech at the right point, raced down the left wing on a 2-on-1 with Kolarik and snapped a shot between the legs of Alex Stalock (18 saves).
The Whale doubled their lead with 2:40 left in the first period as Sean Collins, one of the team’s five new defensemen, made a deft pass in the neutral zone to Miller, who used Pelech as a screen and beat Stalock from the left circle.
After the Sharks killed a major penalty and game misconduct to Curt Gogol for boarding at 17:41, they got to 2-1 at 5:45 of the second period when Sebastian Stalberg’s shot from the right circle went through Scott Stajcer’s legs during a delayed penalty. But the Whale regained their two-goal lead only 1:13 later with another power-play goal as Kreider raced down right wing and fired a backhanded pass intended for Newbury, only to have the puck hit Pelech and deflect past Stalock.
The Sharks again closed within a goal when Marek Viedensky picked off Christian Thomas’ clearing attempt at the right point and beat Stajcer (19 saves) to the glove side with a slap shot with 4:55 left in the period. But Kreider then notched the winner and the Whale’s third power-play goal at 5:57 of the third period, taking a pass from Newbury and firing a shot from the left circle that beat Harri Sateri (seven saves) on the short side. Sateri had replaced Stalock after two periods.
After Kreider was whistled for hooking, the Sharks again got within a goal with 3:04 left when James Sheppard picked up a long rebound of a Danny Groulx shot in the left circle and fired it past Stajcer before he could recover. The Sharks pulled Sateri for an extra attacker (5-on-4) with 30 seconds left but couldn’t get a shot on Stajcer, who, like Jason Missiaen in the victory Saturday, played all 60 minutes.
Gernander said he was “pretty happy with the way things transpired” during the preseason as the Whale prepared for the opener Friday night. All tickets are a special price of $12, and it also kicks of the Whale’s new Friday night $1 hot dogs and $2 beers promotion. Tickets for all home games are on sale at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center, through TicketMaster Charge-by-Phone at 1-800-745-3000 and on-line at www.ticketmaster.com.
“The first two (preseason) games we had kind of a mixed lineup for guys who were going to be with us and other guys what we wanted to take a look at,” Gernander said. “Then the last two games we were a bit closer to the lineup for opening night, and we finished the preseason with two wins, which I think is important. You finish off on the right foot, and moving forward, they can relax a little (Sunday night) and (Monday) and have a good feeling when they come to the rink Tuesday for a good week of practice and the start of the season.
“We’re satisfied what we saw in the preseason, but I think we’re going to continue to improve in our defensive play. And, to me, defense isn’t just the six guys (defensemen) who sit at the far end of the bench. Your forwards have to be helping out, and you have to get goaltending, so it’s a commitment by the team.”
WHALE 4, SHARKS 3
Worcester 0 2 1 – 3
Connecticut 2 1 1 – 4
First period: 1, Connecticut, Kreider 2, 7:36. 2, Connecticut, Miller 3 (Collins), 17:20 (PP). Penalties: Parlett, Ct (closing hand on puck), 8:45; Niemi, Ct (holding the stick), 13:26; Tam, Wor (interference), 16:59; Gogol, Wor (major-boarding, fighting, game misconduct), 17:41; Haley, Ct (fighting), 17:41.
Second period: 3, Worcester, Stalberg 1 (Oleksuk, Sheppard), 5:15. 4, Connecticut, Kreider 3 (Vernace), 7:20 (PP). 5, Worcester, Viedensky 1, 15:05. Penalty: Tennyson, Wor (tripping), 6:07.
Third period: 6, Connecticut, Kreider 4 (Newbury), 5:57 (PP). 7, Worcester, Sheppard 1 (Groulx, Oleksuk), 16:56 (PP). Penalties: Oleksuk, Wor (high-sticking), 4:11; Haley, Ct (roughing), 6:31; Tarasov, Wor (high-sticking), 9:26; Pyett, Ct (interference), 11:58; Kreider, Ct (hooking), 16:52; Hamilton, Wor (holding), 18:03; Klassen, Ct (roughing), 18:03; Pyett, Ct (elbowing), 19:58.
Shots on goal: Worcester 7-5-10-22. Connecticut 11-10-8-29; Power-play opportunities: Worcester 1/6; Connecticut 3/5; Goalies: Worcester, Stalock 0-0-0 (21 shots-18 saves); Sateri 0-2-0 (8 shots-7 saves). Connecticut, Stajcer 2-0-0 (22 shots-19 saves); Referee: Jean Hebert; Linesmen: Marty Demers, Jim Briggs.
GILROY OFFICIALLY SIGNED
As reported in this space Friday, the Whale have signed former Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Matt Gilroy to an AHL contract. Gilroy, 28, was the 2009 Hobey Baker Award winner as a senior captain at Boston University, helping the Terriers win the national championship while leading all Hockey East defensemen in points (eight goals, 29 assists in 45 games). After making the Terriers as a walk-on freshman, he had 25 goals and 67 assists in 160 games in four seasons and became the first BU defenseman named a first-team Hockey East All-Star for three straight years (2006-07 through 2008-09).
Gilroy signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers on April 19, 2009 and had seven goals and 19 assists in 127 games before signing another free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. During his Rangers stint, he had a five-game conditioning stint with the Wolf Pack in December 2009 and had four assists and four penalty minutes. The 6-1, 201-pound Gilroy had two goals and 15 assists in 53 games with the Lightning before being traded to the Ottawa Senators for defenseman Brian Lee on Feb. 27. Gilroy, a native of North Bellmore, N.Y., then added one goal and two assists in 14 regular-season games and was scoreless in three playoff games with the Senators before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Gilroy watched the game along with five injured Whale players – goalie Cam Talbot, defenseman Dylan McIlrath and wings Ryan Bourque, Marek Hrivik and Jason Wilson. The other scratches were defenseman Sebastien Piche and wing Scott Pitt. Gernander said Talbot, McIlrath, Bourque, Hrivik and Wilson haven’t been practicing with the team and are doubtful for the season opener. McIlrath said he’ll be out for a few more weeks, but Talbot, who claimed the No. 1 spot in goal from departed Chad Johnson at the end of last season, said his goal is to be ready for the opener.
Forward Michael Haley got razzing from several fans for having come to the Rangers/Whale from the New York Islanders/Sound Tigers. “Go back to Bridgeport,” one young female fan shouted. But she and others were roaring when Haley got into a first-period fight with Gogol. When it was over, Haley extended a hand to a linesman who had fallen to the ice during the fisticuffs and was struggling to get back up on his skates. After the game, Haley had a few cuts and a noticeable shiner under his right eye. Fittingly, he left the arena with Newbury, who must love having another feisty guy around to help do the dirty work.
Newbury, Kolarik and defenseman Mike Vernace wore the “A” as the alternate captains.
TWO FORMER WHALE PLAYERS LOOK ON
Audy-Marchessault, who shared the Whale scoring lead last season with Newbury, and defenseman Tim Erixon, part of the trade that brought All-Star left wing Rich Nash to the Rangers from the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 23, were among the sparse but vocal crowd. The duo are playing for the Springfield Falcons, the Blue Jackets’ top affiliate, and wanted to visit with some of their former teammates on an off day and perhaps get a scouting report since the two teams again will play 10 times this season.
After getting 24 goals and a team-high 40 assists in his rookie pro season, Audy-Marchessault said he received four offers as soon as the free-agent signing period started July 1. He said he didn’t get an immediate offer from the Rangers but had talked with them after the Whale was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals, who included one of the Whale’s new players, veteran right wing Brandon Segal.
“I didn’t leave because of the money,” said Audy-Marchessault, who high-fived and chatted with several of his former teammates. “The offers were about the same, but I thought I had a better chance to make the NHL with Columbus. I loved the Rangers organization, very classy, but I had to think of it as a business. I knew I would make my mark again with the Whale, but it’s everyone’s dream to play in the NHL, and I thought I had a better chance with the Blue Jackets.”
Marchessault has certainly put himself in good position so far. In his two preseason games, he had three goals and an assist in a 4-3 victory over the Sharks and two goals in a 4-1 win over the Providence Bruins on Saturday night. Erixon, the son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon, missed the P-Bruins game because of an oblique muscle injury. Erixon, former Wolf Pack forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov and a first-round pick in 2013 were sent to the Blue Jackets for Nash.
The crowd also included Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark, Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton and Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld. Many of the Sharks hierarchy also was in attendance.
Brian O’Neill batted the puck out of the air and past Johnson at 3:59 of overtime to give the Manchester Monarchs a 4-3 victory over the Portland Pirates on Sunday afternoon. Johnson signed with the Phoenix Coyotes and former Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney after not getting an offer from the Rangers. The Monarchs won their two preseason games; the Pirates were 1-1.
SOUNDS OF THE GAME