BY: BRUCE BERLET (Special to Howlings)
Since the New York Rangers waived Wade Redden and shipped him to Hartford two seasons ago, the veteran defenseman has been a model citizen and teammate.
Being the highest-paid player in American Hockey League history at $6.5 million a season (with two years remaining) would likely make anyone happy to be a leader in any walk of like. But more than a few high-priced commodities have been openly disgruntled and downright unprofessional after being demoted.
But Redden has always taken the positive, upbeat approach, often going out of his way to help young players battling to keep him from getting back to the National Hockey League, though his high price tag has basically prevented that from occurring. But Ryan McDonagh, Stu Bickel, Tim Erixon, Jyri Niemi and Tomas Kundratek, now excelling with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after being traded for Francois Bouchard on Nov. 8, have all benefitted from Redden’s presence.
Redden was rewarded on March 3 when coach Ken Gernander surprised Redden during a team dinner in Manchester, N.H., announcing he and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller had decided to name him the first captain in more than a year despite missing 23 games after crashing into the net and injuring his knee in a 3-2 victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Nov. 18.
So it seemed appropriate that Redden was one of the best among many good Whale players in their first-round sweep of the Northeast Division champion Sound Tigers. Most of the attention went to goalie Cam Talbot, who recorded the first back-to-back playoff shutouts in franchise history, rookies Marek Hvirik and Ryan Bourque and center Casey Wellman, who scored the series-clinching win off a pass from – you guessed it – Wade Redden.
Even when asked if it was especially rewarding to perform so well at 34 years old after being sidelined so much in the regular season, the 15-year veteran tried to deflect his importance in the franchise’s first series win since 2006.
“It was a good series,” said Redden, the second overall pick of the New York Islanders in 1995. “I thought everyone really played hard and battled hard together. You could really notice the level of our play jumped up a lot. I think the forwards were coming back really hard, making it hard on (the Sound Tigers) to get anything going through the neutral zone, and that made our (the defense’s job) that much easier.”
The defensive corps of Redden, Brendan Bell, Pavel Valentenko, Jared Nighingale, Mike Vernance and rookie Tim Erixon all earned kudos from Gernander and Talbot, but Redden was really at the top of his game at both ends of the ice and similar play will be needed in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the AHL’s best team, the Norfolk Admirals.
“I felt good,” Redden said. “But like I said, the forwards worked hard and made our job a lot easier, and Cam bailed us out a few times when he was called upon. And obviously this time of year I’m excited. It’s the time that you want to playing, and it will be good to get back into some games (on Wednesday night after a record 10-day layoff).”
So was Redden more excited about sliding across to deny Sound Tigers wing Blair Riley from point-blank range with Talbot out of position or making a deft play and pass to set up Wellman for the clinching goal at 16:36 of overtime?
“More about finishing them off, for sure,” Redden said with a smile. “Overtime is always intense, so there’s no better time to score than then. (Wellman) gave me a yell, and I kind of caught him streaking down the side out of the corner of my eye and just kind of threw it him and he did the rest.”
Then Redden returned to doing what he does best, giving credit to others.
“I thought Wellman had a great series,” Redden said of the center/wing who has been a terrific addition since being acquired Feb. 3 from the Minnesota Wild as part of a trade for Erik Christensen. “He was always in the right position, works real hard, plays in the tight areas with the puck and can make a lot of great plays. He’s kind of got that knack to be in those places. I don’t know what happened on (the winning play). I think he just jumped off the bench and was coming down real hard and knew the play was going to be there if he got there, so it was obviously good getting open like that.”
While Redden was reluctant to discuss his play, others weren’t, including alternate captain Brendan Bell, another veteran who partnered with Redden for the first time this season in the first round.
“We play a similar style, and I think it worked out pretty good,” Bell said. “He had a great series, and I think that’s what you get out of older players come playoff time. They elevate their game and kind of do things that go unnoticed through the course of a regular season. But they really get magnified in the playoffs, and those turn into big plays. So he definitely elevated his game and has been a treat to play with. He’s leading by example and doing all the little things.”
“I thought he played great, blocking shots, great play on the series-ending goal,” Gernander said. “It’s great because he’s your captain and when things got a little snarly with (Justin) DiBenedetto, he stood his ground. He did very well in all regards. I was real pleased with his game, and he was a good example.”
Gernander had to do some creative scheduling during the 10-day layoff. After ousting the Sound Tigers, the Whale had two days off, two days of practice, scrimmaged on Friday, had Saturday off and then tweaked all phases of their game Sunday and Monday, particularly the power play, while maintaining the four lines that they used against Bridgeport.
“Toward the end of last week it got a little long because we didn’t even have an opponent yet,” Gernander said, alluding to the Admirals not clinching their series with the Manchester Monarchs until Friday night. “But after taking a day off, the guys came back and knew their opponent and we had three days to prepare. Our level of practice, intensity and work ethic has been very good, where it should be.
“You can’t negate conditioning or overlook anything, you still have to come and work hard. We tried to keep guys ready but fresh mentally, and then the last few days we worked on things a little bit more specific to what we’ll be facing.”
Redden and Talbot said they felt the Whale was ready to go after the team’s longest layoff in their 15-year history.
“I don’t think we would have chose to be off that long, but we’ve had some practices and good skates so our legs should be good,” Redden said. “It’s tough conditioning-wise to really duplicate the battling and stuff that you’re going to see, but I think that’s just a mental thing. The games are going to come quick now with lots of travel, so you’ve got to be ready to go. So our first game we really want to jump right in there and get right into it, then we should be fine. Now it’s just a matter of getting our touch and our feel. The power play is going to be a big thing, so we did a lot of work on that the last couple of days.”
After practice Monday morning, the Whale boarded a bus that sleeps 32 on four decks and took off on a scheduled nine-hour ride to Norfolk, Va., that was temporarily waylaid when the trailer carrying the team’s equipment blew a tire and didn’t arrive in Norfolk until 1 a.m. Tuesday. It’s the first time that the franchise used a sleeper bus, and it provided a memorable moment on which no one fortunately was hurt.
“Back on the road,” rookie right wing Scott Tanski tweeted. “Everyone is staying positive.”
Games 1 and 2 in the best-of-seven series are Wednesday and Friday nights at the Scope Arena before the Whale hosts Games 3 and 4 at the XL Center on Sunday and Monday at 7 p.m. Game 5, if necessary, will be at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport on May 9 because the circus is booked in the XL Center. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, would be in Norfolk on May 11 and 13.
“We’ve had a few days off and even had a scrimmage to get the competitive edge back,” Talbot said. “I think all those things in combination will work well for us and keeping our edge and staying focused for the next round.”
The Whale will need to be focused in all facets of their game considering the Admirals won a North American professional record 28 consecutive games to close the season and finish with a 55-18-1-2 record, including four wins over the Whale, who lost once in a shootout. After extending the record to 29 games, the Admirals lost 5-2 at home to the Monarchs before winning twice in New Hampshire to advance to the second round. So the Admirals, whom Gernander called multi-dimensional, have lost once in 32 games since a 4-2 loss at Springfield on Feb. 5.
When asked about that stunning accomplishment, Redden said, “I don’t think it matters, really,” alluding to the Whale losing six of 10 to Bridgeport in the regular season, including all five games at Webster Bank Arena, and then shutting out the Sound Tigers in their first two playoff meetings. Regular-season matchups are different than the playoffs, but the record run certainly shows the Admirals have been on top of their game for nearly three months running, and they now have their No. 1 goalie, Dustin Tokarski, back from the Tampa Bay Lightning, who didn’t qualify for the NHL playoffs.
The Whale is scheduled to add rugged defenseman Dylan McIlrath after the Moose Jaw Warriors were eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoffs with a 4-1 loss on Friday night to the Edmonton Oil Kings and center Michael St. Croix, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2011. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010 nicknamed “The Undertaker” because of his pugilistic ability, was to meet the Whale in Norfolk. Gernander didn’t want to discuss McIlrath’s situation, but the big defenseman tweeted Sunday night that he was going to be joining the Whale.
A year ago, McIlrath was scoreless with seven penalty minutes in the last two games of the regular season before being a healthy scratch in the playoffs. He had six assists and 12 penalty minutes in 14 Moose Jaw playoff games this year after getting three goals, 20 assists and 127 penalty minutes in 52 games in a fourth junior regular season that included several injuries and two suspensions. In his first three junior seasons, he had 13 goals, 38 assists and 424 PIM in 180 games. There’s a slim chance that McIlrath could return to Moose Jaw for an overage season if a possible NHL work stoppage materializes, but he’ll first rejoin the Whale.
But it will be interesting to see if Gernander and Daigneault, who handles the defense, insert McIlrath in the lineup after how well the defense played against the Sound Tigers. Erixon and McIlrath could be reunited after being the Rangers’ top defensive pairing in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in September.
When asked if he planned any lineup changes, Gernander smiled and said, “I guess you’ll have to find out Wednesday night. We do have some options with guys who have been with us for an extended period of time or all season, and you factor in a number of things like their past performance against Norfolk, their play coming down the stretch, their play in the playoffs, their body of work throughout the course of the season. You just evaluate all that and try to put together the lineup that gives you the best chance of winning.
“For the most part, I thought we played good team defense and there was a lot of positives in that series (against Bridgeport). I don’t think we had a weak link or a (defensive) pair that I could be victimized. I think we had six strong (defensemen) out there.”
Gernander got a laugh from the assembled media when asked if Talbot would start in goal.
“There’s a good chance,” Gernander said.
Gernander also likes his team’s chances against the Admirals.
“They obviously do a lot of things well, but I’m positive and optimistic,” said Gernander, who won his first playoff series in five years as a head coach against former Hartford Wolf Pack teammate Brent Thompson. “The way we finished the season in Syracuse (a 2-1 shootout loss) was kind of a good way to head into the playoffs. We worked hard and battled, knowing full well the two points wouldn’t change our fate in the standings and how desperate Syracuse was.
“That kind of put us on the right foot, and I thought the guys went into Bridgeport in Game 1 and just played their best game. You saw Bridgeport was trying to match lines and gave some of our guys with bigger numbers (veteran center Kris Newbury and All-Star rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault who shared the team scoring lead) some special attention. But we got secondary scoring in that first game, had a couple of power-play goals in the series and Talbot was very good, so there was a lot of positives to be drawn from the way we finished the season and the first playoff series. But we know full well that the opponent we’re playing is more than formidable. They’re the No. 1 team in the American Hockey League.”
RANGERS REPORTEDLY WANT TO SIGN HRIVIK
New York Post writer/columnist Larry Brooks wrote Sunday that the Rangers are strongly considering signing Hrivik after the season, and who could blame them. Hrivik, a free agent, has taken advantage of a terrific opportunity and was a major contributor against the Sound Tigers, scoring two goals in each of the last two games to tie Wellman for the team scoring lead with four points.
Hrivik signed an amateur tryout contract after the Moncton Wildcats were eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. The offer was finalized as he was about to head home to Slovakia after Andrew Yogan sustained a foot injury in a 3-0 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 30. Hvirik signed the ATO a day later and made his pro debut in a 3-0 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms behind Talbot’s 26-save performance, his first of four shutouts in the last nine games that he called “the best nine-game stretch of my career.”
Hrivik had only one goal in the final eight regular-season games and Game 1 of the first round but was getting plenty of chances, which he finally converted in the final two games.
RANGERS, ISLANDERS HAVE AGREEMENT FOR ISLANDERS TO MOVE
Randi Marshall of Newsday broke the news on Saturday that the Rangers and Islanders have an agreement that would allow the Islanders to move from Long Island to Brooklyn, where a new arena is being built. A referendum to build a new facility next to where the antiquated Nassau Coliseum is located in Uniondale, N.Y., was voted down in October, so the Islanders are looking for an alternate place to play and the new arena in Brooklyn for the former New Jersey Nets of the NBA is a possibility. An amendment to the original territorial deal between the Rangers and Islanders allows for the Islanders to relocate to Brooklyn or Queens.
There also has been talk that the Rangers could move the Whale to Bridgeport because of the exorbitant $25,000 that Whalers Sports and Entertainment has to pay AEG to lease the XL Center every game. That’s about three times the AHL average and much more than WSE likely has to pay to have a possible Game 5 against Norfolk.
ANOTHER WHALERS ANNIVERSARY
Monday was the 42nd anniversary of one of the most memorable days in Hartford sports history – the Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association being accepted into the NHL for $6 million each.
WSE chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin was Whalers managing general manager at the time and a major mover and shaker in the merger of the two leagues.
“My fondest memory is one of complete relief,” Baldwin said via e-mail Monday. “A lot of people don’t realize that the merger talks were a three-year process. Some day the true story will be told.”
Anytime that you’d like to tell that story, please let me know, Howard.
And speaking of the Whalers, congratulations to one of the WHA New England Whalers’ original players, right wing Tim Sheehy, who was among the first nine inductees in the new Bronco Athletic Hall of Fame at International Falls High School in International Falls, Minn., on Saturday night. The other inductees included NFL Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski.