By Bruce Berlet
HARTFORD, Conn. – The Connecticut Whale showed little rust Saturday night after a six-day layoff, their longest of the season.
Mats Zuccarello scored twice and linemate Kris Newbury had one goal, two assists and several more good scoring chances to back the 23-save performance of Chad Johnson in a 5-1 victory over the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs before 5,321 at the XL Center.
The Whale (11-11-2-4) have won three in a row, are 5-0-0-1 since being rebranded from the Hartford Wolf Pack, have a seven-game point streak (5-0-0-2) and are back to .500 for the first time since Oct. 23. The Whale’s five goals tied their second highest total of the season to a 7-1 rout of Providence on Nov. 7, their only victory during a 1-9-2-1 slide that preceded their current 7-1-0-2 run.
Johnson extended his point streak to seven games (5-0-0-2) since a 4-3 loss at Manchester on Nov. 17. Meanwhile, the Monarchs (17-10-1-1) lost for only the fourth time in 14 games and for the first time in four meetings with the Whale.
After Jeff Zatkoff (32 saves) robbed Zuccarello in front at 5:12 and Newbury in the slot at 10:15 during a 5-on-3 power play, the Whale struck for two goals in 12 seconds and three in 3:34.
Rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh got the Whale rolling during a power play at 12:11 with a 50-foot one-timer through a screen off a pass from veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who did a good job keeping Richard Clune’s clearing attempt in the zone. It was the first goal as a pro for McDonagh, who left the University of Wisconsin after his junior year and a loss to Boston College in the NCAA title game.
“Nice one-timer with a shooter’s mentality,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “It was big goal to get on the board first with the power-play opportunity.”
McDonagh enjoyed the “big win” more than the goal, though he planned to text-message his former University of Wisconsin teammate Derek Stepan, a rookie center with the parent New York Rangers who departed the Badgers after his sophomore year. And McDonagh enjoyed that it brought several hundred teddy bears to the ice as the first Whale goal on “Teddy Bear Toss” night.
“Redden put it right on a platter for me, and I was glad I could get the teddy bears on the ice early,” said a smiling McDonagh, who got the puck to commemorate his first goal from trainer Damien Hess. “The past 12-15 games, I’ve been so much more comfortable and so much more confident, just like with our team. We’re getting used to each other, and everybody is starting to feel better and confident, and that helps my game.”
Even a rookie can notice how the light switch has seemingly gone on for the Whale.
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