By Bruce Berlet
That’s the consensus of left wing Wojtek Wolski and defenseman Jeff Woywitka after playing six games in 10 days with the Connecticut Whale in two-week conditioning assignments from the New York Rangers. The stints don’t officially end until Wednesday, but the Whale don’t play again until Friday night at home against the Springfield Falcons.
Wolski, Woywitka and center Casey Wellman, who also joined the Whale on Feb. 2 after being acquired from the Minnesota Wild for Erik Christensen and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013, have helped the team earn 11 of 12 points in February after an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January and reclaim first place in the Northeast Division. The only blemish was a 2-1 overtime loss Sunday to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (25-18-3-2), the AHL’s hottest team with a 13-1-0-1 record in 2012. The Sound Tigers, coached by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, momentarily moved from last to first as the Whale (24-16-5-5) struggled last month, but they’re now three points behind with two games in hand.
Wolski and Woywitka got more ice time in six games than they had at any time in four months with the Rangers. Much of their lack of playing time on Broadway was the result of injuries, but Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller used them plenty in all situations.
“They were obviously a good boost to our lineup, and two guys who bring different elements,” Gernander said Sunday. “Wolski is a skilled guy who can create some offense and get some points and scored a few goals. And Jeff played sound on the back end. He’s a bigger body (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) that can finish checks and move pucks. They’re both obviously very good caliber players and were good additions to our squad.
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“They were here to get playing ‘experience,’ not that there’s a lack of experience on either guy. But like anything, you have to be playing in those situations to stay in shape. They definitely got plenty of ice time, and it’s probably the first time Wolski played three (games) in three (days).”
Wolski, 25, said he thought he had achieved what he wanted as far as getting plenty of playing time and improving his conditioning. Wolski, who is in the final year of a two-year, $7.6 million deal signed with the Phoenix Coyotes on June 28, 2010, had played in only nine games with the Rangers and was a healthy scratch the previous six since Jan. 15 after playing just three games following a return from sports hernia surgery on Nov. 8.
Wolski, acquired from the Coyotes for defenseman Michal Rozsival on Jan. 10, 2011, had two winners among his three goals and one of his two assists set up the Whale’s only goal Sunday by Kelsey Tessier. He had three assists in the nine games with the Rangers.
“I started to feel better each game,” said Wolski, who played with veteran center Kris Newbury and All-Star Mats Zuccarello. “It was great to get more minutes and just feel the puck and kind of see the ice a little better. The three in three is obviously tough, and the last game is exhausting. You have to give credit to the guys because it’s definitely not easy, but we played well and got 11 of 12 points, which is nice. My stickhandling is getting where it was, and my skating is starting to pick up a little bit. Overall, I’m happy that I had the opportunity to come down, feel like I’m getting back to where I feel I should be and want to build on it from here.”
Wolski said conditioning was the biggest perk he got from his first minor-league stint since he turned pro after four seasons with Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League that was capped by 47 goals and 81 assists in 56 regular-season games and seven goals and 11 assists in 11 playoff games in 2005-06.
“Being out for the longest I’ve ever been off the ice is tough, but it’s something you have to deal with because injuries happen,” said Wolski, who has 91 goals and 158 assists in 402 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche, Coyotes and Rangers. “I had surgery and was out for a long time, and even before that, I had problems with my groin and wasn’t feeling the way I should. So it’s good to start building back to where I feel I should be. (Saturday) night was a pretty good game where I had the puck a lot and created a lot of opportunities (in a 4-1 win at Manchester), which was positive. (Sunday) was just a tough game with three in three. It’s a first since I was a kid when I used to play a ton of three in three. Now I want to get back to where I want to be.”
That’s the NHL, and there might be a spot with the Rangers after wing Ruslan Fedotenko missed games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals on Saturday and Sunday after he was hit in the head by his stick when former Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack forward Dominic Moore put a shoulder into him in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. After the Rangers’ 3-2 victory over Washington, Coach John Tortorella said Fedotenko likely would travel with the team to Boston for a game Tuesday night against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins, who have fallen seven points behind the surging Blueshirts in the Eastern Conference with one game in hand.
Woywitka, 28, was claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 6 and got consistent playing time on the Rangers’ third pairing, until he was injured in a 3-2 victory over the Coyotes on Dec. 17. Before joining the Whale, Woywitka had missed 17 of the previous 19 games, including the last 13 since a 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Dec. 30.
But Woywitka, a first-round pick (27th overall) of the Flyers in 2001, also got oodles of ice time with the Whale and was bent over at the end of the regulation Sunday.
“It was good, and I thought as a team we played pretty well, other than maybe (Sunday) when we maybe looked a little fatigued,” said Woywitka, who had three assists while paired mostly with Blake Parlett. “But that’s obviously no excuse. We weren’t maybe as sharp as we should have been, but I guess if you go on the road and get a point out of a three in three, there’s worse things that happen, too. So all in all, we battled hard, and we know they’re a hard-working team. They came hard at us, and it was a good game, but we came out on the bottom end.”
The Whale might not have gotten a point if Chad Johnson didn’t stop Scott Howes’ penalty shot with 2:20 left in regulation after the Sound Tigers’ wing was hooked from behind on a breakaway by Sam Klassen. Johnson, who stopped 180 of 189 shots in the Whale’s 5-0-0-1 turnaround this month, denied Howes’ backhand bid but was screened before David Ullstrom’s 50-foot shot hit the crossbar and went in 37 seconds into overtime. The Whale asked referee Jon McIsaac for a video replay available as a test at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, and after a five-minute delay cueing up the video, he confirmed the goal good again.
“It was a lot of hockey, a lot of travel (with three road games), and it’s still hard when you’re playing (so many) minutes,” Woywitka said. “You’re always getting hit, you’re always taking hits, and you could feel everybody was feeling it a little bit (Sunday). It’s something you have to battle through and get used to, but we’ll take the point and move on.”
Woywitka also hopes to “move on” to the NHL, where he has nine goals and 46 assists in 277 games with the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Rangers, including one goal and five assists in 26 games with the Blueshirts this season. He called his first minor-league stint since playing seven games for the Peoria Rivermen in the 2008-09 season a “good experience.”
“The first couple of games, you have to get used to it again, get the routine going again, making plays, thinking again,” Woywitka said. “Getting into game action was good, and coming down here and contributing and helping the guys get wins and good goaltending … Everything kind of falls into place and everybody is happy and everybody comes to the rink with excitement, and that made it a lot easier in getting comfortable and getting established here.”
Did Woywitka get what he wanted out of the six games?
“Absolutely,” he said. “The main thing is winning hockey games, wherever you are. It’s the main goal and what we’re here for.”
Woywitka is also taking a wait-and-see attitude with the Rangers, who already have seven healthy defensemen, including Steve Eminger, who returned Saturday after being out with a separated shoulder since Dec. 17.
“I don’t control anything,” Woywitka said. “We just come and play, and hopefully I get another opportunity so we’ll just have to see what happens. I’ll just come to the rink every day and work hard. I want to get to the next level, which is why we’re down here because we obviously have got to be better and have to find a way to get back up there. I have to wait and see what happens and see what (the Rangers) tell me.”
Fortunately for the Whale, defensemen Wade Redden and Pavel Valentenko are close to returning. Redden has missed 22 games since being injured in a 2-1 shootout loss to Providence on Dec. 17. Valentenko has sat out seven games with an injury sustained in a 3-2 overtime loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 27. But he has had some relief already with wife Ekaterina giving birth of the couple’s first child, 8-pound, 6-pound Polina, last Tuesday.
WHALE HOST FALCONS, SHARKS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY NIGHT
The Whale will try to start another winning streak Friday night against the Falcons (23-23-2-2), who are eight points behind the Whale. The Falcons had a bizarre weekend in which they lost 3-2 in overtime at home to the Whale on Friday night, lost 8-1 at Bridgeport on Saturday night and then rebounded to beat visiting Manchester 5-1 on Sunday as All-Star forward Cam Atkinson, former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux and rookie Wade MacLeod each had a goal and an assist to back the 24-save effort of former UMass goalie Paul Dainton.
Atkinson, a Greenwich native who starred at Avon Old Farms and helped Boston College win two national championships, is second on the Falcons in scoring and among AHL rookies with 27 goals. His 41 points are fifth among first-year players and two fewer than Whale All-Star forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who is tied for third. Former All-Star center Martin Pierre leads the Falcons in scoring with nine goals and 35 assists, followed by Atkinson, Giroux (17, 20), former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers (10, 14), Matt Calvert (11, 11) and Nick Drazenovic (6, 16). Dainton is 6-3-1 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. Manny Legace, 39, the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, is 10-16-1, 2.84 and .902.
The Whale won the first five meetings with their I-91 rival and then went 0-2-0-1 before the win Friday night when Wolski scored at 1:04 of overtime. Audy-Marchessault, a solid contender for the AHL All-Rookie team with Atkinson, has taken over the Whale scoring lead with 18 goals and 25 assists, followed by Newbury (18, 24 in 39 games), former Falcons right wing Andre Deveaux (13, 17) and Zuccarello (10, 20). Chad Johnson played all six games in the Whale’s recent resurgence, stopping 180 of 189 shots, to improve to 15-10-5, 2.42, .919 with one shutout. Cam Talbot is 9-11-0, 2.96, .900 with two shutouts.
After playing the Falcons, the Whale hosts Worcester (23-15-4-5) on Saturday night and visits Providence (23-22-3-3) on Sunday afternoon. On Saturday night, the Whale and Whalers Sports and Entertainment will host “It All Starts Here” Night, which will pay tribute to players who spent time playing in the AHL in Hartford before moving on to the Rangers. It also will participate in USA Hockey’s “Hockey Weekend Across America” that is meant to spread the game throughout the country.
The night will include special ticket deals, as those wearing a youth hockey jersey to the XL Center’s Public Power Box Office will be able to purchase special $10 lower-level end zone seats. Also, 5,000 fans will receive an “It All Starts Here” poster, compliments of Webster Bank. The poster will feature Wolf Pack and Whale alumni who have made it to the Rangers, including former AHL All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, who is now the captain on Broadway. For more information, log on to www.ctwhale.com.
Despite five goals in the last three games to surpass 20 in a season for the third time, Callahan continues to fly under the radar on a national basis and remains considered basically a team-first, defensively responsible two-way forward. While that’s laudable, the native of Rochester, N.Y., is much more, as shown by being named captain.
“I think sometimes people think he’s just a shot blocker and a guy who can bang along the boards, forecheck and finish checks,” Tortorella said after Sunday’s game in which Callahan scored one after getting his second career hat trick in a 5-2 victory over the Flyers. “This is his third season now with 20-plus goals. He can also play and make plays. I think Cally has a little bit of a chip under his shoulder that everyone thinks he’s a one-dimensional guy, and he isn’t. As he keeps on growing as a player, he’s certainly showing that.”
Callahan is on pace for 33 goals and 61 points, and his 10 power-play goals are tied with the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin for fifth in the league. Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky, who has played with Callahan the past six seasons, including with the Wolf Pack, said his buddy has taken it to another level since scoring 35 goals in Hartford in 2006-07 and the winner in the All-Star Game with three seconds left.
“He was always one of the best, if not the best, defensive forwards on our team with all the little things that he does,” Dubinsky said. “His offensive game has really come to a completely different level. Listen, the guy scored 50 at one point in his career (52 in 2005-06 with the OHL’s Guelph Storm). It wasn’t in the NHL, but when you’re able to score that many at any level, I’m pretty confidence you can put the puck in the net. He’s shown some of that this year.”
Callahan was on the way to a career year in 2010-11 but broke his hand while blocking a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang on Dec. 15 and missed 19 games. Then in the 80th game of an 82-game regular season, he blocked a shot by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who has won the hardest shot contest the last two years, and was out as the Capitals eliminated the Rangers in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Still, he had 48 points in 60 games.
Now Callahan has become even more well rounded, logging the most minutes among forwards on the penalty kill, where the Rangers rank fifth (87.2 percent), and his 60 blocked shots are fourth among forwards and only four behind league leader Boyd Gordon of the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Callahan is a top-six guy yet he still plays with so much heart and grit,” Chara said after his shot sidelined the Rangers captain. “You don’t see many guys that throw their bodies around to block shots like that. He plays the game so hard. You have to respect a guy like that.”
SOMMER HITS 500 WINS PLATEAU
The poster is worth it for Callahan alone, but there will be much more for fans attending Saturday night, including Sharks coach Roy Sommer, who became only the fourth coach to win 500 AHL games Saturday night when Worcester won 3-2 in a shootout at Hershey. After a 5-2 victory over Portland on Sunday, Sommer, the dean of AHL coaches, is 501-496-90 in 14 seasons and trails only Hall of Famers Fred “Bun” Cook (636-413-122), Frank Mathers (610-512-134) and John Paddock (589-438-98), who led the Wolf Pack to the Calder Cup in 2000.
Sommer, who also ranks fourth all-time in games coached (1,082), first assumed his post as the Sharks’ top development coach in 1998 and has coached more than 80 players who have spent time in the NHL, including Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Doug Murray, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Miikka Kiprusoff, Brad Boyes, Christian Ehrhoff, Johan Hedberg and former Wolf Pack wing Mikael Samuelsson. Sommer’s first career win came on Oct. 17, 1998, a 6-4 victory over the Albany River Rats. David Cunniff, the son of former Whalers forward and assistant coach John Cunniff, played for Albany that night and has been Sommer’s assistant coach since 2002.
Sommer’s newest player is former Wolf Pack center Tim Kennedy, acquired from the Florida Panthers for defenseman Sean Sullivan on Jan. 26. Kennedy has two goals and five assists in six game with the Sharks, who are led in scoring by center Mike Connolly (10, 19), left wing John McCarthy (12, 16), defenseman Matt Irwin (8, 18) and right wing Jack Combs (11, 12), though McCarthy is on recall to the San Jose Sharks. Tyson Sexsmith (10-8-5, 2.14, .924) and rookie Harri Sateri (11-8-0, 2.58, .908, two shutouts) are sharing the goaltending with veteran Antero Niittymaki (2-3-0, 3.01, .890) on loan to the Syracuse Crunch. … College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats. … Falcons fans beat their Whale counterparts 12-7 Friday night for a sixth straight win in their inaugural seven-game series. The final game is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, at 4 p.m. at the XL Center, and tickets ($16) will be available soon. For more information and tickets, visit facebook.com/whalefalconsfangame. The series was originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first five games raised $750 for DBL.
BARONS’ GOALIES TRYING TO DUPLICATE WOLF PACK DUO
While the Oklahoma Barons have had the AHL’s top-ranked defense most of the season, they now officially have the top two goalies as well.
Yann Danis (1.94), named MVP of the All-Star Game, and former Wolf Pack goalie David LeNeveu (2.06) are 1-2 in goals-against average. Danis is 21-8-1 with a league-leading .928 save percentage and five shutouts, one less than All-Star Ben Bishop of the Peoria Rivermen. LeNeveu is 11-6-2 with a .923 save percentage and one shutout.
Since 1990, Steve Valiquette and Jason LaBarbera are the only teammates to finish 1-2 in GAA when they did it with the Wolf Pack in 2004-05. … St. John’s goalie Eddie Pasquale was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after stopping 83 of 87 shots in leading the IceCaps to three wins and into first place in the overall standings. He started the week with a 29-save shutout of Providence in a 2-0 victory and then stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 2-1 overtime win over the Bruins. He finished with 18 saves in a 4-3 victory over Binghamton that extended his personal winning streak to six games and gave him a 3-0 record with a 1.32 GAA and .954 save percentage for the week. A fourth-round pick of the former Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, Pasquale, 21, is 14-6-0 with a 2.59 GAA, .907 save percentage and two shutouts in 20 appearances for St. John’s this season. … Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at www.theahl.com. Zuccarello, Audy-Marchessault and Atkinson were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing and Hershey captain Boyd Kane. … Former Wolf Pack defenseman Jyri Niemi scored his fourth goal of the season with 37 seconds left in overtime to give the Greenville Road Warriors a wild 7-6 ECHL victory over the Chicago Express on Sunday. Brendan Connolly, who was in Whale training camp, had two goals and two assists and former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong, who started last season with the Wolf Pack, had one goal and two assists as the Road Warriors (29-18-1-2) won their third game in four starts to solidify second place in the South Division and Eastern Conference. Connolly has tied a team record with a 12-game point streak in which he has nine goals and 12 assists. Jason Missiaen, who spent the end of last season and training camp with the Whale, had 34 saves in his sixth straight start Sunday and is 11-10-0, 3.17, .903 with three shutouts. Former Wolf Pack wing Devin DiDiomete had an assist for the Express. The Road Warriors play three games this week, starting with a showdown at home with division-leading Gwinnett on Tuesday night.