By Bruce Berlet
It was hardly surprising that the New York Rangers called up rookie defenseman Tim Erixon from the Connecticut Whale on Wednesday.
Erixon’s role with the AHL’s Northeast Division leaders has expanded, and his play has steadily improved since he was assigned to the Whale on Oct. 29. The 20-year-old had been on the Whale’s No. 1 power-play unit and become among the team’s top penalty killers as he put together a three-game assist streak with four assists. He also moved to first among defensemen and tied for sixth overall in team scoring with 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in only 13 games.
“He’s got a lot of patience and a lot of poise and makes some real nice plays along the blueline and on the power play offensively,” Whale veteran defenseman Wade Redden said after a 3-0 victory over the Providence Bruins on Saturday night. “And he can find guys in front. We’ve seen a few times this year where he’s made good shots to the net that led to tips; he finds those sticks in front of the net. He’s a big guy with a good stick who does a lot of good things.”
Erixon ranked second on the Whale in average points per game (0.92) and was tied for third in assists, including a career-high three in a 3-2 victory over Portland on Nov. 23. After Saturday night’s game, he said he felt a little stiff at the start of his first game back Friday night, a 5-3 loss to the Hershey Bears in which he had two assists, after missing four games with an injury. But he had an assist in each game as the Whale split with the Providence Bruins, and he left early Wednesday morning to join the Rangers for their flight to St. Louis, where they play the Blues on Thursday night. He might have to replace Steve Eminger, whose left arm was injured when he blocked a shot in the second period of a 1-0 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night. Eminger returned for the third period and played eight shifts in the final 20 minutes.
Erixon credited Redden, fellow veteran defenseman Brendan Bell and Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who handles the defense, for steady improvement in his first season in North America.
“I’ve tried to keep learning every day,” Erixon said Saturday night. “There’s a great group of guys here, and you can look at guys like Reds and J.J. coaching, and you try to learn from them both on and off the ice, just how to handle yourself and how to behave. And I try to keep in mind most of the small stuff (the Rangers) wanted me to work on.
“J.J. has tried to help me all the time working on small stuff, and I’ve always tried to learn from Bells and Reds all the time. I feel good, and I think I’ve shown I was able to play (in the NHL). I’d also like to make a little bigger impact when I get up there, and that’s what I’m working on.”
Erixon, born in Port Chester, N.Y., while his father Jan was playing with the Rangers, began the season with the Blueshirts and made his NHL debut Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in his native Sweden as part of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Premiere. He was scoreless in nine games with the Rangers before being assigned to the Whale.
“He has been playing well, and there’s a lot to like about his game,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “The Rangers wanted to make sure that when they sent him down that he continued to play lots of minutes in lots of situations and develop given that it’s his first year in the league. Playing in all situations is part of a player’s development, and if they’re able to handle it, then they’re used in those situations.”
After being unable to sign Erixon, the Calgary Flames traded the skilled Swede and a fifth-round pick (right wing Shane McColgan) for left wing Roman Horak and two second-round picks on June 1. Erixon was the Flames’ first-round selection (23rd overall) in 2009 and was projected to be a Top 10 pick in June.
With Erixon gone, Jared Nightingale will return to the Whale lineup after being a healthy scratch the last three games. Wing Mats Zuccarello missed the 3-0 victory and a 3-2 loss at Providence on Sunday after being injured in a 5-3 loss to Hershey Friday. The “Norwegian Hobbitt” also started the season with the Rangers, but has eight goals and 14 assists to share the team scoring lead with rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (8, 14). The next top scorers still with the Whale are center Kris Newbury (8, 7), right wing Andre Deveaux (6, 6), center Kelsey Tessier (4, 7), Redden (0, 11) and Bell (3, 7). Chad Johnson (8-4-2, 2.49 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (7-5-0, 2.89, .894, two shutouts) have shared the goaltending.
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To assure having a spare forward, the Whale recalled wing Jeff Prough from the Greenville Road Warriors of ECHL on Wednesday. Prough had 12 goals and 13 assists in 21 games to share the team scoring lead with center Brendan Connolly, who also was in Whale camp this fall.
The Whale returns home for another Friday-Saturday night set this weekend against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Bruins. It’s part of nine games in the final 12 in 2011 at the XL Center after the Whale started the season with 15 of 22 outings on the road.
The Whale (15-8-1-2) has had problems with the pesky Sound Tigers (11-11-3-1), losing three of four meetings, the first two in a shootout and overtime after leading by two goals in each game. Then after a 3-2 victory on Bell’s goal with seven seconds left in overtime, the Whale lost 6-2 at Bridgeport on Nov. 25 in what equaled their worst defeat of the season.
So the Whale will have plenty of incentive in Round 5 of the GEICO Connecticut Cup on Friday night, especially after their first defeat in four meetings with the Bruins on Sunday. The Sound Tigers, who have lost three in a row and are 1-4-1-1 since their last win over the Whale, have been led by left wings Tim Wallace (nine goals, 11 assists), Casey Cizikas (5, 11) and Justin DiBenedetto (9, 5) and centers Jeremy Colliton, the team captain, and David Ullstrom (12, 2). Wallace, Ullstrom and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese are on recall to the parent New York Islanders, while left wing Micheal Haley (1, 2 in 16 games) was reassigned to the Sound Tigers on Monday and has been practicing on the Sound Tigers’ top line with Colliton and Rhett Rakhshani, a member of the AHL All-Rookie Team last season. The goalies for coach and former Wolf Pack defensemen Brent Thompson are rookie Anders Nilsson (5-5-1, 2.99 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) and Kevin Poulin (6-7-0, 3.37, .892), who was reassigned by the Islanders on Sunday after Evgeni Nabokov returned from a groin injury.
The Bruins’ win Sunday was their first in regulation since they beat Worcester 3-2 on Nov. 13. Since then, the Bruins (10-15-1-2) are 2-6-0-2, with the only other victory being 2-1 over Manchester in a shootout on Friday night, when Michael Hutchinson (1-5-0, 2.83, .909) had 26 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped four of five shots in the skills competition for his only win of the season. Rookie right wing Carter Camper leads the Bruins in scoring with six goals and 12 assists, followed by centers Josh Hennessy (8, 7) and Zach Hamill (7, 7), right wing Jamie Tardif (7, 5) and rookie defenseman David Warsofsky (1, 11). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, five assists and a team-high 67 penalty minutes, and Anton Khudobin (8-11-2, 3.02, .911, one shutout) has done most of the goaltending for the Bruins and had 29 saves in the win over the Whale on Sunday to end a personal 0-5-2 run. The NHL Bruins recalled Hamill on Tuesday on an emergency basis, and he had the primary assist on Rich Peverley’s game-winning goal in a 3-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, spoiling the head coaching debut of former Whalers defenseman John Stevens, who replaced fired Terry Murray on Monday.
The Whale’s only other game before their Christmas break is Dec. 21 at Adirondack, which is three points behind the Whale, who are at Bridgeport the day after Christmas.
To celebrate the holiday season, the Whale is offering a “Holiday Hat Trick” package of four upper-level tickets, four Whale winter hats and four Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for $80, with upgrades available. To purchase a package, call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366.
College students can get discounted tickets to weekday games with the Whale’s “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday home games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.
Fans who purchase Whale season tickets, or a mini-plan, before Dec. 31 will be entered to win a round-trip excursion via limousine to a Rangers regular-season home game at Madison Square Garden. Current season seat holders and mini-plan-holders are also automatically entered.
Major kudos to the Whale wives and girlfriends, who sold 223 “Love for Lokomotiv” red bracelets, and to the fans who bought them last weekend. That means $2,230 was raised to benefit the families of those lost in the tragic plane crash Sept. 7 involving the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
The silicone memory wristbands with the inscription “Love for Lokomotiv” were red because that’s the primary color of the team uniform and the universal color of love. The Whale sales were part of a unified worldwide effort by hockey wives and girlfriends to show support for dear friends in the grieving families of those lost in the Lokomotiv tragedy. All of the proceeds went to the wives and girlfriends of those who perished.
“Hockey is such a small community, and while it happened in another country, your heart goes out to those people. It’s such a terrible thing,” Kelly Talbot, wife of Cam Talbot and one of the organizers of the program, told Gerry Cantlon of Eurohockey.com.
The first 40 people to purchase a bracelet each night were entered in a drawing for an autographed Whale stick and Lokomotiv jersey.
“The response was excellent,” Talbot said. “It feels very good to help those people out.”
The idea of the Whale’s latest charitable event came from Redden and his wife, Danica, shortly after the crash. Redden is a Saskatchewan native who knew Lokomotiv coach and Saskatchewan native Brad McCrimmon, a former Hartford Whalers defenseman who died in the crash.
“Right after it happened, Reds came in and they were selling red glass beads,” Cam Talbot told Cantlon. “And then the wives and girlfriends found out about the program being done by the NHL and AHL, and Kelly and Danica took it upon themselves and have done a great job.”
Talbot then offered a sobering thought.
“If something like that were to ever happen around here, you would hope we would see our wives and girlfriends taken care of,” he said.
The reaction of Russian teammate/defenseman Pavel Valentenko to the tragic accident left a big impression on Talbot and has been helpful with the program.
“I talked to him in training camp, and he knew a couple of the guys and you could see how it affected him, but he battled through,” Talbot said. “It’s an awful thing. It’s great to see everybody in the league doing this and making a difference.”
Yes, the shock of the horrific crash still reverberates throughout the hockey community, but folks such as the Whale wives and girlfriends are making a difference. You can learn more about “Love for Lokomotiv” and find out how you can help at www.loveforlokomotiv.com. But before you do, put your hands together for the fans and Whale wives and girlfriends.
MCDONALD GETS FIRST TWO-GOAL GAME THIS SEASON
Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Whalers and New Haven Nighthawks defenseman Gerry McDonald, had his first two-goal game of the season in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ 4-2 victory over the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on Tuesday night.
The 500th win in franchise history gave the Penguins (15-7-1-4) a two-point lead over Hershey and Norfolk in the highly competitive East Division. McDonald, the Penguins’ alternate captain, has eight goals and team highs in points (22) and plus-minus (plus-12) in 26 games. Last season, McDonald led the AHL with 42 goals while playing with the Oklahoma City Barons on a line with former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing and 2009 AHL MVP Alexandre Giroux, who is now with the Springfield Falcons. … Greenwich native and former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout wing Cam Atkinson scored the Falcons’ only goal on a penalty shot in a 2-1 loss to the Worcester Sharks on Tuesday night. Atkinson, who leads Springfield with 13 goals, beat Tyson Sexsmith at 1:40 of the second period, after the Sharks outshot the Falcons 16-4 in their own building in taking a 2-0 lead after the opening 20 minutes, the winner being a shorthander by Tommy Wingels with 39 seconds left. Sexsmith had 27 saves, while 38-year-old Manny Legace, the Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, was the tough-luck loser despite making 29 saves.
It was the Falcons’ first game without captain Dane Byers, the former Wolf Pack left wing and captain, who was called up by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday. Byers was scoreless with two penalty minutes in 11:52 of ice time in his Blue Jackets debut, a 2-1 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks and former Wolf Pack teammate Dale Weise, who also was scoreless with two penalty minutes in 5:22 of playing time. … Hershey Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek, acquired by the Rangers from the Washington Capitals for wing Francois Bouchard on Nov. 8, began the season with two assists in 12 games but is now on a six-game scoring streak (four goals, two assists).
HAINSEY FINALLY RETURNS TO JETS
The Winnipeg Jets activated defenseman and Bolton native Ron Hainsey from injured reserve for their game against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night. Hainsey was scoreless and had one shot in only his sixth game of the season in the Jets’ 2-1 win over the NHL’s No. 1 team, as Ondrej Pavelec made 34 saves, including three in the final 48 seconds, and Bryan Little scored the winner with five minutes left.
Hainsey injured his shoulder in the Jets’ fourth game and was out until Nov. 23, when he sustained an open wound on his ankle after blocking a shot. The cut on the ankle was on a spot that doesn’t heal very quickly and is easily aggravated by his skate. He was close to returning several times but kept having setbacks.
“It’s a weird spot and a weird cut, and the swelling comes and goes,” Hainsey told the Winnipeg media before finally getting back in the lineup. … Two former Wolf Pack/Whale forwards were headed in opposite directions Wednesday. St. Louis recalled Evgeny Grachev from Peoria, where he was scoreless in three games after having two assists in 17 games with the Blues. Florida assigned center Tim Kennedy to San Antonio, where he has one goal and three assists and is plus-1 in eight games while he has one goal in 20 games with the Panthers, coached by former Whalers standout right wing and captain Kevin Dineen. … Ottawa Senators wing Milan Michalek, the NHL’s leading goal-scorer with 19, is out indefinitely after sustaining a concussion when he collided with teammate Erik Karlsson just over five minutes into the Senators’ 3-2 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. Michalek won’t play Wednesday night against the Boston Bruins and is listed as day-to-day by Senators coach Paul MacLean. “Right now we have to follow the concussion protocol,” MacLean said. “He’s day-to-day based on as long as he’s symptom-free, he can participate. He felt way better (Wednesday), so we’ll see how it goes.” … The Carolina Hurricanes announced Wednesday that wing Jeff Skinner, the NHL Rookie of the Year last season, and defenseman Joni Pitkanen are out indefinitely with concussions. Skinner, 19, leads the Hurricanes in goal (12) and points (24) despite missing the last two games, the first he has sat out in his NHL career. Pitkanen, 28, leads Hurricanes defensemen in assists (nine) and points (12) and tied for first in goals (three). He missed the last three games.
FORMER WOLF PACK DUO COULD BE SHOW STOPPERS
HBO’s “24/7: Road to the 2012 NHL Winter Classic” series premieres Wednesday night at 10. It’s the first of four episodes giving viewers an inside look at the Rangers and Flyers, who meet in the fifth NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Whale might get some air time, as HBO officials asked for footage of Rangers wing Sean Avery while he was playing on Asylum Street for two games in October. But usually low-key former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi is a leading candidate for show stopper.
“I think he’s first star, for sure,” defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who spent the second half of last season with the Whale, told NHL.com. “I think ‘G’ gets the Broadway hat for HBO.”
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist agreed, saying he expects Girardi to be HBO’s breakout star because of his one-liners. But left wing Mike Rupp said he’s looking for former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov to be the Rangers’ biggest surprise.
“If they’re on their game, they’re putting the mic on Artie as much as they can,” Rupp told NHL.com. “He could just ask you to go to lunch and it could be the funniest thing in the world. His English is really good, but sometimes he’ll just word a sentence in a way that just makes you chuckle. It could be missing a few adjectives.”
Can’t wait to watch. If you miss the debut, the other hour-long episodes will be Dec. 21 and 28 and Jan. 4. Happy viewing!!!!!
Follow Ian on Twitter @soxanddawgs. And be sure to like us on Facebook as well.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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