The Connecticut Whale completed its 76 game regular-season on Saturday, losing to the Syracuse Crunch in a shootout, 2-1. Connecticut’s season isn’t over, though, with its 2012 playoff season beginning on Thursday in Bridgeport with game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (ECQF). The Whale clinched the sixth-seed in the Eastern Conference—as well as a first-round date with the Sound Tigers—after losing to the Manchester Monarchs, 5-4, in a shootout on Friday. Bridgeport clinched the Northeast Division title—and third-place spot in the Eastern Conference—on the same day.
As mentioned, the series will begin on Thursday (April 19) at 7pm (ET) at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, CT, and game 2 will be played on Saturday (April 21) at the same time and place. Game 3 will be played at 5pm on Sunday (April 22) at the XL Center in Hartford, and if necessary game 4 will be played on Wednesday (April 25) in Hartford at 7pm. If a game 5 is necessary, it will be played in Bridgeport at 7pm on Saturday (April 28).
The Whale finished its season with a record of 36-26-7-7 (86 points), while Bridgeport finished with a record of 41-26-3-6 (91 points). The Northeast Division rivals are very familiar with each other, having met 10 times during the regular-season. Bridgeport won six of the 10 meetings, including all five home games.
“(Bridgeport) is one of the hardest working teams that we’ve played against this year,” said Whale MVP Kris Newbury (25-39-64 in 65 games) following Friday’s game against Manchester. “All their success comes from a good forecheck and good defensive zone (outlet) passes, so we have to find a way to work them and win our battles…when we get chances, we need to finish them.”
This year’s GEICO CT Cup season-series began on October 15, 2011, when Bridgeport defeated the Whale in a shootout, 5-4. Bridgeport won the second game of the season-series as well, 4-3 in overtime on November 2. On November 18, the Whale finally beat Bridgeport, 3-2 in overtime; but Bridgeport responded on November 25 with a 6-2 beating. Connecticut came back with a 6-3 win on December 16, followed by a 3-2 Bridgeport victory on December 26. Bridgeport beat the Whale in overtime, 2-1 on February 12, 2012, but Connecticut responded with a 4-3 shootout win on March 9, and a 3-2 win on March 16. On March 25, the Sound Tigers closed out the season-series with a 4-3 overtime victory.
“I like certain facets of our game, sometimes it changes,” said head coach Ken Gernander on Friday. “This is the part of the year where you want to grind it out, and have a good all-around game.”
Connecticut enters the playoffs on a bit of a scoring drought, having scored three or more goals in a game just three times in the past 10 contests. The Whale power-play, which finished the season with a 17.4-percent conversion rate (14th in the AHL), has scored only once in the last six games (1-for-23), despite generating several scoring chances on each advantage.
The Whale’ scoring race ended in a tie for first-place between Newbury and rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (24-40-64 in 76 games), and Casey Wellman finished third on the team in scoring with a combined 23 goals and 24 assists in 57 games (split between the Whale and Houston Aeros).
Andre Deveaux, the team-leader in power-play goals with 13, missed the final few games of the regular-season with an apparent hand-injury, and his status for the playoffs is unknown. This is where the Whale hopes players such as Steve Moses, Christian Thomas and Marek Hrivik can step up and chip in a few goals here and there.
“The younger guys have come in and helped us out as of late, and now they’ll get a taste of playoff hockey,” said Newbury. “I think if we play our game and work the whole 60 minutes, we’ll have a good chance to win.”
Newbury leads the Whale in scoring against the Sound Tigers this season, with three goals and 10 assists for 13 points, followed by Audy-Marchessault who recorded six goals and six assists for 12 points.
On defense, the Whale is led by rookie Tim Erixon who was a plus-5 and scored three goals and 30 assists in 52 games this season. Brendan Bell tied Erixon for the team lead in points by a defenseman this season, but his status is unknown for the playoffs, as he missed the final few games with an undisclosed injury. Captain Wade Redden was also injured late in the season, and missed the season finale along with the bulk of Friday’s loss to the Monarchs with an undisclosed injury. His status is also unknown.
Pavel Valentenko (5-16-21, plus-12 in 60 games), Mike Vernace (combined stats of 3-15-18, plus-3 in 65 games with Norfolk, San Antonio and Connecticut) and Jared Nightingale (1-9-10, minus-3 in 67 games) will also likely be part of the Whale’s defensive corps in round 1. If injuries hamper the Whale blueline, Blake Parlett, Lee Baldwin and Peter Ceresnak are also available.
The Whale was pretty sharp defensively throughout the season, finishing with the sixth-best penalty-kill at 84.6-percent.
It will be very interesting to see which goaltender coach Ken Gernander decides to start this series. Though Chad Johnson (22-18-6 this season) would seem like the obvious choice, the 25-year-old has struggled of late, winning only one of his final seven decisions. Cam Talbot (14-15-1) on the other hand, won five of his final 10 decisions, and recorded two shutouts.
During the regular-season, Johnson started seven times against Bridgeport and posted a record of 4-2-1. Talbot was 0-3-0 against the Sound Tigers this year. Neither goaltender has much playoff experience, as Talbot has played in one post-season game, and Johnson zero.
Bridgeport enters the playoffs on a high-note, having won nine of its last 11 games, including a 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on the final day of the regular-season.
On offense, the Sound Tigers are led by Rhett Rakhshani (20-29-49 in 49 games) and rookie Casey Cizikas (15-30-45 in 52 games). Rookie defenseman Matt Donovan also had an impressive season offensively, scoring 10 goals and 35 assists in 72 games.
Justin DiBenedetto (4-3-7 against the Whale this season; leading scorer), Tony Romano and David Ullstrom are among the secondary scoring threats for Bridgeport.
Aside from Donovan, who was a plus-11 this season, Aaron Ness (5-22-27, plus-8 in 69 games), Jon Landry (2-18-20, plus-11 in 34 games) and Ty Wishart (5-14-19, minus-2 in 71 games) lead the back-end for Bridgeport.
Special teams weren’t Bridgeport’s strong point this season, finishing with the 16th best power-play (17.3-percent) and 22nd best penalty-kill (81.6-percent). Rakhshani, DiBenedetto and Ullstrom all tied for first on the team in power-play tallies with eight this season.
Kevin Poulin (6-2-1 against the Whale this season; 26-18-4 total record) will most likely start for Bridgeport this series. Anders Nilsson (0-1-0 against the Whale, 15-8-1 total) is the second option. Neither goaltender has played in a post-season game in their respective careers.
Players to watch
The players to watch from the Whale this series include the entire first-line of Newbury, Audy-Marchessault and Christian Thomas. Newbury has had playoff success in the past, and hopes to lead by example during the playoffs. Both Audy-Marchessault and Thomas had success during past playoff experiences in the juniors, and hope to carry their success into this series.
On Bridgeport, there aren’t many players that have playoff experience, but players to watch include Rakhshani and Cizikas, who had an impressive playoff performance in the OHL last season.
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