On Sunday, the Connecticut Whale defeated the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 4-3, on an overtime goal scored by forward Casey Wellman. The goal not only propelled the Whale to a game 3 victory, but also provided them with win No.3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, giving Connecticut a first-round sweep.
Cam Talbot was the winning goaltender in each of the three first-round tilts, recording a 3-0-0 record, two shutouts, 127 saves (on 130 shots), a .92 goals-against-average, and a spectacular .977 save-percentage. Although the first-round is still in action, it is pretty much a guarantee that Talbot, 24, enters the Eastern Conference Semi-Final’s leading all goaltenders in most—if not each—of the category’s mentioned above.
Talbot’s appearances in the opening-round shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who follows the Whale, having witnessed the success that the 6-foot-3, 200-pound; Caledonia, Ontario, native had in the final months of the regular season. Chad Johnson, the No.1 goaltender for most of the year, struggled late in the season, opening the opportunity for Talbot to start.
“(Talbot’s) had a great run in April here, and he’s been a large part of our success,” said Whale head coach Ken Gernander on Sunday. “He played well in all three games.”
During the 2011 Calder Cup Playoff’s, Talbot was made the back-up goaltender to 2011-12 Whale MVP, Dov Grumet-Morris. With Johnson in the NHL for the New York Rangers’ playoff run, if an injury occurred to Grumet-Morris, Talbot would make his first professional playoff appearance. In game 6 of the Whale’s opening round against the Portland Pirates, Grumet-Morris was injured early in the second period and Talbot relieved him. Talbot played the final 38:18 of action, allowing two goals on 24 shots as the Whale lost 5-4, and was eliminated from the playoffs.
In Bridgeport last Thursday (April 19), Talbot made his first official post-season start, blanking the Sound Tigers in a 3-0 victory. Talbot made 42 saves in the win. Then in game 2 on Saturday, Talbot stopped another 41 Sound Tiger attempts, shutting them out once again, 3-0. Talbot carried his shutout streak into the final 14-seconds of period 1 in game 3, before Bridgeport forward Justin DiBenedetto scored on a power-play—ending the streak at 139:44.
“We knew that it was only a matter of time before (Bridgeport) scored a goal,” said Talbot. “They have way too much talent to not score throughout the whole series.”
Despite Bridgeport’s efforts in game 3—successfully cracking Talbot’s code three times—the Whale was still triumphant in the end; and Talbot’s performances were a major factor.
“Championships can be won on goaltending along,” said overtime hero, Wellman. “Just having confidence with Talbot right now is great…we’re playing solid defense in front of him, but he’s making the saves when we need them.”
Talbot was certainly one of the bigger first-round stories, but other names, such as Marek Hrivik and Ryan Bourque, also deserve some praise for their contributions throughout the series.
Hrivik, 20, elevated his game for round 1 of the playoffs, finishing the series as the leading goal-scorer with four tallies in three games. Hrivik finished game 1 scoreless, but registered multi-goal games on Saturday and Sunday as he helped the Whale overpower Bridgeport.
“(Hrivik’s) a good all-around player,” Gernander said of the rookie winger. “He’s been producing for us, and we have no problem using him because he is solid defensively and makes smart plays with the puck.”
Hrivik joined the Whale on March 30, signing an Amateur Tryout (ATO) agreement with the team after his Moncton Wildcats were eliminated from round 1 of the QMJHL playoffs. After Sunday’s win, Hrivik told the media that he was close to returning home after his third junior season with Moncton ended, but that a late phone-call sent him to Hartford.
“(I was contacted) about two hours before my flight decision,” said Hrivik. “My agent called me the day before my flight and he said it wasn’t 100-percent sure so get ready to go home…then they called me and said I was coming here.”
The Slovakian-winger appeared in eight regular-season games with the Whale, recording just one goal before his first-round outburst. Though he is excited for round 2, Hrivik also admitted that he feels he needs to “get stronger along the boards” and that there is “still a lot to work on.”
Hrivik enters round 2 tied for first on the team in points with Wellman (1-3-4), but, as mentioned, he leads the team in goals with four. Tied for second on the team in scoring are line-mates Bourque and Kelsey Tessier, who both recorded three points in three games.
Bourque and Tessier were both making their pro playoff debuts this round, and in game 1 the forwards contributed with a goal and an assist each.
“Even going back to game 1 we got secondary scoring,” explained coach Gernander. “Everyone was contributing and holding their weight and that’s what you need (in the playoffs).”
During the regular season, Bourque and Tessier mostly contributed physically and defensively, especially on the penalty-kill. Although Tessier reached career-highs in goals (12) and points (30) this season, he wasn’t considered a major offensive threat in the Whale line-up; nor was Bourque, who totaled 6-8-14 in 69 games during his rookie year. But—like Hrivik—both forwards elevated their games for the playoffs, and contributed with some clutch goals during the series.
In game 1, Tessier’s goal was the first—and eventual winner—of the tilt, while Bourque provided the put-away goal. In game 3, Bourque scored an important third period goal, and played a key role throughout the series.
On defense, rookie Tim Erixon received major minutes at even-strength and on special teams, and played a very solid series. Erixon finished with a plus-3 rating and one assist in three games. Jonathan Audy-Marchessault scored once in the series, and fired a team-leading 16 shots-on-goal in three games.
“(In game 3) Miller played regular shifts in overtime and he’s only been with us for 48 hours…we’ll give him some opportunity and watch what transpires. He’s been a sound and solid player,” said Gernander.
“You want guy’s who aren’t afraid to shoot, and he has that shoot-first mentality…he doesn’t look for something that’s not there.”
The Whale may not learn who its second-round opponents are until the weekend, but the team will patiently wait to find out; excited for the challenges ahead.
“It’s a great thing for us to win the series… I feel pretty confident about this group,” Hrivik said on Sunday. “We have a great group of guys and we just proved that we’re strong…we battled hard and we got our wins.”
Read my full first-round recap here.
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