While the New York Rangers have loudly climbed to the top of the ranks in the NHL, things are quietly derailing down on the farm.
The Connecticut Whale are stuck in the mud. After a fast start to the season that looked primed to end with a run to the Calder Cup finals, a seven-game losing streak has the team barely clinging on to first place in the Northeast Division. In fact, should the team surrender its division lead, they’d be on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
But luckily for the Whale there’s still plenty of hockey to be played and plenty of time to repairs to be made. With all the bad luck injuries (Mats Zuccarello reinjuring himself in his first game back), suspensions (Andre Deveaux getting three games for two separate boarding penalties) and NHL recalls, the Whale have fought adversity all season. When they lost Carl Hagelin and John Mitchell to the Rangers, other plays filled their scoring shoes. Fans thought the demotion of Sean Avery and the addition of Erik Christensen would help add a scoring punch to a team desperately in need, but they’ve only been the poster boys for the team’s seven-game losing streak, which includes five regulation losses.
The Whale haven’t won a game in 2012. Their last win came Dec. 31 at home against the Springfield Falcons, a team they’ve since lost two in a row to during the skid. The team also hasn’t won since Avery rejoined the team on Jan. 2. While I don’t think it’s fair to make a connection between Avery and the Whale’s losses, it’s a giant coincidence that’s hard to ignore. Avery has just two points in six games for the Whale this season. Between his ineffectiveness on the ice and reported discipline problems in the locker room, he’s been a less than impressive contributor.
As it stands, the Whale lack scoring depth. A number of players on the Whale’s third and fourth lines wouldn’t find themselves suited up on most AHL rosters and that’s the unfortunate truth. Early in the season when Jordan Owens, Chris McKelvie and Scott Tanski were only a fast, forechecking compliment to three strong scoring lines, things were different. But now that these and other similar roleplayers like Tommy Grant and Ryan Bourque are being relied on to score a bit more, the Whale have hit a snag.
The team has scored more than two goals just twice in the seven-game skid. With unreliable goaltending from Chad Johnson and Cameron Talbot behind a struggling defense, it’s rather clear to see why a team so dominant early on in the season has taken a complete 180 and turned the other way. Some have falsely called for the head of Coach Ken Gernander since the new year, a grossly stupid statement to make considering the development of players he’s supplied to the Rangers over the last few seasons.
I don’t think there’s a quick fix for the Whale, but repairs could begin tonight when they take on the St. John’s Ice Caps in Hartford. The Ice Caps have owned the Whale in two meetings this year, scoring 10 goals in two wins against the Whale. When they rolled into Hartford in early November, they played professionally and turned in a complete game. The Whale must mirror that tonight if they want to begin their five-game home stand with two points.
It’s also imperative that the team’s veterans take control of this team before things get too out of control. Avery and Christensen must bring their talent to the table and assist fellow veteran Kris Newbury and youngster Jonathan Audy-Marchessault in the offensive portion of the Whale’s struggling game.
This is arguably the most important stretch of hockey the Whale will play all season. A few more losses coupled with division rivals wins and the team will be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. A few wins and a sinking ship is righted with confidence returning to a once-deflated team.
Keep an eye on tonight’s game and let us know what you think the Whale need to do to return to winning ways.