The Connecticut Whale spent the entire month of January in the losing column.
But something happened when the calendar turned its page on the month and the team entered February. The team always looked poised to break out of its slump at any moment. Their final games of January weren’t bad efforts by any means, but the team wasn’t able to get over the hump.
And then reinforcements came. With the acquisition of point-per-game forward Casey Wellman from the Minnesota Wild and the arrival of Wojtek Wolski and Jeff Woywitka on conditioning assignments, the Whale were given a much needed boost that solidified their top three scoring lines and offered more help on the back end, which has been hurt by the loss of Wade Redden to injury. Bring a healthy Kris Newbury back into the mix and things could only turn around – which is exactly what happened for the Whale.
The team won its first five games of the month, a streak that was ended last night in overtime at the hands of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. While the hot play has propelled the Whale back into first place in their division, it more importantly solidified them in the conference standings should Bridgeport end up back on top anytime soon. The Whale lead the Sound Tigers by three points, but Bridgeport has two games in hand on them. On the back of Chad Johnson’s stellar play in net (he started all six games this month, lowering his goals against average from 2.64 to 2.42 in that span) they’ve put themselves in a good place and can stay in that good place with consistent play in these final few months, especially March, which is dominated by home games every weekend.
But it’s important for Whale fans to hold their breath up until the trade deadline. Wolski, who had five points in six games, and Woywitka, who provided stable play on the blueline and chipped in with three assists, are both going to head back to New York now that their conditioning stints are other. Wolski might find himself back in the lineup with the recent injury to Ruslan Fedotenko, but after that, his status is up in the air. I think it’s likely to find him traded or placed on waivers, which could find him back in Hartford. The same goes for Woywitka. Even with the injury to Michael Sauer, there’s a logjam of defensemen looking to get minutes in New York. He might find himself as the odd man out and back in a green Whale jersey.
And with the Rangers possibly looking to add something big at the deadline, every Whale player that means something could be up for grabs, including Mats Zuccarello, whose time with the Rangers seems to have all but run out. He could be an attractive trade piece for a team willing to risk him returning to Europe after the season’s end but that also wants to give him a fair shake in their top six before he considers that.
Things could end well in the roster department for Whale fans though. We’ve just seen once again that Glen Sather is aware of his AHL club. He turned Erik Christensen into a good AHL player. Wellman, 24, has looked good early on. He gets around the ice and makes plays and has been given time on the penalty kill. He’s chipped in four points in his first five games with the Whale. So like last year, when Sather traded a seventh-round draft pick for John Mitchell, the Rangers could once again help round out the Whale’s roster with another AHL trade.
There are other dynamics that could play into the Whale’s favor down the stretch. Like in past years, other prospects will join the Whale towards the end of the season. Last season saw Dylan McIlrath get important minutes in the Whale’s defensive pairings and that should happen again. Carl Hagelin arrived last season and while he didn’t score as much as he did this year, his speed and awareness to make plays added greatly to the Whale’s forward group. Imagine if Chris Kreider forgoes finishing school and ends up in Hartford or New York? The same could happen with other prospects Christian Thomas or J.T. Miller when they finish their seasons in the OHL. These things are terribly difficult to predict.
What’s important though is that the team has found a new level of confidence after a losing streak that could have ended any professional teams season. They lost first place, but gained it back. They do play hungry, they do care, they’ve shown that. Now it’s all about how it shakes out the rest of the way.
Tags: AHL American Hockey League Bridgeport Sound Tigers Casey Wellman Chad Johnson Chris Kreider Christian Thomas Connecticut Whale Erik Christensen J.T. Miller Jeff Woywitka Kris Newbury Mats Zuccarello Wade Redden Wojtek Wolski