Connecticut Whale rookie goalie Cam Talbot paid defenseman Pavel Valentenko quite the compliment Sunday.
“He blocks shots so well it’s like having three goalies,” Talbot said after watching Valentenko doing plenty of just such dirty work in a 3-1 victory over the Springfield Falcons.
With the Whale on the way to tying a season low of 18 shots, Valentenko also gave them some unexpected offense when one of his lasers from the left point overpowered goalie Gustaf Wesslau, hitting his stick and going into the net for his third goal at 9:07 of the third period.
“I’ve had a hard shot all my life, but it has always gone the wrong way,” a smiling Valentenko said after practice Tuesday at the XL Center in Hartford. “Now I’ve been practicing my shot almost every day with (assistant coach) J.J. (Daigneault), and it goes in the net. I’ve worked on shooting quicker and hitting the net.”
Valentenko, a self-proclaimed stay-at-home defenseman, also has specialized in blocked shots since he began learning the game in Nizhnekamsk, Russia.
“All my hockey career I’ve tried to block shots because then it’s easier for the goalie and better for us,” said Valentenko, nicknamed “Tank” in training camp by New York Rangers coach John Tortorella. “Even when as I was a kid I was staying in the net and blocking shots. My father said, ‘Be a goalie if you want.’ I didn’t want to be a goalie. I just wanted to protect the net.”
Personal issues at home and a pair of injuries limited Valentenko to 19 games the past two seasons, so he is delighted to be the only Whale player to appear in all 70 games this season. But he hasn’t completely escaped the injury bug. He had difficulty talking for nearly three months after he sustained nerve damage in his throat when clipped by a stick during a scrimmage in Rangers training camp.
“The last two years was a hard time for me,” Valentenko said. “I had two big injuries, and now I’m so happy that I’m playing.”
The 23-year-old Valentenko has been paired mostly with rookies Tomas Kundratek, 21, and Blake Parlett, 21, an ECHL All-Star recalled from Greenville on Feb. 17 as Kundratek battled an infection.
“I’m doing my best and everything for the team and guys have helped me,” Valentenko said. “So the season has been pretty good, and I think I’ve improved my shot and penalty kill.”
Others say Valentenko has been much more than “pretty good.”
Whale coach Ken Gernander commended Valentenko for being willing to sacrifice his body at a moment’s notice.
“He has always been a pretty good shot blocker,” Gernander said, “and when he’s on his game, he plays physical, hits and contains in the defensive zone. And he has a big shot. Maybe he could be more selective with it, make sure he gets it through and things like that, but obviously that was a big goal for us (Sunday). It was much needed offense from a source that isn’t typical of some of our power-play guys.”
Despite Valentenko’s heavy shot, Kundratek, Parlett, veteran Wade Redden, injured second-year pro Michael Del Zotto and All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams usually man the points on the Whale’s top power-play units. Right wing Dale Weise even was used there for a few games, while Valentenko, Jared Nightingale and Stu Bickel have focused on penalty killing.
Valentenko’s three goals and 10 assists might not catch the eye of many Whale followers, but he leads the team in plus-minus at plus-20, two better than fellow Russian Evgeny Grachev. And some of Valentenko’s bone-crushing hits rank among the best in hockey.
“He’s obviously a great shot blocker, always in those lanes, and even if he doesn’t block it, he usually gets a stick on it or something,” Talbot said. “One-on-one, no one (hardly) ever gets around him. Anyone who tries to make a move on him, he just gets the stick on the puck, knocks it in the corner and rubs the guy out. He obviously has really improved all season long, and it’s starting to show for us.”
Valentenko and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, both of whom were acquired in a seven-player trade with the Montreal Canadiens that included center Scott Gomez, were narrowly edged out in training camp by former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer, who has been one of the Rangers’ major surprises and leads the parent club in plus-minus at plus-18, one more than McDonagh entering a game against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night. Ironically, Sauer and McDonagh, who started the season with the Wolf Pack, are now the Rangers’ No. 2 defensive pairing behind two former Wolf Pack players, All-Star Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.
“I thought I did pretty well in training camp after I (hardly) played in two seasons,” Valentenko said. “I was working hard in the summer before camp, and I think I did pretty well. I was doing my best, but when I got sent down, I just told myself to work harder and wait for my chance to make the big team.”
Daigneault, who handles the defense, also noted the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Valentenko’s willingness to block shots and how he has improved his defensive coverage and finished checks better while still trying to get a quicker release on his shot and push soft passes to his teammates.
“His strength is on the (penalty) kill and blocking shots, but there are a few things I’ve worked with him on,” Daigneault said. “Early in the season, he had the habit of jumping from one check to another, and I think it’s important for a defenseman to focus on one job. But sometimes it’s just wanting to do too much, taking one guy and then jumping on the other check, so that’s what I keep showing him on video.
“He also needs to show a little more physicality, but he’s also finished some big hits on the rush and down low. He does have a big shot, but he also has a big windup so I’ve worked with him on getting his shot off quicker. In our league, opponents are really good at taking the lanes away so oftentimes he wasn’t able to exploit his big shot because he was taking too long. But you saw (Sunday) the one-timer from the blue line, which is a drill we’ve been working on in practice to get a feel for that one-time shot. He told me those are things that no one had ever taught him, but I think those are the kinds of things that young defensemen need to know.”
It’s all about the basics.
“If you improve your skating, your passing or your shot from the first time you’re here, fundamentals will allow you to play anywhere,” Daigneault said. “So I’d love the young guys to be a Ranger one day, but if they have good fundamentals and the Rangers think they can get a (draft) pick for those players, then they can go play somewhere else. If you have fundamentals, I think you can play anywhere.”
After growing up in the hockey ranks in his native Nizhnekamsk, Valentenko was a fifth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2005 and moved to North America a year later. He had two goals and an assist in six games playing for Team Russia in the 2007 World Junior Championships and was voted the Bulldogs’ top rookie in his first season (2007-08) after getting one goal and 15 assists in 57 games. He also was part of the group of players the Canadiens called up for the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs in the case of injuries.
On Oct. 30, 2008, after getting two assists in four games with Hamilton to start the 2008-09 season, Valentenko decided to leave the Bulldogs to help provide for family members, including his parents, and signed a three-year contract with Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“He was concerned about how his family would survive,” Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ director of player personnel, told www.newyorkrangers.com. “He went to the Canadiens first, unlike some other guys who just go home. He told them that he didn’t want to leave, but he had to for the best interest of his family. So he did it, and he had to set his pro career back for that.”
When he left, Valentenko intended to return when his wife’s finances were more stable. But after he played only eight games with Dynamo that season, the Canadiens didn’t want to wait. On June 30, 2009, Valentenko was traded with McDonagh, the Canadiens’ No. 1 pick (12th overall) in 2007 who started this season with the Wolf Pack before switching places with Del Zotto on Jan. 3, former Yale center Chris Higgins and former Springfield Pics defenseman Doug Janik for Gomez, former Wolf Pack wing Tom Pyatt and defenseman Michael Busto.
“I was so happy that Montreal traded me to the Rangers because I wanted to come back to North America,” Valentenko said. “I had a hard time in my family and had to go back home, but I always wanted to come back to North America. But the Canadiens signed seven defensemen to one-way contracts, and I didn’t think I got a chance (to make the team).”
As Valentenko prepared for last season, he sustained an injury that required surgery just before the season started. After diligent rehab, he returned Jan. 5, 2010, and played in Novokuznetsk’s 4-3 victory. He played six more games before the nagging injury ended his season on Feb. 7.
But the left-handed shooting Valentenko has progressed well while paired with two other good, young right-handed prospects.
“I thought Valentenko and Parlett were a good compliment,” Daigneault said. “Parlett is a good skater and very good at the short pass to exit the defensive zone, and one is physical and the other likes to get up the ice. It’s like Chris Chelios and (Craig) Ludwig, so I thought the combination was good. I don’t particularly like having two right-handed shooters together like Kundratek and Bickel, but there’s nothing I can do with four right-handed guys.”
Valentenko is now on the cusp of being a NHL player, and it seems appropriate it could be with the Rangers. One of Valentenko’s favorite souvenirs is a Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup championship cap that his father bought while attending his 10-year-old son’s seven “friendship games” in 1997. Pavel’s team played in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, where he watched a New York Islanders game and also visited Madison Square Garden, the home of the Rangers.
“My dad went to Madison Square Garden and bought the hat,” Valentenko said. “I loved the Rangers, and my father also has a miniature Rangers player that he hangs on his keys or rear-view mirror. He likes the Rangers because they have so much history and had a couple of Russian players on the championship team – (Alex) Kovalev, (Sergei) Nemchinov, (Sergei) Zubov and (Alexander) Karpovtsev. He followed them and read about them.”
Now Valentenko would love to have his father and thousands of others get to watch him play in The World’s Most Famous Arena.
NEWCOMER PRACTICES WITH WHALE
Forward Kale Kerbashian had his first practice with the Whale on Tuesday, a day after signing an amateur tryout agreement for this season and an AHL contract for next season. The 5-foot-11, 173-pound Kerbashian joined the Whale after getting 37 goals and 51 assists in 68 games with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League.
The 20-year-old free agent from Thunder Bay, Ontario, saw his first pro action last season when he had two goals and an assist in four ECHL games with Wheeling. He is the Whale’s only healthy extra and is eligible to play in the playoffs if the team reaches the postseason.
Kerbashian stayed with the same family in Sarnia as new teammate Devin DiDiomete and played against Del Zotto and Parlett in the OHL. Defenseman Jyri Niemi continued to skate on his own, but Del Zotto and forwards Chad Kolarik, Todd White and Chris McKelvie are just rehabbing or resting.
REMATCH WITH FALCONS WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Whale (36-26-2-6) has a rematch with the Falcons on Wednesday night at the XL Center in the start of four games in five days. The Whale has won three in a row and eight of 10 to reach their high-water mark this season of 10 games over .500. The 3-1 win over the Falcons on Sunday moved the Whale four points ahead of Worcester in the battle for the third and final guaranteed spot in the Atlantic Division playoff race and one point in front of Binghamton (36-27-3-4), which is fifth in the East Division in the fight for a possible crossover playoff berth. The crossover rule stipulates the top four teams in the East Division and the top three in the Atlantic Division qualify for the playoffs, and the conference’s eighth and final spot will go to whichever has more points between the East’s fifth-place team and the Atlantic’s fourth-place club.
If the Sharks (33-26-4-8) eke out a playoff spot, they might look back to a 5-4 overtime victory over the Atlantic Division-leading Portland Pirates on Tuesday morning. Rookie Corey Tropp’s goal only 13 seconds into the game sparked the Pirates to an early 3-0 lead before Patrick Davis’ shorthanded goal got the Sharks started. The Pirates took a 4-2 lead early in the second period, but Nick Schaus got the Sharks to 4-3 by the end of the period. With the Pirates on the verge of clinching a playoff spot and expanding their division lead to four points with four games in hand on Manchester, another defenseman, Joe Loprieno, tied it with 3:23 left in regulation. Left wing John McCarthy then scored only 16 seconds into overtime to get Sharks within two points of the Whale and one point of Binghamton. The Sharks had been outscored 19-7 in losing their three previous visits to Portland.
The stage for a Whale-Falcons rematch was set when the teams had to be separated after the final buzzer sounded as they were leaving their benches Sunday. The scuffle was precipitated by Falcons tough guy Kyle Neuber jabbing at Kris Newbury and DiDiomete, the AHL leader in fighting majors (32) and penalty minutes (296). It wasn’t the first time this season the Whale had a run-in with Neuber. His hit on All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams in the Whale’s 3-2 victory on March 2 forced the team leader in goals (29) to miss four games.
While the Whale has surged into a playoff spot, the Falcons (30-36-2-3) are on a 0-10-1-0 slide since the loss of rugged wings Tom Sestito and former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers via deals at the trade deadline. They were challenging for their first playoff berth since 2005 before the freefall dating to a 4-1 victory over Portland on Feb. 27. Their only point in the slump came March 5 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Whale, who are 5-1-1-1 and have won five in a row against their I-91 rival. The Falcons have been shut out twice and scored only four goals in their last five games.
The Falcons are led by rookie right wing Tomas Kubalik (21, 24), veteran centers Trevor Smith (18, 22) and Ben Guite (14, 25) and rookie left wing Maksim Mayorov (18, 13). Former Wolf Pack captain/center Greg Moore has one assist in 10 games since being part of the Sestito trade. Former Wolf Pack David LeNeveu (16-20-2, 2.97 goals-against average, .896 save percentage) and Gustaf Wesslau (12-16-1, 3.17, .897) share the goaltending. LeNeveu was pulled after the second period Sunday because of fatigue from having played three games in less than 48 hours, including a trip to Binghamton, N.Y.
After the rematch, the first-year Charlotte Checkers, the Whale’s former ECHL affiliate, make their second Hartford appearance Friday night and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers visit Saturday night to end the homestand. The Whale then plays successive games at Providence on Sunday and April 1.
WHALE HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON SATURDAY NIGHT
“Howe Family Night” arrives Saturday as the Whale honors legendary Gordie Howe, sons Mark and Marty and his wife, Colleen, who died in 2009. Before the game, fans can meet Gordie and get a personalized autographed book and photo by purchasing a copy of the colorful 185-page book “9. Nine. A Salute to Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.” The book sells for $70, and he will sign copies starting at 5:30 p.m. in the XL Center atrium. The first 2,000 fans will receive a free commemorative 36-page Gordie Howe tribute program full of color photos and stories, and there will be a video tribute to the Howes during a pregame ceremony.
In pregame warm-ups, Whale players will wear a special 1978 vintage No. 9 Gordie Howe New England Whalers white home jerseys. A refurbished banner honoring the No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be will be spotlighted as he and his sons, whom he played with for seven seasons in Houston and Hartford, look on. Colleen Howe also will be honored as a new banner saluting the Howes will be raised. There will be a highlight film of the Howes shown on the video screen as area fans can salute them for their contributions to hockey in general and the Hartford market in particular.
Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Kevin Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.
The Howes played together for the first time with the Houston Aeros in 1973 before coming to Hartford and signing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in 1977. Howe ended his legendary 32-year career in the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80), when he had 15 goals and 26 assists and was named a NHL All-Star for the 23rd time while helping the Whalers make the playoffs at 52 years old.
Tickets for all Whale games are available at the XL Center box office, through Ticketmaster Charge-by-Phone at 1-800-745-3000 and on-line at www.ctwhale.com. Tickets start at $7 at the XL Center ticket office on game day. Fans who did not attend the Whale’s outdoor game against Providence because of the frigid weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin Jr. at email@example.com. … Wethersfield native Colin McDonald, son of former Hartford Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald who had his first pro trick at Rockford on Friday, has scored 32 goals this season after totaling 34 in his first three AHL seasons. … Former Rangers and Wolf Pack forward Manny Malhotra will miss the rest of the season and playoffs because of a left eye injury. Malhotra was injured when a shot by the Colorado Avalanche’s Erik Johnson hit him in the face during a game March 16, requiring surgery. In his first season with the Canucks, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998 has 11 goals, 30 points and is second in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage at .617. … Hamden native Jonathan Quick did it again for the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night, making 27 saves in regulation and overtime and then stopping two of three shots in a shootout in a 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames. The game was scoreless until the Kings’ Jarret Stoll scored with 5:52 left, but Olli Jokinen tied it for the Flames on the game’s next shot only 55 seconds later. Quick then made four big saves during a Flames power play late in overtime before earning the victory and game’s No. 1 star as the Kings moved two points ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks into fifth place in the tightly bunched Western Conference playoff race. “Every point we get, whether it’s one point or two points, it helps build a resume to make the playoffs,” said Quick, who improved to 8-0 in shootouts this season. “We’re just trying to get two points every time we’re out. We got two points and that’s all that matters.” Stoll got the Kings even in the shootout after Alex Tanguay beat Quick, and Anze Kopitar gave the Kings the win when he slipped the puck through Miikka Kiprusoff’s legs.
CONGRATULATIONS, DAVE ANDREWS AND JARED DEMICHIEL
Congratulations to AHL president and CEO David Andrew and Avon native Jared DeMichiel for being named recipients of two significant awards.
Andrews has been selected by the Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation as the 2011 recipient of its Ace Bailey Good Guy Award, presented annually to individuals who have supported and advanced the game of hockey on the professional, school or youth level and who are regarded to be truly “good guys.” Andrews will be honored on Wednesday night at the organization’s “Face Off for Ace” dinner in Cambridge, Mass.
The Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation was established in memory of Garnet “Ace” Bailey, who won the 1969 Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears and went on to play eight years in the NHL, capturing the Stanley Cup with Boston in 1972. Bailey was a victim of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and his family created the foundation to perpetuate his deep caring for the well-being and happiness of children through the improvement of hospital environments and services.
DeMichiel was named the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s PAXCHEX Male College Athlete of the Year for 2010 after leading the surprising Rochester Institute of Technology to the NCAA Frozen Four last year. He will be recognized at the organization’s awards dinner May 24, when the featured speaker will be former Detroit Lions quarterback Clay Matthews.
In his senior year at RIT, DeMichiel was 27-10-1 with a 2.09 GAA, .921 save percentage and six shutouts, capped by victories over top-seeded Denver University and the University of New Hampshire to give the school a record for wins in a season and its first berth in the Frozen Four before an 8-1 loss in the semifinals to Wisconsin, led by McDonagh and Rangers center Derek Stepan. Wisconsin lost 5-0 in the title game to Boston College, led by right wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ top prospect after being a first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009.
DeMichiel’s stellar senior year earned him an AHL contract with Hershey, but he started this season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, where he was 14-10-0, 2.66, .913 with two shutouts in 26 games before being traded on March 11 to the Elmira Jackals for the rights to forward Brock McBride, who was with the Milwaukee Admirals. DeMichiel is 1-0-1, 3.37, .909 in two games with the Jackals, losing 3-2 to the Trenton Devils in a shootout despite making 49 saves. He’s also 2-1-0, 3.65, .873 in five games with the Bears.