Thursday, November 20, 2008

Whalers making changes in right direction

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

If you chat informally with Plymouth Whalers president, general manager and head coach Mike Vellucci, he might tell you about the way he cuts his lawn. Like many of us, Vellucci is a creature of habit when it comes to his yard work. The grass has to be cut a certain way – and the job really isn’t finished until the lawn is edged properly.

It’s going to take a little more time than edging the lawn, but the Whalers showed definite signs of improvement during Vellucci’s first two games behind the bench. Playing before sellout crowds November 14-15 at Compuware Arena, the Whalers defeated Saginaw, 5-1 and lost, 6-2, to London.

Plymouth played with emotion and purpose over Scouts Weekend at Compuware Arena.
After taking over the team on November 10 for practice and then playing four days later, it seemed like Vellucci didn’t have a whole lot of time for changes in Plymouth’s systems. That wasn’t the case.

“I thought our forecheck struggled a bit before,” Vellucci said. “We want to get after the other team all the time and don’t let them make plays. We’re a big, strong, physical team and we want to go after the smaller defensemen. I thought we forechecked well tonight. I thought on our power play, our puck movement was very good with a lot of shots and a lot of traffic in front.”

Plymouth captain Chris Terry – out for the next couple of weeks with mononucleosis – saw a difference in his team.

“Mike is an old coach for me, but he’s actually pretty new to a lot of the guys,” Terry said during the London game. “This week in practice, we looked really good, really sharp. There’s a lot of good, positive energy out there and it showed last night and I think last night it showed in a good win. We played a good team game against Saginaw, with lots of scoring spread out. I think we can turn it around.”

In the victory over Saginaw, rookie Tyler Seguin emerged as the game’s first star with a goal and two assists. The Whalers also received goals from Tyler J. Brown, Tyler G. Brown, Vern Cooper and Ryan Hayes. In addition, goaltender Jeremy Smith was sharp, stopping 26 of 27 shots in earning the game’s third star.

“Smith made some critical stops when it was 2-1 or 3-1,” Vellucci said after the game. “Jeremy’s a great goalie. I know he’s been getting blamed lately, but I don’t think we were helping him much in our own end as much as we did tonight. There were a lot of guys blocking shots and paying the price tonight. I may have counted 25 or 30 blocked shots tonight. And that’s the kind of effort we need.”

In Terry’s absence, Vellucci put together a forward line of Seguin (the Whalers first-round pick last spring) with Hayes and Tyler J. Brown and the line clicked for three goals and four assists in the victory.

“We talked before the game as a team and (it seemed) like we clicking for the entire 60 minutes,” Seguin said. “At the beginning of the game, Coach Vellucci asked our line to have a real hard-hitting first shift so we could get things going for the rest of the game.”

“We had a great shift to start the game,” Hayes said. “One of our goals at the beginning of the game was to get it in deep and start banging bodies. Every line was going great. Seguin’s got some offensive gifts. It’s nice to play with guys like that.”

Whalers defenseman Josh Bemis – who scored his first OHL goal in the game against London – saw a difference after one period of play.

“We came out with an edge in the first period and if we continue that for the rest of the game we’ll be happy,” Bemis said. “One thing we worked on all week was our forecheck and making sure we’re pressuring them hard in their zone. It paid off, definitely.”

Bemis said that the Whalers know that with a coaching change, the onus now falls on the players.

“We know we all have to step it up for sure,” Bemis said. “We’re not happy with the way things have been so far. If we all step it up, things will improve.”

Even in losing to London the next night, the buzz returned to Compuware Arena – and it wasn’t just the fact the scouts thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The hard core Whaler fans saw a team playing with emotion.

The rest of the OHL is watching the Whalers with interest.

“There are going to be a lot of teams – not just in the Western Conference, but in the Ontario Hockey League – who will be watching Plymouth very carefully,” said London Knights play-by-play voice Mike Stubbs. “Because, as much as they may not be number one, two, or three in the standings, with Mike Vellucci back behind the bench, it’s one of those cases where this team doesn’t rebuild. You don’t get used to seeing the Plymouth Whalers down in the standings at all. I don’t think they’re going to stay there very long.

“Plymouth has always been a skating team, even dating back to the days of Peter DeBoer. Plymouth comes at you and comes at you and is relentless. If you’re not ready to play, they’ll catch you and they will make you pay for it. I have no doubt that that’s the kind of team they’ll be turned into. So the climb up the ladder has started for the Plymouth Whalers.”

Much like using a weed whacker, Vellucci and the Whalers will continue to chip away at improving and making the playoffs.

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

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