Thursday, December 04, 2008

Whalers still making adjustments

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

The situation is starting to look up for the Plymouth Whalers.

Even after a 6-1 loss to Peterborough to close out November on Saturday, the Whalers are 3-2-1-0 with Mike Vellucci as head coach and are starting to show signs of life.

Plymouth’s 2-1 victory over the top-ranked Windsor Spitfires on Thanksgiving Eve and a 4-3 win in Sarnia November 28 is direct proof.

Whalers goaltender Matt Hackett backstopped the Windsor win as the game’s first star, stopping 34 of 35 shots in goal. After Eric Wellwood gave Windsor a 1-0 lead at 7:51 of the first period, Michal Jordan tied the game late in the period when he accepted Tyler J. Brown’s pass at center and skated into the Windsor zone to the right circle. Jordan beat Windsor goaltender Andrew Engelage with a hard shot that caught the Windsor netminder back in his blue crease.

Hackett took over from that point and was the difference in the hockey game. He saved his best work of the game in the third period when he stopped the OHL’s leading scorer Taylor Hall and then Dale Mitchell on breakaways.

The Whalers have revived their forecheck under Vellucci and used that skill to take their only lead of the game in the third period. Good work deep in the Windsor zone by the forward line of Vern Cooper, AJ Jenks and Kaine Geldart resulted in Cooper’s goal on a scramble in front of the Windsor net at 10:57.

With Jenks already serving a tripping penalty at 18:44 of the third period, Windsor head coach Bob Boughner called a time-out and pulled Engelage for a 6-on-4 manpower advantage. Hall’s shot from the right circle clanged off the cross bar in the final minute and the Whalers blocked several Windsor shots to preserve the victory.

“I’m very proud of the team,” said Vellucci after the game. “You saw at the end (of the game) there, Geldart going down, blocking shots, then he turns his back on the play to block another shot. With that kind of heart and determination, it doesn’t matter what kind of team you have – if you’re very talented or not, you have to block shots and you have to pay the price. Our guys did that tonight.”

Vellucci feels the Whalers are starting to believe they can turn things around.

“It’s all about belief,” Vellucci said. “The guys are a little down right now, but we’re 2-1-1-0 in our last four games and probably should have won against Sault Ste. Marie (5-4 overtime loss last Saturday). Our guys are working hard, working hard in practice. We’re fixing a few little things and those things are working out right now."

Hackett had a good month of November, posting a 2.84 goals against average and .907 save percentage in six games.

“'Hack' played great,” Vellucci said. “He came up big and made some big saves when we needed them. He has a calming effect in the net. He keeps everything in front of him and deserves to win tonight as much as anybody.”

Hackett was the third star in Sarnia, stopping 30 of 33 shots as Plymouth built leads of 2-0 and 4-1.

The Whalers had a territorial edge in the first period, outshooting Sarnia, 15-6, in the period and receiving a pair of goals from Ryan Hayes (pictured) at 16:46 (tap of a rebound from the right wing off Tyler J. Brown’s shot from the left boards) and 18:05 (power play goal scored with a quick one-timer from the left hashmark). Sarnia cut the Plymouth lead to 2-1 at 8:37 of the second period on Jordan Hill’s shot from the left point that deflected over Hackett’s shoulder. But Plymouth came back to score a pair of goals 1:08 apart to build a 4-1 lead and chase starting Sarnia goaltender Dan Spence when Jenks ripped a hard shot from the left hashmark at 10:16 and Patrick Lee scored on a shot from the right-wing half-wall at 11:24.

"The first period we played like we were still on the bus coming home from Sault Ste. Marie," Sarnia head coach Dave MacQueen told the Sarnia Observer. "We knew Plymouth would come in here and play with a lot of energy and we didn't respond. But in the second and third periods we played hard and generated a lot of chances. We have a few guys snake-bitten around the net right now. I think Steve Reese had five point blank shots, but couldn't put one in."

MacQueen added, "When we cut the lead to 2-1 in the second period, we needed a couple of saves and we didn't get them. Those third and fourth goals are pucks that have to be stopped."

Spence was replaced by rookie goaltender Shayne Campbell at that point in the game. Spence – playing in his 15th straight game – stopped 20-of-24 shots he faced.

Sarnia cut the Plymouth lead to 4-2 with four seconds left in the second period on Neal’s one-timer from the slot and came to within one on Jamie Arniel’s put-back of a rebound from the right doorstep off a Justin DiBenedetto shot from the slot.

Plymouth killed off two Sarnia power plays in the third period when Leo Jenner went off for holding at 5:29 and Tyler J. Brown was called for hooking at 13:30. Sarnia outshot Plymouth, 11-4, in the third period, but Hackett and the Plymouth penalty killers did a good job. Hackett made a good stop on Reese with five minutes remaining after he was set up in the slot by Neal, who was behind the Plymouth goal.

MacQueen pulled Campbell with about a minute left in regulation for the extra attacker. With a faceoff in the Plymouth zone, MacQueen called a time-out with 41.2 seconds remaining, but the Sting couldn’t find the equalizer. With 2.9 seconds left and another faceoff in the Plymouth zone, Vellucci called a time-out to set defensive strategy. Jenks lost the draw to Arniel, who tried to take a shot off the faceoff from the right circle, but his shot went wide as time expired.

On Saturday, Peterborough took a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes and rode goaltender Jason Missiaen’s goaltending in the second period when the Whaler tried to come back in the game.

"We got to their goalie who didn't have his best night," Peterborough head coach Ken McRae told the Peterborough Examiner. "We got a big lead and were able to hang on. 'Mish' played really well especially in the second period. We knew they were going to come out hard in the second period and we were kind of on our heels.

"When you get up four or five goals everybody thinks they're going to get six points and they get away from what got you the lead."

The Whalers hit the road this week, playing in Peterborough on Thursday and Oshawa on Friday before returning home on Saturday to face Sault Ste. Marie. Captain Chris Terry is back skating with the team and is listed as day-to-day, but Tyler G. Brown suffered a broken finger in blocking a shot last weekend and will be out of the lineup this weekend.

PLYMOUTH SCORING IN NOVEMBER: The Whalers featured balanced scoring in November. Four players scored eight points in November – AJ Jenks (5 goals and 3 assists), Patrick Lee (4-4), Vern Cooper (4-4) and Tyler J. Brown (2-6). Three Whalers scored seven points – Tyler Seguin (3-4), Kaine Geldart (2-5), Michal Jordan (1-6). Two more players scored six points – Joe Gaynor (2-4) and Beau Schmitz (2-4).

WHALERS STANDING PAT FOR NOW: Vellucci was recently featured by Jim Parker of the Windsor Star last Saturday and told the reporter he’ll continue to evaluate his team into December.

"In a month, I’ll know better where we're at," Vellucci said. "I believe we should be there (contending), but believing it and getting there are two different things."

Photo by Walt Dmoch/Plymouth Whalers

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