Thursday, February 19, 2009

Plymouth getting team-wide contributions

Courtesy Plymouth Whalers

The Plymouth Whalers move into this weekend with a five-game winning streak and a record of 29-22-5-0, just one point away from the fourth place and home ice in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff race.

There are plenty of reasons for Plymouth’s resurgence out of their early season doldrums, but one of the first reasons is a revitalized Mike Vellucci behind the Whalers bench.

Plymouth is 23-11-3-0 since Vellucci went back behind the bench November 11. At the time he took over the coaching duties, Plymouth was struggling and dead last in the Western Conference race at 6-11-2-0.

Little by little, Plymouth has climbed back into contention and is currently playing its best hockey of the season.

Vellucci, along with associate coach Joe Stefan and assistant coach Brian Sommariva, credit the players and there’s no doubt that they’ve communicated well with the Whalers and the players are buying into what they are teaching.

Veteran center Joe Gaynor feels there’s a certain amount of sweat-equity to the Whalers’ success.

“Everybody’s working hard,” Gaynor said. “We’re playing everyone and trying to string together a few wins coming into the end of the season. We’d really like home ice in (the first round of) the playoffs.”

Vellucci wanted to improve the special teams under his watch and slowly the Whalers have improved. Plymouth is clicking at 17.5 percent on the power play since Vellucci went behind the bench (31-for-177) and has improved their penalty killing, allowing 40 power play goals in 213 penalty kills for an 81.2 percent ratio.

“The coaching helps,” Gaynor admitted. “But we’re at our best on the ‘PK’ (penalty killing) when we outwork the other team.”

In goal, Matt Hackett has been steady most of time, spectacular at other times and probably the all-around MVP of the team so far this season. He’s been known to give up rebounds, but the Whalers battle hard in front of him to clear the loose pucks from harm’s way.

The Whalers blue line has been solidified with the acquisition of Scott Fletcher from Niagara and the return of Brett Bellemore from Albany of the American Hockey League.

Like forward combinations, defensive pairings are usually in flux. But Plymouth’s current six-man rotation of Michal Jordan with Bellemore, Beau Schmitz with Leo Jenner and Josh Bemis with Fletcher is as steady as any blue line group in the OHL.

Jenner is one of the most improved players in the OHL over the last two years. He’s developed into an excellent penalty killer and is starting to add some offense to his game.

Up front, the Whalers are getting contributions from veterans and pups alike. Captain Chris Terry continues to roll along as the team-leader in scoring (31-36-67) and put up four goals and three assists last week on the road. He was Plymouth’s nomination for Boston Pizza OHL Player of the Week last week.

Terry scores goals in a number of ways and they aren’t always spectacular, end-to-end rushes. He scored twice in the Saginaw win. Terry's first goal came at 6:16 of the first period on a shot from the penalty box area in neutral ice that caught Saginaw goaltender Edward Pasquale looking for a rim-around.

"Most goalies in our league tend to cheat a little bit on the rims," Terry said. "So I looked like I was going to rim it and then threw the puck on net. The worse-comes-to-worst (result) is, we get a rebound. I got lucky and I'll take them any way I can get them."

Terry's second goal tied the game at 12:16 of the third period and started with a hard shot by Jenner from the left point that pinballed around in the Saginaw crease area.

"Jenner took a slap shot that hit off a Saginaw player's skate and then mine," Terry said. "I saw it (the puck) go in and I froze and stared at the referee just to make sure he was going to call it a goal. Yes, the puck hit a couple of different things. But you've got to take them anyway you can."

Terry is sixth on the Whalers all-time career scoring list with 106 goals and 156 assists for 262 points in 241 regular season games.

Terry and the rest of the Whalers vets aren’t the only players contributing. Whaler pup Tyler Seguin is on fire through February, earning the OHL Boston Player of the Week Award for the week ending February 8. He scored three goals and three assists for six points in two games during that week and has continued through the month. Seguin is on an OHL current-best nine-game point scoring streak (eight goals and nine assists) from January 25-February15.

Like Terry, Seguin scores in a number of ways. He potted the game-winner in overtime in Saginaw when he deflected the puck over the Spirit goal, but followed up a split-second later when it pinballed to him off the glass to the left goal line, where he banked the puck off Pasquale.

“I was just in front of the net," Seguin said about the game-winner. "I tipped it (the puck) and it went over the net and I just whacked it back and it went off the back of the leg of the goalie and went in. I was looking for a lucky bounce and it went in."

Typical of the recent Whalers success came Sunday in the Soo when pup Jamie Devane and second-year player RJ Mahalak scored early in the first period to give the Whalers a 2-0 lead.

Then Seguin (pictured) scored a beauty of a goal in the second period as the eventual game-winner. Working on a Plymouth power play, Seguin picked up the puck at the top of the left circle and with Soo goaltender Bryce O'Hagan screened on the play, Seguin didn't blast the shot from the left hashmark, instead just threw the puck quickly at the net and it beat O'Hagan at the left post.

The vets got into the act when Terry completed Plymouth's scoring in the third period with goals at 8:46 and 12:56 respectively.

The Whalers’ resurgence has caught the attention of the OHL. Sun Media reporter Ryan Pyette (based out of London) wrote Wednesday in his weekly OHL Notes column:

“Teams nobody wants to draw in the first round of the playoffs right now -- Plymouth, Erie and Barrie.”

After playing in Sarnia on Friday, the Whalers are home Saturday against Erie at 7:05 p.m. and then Sunday at 2:00 p.m. against Saginaw.

Photo by Walt Dmoch

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