Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Whalers playing at top of their game

The Plymouth Whalers are playing their best hockey of the season as they move into the last weekend of January.

A number of factors have played into Plymouth’s resurgence:

SEGUIN and CZARNIK: Tyler Seguin is the current Boston Pizza OHL Player of the Week who surged to the top of the OHL scoring race (33-46-79) with an 11-point week over three games as the Whalers beat Windsor (7-4), Mississauga (5-1), and Peterborough (4-2) January 18-23 for a record of 28-20-0-1.

It’s hard to pick one play Seguin makes over another this year, but his goal in Mississauga on January 22 was a special play, one in which he made something out of nothing by sheer persistence and talent.

The Whalers were leading, 2-1, in the second period when Seguin – working along the left boards in the Mississauga zone – misfired on a pass to the left point to defenseman Austin Levi. The pass wasn’t hard enough and was not going to make it to Levi, so Seguin chased the puck down, skated to the high slot and snapped a hard low shot past Mississauga goaltender Chris Carrozzi to give Plymouth a 3-1 lead.

Not many players make a play like that.

Seguin has found some chemistry with Los Angeles prospect Robbie Czarnik, who scored in each of the wins against Windsor, Mississauga and Peterborough.

“We always talk and Czarnik’s one of my closer buddies on the team,” Seguin said after the Peterborough game. “He’s got great hands, great skill.”

Los Angeles Kings Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson and other Kings scouts are regulars at Plymouth games since Czarnik came over from the University of Michigan.

"It took a little bit of time for him to adjust to the different leagues," Emerson said in LAKings.com. "By that I mean there are more games, the style of play is different, and I think what you saw is that it took a little bit of time for him to get his feet wet. Now what you are seeing is he's more accustomed to his teammates and he's more comfortable. He's becoming more used to the players and to the style of play and he's using it to his advantage."

AJ JENKS: See any Florida Panthers scout at a Whalers game and they usually meet you with a smile. Jenks is developing into the player Florida projected when they selected him in the fourth round (100th overall) in the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft.

“We like AJ a lot,” said Florida scout Luke Williams last Friday in Mississauga. “He’s got good size, he’s scoring and he takes care of the defensive side of things, too. He’s coming along just like we hoped.”

GOOD HEALTH: The Whalers are injury-free for the first time this season. Any players who sit are now healthy scratches due to a coaches’ decision. Head coach Mike Vellucci, associate coach Joe Stefan, and assistant coach Brian Sommariva now have the good fortune to use the same lineup for an extended period for the first time all season.

HACKETT: A sign of Matt Hackett’s consistency is the fact he’s allowed more than four goals in a game just twice this season. He allowed five on September 19 against Oshawa in a 6-5 overtime victory and then six on January 6 in a 7-3 loss in Erie.

The Whalers as a collective unit battle hard for their goaltender and Hackett appreciates it.

“It’s always awesome to get a shutout,” Hackett said after posting a 3-0 shutout over Niagara on January 16. “But the team in front of me made it easy. They kept the shots to the outside, like always. It was a fun game to play. I wasn’t happy with my game last night, so I wanted to come out and make sure I had a good start. It paid off tonight.”

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Whalers have moved to the top of the OHL in penalty killing. According to veteran penalty killers Leo Jenner and Joe Gaynor, it's part preparation and a lot of perspiration.

“I think part of it is our effort in practice,” Jenner said. “There’s a lot of communication between our forwards and defense and everyone knows what they’re doing. We try to force turnovers. Everybody anticipates where the puck is going to be and we’re on it.”

It’s often said a team’s best penalty killer is the goaltender. Jenner agrees.

“Hack’s an excellent talent,” Jenner explained. “He talks to us non-stop and it’s great to know if you’re in his way. He’ll let you know for sure.”

“We pride ourselves on special teams,” Gaynor said. “Our goal every night is to try to be one hundred percent on the PK and then get a couple of goals on the power play. If we do that, we expect to come out of the game with a win.”

STEFAN and SOMMARIVA: They aren’t looking for any credit, but their pre-scouting and video work of the opposition helps a team looking for an edge. Board the Whalers bus before any road game and you’ll see Stefan watching video of the opponent. Come on the bus after the game and Sommariva is already looking to download the latest game of the Whalers’ next opponent, if he hasn’t done so already.

Visit Stefan’s room the morning of a home game and there’s a good chance he’s watching video.

LIVINGSTON and McRAE: Although the Whalers two acquisitions at the OHL trade deadline, James Livingston and Phil McRae, have scored just one goal apiece since joining the team, they both understand their role and have fit in well in their new surroundings.

“It was definitely strange for me,” Livingston said of the trade. “I played three-and-a-half years in Sault Ste. Marie, so it became a home to me and I loved it there, but when I got news that Plymouth was interested in making a deal, it was an exciting time. I’ve always heard that Plymouth is an excellent organization, a great rink to come play in with a great coaching staff, so I was very excited to come and work with these guys.

“Hearing that they added a couple of other players (Jay Gilbert and McRae), we’re making a push for the playoffs, so it’s very exciting.”

Livingston appreciates the depth of the Whalers.

“I look around the room and I see a lot of talented guys,” he said. “Hopefully, we can all be a part of something special. Hopefully I can bring something to the table and help this team.”

“I’m very excited – we have a lot of great players,” McRae said. “I think we have a good team that can make a run deep in the playoffs. I think everyone in the dressing room realizes we can beat anyone in the league.”

The Whalers play in Owen Sound on Wednesday before coming home on Friday to host Brampton and London on Saturday.

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