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Whale all-stars both pleasant surprises

by Bruce Berlet || AHL On The Beat Archive  

Connecticut Whale wing Mats Zuccarello had to be the most surprised of the 48 players named to participate in the AHL All-Star Classic.

Zuccarello, the skilled Norwegian playing his second season in North America, had missed 10 games with an injury when he and Whale rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault were among the selections for the Eastern Conference team that will be compete in the skills competition and All-Star Game Jan. 29-30 in Atlantic City, N.J.

“Of course I was surprised because I’d been injured and hadn’t played that many games,” Zuccarello said. “But it’s a great honor and makes you feel like you did something good while you played. I’ve never been on something like that before, so it’s going to be a great opportunity and I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can.”

When selected, Zuccarello was tied for third on the team in scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) despite missing the Whale’s first four games while with the parent New York Rangers and the previous 10 games after being injured on Dec. 11. Zuccarello resumed skating on his own Dec. 28, practiced with the team for the first time Jan. 4 and returned to the lineup for a game at Norfolk on Jan. 13, only to be re-injured.

“The worst part of being injured is feeling so frustrated and helpless, and seeing all the other guys play and have fun and you just have to sit on the (stationary) bike and not do anything,” Zuccarello said.

Zuccarello worked hard with strength and conditioning coach Mark Cesari and athletic trainer Damien Hess to get back ASAP.

“I worked with them on everything,” the 5-foot-7, 174-pound Zuccarello said. “You have to stay positive.”

The one positive for Zuccarello after his initial injury was a one-week visit with his mother, stepfather and 14-year-old brother Fabian, who traveled to Hartford from Norway during the holidays.

“It was nice to have them here, so that was good,” said Zuccarello, who watched home games with them from a Whale skybox.

While Zuccarello’s selection might have been surprising, Audy-Marchessault’s also was unexpected – at least from where he started six months ago.

Dean Stork, coach of the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors, knew Audy-Marchessault’s parents from the time the crafty center-right wing was playing with Whale teammates Kelsey Tessier and Ryan Bourque with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Stork convinced Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld to sign Audy-Marchessault as a potential top player with the Road Warriors, after he was named to the All-QMJHL first team after occasionally playing on a line with the more touted Bourque.

But Audy-Marchessault played so well as a late addition to the Rangers’ team in a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in early September that he got an invite to Blueshirts training camp. When he played well in Rangers camp, he earned a spot in Connecticut rather than South Carolina.

Now Audy-Marchessault is second in scoring among AHL rookies and on the Whale with 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) after going pointless in his first five pro games.

“I wasn’t even sure to make an AHL team and now I make the All-Star team, so for sure it wasn’t expected from me,” Audy-Marchessault said. “But I didn’t think about it when I was playing. I was just trying to get better and improve every game, and it’s fun to get recognized from the league. It’s a good honor, and I’m really happy, my family, too. Nobody was expecting something like that to happen to me this year, but I worked hard all summer and at the beginning of the year, so this is really fun.”

After the sluggish start while getting adjusted to the pro game, the 5-9, 175-pound Audy-Marchessault had points in six of the next seven games (five goals, six assists) while playing with Zuccarello at times.

“Zucc is an awesome player who can really make plays,” Audy-Marchessault said. “He’s really patient with the puck, makes good plays and is pretty strong for a little guy. He’s also a good example for small guys like us.”

But when Zuccarello was injured, Audy-Marchessault moved onto the Whale’s top line with Kris Newbury and Andre Deveaux that carried the Whale offensively for a while.

“We’ve been connecting,” Audy-Marchessault said of his work with Newbury and Deveaux. “When everybody does his job on our line, I think we’re one of the best lines in the league.

“Newbs is a big part of my success, playing with a guy who has such a good work ethic that sets an example for (young) guys like us. Every time he goes on the ice he works so hard, and lately I’ve never seen a guy playing so good. He’s just eating (up) the American League. He’s fearless and such a good competitor.”

Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer, is a leading contender among other Whale players who could have made the All-Star team.

“I think we have several other good candidates, and unfortunately they can’t all be on the All-Star team,” said Whale coach Ken Gernander, a three-time AHL All-Star himself. “But we’re proud of our two representatives. Zuccarello, when he was healthy, is obviously a very dynamic player, a very exciting player, and a key part of our team offense. And Audy-Marchessault has obviously been a very pleasant surprise for us the way he has performed all season. He continues to put up points as a rookie and is having a very good season.

“There are arguments to be made for other players, but unfortunately 30 teams can’t send four or five representatives. For us to get two players was nice. We’re very proud of the two that we are sending and wish them the best of luck in the big game.”