Whale’s “Smurfs” coming up big

by Bob Crawford || ctwhale.com

The Herb Brooks-coached 1982-83 New York Rangers got big playoff performances from an undersized line featuring Mark Pavelich and Rob McClanahan, both of whom had played for Brooks on the famous 1980 U.S. Olympic team, along with canny Swedish import Anders Hedberg.

That line was known as “The Smurfs”, and it led the Blueshirts, a .500 team during the regular season, to a stunning first-round sweep of the Patrick Division-champion Philadelphia Flyers.

Some 30 years later, a Connecticut Whale front line evoked images of the Smurfs this past weekend, as a grouping of Kelsey Tessier centering Micheal Haley and Christian Thomas helped the Whale to a pair of convincing road victories in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The Whale beat the St. John’s IceCaps 4-1 on Saturday night, and then posted a 7-3 triumph on Sunday afternoon, equaling their biggest offensive output of the season. The Haley-Tessier-Thomas line scored on the Whale’s first shot in both games, and combined to generate five of the 11 goals the team scored in the two contests.

The majority of that offense came off of strong play down low in the offensive zone, too, despite the fact that Haley, the tallest of the three on the line, measures only 5-10, and Tessier and Thomas check in at 5-9, 177 and 5-9, 170, respectively.

Haley joked before Sunday’s game that, “I’m not usually the tallest on a line,” but dismissed the suggestion that physical size should have bearing on whether a player can exert impact as a forechecker.

“Size doesn’t mean too much to me,” Haley, who packs a compact 204 pounds on his 5-10 frame, said Wednesday. “As long as you’re in (on the opponent’s defense) and you’re hitting and disrupting, that’s a good forecheck.”

Whale head coach Ken Gernander agreed, saying, “Tess (Tessier) is a pretty stocky player, Hales (Haley) has some beef, he’s not afraid to mix it up, and a lot of times it’s more about anticipation and body position than actually having to physically outmatch somebody or overpower somebody. If you can beat them to the puck and get body position, more times than not you’ll be OK.”

“It’s a pretty eclectic mix,” Gernander added about his new vertically-challenged combination, “when you’ve got Haley, he’s got a little bit of beef, and he’s kind of underestimated as far as his scoring, he can put the puck in the net, given opportunities. Christian Thomas isn’t near the same player he was two months ago, he’s really come on. He’s using his speed to recover pucks, or to be first on pucks, he’s drawing penalties, bumping people off pucks with body position, then he’s able to make plays. And Tess has, for large part, been a third, fourth (-line) role player and penalty-killer, and now he’s getting a little bit of taste of some offensive opportunities, and making the best of things.”

The sixth-year pro Haley has always been known as a physical player, the kind who can use strength and will to disrupt opposing defensemen in the Whale’s offensive zone. He is quick to point out, however, that his two physically slighter linemates deserve full marks for using their quickness and smarts to give the IceCaps fits.

“They don’t need to crush people, but as long as you’re separating them from the puck and stealing the puck, that’s a forecheck,” Haley said. “Not everybody’s going to be the guy that hits them (enemy defenders) hard, but as long as you’re on them quick, they don’t have time to think.”

Thomas, the rookie and second-round 2010 New York Ranger pick, won a number of important puck battles during the Whale’s successful Newfoundland weekend, and echoed Haley’s thoughts about how to make a forchecking impact as a smaller player.

“Big or small, you just have to get there, make contact and interrupt their progress, the bigger guys, take away their hands and you can get that puck,” Thomas said.

Thomas had his first three-point game as a pro in Saturday’s win, with a goal and two hard-earned assists, and then helped set up Haley for a goal only 68 seconds into Sunday’s game, giving the Whale a lead they would never relinquish. That continued a dynamic uptick in Thomas’ play, which he credits to making consistent use of his excellent foot speed.

“I just try to tell myself to keep moving my feet out there,” Thomas said. “Smaller guy, you move your feet, you’re hard to handle out there. I think I’m a pretty quick guy, so when I get my feet moving I can get to pucks first, and get some space and make some plays.”

The entire line did a good job of making plays in the two wins over the IceCaps. It is one thing to generate chances with eager puck-hawking, but quite another to turn them into scores, and the line was opportunistic in finishing the chances they created. In Haley’s battle-tested view, that’s more a matter of better luck than anything else.

“They’re (goals) just going in now,” he said. “Ride the wave as long as you can, I guess.”

Indeed, the Haley-Tessier-Thomas threesome has only been together for two games, and the way things go in the AHL, it’s certainly not unlikely that it won’t stay together long enough to acquire an enduring nickname like “The Smurfs”. With the four points the Whale grabbed up in St. John’s being so key in the team’s playoff drive, though, whether or not it remains intact, the smallish unit has undoubtedly made an outsized impact on the Whale’s fortunes.