Whalers Blank Devils, Set Franchise Mark

In what was the most important game of the year so far, the Hartford Whalers proved they were up for the challenge. After running through the gauntlet in the middle of the year with decent success, Hartford has caught fire down the stretch and reversed fortunes with the New Jersey Devils, at least for the moment. Having trailed the Devils in the standings for the entire season, the Whalers finally overtook them in recent days, searching for their first ever 1st place finish in the Wales Conference. With five games remaining for each team and the Whalers up by one point, Hartford and New Jersey were set to square off for Game 76 in what could very well determine final seedings. Coming into the match, the teams had posted a 1-1-1 head-to-head record, fitting given the circumstances.

The game got off to a fast paced, physical start. New Jersey came out of the gate flying, peppering goalie Don Beaupre from the onset, but the 34-year-old net minder, in the midst of one of his best seasons, stood tall and turned all 14 New Jersey shots away in the first period. Hartford took three penalties in the first frame, putting them in a precarious position, but Beaupre’s masterful goaltending and Hartford’s structured penalty killing were able to divert the threat. Late in the 2nd period, with the game still scoreless, Luc Robitaille struck to open the scoring, a sight that has become increasingly common since arriving in Connecticut earlier this season. It was Robitaille’s 41st goal of the season, and, as usual, was set up by Mario Lemieux. For Lemieux, who despite going cold in the goal department has continued to set up his teammates, it was his 100th point of the season, the third straight year he’s eclipsed the century mark. Just 25 seconds after Robitaille’s goal made it 1-0, Peter Andersson, who will one day have his jersey hanging from the rafters alongside Beaupre, made it 2-0, his 10th of the season. In the 3rd period, it was more Robtaille and Lemieux. The pair combined for another goal, this time on the powerplay, giving Hartford a 3-0 stranglehold. Lemieux added his third assist later in the period to solidify the win, giving Hartford a 4-0 victory. Don Beaupre played his best game of the season, turning aside 31 shots en route to his second shutout of the year.

The win now gives Hartford a three-point lead over the Devils with only four games remaining for both teams. New Jersey has a cakewalk over their final four matches, playing the hapless Lightning three times and the similarly bad Flames once. Meanwhile, the Whalers also have a winnable schedule. They’ll finish Toronto’s season tonight, a game that has major implications for the Leafs, followed by a game in Montreal and a home-and-home against the NFHL’s worst team, the Buffalo Sabres.

“We’re not too concerned about seeding to be honest, but obviously getting the #1 seed would be helpful. Hopefully, we’ll have a long run, so home ice advantage could be big. Really though, we just want to play good hockey. Last year, we limped into the postseason and things didn’t go well. We want to hit our stride this time around and make sure we’re ready for whoever the first-round matchup is,” said Gary Suter.

In addition to the win providing breathing room, the 107 points are now a franchise record, along with 52 wins. The high water mark surpasses last season’s efforts, where the Whalers ended with 106 points and 51 wins. “Considering what we’ve accomplished – winning a championship along the way, having some really great seasons with some great players – it is a big deal. In the end though, there’s just one thing we care about. If we go out like we did last year, I can promise you we’ll forget whatever was accomplished in the regular season,” said Mario Lemieux.

Tonight, the Whalers will try to get one step closer, facing off against a team they could draw in the first round. Don Beaupre is expected to be in net once again as the Whalers continue to push for the #1 seed in the Wales. That’s all for now Whaler fans, check back later for more updates and Go Whalers!