Hartford makes whale of turnaround

ON THE NHL

October 27, 1995|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

It happens every season about this time, a team rising from the depths just like a mummy marching his bandages out of a swamp in an old Boris Karloff movie. It cheers the hearts of fans, owners and particularly those individuals with money to cast to the winds and eager to join the expansion parade.

Come on down, Hartford, the price is right!

Through their first dozen games last year, the Whalers were having their problems, winning just two games, both against Ottawa (9-34-5). The Whalers' slow start was no surprise. In the three previous seasons, "The Whale" had lost 62 more games than it had won.

Just as bad, players and fans were hearing daily that the franchise was headed for every city in North America except Dawson up in the Northwest Territories. "We haven't been hearing any of that lately," says goalie Sean Burke, the main

reason Hartford is off to a 4-2-1 start. "The guys still aren't going out and buying houses, but the constant threat of moving is a diversion no one needs."

Burke, who broke into the big time auspiciously with the Devils in 1988 when he arrived from the Olympics and finished off the regular season with a 10-1 record, has a good idea what it takes for a team to be successful in the NHL.

He cites the new ownership of the Whalers and general manager Jim Rutherford. "For these guys," he says, "the game's a passion, not a hobby. They went out and got guys with big price tags.

"We had a pretty good run at the end of last season, almost making the playoffs, and the team went out and built on that success."

The acquisitions are familiar names: Brendan Shanahan, who has 244 goals in the NHL (see, Washington Capitals, goal scorers are out there), rugged defenseman Gerald Diduck and 25-goal scorer Nelson Emerson.

"Maybe Shanahan's biggest impact," says Burke, "is the impact of his presence. Other teams have to be aware of him at all times. That opens it up for the other guys. Previously, all you had to shut down against us was one line. Now, you have to worry about two or three of our lines."

It comes as somewhat of a surprise to Burke that his team is winning despite the fact "we don't feel as if we've been playing that well. In the past, we'd play a great game and still lose. It's awfully nice to know we can still play a lot better."

After the great run as a rookie in New Jersey in 1988, Burke learned that one season does not a dynasty make: "We came down to earth the next year." After losing in the Eastern Conference finals, the Devils failed to make the postseason the next year, going 27-41-12.

"Maybe we [Devils] weren't the caliber team to be up there close every year. It could be different here, because we're building slowly. I know talent-wise we're a much better team than we've been since I got here [in 1992-93]."

Burke has done his part. He's 4-1-1 and allowing 2.48 goals a game. He's been impressive enough to have his coach Paul Holmgren say "He's out parting the Red Sea" when asked where his goaltender was after a recent victory.

Three years back, it was the Quebec Nordiques winning 47 games after winning 48 over the previous three seasons. The Philadelphia Flyers have recovered after failing to make the playoffs five straight years after being a fixture there for 17 seasons.

E9 Yes, Virginia, there is hope for the Ottawa Senators.

Nothing new

Having trouble with the "new" obstruction rule that has seemed to rob games of their ebb and flow of late? Actually, it's not a new rule at all, but an attempt to enforce the rules that have been on the books since the Ottawa Silver Seven ruled the hockey world (circa 1900).

The main areas of concern are players heading up ice being "locked up" in the neutral zone and other forms of restraining a player when he is not carrying the puck.

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