Lowell Lock Monsters hit Arena ice for real tonight
LOWELL -- Like every coach, Frank Anzalone wishes there was time for just one more practice. But four years after the notion of minor-league hockey in Lowell was conceived, and two years after the team was supposed to take the ice, it is -- finally -- time for the Lowell Lock Monsters to play.
"It's time for this team to get going," Anzalone acknowledged as the Lock Monsters made final preparations for their American Hockey League debut tonight at 7:30 at the $21 million, 6,496-seat Tsongas Arena against the Portland Pirates, coached by former University of Lowell star and Olympian Mark Kumpel.
"Everybody here has been waiting for this for a long time, and now they want to see where this team is at," Anzalone said.
Several hundred tickets were still available hours before the opener, but the game is expected to be sold out by the time the puck is dropped.
Fox Sports New England will televise the opener. Ted Sarandis will call the play-by-play and Cap Raeder will provide the color and analysis.
The opener and all games home and away can also be heard locally on radio on WCAP (980 AM) with Randy Sieminski calling the action. Former ULowell All-American Dean Jenkins, an AHL veteran with the old New Haven Nighthawks, will be the primary analyst with guest analysts filling in for other games.
So just where are the Lock Monsters at?
Sixteen of their players have National Hockey League experience, including goaltender Marcel Cousineau, who is expected to play the bulk of the games for Lowell.
"We have plenty of depth on defense," said Greg Carvel, the Lock Monsters' director of hockey operations. "That will not be a problem."
The Lock Monsters also have some snipers with solid credentials.
Still, Anzalone was quick to point out that the New York Islanders, the Lock Monsters' parent team, are an organization in transition. And the personnel of the Lock Monsters reflects that.
"We will try to win as many games as we can," he said. "But we're a first-year team, and we're still in the baby-step stage with a lot of young players.
"This is the first time the Islanders have had all their top prospects on the same team, and we also have a lot of free agents. They're all still learning to play the same system."
Last year the Islanders divided their top prospects between the AHL's Kentucky Thoroughblades and the International Hockey League's Utah Grizzlies.
"We played pretty well in the exhibition season," Anzalone said. "But we don't know how to win yet. The skill level is not bad. Mostly we're trying to upgrade the mental approach to the game, to play the game right."
As far as the style of hockey the Lock Monsters will play is concerned, Anzalone said about 85 percent of it is dictated by the Islanders. But he still has about 15 percent of latitude in which to be creative.
The key forward for the Lock Monsters will be 30-year-old center Craig Charron, a former ULowell star who is on the first two-way contract of his professional career after being signed by the Islanders as a free agent this past summer. Charron has 245 points in 243 career AHL games and will be looking for his 100th AHL goal early this season.
Charron has twice finished among the AHL's top 10 scorers in the past.
"We're looking for big things from Charron and Dane Jackson," said Anzalone.
The 28-year-old Jackson, a right wing who played at the University of North Dakota, has five 20-goal seasons in six AHL seasons, including a 30-goal campaign for Syracuse in 1994-95. He was a third-round pick by the Vancouver Canucks in 1988.
Right wing Mark Lawrence, 26, is coming off his best season. A sixth-round pick by the Minnesota North Stars in 1991, Lawrence netted 36 goals and 64 points in 80 games for Utah last winter.
Left wing Sean Haggerty, 22, a second-round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, was a second-team AHL All-Star last winter after scoring 33 goals and 53 points in 63 games at Kentucky.
Center Mike Kennedy, 26, one of the last cuts by the Islanders, has three 20-goal seasons in IHL play. He was the North Stars' fifth-round pick in 1991.
The Lock Monsters' other forwards include former University of Michigan star Warren Luhning, the Islanders' fourth-round pick in 1993; Nic Beaudoin, the second pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 1995; 21-year-old Russian left wing Vladimir Orszagh, the Islanders' fourth-round pick in 1995; 21-year-old Russian left wing Dmitri Nabakov, the first pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1995 draft; and right wing Steve Webb, an eighth-round pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 1994.
Left wing Ryan Huska, Chicago's fourth-round pick in 1993, is currently recovering from a knee injury but should be ready to play before the end of the month.
Two college forwards will also be making their pro debuts with the Lock Monsters. Center Jason Stewart from St. Cloud State University was the Islanders' seventh-round pick in 1994, and Clarkson center Buddy Wallace, considered a defensive specialist, was signed by Lowell as a free agent.
Zdeno Chara, a true monster at 6-9 and 255 pounds, will stand out among the defensemen. The Czech-born Chara, 21, the Islanders' third-round pick in 1996, was one of the Islanders' last cuts and didn't report to the team until yesterday.
But the defenseman to watch will be Michael Gaul, 25, who was signed by the Islanders as a free agent this summer. Gaul has strong offensive skills, netting 12 goals and 59 points in 60 games for Hershey in the AHL last winter.
"He'll quarterback the power play," said Anzalone.
Another defenseman to watch will be Ray Giroux, the ECAC Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker finalist at Yale last winter. Giroux, drafted on the seventh round by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1994, was acquired by the Islanders in a trade.
The most experienced defenseman will be former Boston Bruin Dean Malkoc, a defenseman's defenseman with 114 games in the NHL. Drafted by the New Jersey Devils on the seventh round in 1990, Malkoc was signed by the Islanders as a free agent this summer.
Other defensemen include Ray Schultz, an eighth-round pick by the Ottawa Senators in 1995; 21-year-old Russian John Namestnikov, a free agent signed by the Islanders in June of 1997; 20-year-old Russian Evgeny Korolev, a ninth-round pick of the Islanders in 1996; Russian Vladimir Chebaturkin, the Islander's third-round pick in 1993; and a pair of former Hockey East blue-liners, Jeff Libby of Maine and Mike Mader of Providence, who were both signed by the Islanders as free agents.
Marcel Cousineau, who played 15 NHL games for the Maple Leafs and shut out the Islanders in a game two years ago, was signed as a free agent and will be the Lock Monsters' top goalie. He has twice finished among the AHL's top 10 goaltenders.
Mark McArthur, who was drafted by the Islanders on the fifth round in 1994, and Steve Valiquette, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings on the eighth round in 1996 and was signed by the Islanders last month as a free agent, will compete for the berth as the backup goaltender. Only one of them will be kept.Lowell Lock Monsters hit Arena ice for real tonight