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Cloutier finding his game with Rockford

Thursday, 12.10.2009 / 1:00 AM / AHL Update

By Lindsay Kramer - Correspondent

Goalie Daniel Cloutier was listening to his body for the past several months, trying to figure out when and where his surgically repaired right hip was going to let him play hockey again.

Little did he realize that the determining medical condition in his life belonged to his wife, Nikki. Her physical state has landed him in Rockford, for now, and happily so.

Daniel was all set to try a comeback overseas when he and Nikki found out a few weeks ago that she is pregnant with the couple's second child. That made staying in North America the better option for them now, so Daniel took a tryout offer with the IceHogs.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I think hockey has been my life ever since I was eight. Once I started having kids, you realize there are other things."

Those other things can sometimes require compromises. Cloutier, 33, is a veteran of 351 NHL games who hasn't played regularly in the minors since 1997-98. But any ice time looks good at this point. After all, in his last five years he's played in only 73 games total.

Much of that inactivity was related to recurring wear and tear problems with cartilage in his right hip. He had one surgery in 2006-07, then another in November 2008. That second procedure cost him all of last season.

"I lost a whole year of hockey. That's a whole lot of time," Cloutier said. "When you are out of hockey like I have been for two or three years, it's tough to come back."

The Red Wings gave Cloutier a chance in preseason, just enough time for him to feel confident that he has some minutes left in him. Then Nikki's news changed where those minutes will be played. Cloutier veered away from offers in Europe, signed his deal with the IceHogs and began practicing last week.

His first game back, vs. Manitoba on Dec. 6, was noteworthy for reasons good and bad. Cloutier looked good in giving up just one goal in 26:22, but he also got a match penalty for roughing.

"Do I know what to expect (in Rockford)? No, I don't know what to expect. We'll find out sooner or later," he said. "It's basically coming here to see how it holds up. The minor-league schedule is tough. If you can play those tough weekends they go through, it's a good sign my body is back. If I have a lot of symptoms, I have to think about life after hockey."

Just another day -- Grand Rapids Griffin forward Tomas Tatar's birthday came and went on Dec. 1 with minimal fanfare.

Everyone gets to a point where age is just another number. Tatar, 19, already seems to be there.

"It's a normal day. We played a night game. It was not special," he said. "I've always been the youngest guy on the team. For me, it's normal."

The difference is that Tatar often was playing against competition close to his own age. Now, even with the flipping of the calendar pages, he remains the youngest player in the AHL.

And one with a game beyond his years.

Tatar, a second-round pick by Detroit in 2009, posted 6 goals and 7 assists through his first 18 games with the Griffins. There was some question whether the Slovakia native might be better starting off in juniors. Those thoughts don't pop up much anymore.

"Guys there are pretty good hockey players, but you don't have the strong and the smart old guys," Tatar said. "Here, for me, is better. I must play real good if I want to be a good hockey player here. When I started, I was a little bit nervous. Everything was new. Now, I feel normal."

Part of that comes from the welcoming mat laid out by the Grand Rapids organization. Tatar, first and foremost, is a scorer. Coach Curt Fraser said he wants to make sure Tatar feels comfortable breaking in by playing to his strength here, and everything else will flow from that.

The strategy is sound. Tatar has supported his flash in the offensive zone by producing a plus-10 as well.

"I lost a whole year of hockey. That's a whole lot of time. When you are out of hockey like I have been for two or three years, it's tough to come back."
-- Dan Cloutier

"We just want to make sure he's in a position to succeed, and he could develop in a way where he wouldn't be a checker," Fraser said. "Not a lot of guys now can score goals. This isn't an accident, or just luck. This kid is a good hockey player."

Twist of fate for Martinez -- Manchester defenseman Alec Martinez's first chance in the NHL went from dream to kick in the teeth with the turn of an ankle.

Looks like the second-year pro has more than picked himself off the ice to bang on that door again.

Martinez had the Los Angeles Kings made out of training camp, even playing in his first regular-season game. But a couple days after that he suffered a right high-ankle sprain in a post-practice drill and was knocked out for several weeks. That sent him right back into the starting gate and down to Manchester in late November.

"I was trying to establish myself in the league, something like that happens," he said. "It was a good learning experience as well, just being able to handle a situation like that. Now, I'm just trying to elevate my game back to where I was in training camp. It's just a bad bounce. It's the way you react to it. The best way to go about it is to maintain that positive attitude."

Finding your way back onto the score sheet is a very close second. After going goal-less in his first seven games back, Martinez lit the lamp in three straight contests Dec. 4-6.

"I wouldn't base it on those goals alone, but I guess it's a good indicator that I'm making plays," he said. "When you are out that long, I was just trying to get my legs back under me. I feel my game is getting back to where it was."

Around the AHL -- Hamilton set a franchise record last week with a shutout streak of 207 minutes, 21 seconds. Bulldogs goaltender Cedrick Desjardins has an ongoing individual shutout streak of 158 minutes, 51 seconds, also a franchise record. ... New San Antonio defenseman Anders Eriksson played in his 1,000th career professional game on Dec. 4. ... Binghamton has outscored opponents by a combined 21-1 during its last four home games. ... Manchester winger Kevin Westgarth played 171 AHL contests without a two-goal game, then scored twice each in back-to-back Monarchs wins over Hartford on Dec. 4 and Worcester on Dec. 5. ... Manchester tied a franchise record for most goals scored in one period with five tallies in the first 20 minutes vs. Hartford on Dec. 4. ... It was a tough weekend for Hartford. A 9-2 loss to Hershey on Dec. 6 tied franchise records for most goals allowed in a game and largest margin of defeat. The Wolf Pack also set a franchise low by allowing six goals in a period in that contest. ... Norfolk forward Blair Jones saw his streak of 155 consecutive games played end when he missed a game Dec. 4 while on recall to Tampa Bay. Hershey's Kyle Wilson remains the active leader with 203 straight games played. ... Lowell scored two shorthanded goals in a game for the first time in team history Dec. 2 vs. Adirondack. ... Syracuse and Peoria pulled off a trade Dec. 8, with the Crunch sending forward Pascal Pelletier to the Rivermen in exchange for defenseman Brendan Bell. ... Milwaukee's loss to Peoria on Dec. 2 was the fourth defeat in four tries for the team in the shootout this season, with three coming against Peoria. Admirals shooters have converted on just four of 18 shootout tries while Milwaukee netminders have allowed opposing shooters to score on ten of 17 chances, a .412 save percentage. ... Worcester is 7-0-0-1 in its last eight, with six of those games decided by one goal. ... Houston and San Antonio combined for six goals in 4:50 on Dec. 3, with the Aeros scoring three times in 88 seconds and the Rampage answering three times in 96 seconds. ... Rochester's two-game set in Abbotsford last weekend marked the Americans' first games in the Pacific Time zone since Dec. 13, 1967, when the Amerks took on the WHL's Portland (Ore.) Buckaroos.

Quote of the Day

Yeah, I guess so. That empty-netter was pretty lucky, but I'll take it.

— Senators forward Mike Hoffman when asked if his two-goal game was a good way to celebrate his 26th birthday
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