Sound Tigers Season Culminates in Finals Appearance

By Bill Bennett

Article by Joe Tasca

On Friday, October 12th, a crowd of over 6,000 fans packed the brand new Arena at Harbor Yard to watch a team with a strange name — the Sound Tigers –compete in their first-ever home game.

Team owner Roy Boe and league president Dave Andrews were also on hand to witness the birth of Bridgeport hockey.

The patrons that night were unfortunate enough to witness a horrid effort by the locals that resulted in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phantoms.

Eight months later, the New York Islanders top affiliate finds themselves four wins away from the second-most prestigious trophy in professional hockey.

They’ve come a long way.

Backstopped by the league’s best goaltender and four of the five top scorers in this years playoffs, Bridgeport has earned the right to battle the Chicago Wolves for the right to claim the 66th Calder Cup championship.

The road to the finals has been through Canada. After polishing off Manitoba (3-1) and St. John’s (4-0) with relative ease, the Sound Tigers were taken to the limit by Hamilton in the Eastern Conference finals.

And it wasn’t until the 18:33 mark of the 3rd period when Raffi Torres scored did Bridgeport solidify their date with the Wolves. Jason Podollan and Juraj Kolnik added empty-netters, and 21-year-old Rick DiPietro made 21 saves in the 3-0 win before a crowd of 3,584 Wednesday night.

Now the real fun begins.

Who are these guys?

When asked about the upcoming matchup with two-time IHL champion Chicago, the Sound Tigers had little to offer.

I don’t know a lot about them, said head coach Steve Sterling. ËœWe’re going to feel it out the first few games and see who can play against who.

Jason Podollan, who competed in the IHL last season with Detroit and Manitoba, has had his share of run-ins with the Wolves.

They have a good, solid NHL line with Rob Brown and Steve Maltais and a goaltender that will give Ricky a run for his money.

While Podollan may not be able to recall the name of the young Chicago netminder right now, odds are he will have it ingrained in his mind by the end of the series.

A 6th round draft pick in this season’s draft, Pasi Nurminen has slowly been able to make a name for himself in the AHL. After serving as the parent Thrashers backup for the better part of the year, Nurminen has settled in as coach John Anderson’s go-to guy in the playoffs. The Wolves had relied on Norm Maracle for most of the season, but the urminens stellar play early in the playoffs when Anderson was platooning the two goalies enabled him to wrestle the starting job away from Maracle. The Finnish netminder has posted an 11-4 record and 1.93 GAA in 15 playoff games.

While putting the puck in the net will prove to be a daunting task, keeping the disk out of the net will be just as difficult. Podollan mentioned Rob Brown and Steve Maltais, and for good reason. The 34-year-old Brown and the 33-year-old Steve Maltais have been two of the most prolific minor-league scorers in recent years. Brown was once a 100-point scorer in Pittsburgh when he played alongside Mario Lemieux, while Maltais has scored 90-or-more points in a season six times with Chicago.

Besides the two veterans, the Wolves feature a wide array of young talent. 23-year old center Kamil Piros has had a standout season. After scoring 49 points in the regular season, the 1997 Buffalo draft pick has tallied 14 points (5-9) in 20 playoff games. Young centers Dan Snyder (6-7) and Andreas Karlsson (5-8) have each contributed 13 points, while Jean-Pierre Vigier (6-6) has 12 points.

Chicago’s veteran leadership is prevalent on the blue line. Illinois native Bob Nardella is the power-play quarterback. After missing a career-high 28 games because of injuries this season, the 34-year-old Nardella has posted 4-6-10 totals in the playoffs. Dallas Eakins provides a physical presence, as he has done for eight different NHL teams. The former Peterborough Pete is second in the league with 51 playoff penalty minutes.

Youngsters Mike Weaver, Karill Safronov, and Garnet Exelby all Thrasher property compliment the elder statesmen.

Destiny?

Destiny is a word often thrown around by so-called hockey experts and fans alike. And while Sound Tiger supporters certainly have reason to believe on the eve of the finals, the term is probably more applicable to the unlikely playoff run of the battle-tested Wolves.

Chicago, a 7th seed, has faced elimination five times already this post-season. That gives them an immediate advantage over Bridgeport, who hadn’t even broken a sweat in the playoffs until Wednesday night. The Wolves are a very patient team that doesn’t panic a credit to the seasoned
lineup and the leadership of John Anderson, who was a part of many playoff wars in his days with the Hartford Whalers. This isn’t a team that fires 40 shots on goal every night. However, they do capitalize on their chances, especially on the power play. Steve Maltais leads the Wolves in that
department with five goals.

An interesting part of Chicago’s game is that they constantly are on the attack. Most teams that get a lead in a playoff game try to sit on it come the third period, but the Wolves go for the jugular. After taking a 3-1 lead on Syracuse after one period in Game 7 of the Conference semi-finals, Chicago proceeded to pound the Crunch, 6-2. That killer instinct showed again against in the Conference finals the Aeros – the Wolves mauled Houston 7-0 in the series clincher.

Is anyone out there?

The Calder Cup finals is the AHL’s coup de grace. While not on par with their NHL counterpart, the Calder Cup championship is the most coveted tournament in minor league hockey. However, one wonders if anyone in Bridgeport will even notice. The Sound Tigers have yet to draw more than 3,700 fans to any of their eight home playoff games.

Connecticut Post challenged the Bridgeport faithful to come out in full force (for once) prior to Game 7. In Wednesday’s column, it was written that, if they really cared about the team, they would fill the 6,997 seats for Game 7 against Hamilton.

The result?

Let’s just say I’m not being pessimistic when I say the glass was half-empty.

The organization has expressed extreme disappointment in the lack of attendance, but they shouldn’t be very surprised. One look at ticket prices tells the story. Club seating is $26, while the cheapest tickets in the rink section is $21.50 (bar seating is $18.50). A league that caters to the family man shouldn’t be scratching its head wondering why the blue-collar citizens of southwestern Connecticut refuse to open a mortgage to watch Eric Godard.

Interestingly enough, the Wolves have been having attendance problems for most of the playoffs as well. Chicago is averaging around 3,000 fans per playoff game, a total comparable to their finals counterparts. Team vice president of business operations Adam Fox said the decrease from a regular season average of 8,100 fans is normal, but he doesn’t question the loyalty of the Wolves fan base.

Let’s put it this way: I know things are going good when my father-in-law says, ËœOkay, count me in.

Now only if some Bridgeport father-in-laws will echo those sentiments.

Butter me up, buttercup

John Anderson is adhering to the standard underdog procedure. He has been very complimentary towards his Eastern Conference opponent perhaps too much so. “Bridgeport is more skilled (than Hamilton). I hate to use that word, but I think they’re more skilled, a better skating team, and more disciplined defensively. We’re going to have our hands full.”

That’s interesting insight from Anderson, especially since his Wolves didn’t face the Sound Tigers at all during the regular season. He was in Bridgeport for the last two games of the Eastern finals, but needless to say, those were not two of the Tigers better performances.

Steve Sterling didn’t hesitate to jump on the gushing train.They’re a good hockey club, said the coach. Chicago played the regular seasons with call-ups and injuries. They picked up their pace coming into the playoffs. They have a solid goaltender, veterans, and a cast of young kids.

If the hockey in this series even remotely resembles the distribution of verbal adoration, we’re in for a hell of a series.

Prediction: Bridgeport in six.