After the Springfield Falcons put Friday’s game away with a pair of empty net goals, the Bee Gees’ 70’s hit “Stayin’ Alive” blared over the Civic Center speakers. The Falcons hope they’ll be singing to the same tune on Monday night, too.
Springfield needs another win to force a fifth and deciding game on Wednesday in Hamilton, Ontario. The Hamilton Bulldogs are ahead, two-games-to-one, in the best-of-five American Hockey League quarterfinals series. Game four is scheduled for 7:05 P.M. tomorrow at the Springfield Civic Center.
The Falcons, who finished with the fewest regular-season points of any playoff team with 74, dropped the first two games of the series in Hamilton to fall to the brink of elimination. In the series opener, the Falcons failed to take advantage of a team that hadn’t played in over a week, dropping a 4-0 decision.
In game two, the top-seeded Bulldogs, who finished with 110 regular-season points, jumped out to a 4-1 lead. But, Springfield battled back to take the lead, only to squander a one-goal lead twice in third period en route to a heartbreaking 7-6 overtime loss.
“Even in that loss, I felt I was on my game,” said goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier. “Sometimes the puck bounces for you and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the way the game goes.”
Facing a do-or-die situation on Friday, the Falcons jumped out to an early 1-0 lead and held on from there due to a spectacular 39-save effort from Pelletier. Home ice has been friendly to the Falcons all season, and the energy from the raucous crowd of 3,943 only further helped the team in its first home playoff game in three years.
“I know (the fans) are as proud of the guys as I am,” said Falcons head coach Marty McSorley. “They put a really gutsy effort into the game and it was really great to hear the fans so loud.”
The Bulldogs, who are already loaded with talent and experience, got even better over the weekend when the Edmonton Oilers were ousted from the playoffs by Dallas. Edmonton’s exit allowed the Oilers to return defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron to the Bulldogs.
Bergeron picked up a point and sent Dallas’ Brendan Morrow head-over-heels with a perfect hip check in his first Stanley Cup playoff game on Saturday. In 66 games with the Bulldogs during the regular season, the sophomore blueliner led the AHL in plus-minus with a +34. Bergeron also finished first among Hamilton defensemen in scoring with eight goals and 31 assists.
“Hamilton will probably be better (in game four),” said McSorley. “My guys have to bring the same intensity and we have to make sure we’re structurally sound.”
For the Falcons to come-from-behind and upset Hamilton, they’ll need Pelletier to be at his best. As the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim showed in their first-round sweep of the defending-champion Detroit Red Wings proved, a hot goaltender can make all the difference.
“Hamilton is a very offensive team, and if we can keep their shots from the outside, that’s fine by me,” said Pelletier. “I’ll admit it, I got lucky a few times (on Friday), but I just tried to cover the net as much as possible and the puck hit me.”
Getting on the scoreboard first has also proved to be important for the Falcons. In the three playoff games they’ve won, Springfield has scored the games first goal. The Bulldogs don’t cough up leads very often, losing only three times all season when leading after the first or second period.
And above all, the Falcons must be a better team at even strength. Springfield has been outscored 10-2 at even strength in the series, not taking into account any empty net goals.
“We had to address our problems five-on-five (after the first two games),” McSorley said. “We weren’t able to shut them down from beating us in our own zone. They’re quick and they cycle the puck very well.”
The Falcons haven’t won back-to-back home playoff games since May of 1997. They’ll need to erase that statistic on Monday, or else Springfield will have to wait until next April for another chance.