SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts – All season long the Springfield Falcons had won the must-win games. They took three out of four points from Albany down stretch in March to keep the River Rats on the outside looking in. Then, the Falcons finished the job with a win in Saint John, clinching a playoff berth for the first time in three years. In the postseason, they swept Hartford in the qualifying round, and kept their season alive on Friday in a must-win game against Hamilton.
The Falcons always found a way to get the job done – until tonight. Facing elimination for the second game in a row, the tenth-seeded Springfield Falcons suffered a 2-1 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs before 3,180 at the Springfield Civic Center. The Bulldogs, the American Hockey League’s regular season champions, win the best-of-five conference quarterfinals series, three-games-to-one. They’ll face the Bridgeport Sound Tigers or Manitoba Moose in the next round.
Springfield was dealt a big blow even before the game started. The team’s lone all-star and regular-season scoring leader, rookie Jeff Taffe, had to sit out with a knee injury. Peter Fabus, making his AHL playoff debut, filled-in for Taffe. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were bolstered by the return of all-star defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who joined the team late last night after the Edmonton Oilers were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by Dallas.
“Hamilton finished first overall in the league and they had all they could handle,” said Falcons head coach Marty McSorley. “At the end of the game, they were scrambling to come out with the win. Their goaltender had to make some big saves, but that’s a good hockey team.”
The Falcons fell behind early, surrendering a goal three seconds after a Hamilton power play had expired. Jean-Marc Pelletier, on his back, made a toe save on Michael Ryder’s shot to keep the puck out of the net. But Raffi Torres, positioned at the right post, tapped home the rebound for his second goal of the series.
Hamilton added another goal at 9:35. Ryder deflected defenseman Ron Hainsey’s shot from the left point past Pelletier to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead. The Falcons could have easily packed it in and accepted defeat, but they continued to battle.
“There’s an old saying that says the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,” Frank Banham said. “It’s unfortunate that it ended the way it did, but we gave it all we had.”
Banham had an outstanding chance to slice the deficit in half with 7:48 left. He darted past two Bulldogs up the middle of the ice on a breakaway, but Hamilton goaltender Ty Conklin came up with a big save. It was an up-and-down series for Conklin, who posted a shutout in game one, was yanked after two periods in game two, and sat on the bench for the third game. Back between the pipes tonight, Conklin turned in a stellar 29-save performance on his way to being named the game’s first star.
Conklin caught a break early in the second period. Bergeron, who led the AHL in plus-minus with a plus-34, turned the puck over to Erik Westrum in his own zone. Shorthanded, Westrum skated in alone on Conklin, but couldn’t get a shot off as the puck trickled off his stick to the left of the Hamilton goaltender.
The Falcons continued to get great scoring chances as Jeff Daw and Peter Fabus had a two-on-one breakaway with 12:40 left. Conklin stopped the initial shot by Daw, but allowed a big rebound that Fabus couldn’t get a piece of.
“Falling behind early didn’t faze my guys,” McSorley said. “You see a lot of teams on the brink of elimination in that situation take a step back and it becomes 3-0 or 4-0. The guys never quit.”
Less than a minute after the missed two-on-one opportunity, Fredrik Sjostrom blasted a bullet from the left faceoff circle over Conklin’s left shoulder and into the upper corner of the net.
“That was an NHL shot,” McSorley said. “I think Fredrik has good expectations for himself. He has come a long way from when I saw him at the end of August. Wherever he is next season, whether it be here or in Phoenix, he’s going to be a very good hockey player.”
With their season on the line, the Falcons continued to push for the equalizer in the third period. They outshot Hamilton, 13-5, but Conklin came up with the big saves when he needed to, much like Pelletier did in game three.
Conklin stopped a shot from Dan Smith with seven seconds left in regulation, forcing a faceoff deep in the Hamilton zone to his left. With the crowd on its feet, Murray won the faceoff, but the Bulldogs blocked a last-second shot and cleared the puck to oust the Falcons from the Calder Cup playoffs.
“You’re never happy in defeat, but I’m extremely proud of the guys,” said McSorley. “They continuously battled this year, and I’ll take those twenty working guys any day.”
Falcon Facts: Evgeny Konstantinov, Kristian Kudroc and Jeff Taffe missed the game due to injuries…Ray DiLauro, Ryan Lauzon, Jay Leach and Brad Ralph were healthy scratches…The Bulldogs, who finished with the fourth-best power play during the regular season, went just 1-for-27 with the man advantage in the series…Hamilton had the second-best penalty kill in the regular season, but Springfield went 5-for-19 on the power play in the series…Shane Willis finishes as Springfield’s playoff scoring leader with four goals and two assists in six games played…Sheldon Keefe, Jason Jaspers and Nikos Tselios were the only players to play in all six playoff games and not record a point. Even goaltender Jean-Marc Pelletier, who tallied an assist in game two of the Hamilton series, beat them out…