SOUND TIGERS HOPE TO HIT JACKPOT IN BINGO
What a difference a month makes.
Things weren’t looking good for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at the tail end of March. The club closed out the month with two dreadful performances against regional rivals Manchester and Hartford, losing both contests by a combined total of 11-0. They were out-shot, out-skated, out-classed, and out-played in almost every facet of the game. With the playoffs looming, the team’s vital signs were critical at best.
How times have changed.
An intense closed-door meeting followed Bridgeport’s 8-0 loss in Hartford on March 30th – the worst defeat in franchise history. Head coach Steve Stirling lambasted the players, questioning their heart, desire, and determination.
Evidently, the club took the tongue-lashing to heart, and the Sound Tigers have been taking their anger out on opponents ever since. The tide turned on April 2nd, as Bridgeport crushed league-leading Hamilton 6-0 at Harbor Yard. The convincing display set the stage for a solid close to the regular season, as the Sound Tigers swept a three-game weekend, culminating in back-to-back wins against Hartford.
The four consecutive wins at the conclusion of the regular season were not enough to propel the Sound Tigers to their second division title in as many seasons. Nevertheless, the team’s confidence level going into the opening round of the playoffs was at its peak. Despite starting on the road against a high-powered Manchester team that had received reinforcements from Los Angeles on the eve of the series, Bridgeport dominated the Monarchs. Backstopped by the outstanding goaltending of veteran Steve Valiquette, the Sound Tigers were able to easily dispose of Manchester in a three-game sweep. Their power-play, which had been inept for most of the season, exploded for six goals in 12 chances during the series. The penalty-killers, best in the league statistically, allowed just one goal against a team who had been among the league-leaders with the man advantage.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Things don’t get any easier for the Sound Tigers this weekend, as they begin a best-of-seven conference semi-final series against the team that beat them out for the East Division title – the Binghamton Senators.
The Baby Sens are coming off a three-game sweep of their own, a hard-fought triumph over the Worcester IceCats. Binghamton was led by a line anchored by a pair of 500-point scorers in Bob Wren and Brad Smyth, and prospect Josh Langfeld. The trio combined for 12 points in the Worcester series, accounting for six of the team’s eight goals. All-Rookie Team netminder Ray Emery exhibited the poise of a seasoned veteran, allowing a mere four goals in three games.
THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN
The Binghamton lineup will receive an injection when the series opens up on Saturday night, as 19-year-old Jason Spezza will be in uniform on a voluntary conditioning stint. The 2nd overall draft pick in 2001 requested the reassignment, as he had not seen any game action in three weeks. Senators management has made it clear, however, that Spezza’s stay in Bingo will be temporary. The organization has stated publicly the Brampton, Ontario native be recalled immediately following the second game of the series on Sunday.
That is not to the dismay of the Sound Tigers, whose roster will be packed with reinforcements in the midst of the Islanders’ first-round knock-out, courtesy of the B-Sens’ parent club. Justin Papineau, who was acquired in the Chris Osgood trade last month, is the most notable addition to the Bridgeport lineup. In just five games as a Sound Tiger following the transaction, the St. Louis draftee tallied seven times.
22-year-old prospect Justin Mapletoft will be available as well. The former Red Deer Rebel scoring phenom has developed into a reliable two-way forward during his pro tenure, and coach Sterling is not hesitant to use him in any situation, especially late in tight games. Eric Godard’s return will add a physical element to the Sound Tigers’ game, something that will prove to be a vital asset against a Binghamton team that possesses size and strength, particularly on the blueline.
Without a doubt, the most influential returnee will be goaltender Rick DiPietro. In what may prove to be the ex-factor in the series, the former BU Terrier will keep an aggressive Senator team honest because of his outstanding puck-handling abilities. DiPietro’s presence provides the Sound Tigers with a third defenseman who can efficiently move the puck – a primary reason Bridgeport finished first in the league on the penalty kill. His skills with the biscuit, coupled with his cat-like reflexes and fundamental positioning, are similar to his Binghamton counterpart Ray Emery.
DID YOU EVER HAVE TO MAKE UP YOUR MIND?
While Binghamton head coach John Paddock knows who his man will be between the pipes come Saturday, the same decision is not as clear cut for the Bridgeport headmaster. Most in the hockey world are making the assumption that Rick DiPietro will be tending goal for the Sound Tigers, but that is not set is stone. Steve Stirling has rewarded players that perform well all season long, and Steve Valiquette has certainly earned high marks in winning his last six starts. Nevertheless, it is natural to think the Islander brass would insist upon DiPietro’s participation in the series, considering his status as a valued prospect.
Fortunately for Stirling, this has not been the case. After the Sound Tigers completed their three-game sweep of Manchester last Friday, Stirling claimed Valiquette had the inside track on getting the Game One start over DiPietro. Because Game Two is the following afternoon, there is a chance Stirling will start DiPietro for that game, depending upon Valiquette’s performance in the opener. Nevertheless, it is safe to say Stirling will play the hot hand in net, and that hand happens to be Steve Valiquette at the moment.
Regardless of who is patrolling the Bridgeport crease come Saturday, the Senators will have to improve their power-play if they are to compete with the defensive-minded Sound Tigers. Steve Stirling’s troops pride themselves on stifling opponents in five-on-five situations, which may put the onus on players such as Spezza and 20-year-old Antoine Vermette to convert on man advantage opportunities.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
After missing practically his entire final year of junior hockey with a neck injury, Vermette took the AHL by storm this season. He led the Senators with 34 en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. Unfortunately, the native Quebecor has stumbled upon rough times, having not scored in his last nine outings. John Paddock has placed Vermette on a line with Jason Spezza and Joe Murphy during practice this week, most likely in an effort to help the former Victoriaville Tigre break out of his recent clump. Despite the fact Vermette is a natural centerman, he did play on Spezza’s left wing earlier in the season. Even though Spezza will only be available for the first two games of the series, Paddock appears to be hoping the two youngsters can feed off each other, potentially igniting Vermette’s re-emergence and self-confidence in his game.
Nine-year-pro Bob Wren is not suffering from a lack of self-confidence. In fact, his career was revitalized when he became a Senator at the trading deadline. Putting aside an injury-plagued campaign that saw him garner only 26 points in 43 games with St. John’s and Milwaukee this season, Wren tallied 14 points in 14 games as a Senator. He has continued to accumulate points in the post-season, notching four assists in the first round. Not coincidentally, linemate Brad Smyth’s output subsequently increased with Wren’s arrival. The two-time 50-goal scorer has dented the twice ten times in his last 17 – all with Wren as his centerman. Josh Langfeld has also been a beneficiary of Wren’s pinpoint passing. The native of Coon Rapids, Minnesota notched two game-winners against Worcester.
As hot as the Langfeld/Wren/Smyth trio has been for Binghamton, the Sound Tigers have been powered by two lines. Eric Manlow and Trent Hunter have played together all season, and while Steve Stirling has placed Jeremy Adduono on their line periodically during the course of the year, Martin Chababa has settled down as the left winger of choice. The line was lethal during the Manchester series, scoring 13 points in three games. Hunter’s four goals led the way, while Chabada chipped in a pair. Surprisingly, though, Bridgeport’s top line did not lead them in scoring in the quarterfinal round.
Despite solid credentials and high expectations coming into the season, Daniel Tkaczuk and Jeremy Adduono had been relatively mute all season long. Tkaczuk was a former first round draft pick of the Calgary Flames, while Adduono had scored 20 goals on three separate occasions with the Rochester Americans. However, neither player was able to crack the 30-point barrier this season. Fortunately for Sound Tiger fans, they have regained their long-lost scoring touch at precisely the right time. Tzachuk scored seven points (2, 5), while Adduono added five (2, 3) during the three games against Manchester. Linemate Jeff Hamilton, a first-year pro out of Yale University and the most consistent performer during the season, contributed three points on two goals.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This matchup is as even as any semi-final playoff series in the AHL. Bridgeport held a slight edge during the regular season (3-2-1), but as the Providence Bruins can attest to, that factor holds little significance in the post-season. Each team has experienced an extensive layoff, so both clubs have been able to work out some kinks in practice this week. Both clubs have veteran-laden defense corps and young, but steady goalkeepers. The inevitable result will be an entertaining series, featuring low-scoring affairs. The team that wins the special teams battle will most likely emerge the victor. Bridgeport has been on a torrid pace with the man advantage. However, if Spezza and Vermette can click, while being complimented by the Wren line, the Sound Tigers will be hard-pressed to match their output.
PREDICTION – Bridgeport in seven.