Sound Tigers Looking to Mesh

By Joe Tasca

The verdict has yet to come out this season on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

The defending Eastern Conference champions underwent a massive facelift in
the off-season, losing a large portion of the team that took the league by
storm in its first year. Gone are AHL veterans Ray Giroux, Evgeny Korolev,
Jason Krog, Juraj Kolnik, and Marco Tuomainen, replaced by youngsters like
Daniel Tetrault, Alan Letang, Jeff Hamilton, Mattias Weinhandl, and Blaine

Making matters more difficult for the Sound Tigers are the recent call-ups
of second-year pros Raffi Torres and Justin Mapletoft. Coming off stellar
AHL playoff performances, these two players were among the last cuts at
Islander training camp. When Trent Hunter and Tomi Pettinen were sent down
after failing to impress the Long Island brass during the opening weekend of
the season, Torres and Mapletoft were summoned to take their place.

Now the question for head coach Steve Sterling is, “Where do I go from

The pessimist might respond with a last-place finish prediction, but
Sterling got the most out of his players last season, so there is no reason
to think this campaign will yield contrasting results. The second-year
coach is counting on certain players to lead the club, namely veteran
centerman Eric Manlow, whose four goals is tied for the team lead.

“Manlow’s a quality player,’ says Sterling. ‘He’s a smart player. When
things are chaotic out there, he’s the kind of guy you love to have on the
ice. He never panics.”

Sterling also expects the recently-demoted Trent Hunter to provide strong
leadership. Since being re-assigned, the former Prince George Cougar has
tallied four times in three games.

“Hunter is a really mature kid for a 22 year old’ says Sterling. ‘I never
worry when he’s out there because I know he’ll make the right plays. That’s
going to bode him well in the future.”

Since starting the season with three consecutive losses, the Sound Tigers
responded with two straight victories over the weekend. The key to the
victories were power play goals, as the team potted five goals with the
extra-man in their two wins, after going 1-for-24 on the power play in their
opening three losses.

26-year-old defenseman Sven Butenschon can take most of the credit for
getting the offensive attack back on track. Since being acquired last week
from Florida, the Germany native has assisted on five of Bridgeport’s last
nine goals.

Butenschon says he is assuming a lot of the offensive responsibility on the
team as one of its senior members.

“It’s been like that the last few years for me with the teams I’ve been on,’
Butenschon says. ‘It’s great to be accountable like that. If I can help
everybody else out, that’s all I can really expect.”

Steve Sterling was quite happy to have Eric Godard back in the lineup prior
to Friday night’s game against Hartford. After playing in his first NHL
game the previous night, Godard was returned to Bridgeport to add some
much-needed toughness to the team.

“Goddie didn’t even get here until quarter to seven,’ said Sterling after
the Friday game. ‘He went out and played every third shift and gave me
everything he had. That’s the kind of competitive spirit the kid has.”

For the record, Godard pummeled Wolf Pack tough guy Garrett Burnett late in
the game.

Despite a 2-3 record (4 pts.) after the first two weekends of play, the
Sound Tigers are showing signs of gelling. The power play, which had been
non-existent through three games, is to be credited for the team’s two
victories over the weekend. Sterling knows his special teams must continue
to click if the team is to succeed, especially in light of the reinforcement
of obstruction rules. However, he sees a disturbing trend in the
officiating thus far.

“They’re calling the hooks and the holds for the most part, which is fine,’
says Sterling. ‘But I think they’ve missed some elbows and cross-checks. I
think they’re forgetting there’s another part of the game. They’re so
wrapped up in that one piece, and they’re forgetting the more physically
critical piece of the game.”

Speaking of critical pieces, the young Bridgeport defense corps will be
getting a much-needed boost in a few weeks. Veteran blueliner Brandon
Smith, who was recommended to the Islander organization by Peter Laviolette,
is just a few weeks away from returning to the ice following knee surgery.

“There’s a chance he may skate on Monday,’ says Sterling. ‘He’s a pretty
quiet kid, but he leads by experience. He’s already taken command in his
own unique way in the locker room. He’ll be a welcome addition.”

Martin Chabada has already been a welcome addition for the Sound Tigers.
After playing seven seasons in the Czech Republic, the 25-year-old winger
had a standout camp for the Islanders. Sterling says he still needs some
time to adapt to the North American game.

“You can see he’s strong on the puck,’ says Sterling. ‘There’s a tiger in
there. But this is a huge adjustment for him. He’s been in this country
for a month. But he shouldn’t have any trouble adjusting to our brand of

The entire Sound Tiger team is going to need at least a few more games to
adjust to Sterling’s brand of hockey, as the season is too young to form an
honest opinion on the club. However, the last few games have offered
Bridgeport fans some optimism. The x-factor is certainly between the pipes,
where highly-touted Rick DiPietro has returned for a second stint on the
farm. And even though they’re currently on the Island, the possibility
exists that Torres and Mapletoft may be sent down again at some point –
especially if Hunter continues his torrid scoring pace.

“By the time we get Smitty back (in a month), I think the big club will have
settled in on decisions regarding Torres and Mapletoft,’ says the coach.
‘I’m excited for them. We’ll lose a couple of good players that maybe were
ticketed to be here, but we’ll make adjustments.”

Bridgeport travels to St. John’s, Newfoundland for back-to-back games
against the Maple Leafs this weekend.