Storm-stricken Bridgeport Sound Tigers fans took some time off from assessing damage, waiting in line for gas and assisting loved ones, friends and even strangers to take advantage of a thoughtful gesture by the organization: free tickets to last night’s game against the Hershey Bears. And the team rewarded the sellout crowd with a solid effort and a victory that included many offensive chances and a stretch of fights and chaos in the second period.
Firstly, for anyone impacted by Hurricane Sandy, I hope you can recover as fast as possible...whether it’s getting the power back on, replacing destroyed property, or simply finding gas to power a generator or get around. Most importantly, I hope everyone you know is safe and sound.
Just before the game, Bridgeport coach Scott Pellerin gave a nice speech welcoming the fans and praising the region’s spirit as it picks up the pieces following the storm. The crowd seemed to be torn between cheering and reflecting as he spoke.
When the puck dropped, it looked as if Hershey would control play in the early going, turning in a strong opening shift. But the Sound Tigers would quickly reverse momentum, going on an 11-3 run in shots through the first eight or so minutes of the game. The run included some excellent scoring chances. Brock Nelson looked strong in the early going, and on a power play just 1:42 into the period, Bridgeport displayed impressive puck movement (particularly between Nino Niederreiter, Travis Hamonic and Matt Donovan) and got some good shots on net.
Hershey goaltender Braden Holtby, who recently backstopped the Washington Capitals to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, made several improbable saves in the early going, and showed impressive positioning and rebound control throughout the game. Holtby is no stranger to strong play, as he sports a .929 save percentage in the NHL over 21 regular-season games spanning two seasons with the Capitals, and he posted a .935 save percentage in 14 playoff games this past season.
The Bears rewarded his early efforts, as fourth-liner Matt Clackson would give Hershey a 1-0 lead 9:40 into the game. Hamonic turned the puck over in the corner, and the Bears worked it up to the point. Defenseman Kevin Marshall took a shot that was blocked by the defense, but Clackson found the puck, turned around and fired it over Bridgeport goaltender Kevin Poulin’s right pad.
The Sound Tigers would shake off the goal and continue taking the play to the Bears for the remainder of the period. At 16:51 and 18:16, Hamonic would draw two separate penalties, holding and slashing respectively, and Bridgeport would find themselves on a 5-on-3. The Sound Tigers would cash in. Donovan fed the puck down low to Colin McDonald, who fired a hard pass through the goal crease to Casey Cizikas. Cizikas put the puck by Holtby for his third goal of the season at 18:24 to tie the game.
A little over a minute later, while still on a 5-on-4 power play, the Sound Tigers would take the lead. Donovan put the puck behind the net, and Nelson was immediately checked along the boards. But he managed to make a neat little backhand pass to Brandon DeFazio, who was able to control the puck as he quickly cut in front of the net, lifting a backhander by Holtby for his fourth goal of the season.
The Sound Tigers finished a strong first period ahead 18-7 in shots and 2-1 on the scoreboard. David Ullstrom left the game in the first and did not return. Official word is a “lower-body injury,” which does not tell us much. Ullstrom had left for an equipment issue, then returned, and then left again shortly after due to the injury. I did not see the play he was hurt on, and, per Michael Fornabaio at the Connecticut Post
), Pellerin gave no update after the game.
Just 19 seconds into the second period the Bears would tie the game. Ty Wishart tried to lead Niederreiter with a pass through center, but it was just out of reach, and the puck was turned back the other way. Hershey’s Boyd Kane was able to settle down a bouncing puck on a partial breakaway and shoot it by Poulin.
And then at 10:43, the fireworks started. Niederreiter checked former Sound Tiger Steve Oleksy, who then got his stick up in Niederreiter’s face. Cizikas stepped in to defend his teammate, and he and Oleksy fought. It was clear Oleksy was far more comfortable dropping the gloves, easily winning the fight and resisting Cizikas’ attempt to wrestle him to the ground. But Cizikas earned a cheer from the crowd for standing up for the team’s leading point scorer, Niederreiter.
Bridgeport’s Brett Gallant did not appear to appreciate the circumstances that led to Cizikas squaring off against Oleksy. Less than two minutes later, Gallant retaliated by going after a non-fighter on Hershey, Zach Hamill. Hershey’s Ryan Stoa stepped in on behalf of his teammate, and Gallant pummeled him to the ice before Stoa could even get his gloves off. Gallant popped back up, flung his helmet to the ice and had words with some Bears players on his way to the penalty box.
A little over 1:20 later, Bridgeport’s McDonald knocked down Mitchell, and the two of them squared off, though this fight was more of a wrestling match than a slugfest. McDonald did manage to get a solid punch in at the end on Mitchell’s nose that appeared to sting the Bears player.
Off the very next faceoff, Blair Riley and Clackson squared off. The fight lasted mere seconds with a couple of wild punches thrown before Clackson forcefully flung Riley to the ice. Clackson shouted at a very crowded Bridgeport penalty box on his way to serve his own five-minute major.
At some point during all of that, a fan was ejected for doing something over at the Bears’ penalty box. The announcers mentioned their disgust on the broadcast, but did not say what occurred. At the bottom of the screen as Riley and Clackson square off, you could see the boards shaking and what looked like a fan trying to climb them.
At 16:22, the Sound Tigers would take the lead for good, again on the power play as Tomas Kundratek was serving two minutes for goaltender interference. Hamonic took a shot from the point, and the forwards all pounced on the rebound, with Matt Watkins and then Niederreiter taking whacks at the puck before Nelson was able to put it in. The play was indicative of how the Sound Tigers approached most of the game, getting pucks to the net and then swarming goaltender Holtby looking for rebounds.
In the third, Bridgeport continued to play well and generate quality scoring chances, but Holtby was there to shut the door each time and keep his team down by just one goal. The Bears did not really mount serious, sustained offensive pressure until late in the period, but again they put themselves in penalty trouble, allowing the Sound Tigers finish the game with even more quality scoring opportunities.
To the Bears’ credit, they did not scramble in their own zone, even as Bridgeport forechecked hard and moved the puck around well. Hershey’s defensemen were calmly able to break up several odd-man rushes down low throughout the game, and, as mentioned, Holtby was impressive in net. But Bridgeport controlled the flow for the majority of this game, and the Sound Tigers appeared to be energized by the large, supportive crowd.
The Sound Tigers organization for offering the free tickets after the devastating storm. Tickets to today’s game against the Wilkes-Barre Penguins were also free, but were quickly snapped up by about 2:30 yesterday according to Fornabaio.
Generally I am praising Poulin for coming up big even as the defense in front of him falters occasionally. Last night, though, Poulin was not tested much, and let two pucks by when he was tested. Poulin would probably like to have both goals back. He appeared far too passive on both shots, sitting back in his crease and giving the shooters plenty of net to look at.
Niederreiter and Nelson had very strong games. Both circled the net like sharks throughout the game looking to deflect pucks or bang in rebounds. Nelson finished the game with a goal and an assist. Niederreiter was credited with an assist on Nelson’s goal. The broadcast indicated that the assist was taken away (he definitely took a swing at the puck after Hamonic’s point shot, whether or not he connected), but the score sheet still lists Niederreiter with the primary helper.
For Cizikas, it’s getting to the point where I might as well just consider good games the norm for him. He’s noticeable on nearly every shift for either a strong defensive play or for keeping a play alive in the offensive zone. He’s not flashy, just effective.
Johan Sundstrom continues to show flashes of a player who might be a nice addition once he acclimates to the North American game.
On defense, Donovan turned in his best game of the young season, making smart decisions on offense (and finishing the game with two assists to double his season point total to four) and holding his own defensively.
FURTHER OFF ISLES FANS’ RADAR
DeFazio has so far been a reliable and solid addition to the Sound Tigers. He is tied for the team lead in goals with four, and shows tenacity on the ice every game. He and Nelson have looked good on a line together.
BY THE NUMBERS
Shots: Bridgeport -- 42, Hersey -- 21
Power Play: Bridgeport -- 3/11, Hershey -- 0/3
Niederreiter -- 7gp, 4g, 4a, 8 pts
Nelson -- 7gp, 3g, 3a, 6 pts
DeFazio -- 7gp, 4g, 1a, 5 pts
Cizikas -- 7gp, 3g, 2a, 5 pts
McDonald -- 1g, 3a, 4 pts
Watkins, Donovan and Aaron Ness also have four points.
Bridgeport is home again at 3 p.m. today to take on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the teams’ second meeting of the year.