Through the first two periods in Portland last night against the Pirates, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers did everything right but score. They finally broke through Portland goaltender Chad Johnson in the third, but that was only good enough to tie the contest after they had yielded a goal earlier in the frame. And in overtime, a familiar foe -- ill-timed penalties -- struck again to sink the Sound Tigers after what had been an overall solid effort.
An early goal or two for the Sound Tigers felt inevitable as they controlled the tempo in the first, dominating play along the boards and getting players open in front of the net seemingly at will. The first line of Nino Niederreiter, Brock Nelson and Colin McDonald in particular seemed to have their way with a talented Pirates’ defense that boasts names such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brandon Gormley and David Rundblad.
But despite excellent puck movement and quality shots, Bridgeport was unable to solve Johnson, who was exceptionally sharp all night.
The second period was more of the same, with Bridgeport controlling the vast majority of the play until very late in the frame. But the frustration of not getting a puck past Johnson was beginning to show, and the Sound Tigers seemed less sure of themselves when it came time to pull the trigger. On one power play, Niederreiter got a cross-ice pass and was staring at a gaping net, but instead of shooting, he tried to thread a pass across to Nelson that never got through.
In the third, Portland woke up and began to take the play to Bridgeport a bit. In the first two periods, the Pirates had no luck trying to generate offense off the rush. They had better luck in the third by simplifying things and using a dump-and-chase strategy. Bridgeport was also able to continue getting quality zone time, and in general, the period featured some entertaining hockey at both ends and great goaltending by both Johnson and Anders Nilsson.
At 5:34, Portland would strike first on the power play. After being unable to generate any quality chances on their previous attempts with the man advantage, the Pirates were finally able to get set up and move the puck around. The goal came off of a hard one timer by Portland’s leading goal-scorer, Alexandre Bolduc, who set up near the circle to Nilsson’s left, took a cross-ice feed from defenseman Maxim Goncharov, and buried the puck to make it 1-0 Portland.
But the Sound Tigers would tie the game at 8:25 on a power play of their own. Bridgeport, which came into the night with the number one power play in the AHL, had moved the puck around well with the man advantage all night only to be repeatedly stonewalled by Johnson. On this opportunity, they scored off the rush. As they broke into the Pirates’ zone, Nelson moved the puck to McDonald, who took a shot that was kicked out by Johnson. But the puck ended up on Niederreiter’s stick in front and he hit a mostly open net for his team-leading 12th goal and 25th point of the season.
With 34 seconds left in the game, Marc Cantin took a holding penalty that would carry over into overtime, giving Portland a 4-on-3 advantage to begin the extra frame. Bridgeport killed that thanks to some solid play by Casey Cizikas, but just seconds after the penalty expired, Nelson was called for high-sticking, putting the Sound Tigers right back into the wrong end of a 4-on-3 situation. They killed off a large chunk of it, with a visibly tired Cizikas and a solid, confident Nilsson leading the way. But Portland’s Rundblad was able to break through at 3:14, and Bridgeport, despite a solid -- at times dominating -- performance, had to settle for a loser point.
The game in general was fast-paced and entertaining, particularly in the third when Portland began to push back and there was quality action at both ends of the ice. There was not much more the Sound Tigers could have done last night: they hit, skated well, moved the puck, took care of the their own zone, and put some good shots on net. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a goaltender who has a great night. Credit to the Pirates too for not wasting Johnson’s performance and finding a way to grab two points despite taking two periods to find their legs.
INJURIES AND OTHER NOTES
On the day-to-day front, David Ullstrom, despite making the trip to Portland, remained out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. Travis Hamonic was also still out. Cizikas, who missed the third period on Saturday against Syracuse, did play. Longer term, Brandon DeFazio served the third game last night of his six-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight in the 4-2 loss to the Connecticut Whale.
When the Sound Tigers are able to get players back from suspension and injury, they should be able to roll three lines that are a threat to score on any given shift. As it is now, Bridgeport relies heavily on the first line for offense, with some additional support from John Persson-Johan Sundstrom-Max MacKay. Beyond that, the Sound Tigers essentially roll two energy lines, with Cizikas centering spark plug Sean Backman and pot-stirrer Blair Riley, and energy player Matt Watkins centering enforcer Brett Gallant and Mike Halmo. It’ll be interesting to see how the lines shake out when Ullstrom, DeFazio and, hopefully one day, Kirill Kabanov return to action.
BY THE NUMBERS
Shots: Bridgeport -- 29, Portland -- 27
Power Play: Bridgeport -- 1/6, Portland -- 2/5
Niederreiter: 1g, even
McDonald: 1a, even
Nelson: 1a, even
Niederreiter: 24gp, 12g, 13a, 25 pts
Nelson: 24gp, 10g, 10a, 20 pts
McDonald: 22gp, 4g, 13a, 17 pts
Sundstrom: 24gp, 7g, 6a, 13 pts
Landry: 24gp, 6g, 7a, 13 pts
Bridgeport plays two games in Norfolk against the Admirals, on Friday, Dec. 14 and Saturday, Dec. 15.