This was a season like no other. From its quick start to its abrupt ending it was unique. In season’s past, after mini-camp, the team would form early in September and begin getting ready for the upcoming year. Practice, photo-shoots, training, find lodging, practice, training, media day, practice, training, meet and greet, practice, training. After two weeks, a pre-season game or two and the season is at the doorstep. Not this year.
The team stayed on Long Island until the last minute, perhaps to give the new coaching staff the training and practice that they needed with the Islanders systems. Whatever the reason, the normal two plus weeks was compressed to a few days. The routine remained the same, but with little time on hand the players were getting up at six in the morning to look for housing before heading to practice, training, etc. Condos and houses rented, friendships that will last for years were made and the season began. And a great season it would be, a banner season by all standards.
With the possible exception of World Cup Soccer, there is no contest in sports more intense than playoff hockey at any level. Tonight at 7pm The Webster Bank Arena will play host to the AHL’s opening round of the Calder Cup Championships. This years contest starts with an historic battle between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, proud affiliate of the New York Islanders, and Hartford’s Whale, the New York Rangers sister club.
While the two teams have met some 130 times in the last 11 years, they have never faced each other in the playoffs. While Bridgeport holds a slight advantage in this years’ regular season 10 game competition, the only advantage that earns them is home ice. This is only an advantage if the fans come out and make it one. The fans that do show up can expect to see professional hockey at its best. Here is how I see it:
Of the many perks offered to season ticket holders, my favorite is the end-of-season, Port Jeff Ferry cruise with the players. It also seems to be an event equally enjoyed by the players as well, and what’s not to enjoy? Free food and drink provided by the Sound Tigers organization and their sponsors and 3 hours of relaxed mingling of players and fans, priceless. This years’ cruise took place Monday evening and was once again a huge success. I was fortunate to spend a good bit of time talking to goalie Anders Nilsson, still on the mend from an ankle injury he sustained in the March 18 game against the Worcester Sharks.
Watching the Masters today, we all saw 5-foot putts missed that we could have made. Bubba Watson’s 10-inch winner, a ‘gimme’ on most public links, earned him his first major and the coveted ‘Green Jacket.’ I started to think of other sports where in my prime (forty plus years ago) I could have been a difference maker or game winner.
I have little doubt that I could kick the extra point to win a Super Bowl. I would imagine you feel the same. I am also certain that I could sink the game winning free-throw in an NCAA or NBA Championship game. We see evidence of this every year when somebody wins a scholarship or cash for tossing one in from half-court. Could I score the winning run in the 7th game of baseballs World Series? Most definitely. As the designated runner coming in to score from third base after a sacrifice fly, I could probably do that today. Could I score the ‘gamer’ in the Stanley Cup Finals?
Not on your life. Scoring a goal in hockey is the most difficult accomplishment in sports.
There are just 12 hours left in the Bridgeport Sound Tigers regular season. Twelve hours where each twenty-minute period will be played with intensity. In my most recent post, I stated that I did not expect the team to return to the arena on Monday March 25th in first place, and they won’t. Did I expect them to lose each of the last five games? I did not, but it happened. Is the team out of the hunt for a divisional title? Not by a long shot.
In a late night tweet following Wednesday’s shut out loss to the Binghamton Senators, Rhett Rakhshani posted “Tough stretch for the tigers. Sometimes you learn and grow the most from the tough times. We will turn this ship around!”. While the ‘boat’ reference brings to mind Captain Ahab’s Peqoud sunk by a Connecticut Whale, the Titanic destroyed by the St. Johns Ice Caps or Captain Quint’s boat Orca devoured by a Worcester Shark in the movie ’Jaws’, I share his optimism.
The team is missing some weapons at the moment. Call-ups, injuries and a suspension will keep David Ullstrom, Casey Cizikas, Jeremy Colliton and Michael Haley from lighting the goal light for a bit longer. Led by Rakhshani and a net crashing Justin DiBenedetto (pictured/Photo by Pope Steve XXLIV) there are plenty of weapons left in the arsenal and new ones arriving almost daily.
With this edition of the prospect report I decided to update Islanders fans about some of the news that has happened recently with some Islanders prospects. Recently we have seen prospects sign amateur try out contracts with Bridgeport, one sign an entry level deal with the Islanders, and one decide that he isn’t quite done with college yet. If you are lost don’t worry I will explain it all.
I will start with the amateur try out contracts (ATO) with Bridgeport. Johan Persson, an Islander’s prospect from the 2011 NHL draft has left his junior team to play a few games in the AHL before the season is over. I have previously written about Persson in an article you can find by clicking here. He finished this season in the WHL with 58 points in 70 games. The 19 year-old has some good size so it will be interesting to see him work in the AHL over the next few games.
Many were immediately calling for the removal of head coach Jack Capuano at the start of the season once the New York Islanders' record began to slip from 3-1 to way below .500. However, there were some, like myself, who argued that it was premature to blame the coaching staff for the poor start due to the fact that the roster from last season hadn't changed much and for the other simple fact - the season was still young. (Photo Credit: Robert Kowal/Flickr)
Since then, the Islanders have managed to be a consistent below .500 team for the year. They have come close on a few occasions from jumping over the hurdle but would then find a way to take two steps back after taking one step forward. This past week has been the most disheartening of the year for Isles fans in relation to how the team has continued to perform. Not only have they lost games, but they have done it with such depression that even the U.S. economy cringed.
Three of the last eight games saw the Islanders either blow a three-goal lead or lose the game in the final few minutes of the third period. It started when the Islanders went into the second period against the Washington Capitals with a 2-0 lead on February 28th. The Caps would score two goals in the final three minutes of the game and then go on to have Alexander Ovechkin score the early game winning goal in the extra frame. The Islanders also had a 1-0 lead against the New Jersey Devils just this past Saturday, only to see their opponent score two goals just 14 seconds apart in the final two minutes of the hockey game. And most recently, the Islanders blew a 4-1 lead last night against the Caps to lose 5-4 in the shootout.
Changing Daylight Saving Time to the second weekend of March has made this my least favorite weekend of the year. Well into my training regimen for St. Patrick’s Day the last thing I need to lose is an hour of sleep. It would also prove to be a difficult weekend for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Another three games in three nights can be expected but this past weekend the opponents could not have been tougher. On Friday the Tigers visited Hartford the team with the AHL’s best home record, 16-4-2-4. Saturday the team would return home to face the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins holders of the AHL’s best road record at an amazing 22-6-0-3. Shortened Sunday would find the Tigers at home against the AHL’s point leading Norfolk Admirals and winners of fourteen games in a row. Bridgeport did not post a win in those three games (first time winless in three in 2012) but they were not played in any game and picked up two valuable points in the process.
It has taken almost 15 years, but the Islanders General manager, Garth Snow may have finally found the answer. In the 1997 series between the Sabers and Flyers then Philly goaltender Garth Snow donned a set of shoulder pads so large a pundit asked if Snow “had Jimmy Hoffa buried under there.” He had not broken any rules, there were none? Fifteen-inch pads were commonplace and his imaginative way to level the playing field was totally legal. It also started the puck rolling towards the regulation of today’s goalie equipment by the NHL.
Always searching for a competitive advantage, Garth went out and drafted a tender who required no Michelin man equipment. Anders Nilsson at 6’5 and 220 lbs. fills the net in his long johns. Last night the 21 year old from Lulea, Sweden recorded his first NHL win, a 1-0 shutout over the New Jersey Devils. It is not just his dominating size but also cobra quick reflexes which brought one clever fan to post on Twitter “ Anders Nillson, I dub thee Thor the god of goaltenders.” The Islanders may need the help of a god to make the playoffs, but the Bridgeport Sound Tigers are in a push for the playoffs as well and could use Nillson’s services.
It is still a long shot, but the Islanders have once again pulled themselves into playoff conversation with a 1-0 win over the New Jersey Devils. Kyle Okposo scored the lone goal for the Isles while Anders Nilsson earned his first NHL win with a 24-save shutout performance that earned him first star honors on the night.
"Today I think all the guys out there put up a great job for me," said Nilsson. "The first two periods, I only had 12 shots and they blocked a lot of shots and when they got a shot through it was from the boards. They made it real easy for me to play out there today. They helped me out a lot."
Okposo concurred with Nilsson's belief that the Islanders played one of their best defensive games of the year, rivaling their previous defensive win over the Boston Bruins the night before.