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.
Embarrassed. That is the only word I can think of that describes how I feel about Thursday nights’ Sound Tigers loss to the Whale. It has little to do with the way the team played or the outcome of the game. It has nothing to do with the embarrassment I felt for the singer of our National Anthem who forgot the words. It has everything to do with the small crowd in attendence. I can only recall one time I felt that totally embarrassed.
After years of living in the same house, I had just moved into a one-bedroom condo on the first floor of a well-lit building in Bridgeport. Prior to that, my normal routine for nocturnal emissions was, rise from bed, take a left, another left, quick right and close the door behind me. In my new environs this familiar routine left me buck-naked in the hallway where looking to my right I could see the entrance to St. Ambrose Church. I was able to escape my embarrassment; the Sound Tigers were not as fortunate.
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.
After allowing seven goals in an onslaught of a hockey game, the final buzzer at the Nationwide Arena would not only sound the ending of a massacre, but also signify the end of what was a disappointing season for the New York Islanders.
It was a disappointing year for many reasons. With the rebuild entering its fourth season, many expected this team's fortunes to change. For plenty, that meant making the playoffs instead of falling into the draft lottery. For yours truly, that meant climbing out of the cellar but not high enough to reach 8th place. I am sad to say that we were both wrong. The Islanders finished the year out of the playoffs and 27th overall in the league, giving them the fourth overall pick going into Tuesday night's draft lottery for the second year in a row.
On paper you can call the 2012 season just the same as any other. At 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the Isles finished the season with a 34-37-11 record with 79 points. That's only a six point improvement over last season and the SAME exact record as the year before that in 2010. It would almost appear that the rebuild has established a trend of not going up or down, but rather staying put.
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.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have just completed their worst weekend of the year. Playing the second of two consecutive three (games) in three (nights) series, they were only able to capture 5 of the 6 points available. The one point missed occurred on Friday night in a game won by the Springfield Falcons in the 7th round of a shoot-out.
The team returned home to the Webster Bank Arena on Saturday for the 2nd game of the 3 in 3 weekend and through 15 minutes of the second period looked nothing like themselves. Poulin in goal was not having his best night. Snipers Ullstrom and Cizikas were playing in the National League and Rhett Rakhshani was still out injured. Tomas Marcinko was also unavailable serving the 2nd game of his 3 game suspension and the team was losing 0-3 with five minutes left in the second period. But there are four lines in hockey and winning teams get production from all four.
Matt Donovan is currently in the second half of his first full season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. In 50 games played, the 6 foot, 202 pound defenseman has registered six goals and 25 assists for 31 points while maintaining a +11 rating.
Donovan has quickly become one of the Sound Tigers most reliable and contributing defenseman, playing with others such as Aaron Ness, Calvin de Haan and Ty Wishart. Selected 96th overall in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Donovan has been developing nicely. He had spent two seasons with the University of Denver before making his transition from college life to that of a professional hockey player. His best year with Denver came in 2011 where he scored 32 points from the blue line in 42 games.
On the depth charts, Donovan looks as if to be one of the most well polished blue liners that the Islanders organization has groomed through their farm system. If he continues his play, this could be the last time Connecticut locals will see him in a Sound Tigers jersey.
He and I talked about that possibility this afternoon over the phone.