BY PETE PAGUAGA
After a one-year hiatus, the Sound Tigers are back in the Calder Cup Playoffs. This season the Sound Tigers finished the season with a 41-26-3-6 record, earned themselves the number three seed in the Eastern Conference and won the Northeast Division title, their first division crown since their inaugural 2001-02 season when they went to the Calder Cup Finals.
In an offseason where the Sound Tigers hired Brent Thompson as head coach from the ECHL Alaska Aces and saw the successful jump from junior hockey to professional hockey by Casey Cizikas, Calvin de Haan and Anders Nilsson, they also brought in veterans center Trevor Frischmon and returned long time Sound Tiger and first-year captain Jeremy Colliton.
With a new head coach and a new system, the Sound Tigers focused on three things this season – hard work, teamwork and accountability.
“Coach Thompson has really brought the expectation of being at your best everyday, every time you step on the ice…that’s the reason why we are in the situation we are right now, “ said Rhett Rakhshani, who led the Sound Tigers with 49 points in 49 games this season. “He doesn’t let us take shortcuts, he doesn’t take shortcuts either and he leads by example…it definitely funnels down to us.”
“We really bought into the system…it’s more structured and we are a confident group,” said David Ullstrom, who paced the Sound Tigers with 24 goals. “Overall, I think guys have really bought into the system and enjoy playing for Thomer. He’s a real great coach, he’s very passionate and he wants to win at any price. All the guys see that and we really want to win for him.”
Throughout the season, 11 players spent time with the New York Islanders and the Sound Tigers. They say that because of that work ethic, they were able to continue their success when players got the call.
“Our guys trusted the system and trusted the guy next to them. We practice very hard so when a guy did miss a beat, got called up or got hurt,” said Coach Thompson. “The next night he was ready to go.”
That theme carried over to the scoresheet. The Sound Tigers had 16 skaters reach the 20-point plateau throughout the season.
“You have to have secondary scoring and you have to have depth,” said Coach Thompson. “It doesn’t matter who gets the accolades, at the end of the day it’s the results you want. It was a ‘team first’ attitude and that is part of the reason why we fought through those down times during the year and were able to come out in a positive fashion.”
Other than a new coach and a new system, the Sound Tigers also added many new young players who are playing in the first year of professional hockey.
“I think we got some really good young players who have been effective,” said Rakhshani. “Guys like Donovan and Nesser [Ness] and Cizikas, guys like that who have been so good for us. Anders Nilsson in net, he makes a great one-two punch with Poulin this year. They picked up some great players from the ECHL as well, that have stepped in a done a great job for us, but we don’t consider them ECHL-ers anymore they’re AHL-ers now and they’re a big part of the team.”
The younger players have had some veterans to help lead them through this season and the aforementioned Frischmon and Colliton are just two of the many leaders on the Sound Tigers this season.
“When you look at our leaders like Frischmon, Colliton, Haley and DiBo [Justin DiBenedetto], who is young but has a leadership role…they work daily, they’re good people on and off the ice and that’s very important for the organization,” said Coach Thompson. “Frischmon works his behind off everyday all the time. You look at a 30-year-old man and he’s working that hard and you can’t help as a 20-year-old but to follow suit. They show them it’s not just game time it’s work everyday. It’s about being a professional off the ice and how to carry themselves and represent the Islanders and Sound Tigers in the community.”
By being the number three seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sound Tigers have clinched home-ice advantage in the first round. They had the second best home record in the AHL this season at 25-9-2-2 and are an impressive 19-3-0-2 since Christmas.
“It will be good to have the crowd behind you and sleeping in your own bed,” said Rahkshani. “I’m excited to see our fans out there.”
“I think everyone just loves playing at home in front of the crowd,” said Ullstrom.
The Sound Tigers said that just because the regular season is over and the playoffs have started they aren’t going to change the way they have been playing, because they have been playing playoff hockey for quite some time.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey for such a long time to just get into the playoffs. I think our guys are prepared,” said Coach Thompson.
“There is no turning on the switch,” said Rakhshani. “We’ve had the switch turned for a long time and that’s how we are going to play– it’s our M.O.”