By Travis Betts
One of the biggest reasons behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers success on opening weekend was the play of their special teams units. Two games into the season, the power play is clicking at 27.3-percent, scoring game-altering goals in both contests. The penalty kill is 11-for-14, but has killed off eight consecutive power plays.
Sound Tigers Head Coach Scott Pellerin says the early returns are a result of an added focus his staff is putting on man advantage situations.
“We’ve been putting more of an emphasis on special teams,” Pellerin said. “Eric Boguniecki was working on our power play at Training Camp. I thought that we all got our fundamentals, system and concepts down. I was taking more of a leadership role on the penalty kill side but I really haven’t gotten into too much detail yet. It’s been more about ideas and seeing what guys are my penalty killers, because you’ve got to have the right fit of guys to play that role, and I’ve got a lot of guys who can do the job.”
The power play has helped the Sound Tigers dictate the pace of games, generating consistent pressure on opposing teams. On Oct. 12 at the Connecticut Whale, Bridgeport’s unit went on the job three times in the opening period. Though they didn’t find the score sheet on 19 first period shots, the body blows added up. In the second period, the Sound Tigers exploded for five goals – two on the man advantage – in another 19-shot stanza en route to a 6-4 victory. Forward Brock Nelson believes the success is a byproduct of the raw talent of the players on the power play.
“There’s a lot of skilled guys on the power play including Ully (David Ullstrom) and Nino (Niederreiter),” Nelson said. “The guys on the point are great players too, so everyone’s able to make plays. They’re smart hockey players and they make the right plays at the right times.”
Chemistry can be difficult to build within a lineup that has undergone as much change as the Sound Tigers did over the offseason. Right now the players may not know each other well enough to try to make spectacular plays. Pellerin says that has helped the power play units keep things simple.
“The biggest thing we talked about on the power play was that you want to create as many attempts on the net as possible, because you want to be able to converge and outnumber them around the puck,” Pellerin said. “It’s a simple concept but it’s something where you can get off track because you’re trying to make too many specific plays.”
On Oct. 13 against the Providence Bruins, the power play didn’t get as many opportunities, but made them count, going 1-for-4. Forward Nino Niederreiter’s power play tally broke a 1-1 tie in the second period, giving the Sound Tigers a lead they would hold on to for the remainder of the evening. Forward David Ullstrom, the Sound Tigers leading goal-scorer a year ago, set up the goal, which came from an extended attack in the Bruins zone.
“Moving your feet and moving the puck is key,” Ullstrom said. “The first 8-10 seconds, when they’re still fresh, you’ve got to win those loose pucks and make them tired. Usually after that, it opens up a little bit. They can’t chase for 40 seconds because they’re going to be too tired.”
At the other end of the ice, the penalty kill unit has been enigmatic on paper, allowing three man advantage goals on eight opportunities at Connecticut, but shutting down Providence’s power play six times the next night. Regarding the game against the Whale, Pellerin is quick to point out that numbers can be deceiving when trying to grade the overall performance.
“The first one was a shot that (Brandon) DeFazio blocked,” Pellerin said. “It landed right on another guy’s stick and they got a quick shot on net. Poulin didn’t know where the puck went and it snuck in. Another one went in through a screen during a 5-on-3. The other one was when (Connecticut forward Kris) Newbury threw it off one of our players from below the goal line. Those are different breaks that you’re going to have throughout the season, but overall structurally, I was happy with the way the guys forechecked and their reads in the zone. It’s something we’ll get better at as we move forward.”
In the home opener the next night, the penalty kill went 6-for-6 shutting down the Bruins power play. The turning point of the game came during the first when Providence was leading 1-0, with a Sound Tigers player in the penalty box. Defenseman Ty Wishart chipped a puck forward from the Bridgeport zone to Nelson, who created a 2-on-1 shorthanded opportunity with DeFazio. Nelson’s initial shot was stopped by Providence goalie Michael Hutchinson, but DeFazio buried the rebound to tie the game.
“The defense pinched and then I was able to chip it by and we went on a 2-on-1,” Nelson said. “Faz made a great play with his stick on the ice. I took the shot, it went right to his stick and he was able to bury it. It was a great play by Faz to be in the right spot and finish it off.”
DeFazio explained that on the odd-man rush, he saw an opportunity to take a well-calculated risk.
“Obviously it’s not the first thing you’re looking for out there, but when the puck lands on your stick like that, you get pretty excited,” DeFazio said. “I think we just try to be hard-working, smart and bring a ton of energy. We’ve been told if we have an opportunity and it’s safe enough that we can go offensively, but we’ve just got to be disciplined enough to get back.”
Shorthanded goals have a tendency to rally a team. Forward Blair Riley, a mainstay on the penalty kill unit in 2011-12 who has seen more time in that capacity this season, said DeFazio’s tally turned the momentum in the Sound Tigers favor, allowing them to rattle off three consecutive goals.
“Any time you can get a shorthanded goal, it’s going to be a huge boost for the team,” Riley said. “It gives confidence to the guys who are killing, because a lot of those guys are the guys that are not scoring as much. That was a big goal.”
Another reason for the success on the PK was Goaltender Kevin Poulin, perhaps the most important penalty killer on the ice. The third-year goalie made several key saves in both games, but deflects praise to the defensemen who minimized the other teams’ chances and cleared pucks out of the zone.
“I think we did a great job of regrouping in our zone and just clearing the puck,” Poulin said. “The Bruins had a couple of chances but I don’t think they had any rebounds. I think I did a good job controlling rebounds, and the defense was there to help me with that.”
Poulin added that one of the biggest differences between last season’s pedestrian 19th-ranked penalty kill and this year’s group is experience. The 2011-12 blue line featured rookies like Aaron Ness, Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan playing big roles. Now those players are seasoned veterans, having been relied upon in crucial situations for a full season.
“I think there’s less scrambling in front of the net,” Poulin said. “The guys know where they’re going, even if it’s a different system with a different head coach, but they have one year of experience already. There’s such a big change between junior or college hockey to the AHL, so now they’re used to it.”
The Sound Tigers only game this weekend is Saturday on the road against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. While Pellerin is pleased with the effort he has seen so far from his special teams, he is making sure his players keep their foot on the gas pedal moving forward.
“We had a gameplan; a focus on what we wanted to accomplish, and I feel comfortable that we were able to do that,” Pellerin said. “But it’s only two games in, so I’m not going to get too far ahead. I’ve been happy with the way we have clicked in practice and in games. But there’s still a lot more work to do.”