Currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, Head Coach Scott Pellerin knows there’s work to be done for the Sound Tigers to earn a berth in the 2013 postseason. He says his team can’t afford to look too far down the road.
“We can’t worry about what anyone else is doing, and we can’t look too far ahead,” Pellerin said. “We need to focus on tonight and take this one game at a time.”
The Sound Tigers may be finding their stride at the right time. Bridgeport is currently on a five-game point streak (3-0-2-0), tying a season-high which was set midway through December. Eight points separate the 13th place Sound Tigers from the 6th place W-B/Scranton Penguins, and eight of the Sound Tigers final 18 games come against those teams between the Pens and Sound Tigers, including all three games this weekend.
“We’ve got a chance to make up some ground and play teams that we’re chasing,” Pellerin said. “We can’t wait for other teams to help us – we can help ourselves in those games.”
The Sound Tigers have struggled to limit shots for the majority of the season, but have outshot their opponents in eight straight games, and held their opponents under 30 shots in six of those eight games.
“I think our emphasis on us pushing the pace in practice and getting guys out of their comfort zone has really helped,” Pellerin said. “We’ve had these core elements like limiting shots, but there’s more of an emphasis on it now. It’s taken us longer than I envisioned for us to find this formula, but I think now we’ve rallied around these core elements and its helped eliminate scoring chances.”
Rick DiPietro has started the last three games in net and five of the last six since being assigned to the Sound Tigers by the Islanders. After allowing seven goals over his first two periods of work, DiPietro has been strong between the pipes, allowing just eight goals over his last 11 periods plus overtime, and boasts a 3-2-0 record.
“He’s brought an edge and he’s brought leadership – a prominent voice in the locker room,” Pellerin said of the veteran goaltender. “You don’t always know what you’re going to get when a player is sent down, or what kind of influence that player will have on your team. He’s come down and really helped our team.”
Half of the Sound Tigers games since the All-Star Break have gone to overtime, but Bridgeport has won just three of those contests (3-0-3-2), leaving some valuable points on the table. Pellerin attributes those losses in part to luck, and in part to breakdowns on the ice.
“I push for our team to play strong defensive hockey and capitalize on other teams’mistakes - that mentality doesn’t change in overtime,” Pellerin said. “You don’t want to give up odd-man rushes – you want to create offense from turnovers and a strong defensive structure. At times, we’ve gotten away from that in overtime and have caused our own problems.”
Over the past few weeks, Pellerin has had to shuffle the lineup a bit due to injuries and call-ups. Captain Matt Watkins has slid over to the left wing of Brock Nelson and Sean Backman with the return of Johan Sundstrom, who has recently centered Mike Halmo and Nino Niederreiter.
In most of the team’s recent games, Pellerin has played three forward lines with the fourth line seeing minimal minutes. The Sound Tigers will be without John Persson this weekend, and will likely continue to roll three lines while dressing extra defensemen.
“It isn’t by design...we were at a point where we needed to make changes n the lineup and have our best players playing,” Pellerin said. “I need to have my best players on the ice. We’ve had a lot of tight games where you don’t have the luxury of consistently rolling four lines.”
Pellerin knows that the team’s stretch run depends on the players in his locker room right now. While players can be signed to amateur tryout contracts (ATO’s) and players can be sent down from the Islanders, the Sound Tigers playoff hopes will squarely rest on the guys who have been here all season.
“I want everyone to have a role and have a piece in this,” Pellerin said. “Those roles can change depending on how the guys are playing. If guys are playing well, they’re going to see more ice time and have a bigger role. If they’re not playing well, they may see less ice time. But we’re going to need contributions from the entire lineup.”