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By Alan Fuehring / Bridgeport Sound Tigers
It may have ended too early, but the Bridgeport Sound Tigers had a lot to be proud of in 2018-19 – their best season in a decade.
The team captured 95 points for the first time since 2008-09 and also finished fifth overall in the American Hockey League for the first time in 10 years. They clinched home ice in a playoff series for the first time since 2006 and were on many folk’s radar as a team that could make a real run at the Calder Cup.
The Sound Tigers dropped their best-of-five series to the Hershey Bears in the opening round of the playoffs, despite taking Game 1 in double-overtime and going past regulation in three of those tilts, including the decisive Game 5. Some would say that disappointment cancelled out all of their success from this season, but when you re-visit what makes an AHL season successful, there’s no denying that Bridgeport did its job progressing young talent and developing future NHL stars.
“We obviously had a really solid team,” said Chris Bourque, who led the Sound Tigers with 54 points - the most for a Bridgeport player since Alan Quine in 2014-15. “It was a good, young team that had a lot of growing up to do during the season, and I think we did that. Moving forward, I think there’s a bright future for not only this team, but also for the Islanders with the prospects they have (in Bridgeport).”
Third-year forward Travis St. Denis agreed and added the frustrations of a disappointing end to the playoffs will only fuel the Sound Tigers in the coming years.
“This is good for our young guys to give them a taste of what it’s all about, and what they may need to work on in order to advance next season,” St. Denis said. “I know the older guys did a good job of guiding the younger guys under their wings throughout the year. You can see guys like (Kieffer) Bellows, (Oliver) Wahlstrom, and (Otto) Koivula – they took major steps in their game.”
Bellows joined the Sound Tigers in late September after a solid NHL training camp, where he scored two preseason goals for the Islanders and then potted his first professional goal in his pro debut with Bridgeport in the season opener October 6. The Islanders’ 2016 first-round pick finished his rookie year with 19 points (12 goals, seven assists) in 73 games.
“It was a lot of learning,” said Bellows, sharing his view of season one. “First year pro, young guy, just trying to learn from the veterans, learn from the schedule, and learn the style of play in professional hockey. I was proud of the way our team fought the entire year.”
Wahlstrom, the Isles’ 2018 first-rounder, spent the majority of the year at Boston College, but joined Bridgeport in late March and recorded two goals and three points in just five pro games to end the regular season.
“It was a really fun experience. I was very fortunate to come in here and meet everybody, and I think the most important thing is that I learned a lot,” Wahlstrom said. “I just soaked everything in. Over time, I got more comfortable with the systems, more comfortable with the guys and the chemistry improved.”
“I learned from the coaches, the older guys, and now just work from here. Just put my head down and work in the summer,” Wahlstrom added. “I’m going to work on my foot speed and pace. It’s going to be a really fun summer and I’m looking forward to it.”
At just 18-years-old, Wahlstrom has already impressed fans throughout the hockey world with his offensive vision, shooting ability, and elusive speed. He became the youngest Sound Tiger to ever score a goal when he netted his first pro tally on April 6 in a win against the Providence Bruins. Wahlstrom is a perfect example of how pro hockey is becoming younger and more skilled each season.
“From the top on down, with the way these young guys can play, you can look at that and be really excited for the upcoming years,” Veteran defenseman and Sound Tigers alternate captain Seth Helgeson said. “It’s becoming a younger and younger game, and it’s already very exciting to see these guys develop through the years.”
Another rookie who made a giant leap in development was 20-year-old Koivula, who finished the season tied for second on the Sound Tigers with 46 points (21 goals, 25 assists). The Finnish forward came to North America as a winger, but found a home as a centerman on the top line for the majority of the year.
“Tough way to lose in overtime no doubt, but overall as a team, we met a lot of our goals,” Helgeson added. Ultimately, we wanted to go to the finals and win that, but I think we can be proud of the way we played all year and making playoffs was huge for us and the organization. Looking back, we just have to build off of that for the upcoming year.”
A few strides back, Christopher Gibson, who won a team-high 22 games during his fourth season in Bridgeport’s blue paint, summed it up best.
“It’s a great group of guys. I had a lot of fun coming to the rink every day. A lot of great young talent coming up and it’s going to be exciting for years to come.”