For the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (12-4-0), this season couldn’t get off to a better start. Three of the top-eight scorers are Sound Tigers (Joe Whitney, Bracken Kearns, and Alan Quine), while Christopher Gibson and Stephon Williams have been tremendous in net with Gibson being tied for third in wins and Williams tied for 11th. The five straight wins to start the season was the best start to the season for Bridgeport in franchise history, eclipsing the 2009-10 team that had four wins to start the campaign.
However, this is a script that the Sound Tigers have seen before. In fact, at this time last season, the Sound Tigers started off with a 10-4-1 and looked to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. However, after November 17th, the Sound Tigers went 5-8-3 until the end of 2014, then finished the rest of the season with a 13-28-4 record to miss the playoffs and finish tied for last in the Eastern Conference.
“I think last season, we walked off the ice thinking we were lucky to get two points,” said Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson in a phone interview with me this week. “This year, we brought in a lot of leadership and character guys into the room, like Kearns, which I think will help us through the season and help mold the younger guys in this room. With the big turnover on the roster, however, it did take some time to get the structure down. But these guys are smart and through training camp, they have been able to adapt to what we need them to be right now.”
With Quine, Mike Halmo, Sebastian Collberg, and Ross Johnson being the only returning forwards for the Sound Tigers, there’s a new look in the offense. In acquiring Whitney, Bridgeport gets a player with three-straight 20-plus goal seasons heading into 2015-16 and is a player that Coach Thompson was happy to get.
“The Whitney pick-up was a great shot in the arm for us,” stated Thompson. “Not only is he a dynamic scorer, but he has a great voice in our room. He’s very hard on himself, he pushes himself all the time, and I think that brushes off onto our younger players here.”
Conversely, the defense for the Sound Tigers returns six players, including top Islanders prospect Ryan Pulock, who already has four goals and 11 points in 14 appearances on the season. Not only that, but with veteran signing a two-year AHL deal to stay with Bridgeport, the veteran leadership he provides could be invaluable for the developing defensemen in the system.
“Bringing in a guy like Carkner is really great for us,” said Thompson. “We have a roster of big defenseman and having him there to teach them the little things on the ice is a real help and will really help the progression of our guys through the season.”
“We also have two great goaltenders this year,” mentioned Thompson and he’s not wrong. Already through 16 games, Gibson and Williams have matched the Sound Tigers shutout total of three, which was spread across five goalies last campaign. “They are sound goalies and will be able to steal us some games if we need them to,” added Thompson.
For a team that has missed the playoffs for the last three seasons, the Sound Tigers looked primed to break that streak. The Islanders seems to be providing Bridgeport with the tools to win this season and to stay consistent throughout the year. Yet, getting the playoffs could be a bit different for this season. With the AHL using points percentage this year, as well as the possibility for a crossover team (the 5th from the Atlantic Division having a better point-percentage than the 4th place team in the North Division), the Sound Tigers have a better chance to make the playoffs if they can stay on an even keel. Though, it is November and there’s still plenty of hockey to play.
“It’s still too early to talk about the playoffs,” warned Thompson, “We have a ‘Win the next shift’ mentality. But I think we have a team that could surprise a lot of people and make big noise if we make it in the playoffs. The ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and win the Calder Cup, but we have to get there first in order to do that.”
The playoff format is one of the changes that Coach Thompson has seen over his years in dealing with the AHL. Thompson played in the AHL 1995 until 2005, then moving into coaching from 2006 until today with some stops in the ECHL and NHL on his resume. Over that time, Thompson has seen for himself the evolution of the league and minor league hockey itself.
“With the way the league is now, there’s definitely more scoring and more skill,” said Thompson. “It’s about grooming the players and mirroring the system of the Islanders, which will make the jump for the kids much easier. And winning is developing. If we can win and it shows that they are doing things right– development will come much smoother for them.”
With the leadership, character, and solid all-around game, all eyes will be on Bridgeport as we head towards the second quarter of the season. Thompson knows that if the Sound Tigers keep playing the way they’re playing, they will have a target on their back.
“Each team is going try and knock us off every chance they get. Our goal is to make sure we can be able to adapt to those settings and persevere through it,” mentioned Thompson. “Our leadership and character has been able to guide us through the start of the season and if we want continued success, we will have to maintain that level through the season.”