Sound Tigers re­turn home dis­ap­pointed af­ter play­off loss

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By Michael Forn­abaio mforn­[email protected]­; @forn­abaioctp; blog.ct­­abaio

BRIDGE­PORT — Progress isn’t al­ways a smooth, straight line. De­vel­op­ment comes at dif­fer­ent speeds.

Coaches and play­ers have said it about in­di­vid­ual Bridge­port Sound Tigers over the past few years, and maybe it goes for the group as well. An OK year got them into the play­offs three years ago and got them swept. A bet­ter year two years ago saw them just miss the play­offs. A just­de­cent year last year left them home for the post­sea­son.

This year’s team fin­ished se­cond in the At­lantic Di­vi­sion, earned home ice in a play­off series for the first time in a decade and lost a bat­tle in five games to Her­shey. Three games went to over­time, in­clud­ing the win­ner-take-all Game 5 Satur­day at Web­ster Bank Arena.

“Es­pe­cially for the younger guys to get a chance to play in the play­offs, it shows what it takes to win, what it takes to ad­vance, what you may need to do in the off­sea­son,” veteran Bridge­port for­ward Stephen Gionta said Mon­day as the team broke up for sum­mer.

“It could’ve gone ei­ther way. It’s a hard-fought series. For some of these younger guys to get that ex­pe­ri­ence, to have a series go the dis­tance, in the over­time, and see what it’s like, the grind that it is, I think it’s some­thing that’s a huge ben­e­fit, even though the sea­son ended. It’s some­thing that will help some of the younger prospects, car­ry­ing on with their learning ex­pe­ri­ences.”

If “Wait ‘til next year” was born in Brook­lyn, it be­longs al­most as much now in Bridge­port, a city that hasn’t seen a May hockey game since 2003.

But things felt dif­fer­ent this year, with the par­ent New York Is­lan­ders im­proved as well, with stand­out vet­er­ans added to a mix of Bridge­port young­sters with the po­ten­tial to get that first play­off-series win in 16 years.

“That one stings, be­cause we had a group that could’ve gone a long ways and done some dam­age,” coach Brent Thomp­son said. “You’ve got to look at the big pic­ture, with Chris

(Lamor­iello, the team’s third-year gen­eral man­ager and the son of first-year Is­lan­ders GM Lou) in­volved, bring­ing in some solid free agents, we took steps in the right di­rec­tion as far as hav­ing a real good hockey team here.”

Those free agents in­cluded goalie Jeremy Smith, who won 21 games; Matt Lorito, who re­turned from a torn ACL with 16 points in 23 games; and leading scorer Chris Bourque, a fu­ture AHL Hall of Famer, join­ing brother Ryan.

Past Sound Tigers teams had few vet­er­ans; this year’s team usu­ally had more than were el­i­gi­ble to play un­der league rules. Bridge­port ro­tated some of them, keep­ing them fresher if noth­ing else.

“Overall, I think it was a pretty successful year for our team. We went through some peaks and val­leys,” Chris Bourque said. “We came to­gether as a group pretty quickly there. It was re­ally fun to be a part of.

The fu­ture’s bright for, I think, the Sound Tigers and a lot of the prospects go­ing for­ward for the Is­lan­ders.”

Bourque’s frequent line­mate, Otto Koivula, fin­ished se­cond on the team in scor­ing to Bourque. Ki­ef­fer Bel­lows had ups and downs in his rookie year but had a strong play­off series.

Michael Dal Colle hit his stride in his third pro sea­son and spent half the year in the NHL. He’s likely the next for­ward in for the Is­lan­ders.

Oliver Wahlstrom, at 18 (born June 2000, just two and a half months af­ter the AHL an­nounced there’d be a fran­chise in Bridge­port in 2001), ar­rived at the end of the sea­son and made an im­pres­sion.

“We built off last year. The big­gest thing was all our young guys stepped up from last year,” de­fense­man Seth Helge­son said.

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