Sound Tigers return home disappointed after playoff loss
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.