T-Birds come back to beat Bridgeport, start road trip tonight in Rochester

Story by: Ryan Thomas and Matthew Wiernasz

Photo Courtesy of the Springfield Thunderbirds

SPRINGFIELD, MA – Jake Neighbours once again shines in the brightest moment and dons the title of hero by salvaging a rebounder and burying it to extend the t-bird’s eight-game winning streak in front of a sold crowd of 6,793 fans. All foundational and somewhat poetic to finish off a 5-4 comeback where Springfield trailed 3-0 at one point.  

“He has the ability to score, and I think early on, he was trying to find a little bit of what the American League was about, ” said Coach Drew Bannister when asked about Neighbour’s role and performance during his time in the AHL.” 

Now, Bannister’s comments reflect and show a sense of growth that Neighbours has gained from recording four game-winners this season, along with a shoot-out winner. 

“I feel once he started to build this confidence and his play and ability to score goes hand and hand with the puck going on the net,” said coach Drew Bannister.

However, the main takeaway from last night’s comeback was the determination and integrity of Joel Hofer’s play in the net and Drew Bannister’s team’s grit and ability to rise from adversity. 

“I mean, it’s been the same old story with Joel, said Coach Bannister. He’s been from day one. And he’s been outstanding for us, and last night was another good performance from him.”

The Thunderbirds would get off to a quick start, courtesy of a trip by Paul LaDue, but Springfield’s red-hot power play, which has converted 12 times during this seven-game winning streak, came and went. Bridgeport’s Paul Thompson and Otto Koivula have been shining throughout the first few minutes of the opening frame. The ice felt a tad slanted in favor of Bridgeport from a sloppy play from Springfield’s Steven Santini, who had trouble clearing the puck behind his net. It just feels like since the puck dropped, Bridgeport seems poised to strike first. 

The story and surprise of this matchup have been the goalie play which feels quiet. Joel Hofer has been good and made a few great saves, especially when the Islanders were threatening, and Hofer responded with a quick stick side save.

With under five minutes left in the opening frame Springfield was off to the races with Tyler Tucker leading the charge and carrying the momentum after Greg Printz and Paul LaDue tangled up at center ice. This would then lead to matching five-minute majors for fighting, which felt a sense of momentum starting to manifest and possibly foreshadow the intensity and fashion of play between both squads as the night went on. 

In addition to the established goalie play between Joel Hofer and NHL Journeyman Cory Schneider, a multitude of penalties have been called from a trip on Steven Santini, who fell to the victim to Andy Andreoff, and then a skirmish at the Ice-O-Topes bench. Until Santini’s teammate, Keenan Washkurak, came over and was called for a roughing call of his own, it felt in relation and support of Santini. The carnage didn’t stop, though, because halfway through the first temp, both teams decided to exchange pleasantries, and a mad crash occurred at the tip of Hofer’s crease, dislodging his net. 

Besides the playoff-like atmosphere from the essence and noise of the sell-out crowd to the iconic limited edition third variant Ice-O-Topes jersey or the ninth combined penalty between both teams. The main talking point of the first twenty minutes of play was a somewhat sloppy performance between both groups that felt kinetic due to the simple rushes of possible shorthanded goals and some incredible saves from Hofer and Schenider. 

Arnaud Durabdeau would get the Islanders on the board first. Durabdeau was waiting just outside Hofer’s crease, where he waited patiently, finding a quick rebounder that deflected off Hofer’s pads, all put into motion from a brief initial shot from Dennis Cholowski that went astray. Cholowski and Vincent Sevigny both recorded assists on the play. 

After 20 minutes of play, Bridgeport leads 1-0, while Springfield has 13 shots on the net. Chances were plenty for both teams, but the Ice-O-Topes just couldn’t finish the job. 

The second period would open to a mere reflection of the first period, from matching penalties between the Ice-O-Topes, and the Islanders, along with a Durandeau getting his second of the night. Durandeau bolted out of the box, puck glued to his stick, till he got to the top of the offensive zone. Durandeau played coy, motioning to the slot where William Dufour fed him a clean pass that converted into a one-timer that beat Hofer top shelf, extending the islander’s lead to 2-0. 

Bridgeport would extend their lead to 3-0 courtesy of William Dufour at halfway through the second, and to note that Dufour, Durandeau has contributed all of the offense. 

The Ice-O-Topes would work their way back into this game but still found themselves trailing 3-1, while they fell victim to a too-many-men minor. However, Jake Neighbours found a chance when he beat a defender, skated behind Schneider’s net, and jammed the puck past the netminder. Neighbour’s eighth of the season is also the first shorthanded goal the Islanders have allowed all season. 

After a strong second-period showing, Springfield would still trail 3-1. Still, with lingering penalties, the Islander’s forecheck was a concern. 

The highlight of the final frame was Drew Callin getting the Ice-O-Topes back into this game when Mitchell Hoelscher was at the top of the boards. He found Steven Santini at the point where Santini fired off a long shot that went through a ton of traffic till Callin was at Schneider’s crease or the right place at the right time, deflecting Santini’s pass into a clear goal. Coach Bannister felt that Callin’s goal was a sense of energy and momentum that started to shift in favor of his team. 

“it was massive and gave us a lot of energy on the bench,” said Coach Bannister. 

Bannister added that different pairings, such as Drew Callin and Santini being effective, showcase a sense of depth to his roster. 

“As a group, they have played well and brought a lot of energy to our team, and you know, when they can chip in, it results in goals, shows our depth, and makes us much better.”

Callin’s goal was a significant confidence boost for Springfield until Erik Brown extended the Islander’s lead from 4 to 2, making it a two-goal game. Until Martin Frk fed Matthew Highmore a behind-the-back pass while the winger was striding in motion pulling Springfield within one. 

The Ice-O-Topes have come back from a 3-0 hole and are officially tied at 4-4, thanks to Tyler Tucker with a one-timer after a cross-seam pass from Matthew Highmore, all taking place along Schneider’s crease. 

Then the final seconds of the 3rd period came to a close, and then OT went into effect, and Jake Neighbours heeded the call when the moment was in effect. 

Springfield heads into the All-Star Break with a record of 23-17-1 through 45 games played. The T-birds are in a prime position where they control their destiny in terms and logistics and have either the 3rd seed to the sixth available.

However, the potential for this team is evident, and this comeback illustrates a sense of identity beginning to take shape. Still, the question of an eight-game winning streak heading into the all-star break carrying momentum was something that Coach Bannister also touched upon. 

“This is a much much-needed rest for our group. You know, mentally, our guys can get away and don’t have to think about coming to the rink and decompress from thinking about hockey. And there’s some time to reset ourselves kind of a little bit, a little bit, and get ready for restructuring.”

After the All-Star classic, Springfield will head out for a four-game road, beginning this Friday night against the Rochester Americans, with puck drop set for 7:05 pm.  The points battle in the AHL Atlantic Division Standings is heating up as third through eighth are nine points apart with the Thunderbirds in fourth. 

The road trip will conclude next weekend with games in Providence on Friday at 7:05 p.m. and on Sunday 3:05 p.m. and against Bridgeport. 

The T-Birds will return to the Thunderdome at the MassMutual Center on Wednesday, February 22 against their I-91 rival, the Hartford Wolf Pack with the drop of the puck at 7:05 p.m.

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