T-Birds take two out of three to end regular season, will face Hartford in the first round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs
Story By: Brendan Rooney and Matthew Wiernasz
Photo Courtesy of the Springfield Thunderbirds
SPRINGFIELD, MA/PROVIDENCE, RI- On Friday night, Hugh McGing, recorded a four-point night just days after his NHL debut. McGing was one of the many Thunderbirds that had a multipoint performance in front of a sold-out MassMutual Center, as fans cheered en route to a Thunderbirds 7-2 victory over division rival Providence Bruins as playoff implications are still left to be determined. Something that Coach Drew Banister touched upon
“I’ve had Hugh for three years now. And, you know, every day he comes to work said, Coach Drew Bannister. He’s one of the most tenacious players on the ice.
Coach Bannister also touched upon how McGing’s line shined, with Will Bitten and Nikita Alexandrov recording multi-point nights.
“Overall, that line led the charge in the second and third for us. Will [Bitten] was outstanding, and I thought Nikita[Alexandrov] was very good, too.”
Springfield was riding the momentum and had a few good chances until Providence struck first, courtesy of Georgii Merkulov, adding to his season total, which now stands out at 24. Shane Bowers zipped a cross-center pass, which was scooped by Vinnie Lettieri, finding Merkulov in the slot, where he beat a defender, blanking Thunderbirds goalie Joel Hofer after captain Tommy Cross tried to deflect the striding puck to no avail.
The Thunderbirds found new life through a few crucial errors on the Bruins’ hand and had excellent chances to tie this game, most notably a tripping call that led to nothing major. However, a double minor 4-minute high sticking penalty committed by Providence prospect John Beecher had Springfield feeling optimistic.
Until Jack Ahcan fed Chris Wagner a simple pass and was off to the races, Wagner strode through an empty neutral zone to the outside of the offensive slot, firing off a quick wrister that beat Hofer’s glove side, extending Providence’s lead to 2-0. Wagner would record his 17th goal, and Achan would extend his season high to 28 assists.
As the first period came to a close, and Springfield trailing 2-0, it felt something needed to be said, but according to Coach Bannister, adjustments were necessary.
“We had to clean up a few things in our game. I thought our powerplay drained a lot of energy out of our game, and it showed during the first period; certainly, that got better as the game went on, and we were able to execute and create some chances and, in turn, score.”
Until the opening minute of the second, where Scott Pernunovich fed a quick saucer pass, Matt Kessel hit a quick one-timer, which jingled off the post, shocking the entire MassMutual Center. Matthew Peca waited patiently at the tip of Providence netminder, Kyle Keyser’s crease, locating the rebound to break through only seconds later and get his team on the board.
The Thunderbirds didn’t step off the gas, knowing momentum was starting to shift in their favor. Hugh McGing would join the scoring affair only twelve seconds after Peca’s heroics. Nikita Alexandrov assisted, and Perunovich added to his impressive 2-point night.
As the second period carried on, Providence would go on the defensive. On the other hand, Springfield started to manifest a forecheck and established offensive zone pressure, but Keyser and Hofer stepped up and kept their respective clubs a chance to stay in this game.
In addition to both goalies showing resilience, the middle frame also had a combined total of six penalties and felt like a foreshadowing of what the final period could possess. Springfield would break the tie on the powerplay while Providence was shorthanded due to a cross-check from Josh Didier. Adam Gaudette would receive a quick cross-seam pass from Will Bitten that would manifest into his 26th goal of the season and give the Thunderbirds a vital sense of relief in the presence of an insurance goal.
The Bruins would look to capitalize as the third period would open, knowing that McGing was still in the box for another 90 seconds. After 40 minutes of play, despite Springfield being outshot 27-22. The Thunderbirds would find themselves leading 3-2 after once trailing 2-0 earlier in last night’s prime matchup.
Will Bitten would add to his two-point night with his 21st goal of the season, which came about a few minutes into the final period. McGing led the charge until he sent a quick saucer pass to Bitten, found right outside Keyser’s crease deep in the offensive zone; the puck then traveled to Bitten’s stick and during the mad dash. Bitten slid the puck in, stick side extending his heroics and Springfield’s lead.
Until a Mikhail Abranov Powerplay goal which happened to be his 10th of the season, returning Thunderbirds Tommy Cross and Brady Lyle would record a point. Nikita Alexandrov joined as one of the many T-Birds who had a multi-point night. Alexandrov tallied a goal capping off his three points with a pivotal assist on McGing’s second and team-high fourth point of the night.
The recent additions of Lyle and Thunderbirds Captain Tommy Cross gave Springfield a sense of reassurance. Coach Bannister addressed that as well.
“The leadership in the dressing room, and most importantly on and off the ice, that Tommy brings something we missed, so it was nice to have him in the room. And, you know, after the first period for [Cross] and Brady, they started to feel a little bit better as the game went on.”
Once again, Joel Hofer played with poise and helped solidify his legacy in Springfield. Hofer faced 43 shots and recorded 41 saves on the night. Providence goalie Kyle Keyser didn’t fare so well, allowing seven straight goals after his team took an impressive 2-0 lead over Springfield. Keyser finished his night with 29 saves on 36 shot attempts.
Even though Friday was a great confidence and momentum boost for Springfield, Coach Bannister felt his team’s win was past them, and acknowledged Friday is a different game, along with new matchups.
“Tonight’s over, you know; we played well for 40 minutes, but tomorrow is just as important as tonight, but we must continue to play well five-on-five. But we must build some confidence regarding our specialty teams because, moving forward, to ensure that our power play and penalty kill are clicking as we head into the playoffs.”
On Saturday, The Thunderbirds closed the home portion of the regular season schedule. Thunderbirds goaltender Joel Hofer started for the second game as he has been a dominating goalie against the Wolf Pack.
The Thunderbirds would score the only goal of the game late in the first period. Adam Gaudette was denied a breakaway opportunity but he would get another chance when Scott Perunovich made the pass. Gaudette would use the backhand and beat Wolf Pack goaltender Dylan Garand to make it 1-0 with 2:31 remaining in the first period.
Hofer would make 16 saves in the third period and would earn his fifth shutout of the season and his second one against the Wolf Pack.
The T-Birds would close out the regular season against the Providence Bruins on Sunday in Providence as they lost 7-3.
The Bruins would score two goals 43 seconds apart by Chris Wagner and Eduard Tralmaks to go up 2-0. However the Thunderbirds responded in the first period as Mikhail Abramov was able to take advantage of a turnover and put the puck into the open net with 6:02 remaining in the first period to make it 2-1.
The Thunderbirds took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play as Will Bitten was able to get to the blue paint and he was able to put in a rebound with 1:58 remaining in the second period to tie the game at 2-2.
The Bruins got on the power play in the second period. Vinni Lettieri would capitalize on the one-timer with 13:04 remaining in the second period to make it 3-2.
Greg Printz tied the game for the T-Birds as Dylan McLaughlin made a centering pass and Printz was able to put the puck in the back of the net with 3:23 remaining in the second period to make the score even at 3-3.
The Bruins would be able to score four goals in the third period. Jack Achan would score the game-winning goal with 16:44 remaining in regulation to make it 4-3. The Bruins also received goals from Joona Koppanen, Marc McLaughlin, and a second goal of the afternoon from Chris Wagner.
The Thunderbirds will take on their I-91 rival the Hartford Wolf Pack in the first round of the AHL Calder Cup Finals. It will be the first time in two decades that Springfield and Hartford have played against each other in the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs Game 1 will be tonight at the MassMutual Center at 7:05 p.m. Game 2 will take place at the XL Center on Friday with the puck drop at 7:00 p.m. Game 3 if necessary will be held at the MassMutual Center on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. The series winner will move on to the AHL Atlantic Division Finals to take on the Providence Bruins or the Hershey Bears.