Springfield Thunderbirds season comes to an end, Hartford advances

Story By: Brendan Rooney and Matthew Wiernasz

Photo Courtesy of the Springfield Thunderbirds

SPRINGFIELD, MA/HARTFORD, CT –  The Springfield Thunderbirds 2022-23 season ended as they were swept by the Hartford Wolf Pack in the first round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. The Wolf Pack steals Game 1 in Springfield 6-1 as Dylan Garand’s incredible 24-save game and a multi-point game from Lauri Pajuneniemi and Tanner Fritz outshine Joel Hofer and the Thunderbirds as the series heads to Hartford this Friday with Springfield looking to stave off elimination.  

Thunderbirds Head Coach Drew Bannister discussed what this loss means and the reality of heading into Hartford this Friday.  

“I think overall, our game and desperation didn’t play narrative to our expectations or potential,” said Coach Bannister. 

“It doesn’t matter if you lose 6-1 or 2-1. This is a playoff loss, and we need to come out strong and ensure we grab momentum in the second game.”

Both teams got off to an equal start, with a few give-and-go plays, but the first period foreshadowed Hartford’s explosive offense just waiting to be showcased amid Springfield’s lackluster effort. Wednesday’s matchup saw Thunderbirds netminder Joel Hofer tested, as he faced 30 shots on 35 attempts. 

Lauri Pajuniemi drew first blood for the Wolf Pack with a quick wrister outside the slot as Tanner Fritz and Ty Emberson assisted. Pajuiniemi’s goal was the first blemish allowed by Hofer in over 63 minutes of regulation play.

As the opening frame carried on, Hofer started to settle in and hold his own, establishing his position as number goalie on this Thunderbirds team. Regarding the offense, the Wolf Pack led the first period with 11 shots, whereas Springfield got off two.

When asked if Hofer’s performance was a cause for concern, Coach Bannister addressed that, at this moment, Hofer will be in the net for his team in Hartford.

“Yes, absolutely”

In addition to Bannister’s decision to keep his team’s chemistry in place, Friday could also potentially be Hofer’s 12th AHL career playoff game if he does indeed start. 

The middle frame was a tale of two teams; the only offense shown was three unanswered goals from Hartford, including two shorthanded breakaways and Springfield’s inability to generate any offense, falling victim to questionable penalty calls. Pajuniemi gained his second of the night, and Zac Jones made history by starting his AHL playoff debut and recording his first AHL career playoff goal.   

Throughout the second period, the Thunderbirds were looking to salvage any presence of offense, and there were a few chances, but more was needed to compete with the Wolf Pack. Hartford was impressive in all aspects of last night’s matchup, especially netminder Dylan Garland, a leader on the ice. At times Hartford’s forecheck and defense was present when Springfield attempted to enter the neutral and offensive zone. 

In addition to the Thunderbird’s inability to score and generate offense, physicality started taking hold as both teams began to get chippy. The stats showed a combined total of 14 penalty minutes between these two teams. As the second closed with about five seconds remaining, Blake Hillman would extend his team’s lead to 4-0 as he waited patiently outside of Hofer’s crease. 

Hartford would add an insurance goal courtesy of Ryan Carpenter, Will Cuylle, and Turner Elson assisting on the play, extending their demanding lead to 5-0. 

Springfield would eventually get on the board at the eight-minute mark when Brady Lyle fed Adam Gaudette a quick pass that Gaudette converted into a one-timer going top-shelf over Garand. The goal was the Thunderbirds’ only offense for the night. 

With under five minutes remaining in the 3rd, Coach Drew Bannister would look to rekindle any form of life as he decided to pull Hofer to the bench, which manifested into an empty netter by Ty Emberson, silencing Springfield’s fanbase and passing the series momentum to Hartford. 

When asked about his team’s effort and execution, Coach Bannister felt it wasn’t what he was quite looking for.  

“Our execution was not good, including our competitive level. We lost every race to the pucks. It needed to be here tonight. And, you know, they just outworked us.

The T-BIrds and the Wolf Pack would play game 2 at the XL Center and the Wolf Pack would defeat the T-Birds 7-1.

The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Tanner Fritz would score for the second game in a row as he and Lauri Pajuniemi went on a 2-on-1 and Fritz would use the forehand to make it 1-0 with 11:57 remaining in the first period.

The Wolf Pack extended the lead 2:45 later as Wyatt Kalynuk fired the one-timer over the glove of Thunderbirds goaltender Joel Hofer to make it 2-0.

Ty Eberson would have the Wolf Pack go up by three goals late in the first period as he took the wrist shot that went by Hofer to make it 3-0 with 7:10 remaining in the first period.

Will Bitten scored the lone Thunderbirds goal on a rebound to make it 3-1 late in the first period

The Wolf Pack however would continue the momentum as second-period goals were scored by Bobby Trivingo and Blake Hillman.  Hillman scored for the second time in the series.

Anton Blidh and Tim Gettinger would score empty net goals in the third period to put an end to the Thunderbird’s season.

The Wolf Pack will take on the Providence Bruins in the AHL Calder Cup Atlantic  Division Semifinals.  Games 1 and 2 will be tonight and tomorrow night in Providence. The start times for both games will be at 7:05 p.m. Games 3 and 4 (If necessary) will be at the XL Center this upcoming Wednesday and next Friday.  Should there be a game 5, it will be held in Providence next Sunday.

The winner of the Hartford/Providence Series will take on either the Hershey Bears or the Charlotte Checkers.

Springfield Thunderbirds hockey will return to the MassMutual Center this fall for the upcoming 2023-24 season.  More information about the upcoming season at the Thunderdome will be released at a later date.

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