Although held to just one goal, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers hung in until the very end before ultimately falling to the Utica Comets, 2-1, before an announced crowd of 4,934 at the Webster Bank Arena on Sunday. Alan Quine scored the lone goal for the home team, while Niklas Jensen and Benn Ferriero found the back of the net for Utica.
Throughout February, the Sound Tigers had been the hottest team in the American Hockey League. After a slow start to the season, the Sound Tigers went 9-1 in February, and had played themselves back into a position where the postseason, while still a long shot, was still a possibility.
But after Bridgeport top line—rookies Ryan Strome and Anders Lee and second-year forward Mike Halmo —was called up to the parent New York Islander last Tuesday—a lost weekend resulted. And even though Halmo was returned to the Sound Tigers earlier in the day, the possibility of postseason play has morphed into a pipe dream for Sound Tigers fans.
On Sunday, it didn’t take the Comets—the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, and one of the most under-performing teams in the league—very long to make a statement. Just 17 seconds into the contest, Utica fight wing Niklas Jensen raced down the left boards and one-timed wrist shot past Bridgeport starting goalie Kevin Poulin to put the Comets up 1-0 in the bat of an eyelash. Jensen’s 15th goal of the season was set up by old friend Brandan DeFazio, who scored 25 points and picked up 139 penalty minutes 69 games for the Sound Tigers last season after coming over from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
It marked the fourth straight game that the Sound Tigers have trailed by a goal.
And that was all the scoring in the first period which saw Utica out-shoot Bridgeport 11-10. The period did end in a spirited fashion with Halmo and Utica’s Yann Suave doing the two-fisted tango behind the Utica net as time expired.
The Sound Tigers knotted the score four minutes into the second stanza when left Alan Quine re-directed a shot by Mark Cantin past Utica goalie Joacim Eriksson. Joey Martin also picked up a helper—the first of his AHL career—on Quine’s sixth goal of the season.
About a minute later, Defazio picked up his second penalty of the afternoon—this one for tripping—creating a 5-on-3 for Bridgeport. But the Sound Tigers were unable to capitalize on the power play for the fourth time in the game.
Utica scored what would ultimately prove to be the winning goal early in the third period. While on the power play, Pascal Pelletier fired a one-timer at Poulin from the right circle and Ben Ferriero pushed the rebound past the Bridgeport netminder to give the Comets a 2-1 lead 2:42 into the period. Cal O’Reilly was credited with an assist on Ferriero’s 19th goal of the campaign. The Comets' center now has 10 helpers in his past 10 games.
Midway through the third, Halmo was called for slashing. Then, half-way through the PK, Bridgeport defenseman Joe Finley was called for slashing. That created a 55-second 5-on-3 for Utica, but Poulin came up big, stopping everything the Comets threw at him. After allowing a goal on Utica’s first shot, Poulin proceeded to stop the Comets cold on their next 16.
Overall, Poulin turned in a solid effort, stopping 27 of 29 shots the Comets through at him. But he was bested by Erikkson, who turned aside 29 of 30 shots while earning his 17th victory of the season.
Neither team was particularly adept on the power play, with Utica going 1-for-5 and the Sound Tigers a dismal 0-for-8 with the man advantage.
"The second, third periods, we had some good opportunities on the power play," said Bridgeport coach Scott Pellerin said. "We weren't able to execute those little plays that make a difference [such as] a 2-on-1 out of the corner."
"I think both (power-play) units had some chances we'd like to have back," added Quine, who had Bridgeport's lone tally. "We had a few bounces I think could've gone either way.."
The Sound Tigers won the first meeting between the two teams, 5-3, in upstate New York in early December. Sunday’s game was the third of a three-in-three for the Sound Tigers, who topped the Providence Bruins 4-2 Friday night in Providence before dropping a 2-1 decision to the Worcester Sharks Saturday night at the Webster Bank Arena. The two consecutive losses represents the first time the Sound Tigers have dropped two straight since mid-January.
The Sound Tigers now head to the Canadian Maritime Provinces where they will take on the St. John’s (Newfoundland) Ice Caps on Friday and Saturday before ending a three-game road trip in Manchester, NH, on Sunday.
But with 19 games remaining in the regular season, and the Sound Tigers 10 games out of the playoffs with three teams to leapfrog over, Bridgeport's margin for error does not exist. Impossible? Well, no. Not technically. The fat lady hasn't sung. Not yet, anyway.