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Falcons begin 2013 with red-hot Bridgeport

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

All of a sudden, we have a division race on our hands.

Things have been rather rosy for the Falcons through their first 30 games of the season and their lead atop the Northeast Division has rarely been threatened. The throne has been comfortable and their play has been (for the most part) consistent, but the depth of the American Hockey League is starting to show in spades.

Here we sit with the calendar turning to 2013, and Springfield is clinging to a two-point lead over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who are in town for a now-pivotal contest tonight at the MassMutual Center. While the Falcons' electric pace to open this season has cooled a bit, they haven't stumbled by any means with a 5-4-1 record in their last 10 games -- the rest of the league has simply played better.

A few weeks ago it was the Falcons flying high atop the Eastern Conference and winning games to fend off the Syracuse Crunch, but that has since changed.

As of today, Springfield is still solidly in the AHL playoff picture with 39 points, but that total is now the fourth-highest overall in the conference. But due to the Falcons' division lead, it would earn the third seed if the playoffs began with the standings as-is.

Since the postseason has to wait a little while, Springfield's sights are set on tonight's game and it's not hyperbole to suggest it's a statement game for both squads. The Falcons can boost their lead to four points with two games in hand on Bridgeport, and conversely, the Sound Tigers can pull even with Springfield with plenty of road left to cover.

What should we expect when tonight's game gets under way from The Nest? For one, a better start from the Falcons, who have experienced many of their recent troubles when playing from behind.

The Sound Tigers have seven wins in their last 10 games and are riding a four-game winning streak that is the longest current streak in the AHL. Not only have they crept up the conference standings, but separation has been created between Bridgeport and third-place Albany, which only has a one-point buffer (29) on the bottom two teams in the Northeast Division.

So often in the early part of the season, it was Springfield taking early leads and then burying teams when given the opportunity. But the Falcons have let teams hang around too long for their liking recently and it's cost them some points along the way.

Their last win, however, was a 4-1 decision on home ice over the Norfolk Admirals and easily one of their most complete efforts in the last month. From start to finish, the Falcons controlled the game and kept the puck headed north-to-south, which is one of head coach Brad Larsen's staples.

Springfield will have its hands full with Bridgeport tonight, and the Sound Tigers have been a tough draw. In the only meeting between the two teams this season (Oct. 27), the Falcons got 36 saves from backup Paul Dainton in a 3-2 shootout loss at MassMutual Center.

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