In their 19-year franchise history, the Springfield Falcons had never shut out the Hershey Bears -- until tonight.
With the home team playing inspired hockey of late and the Falcons sputtering a bit since the turn of December, this game set up to be an important one as the American Hockey League prepares for its annual holiday break.
Springfield entered the game three points behind the Syracuse Crunch for first place in the Eastern Conference and desperately wanted to make up ground and go into the break with a win. And when you have the AHL's best goaltender wearing your sweater, the odds are increasingly better of making that happen.
Matt Calvert scored a nifty shorthanded goal at 18:24 of the opening period for the only goal of the game, and the Falcons defense did the rest in a much-needed 1-0 victory at the Giant Center. Calvert made a terrific individual play to make his goal happen, too; he stole the puck at the Springfield blue line as two Hershey players fought for the puck, and he skated 150 feet before putting a slick deke on Bears goaltender Braden Holtby.
It was Calvert's eighth goal of the season and it stood up as the game-winner.
Curtis McElhinney was once again solid between the pipes, making 19 saves en route to his league-leading sixth shutout of the season in just his 21st start. His 15 wins are among the AHL's best and with tonight's clean sheet, he became the first goaltender in Falcons franchise history to record six shutouts in a single season.
Again, in his 21st start.
He didn't have a lot of strenuous work in the final two periods, needing to make only 12 saves after the first period came to an end. But he was prepared when called upon, and the Falcons' uptempo attack ensured most of the game was played in the Hershey end of the ice.
Other items of interest after tonight's game:
-- The Falcons' top line was electric tonight but couldn't beat Holtby. Ryan Johansen, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Cam Atkinson and Calvert combined for 17 shots on goal and several were of top quality. Atkinson ripped three or four one-timers -- one missing by inches.
-- Hershey gifted Springfield with nine power plays on the night, including two double-minor penalties for high-sticking, but the Falcons could not cash in. They have scored just once in their last 25 power plays, and with that kind of talent on the roster, you wonder if head coach Brad Larsen might shake things up a bit with his power play personnel.
-- Dalton Smith stood out in a good way tonight, driving hard to the net and sticking up for his teammates on multiple occasions after the play. I've said it all along: once he starts getting comfortable (he's only in his first pro season), teams are not going to like playing against him.
-- Another ice-in-the-veins game for David Savard, who has formed a nice partnership with Nick Holden on Springfield's top pairing. He plays at least 20 minutes every night in all situations and still makes one of the most accurate first passes I've seen.