Ryan Johansen said last week that one of the challenges of being in first place is wearing the bullseye on your back.
You're going to get each opponent's best effort with no questions asked, and the Falcons have had to bring their A-game every night. The shoe is on the other foot tonight as Springfield heads to Portland, where the Pirates have won five straight games and are the hottest teams in the American Hockey League (sound familiar?)
These two clubs have gone at it this season, including an overtime thriller in Portland on Black Friday -- well, the Falcons wouldn't say it was too thrilling, but I digress.
Rewind to that game: Springfield built a 4-1 lead and seemed to be in total control. The Pirates lacked energy and the game had, for a moment, lost its sense of competitiveness. But the game completely tilted on its axis, with the Pirates scoring four straight goals in a span of 6:33 and taking advantage of several Falcons penalties to lead 5-4.
Sean Collins tied the game on a rebound late in the second period, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson needed just seconds of overtime to end the game and send Springfield to a disheartening defeat.
From that point, though, the Falcons played much better hockey and ascended to the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They now trail Syracuse by two points for first place, but their consistency has been a marvel.
Sure, they have dropped a few games here and there (and went through a mini-losing skid a few weeks back), but for the most part they have enjoyed a true sense of balance in their game.
Quality goaltending and above-average special teams have been part of that balance, and we've covered Curtis McElhinney's stellar season at length in this space. Not only has he given Springfield a chance to win on most nights, but the team in front of him has also shown the ability to kill a penalty or score a power play goal at just the right time.
Last time out, the Falcons picked up a much-needed shootout win over the Manchester Monarchs on Sunday afternoon. It was their first (!) overtime/shootout victory of the season and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Springfield dropped its first two games of the weekend and probably played well enough to win Saturday night against St. John's, but again, repeated trips to the penalty box were their undoing.
Heading into tonight's road game, let's get caught up on some key notes:
-- Jonathan Audy-Marchessault is up to 19 assists on the year, which is the third-highest total in the AHL. He's also the league's fourth-leading scorer with 27 points.
-- The Falcons' road record has been a topic of discussion, and despite dropping a game Friday in Providence, they regained their league-best "away" mark with a win on Sunday. They are 9-2-1 away from the MassMutual Center. Impressive stuff.
-- Springfield remains second in the league in offense/defense splits, posting 3.48 goals per game (Syracuse - 3.65) while allowing 2.32 goals per game (Abbotsford - 2.00).
-- The club's +29 goal differential is best in the AHL, +4 ahead of second-place Syracuse.
-- Cam Atkinson has points in eight-straight games (7G, 6A in that span), the longest active such streak in the league. He is third in the league with a team-best 29 points and 15 goals, one year after leading the Falcons with 29 goals as a rookie.