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Success on the Sound

by Jamie Palatini / New York Islanders
When the ball dropped at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers record stood at a pedestrian 12-17-3-1. The team had just been dealt its third straight loss after a grueling road trip down to Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to finish December with a 2-10-0-0 record. Head Coach Brent Thompson’s squad sat 29th out of 30 teams in the American Hockey League standings.

Who would have thought that with the flip of the calendar, everything would change.

Since Jan. 1, the Sound Tigers have been on what can only be described as one of the most improbable and impressive streaks in professional hockey this season. Bridgeport has posted a 16-1-0-1 record to start the 2012 calendar year, rising from the AHL cellar to 11th in the league, sixth in the conference and just one point out of the division lead with two games in hand.

Anders Nilsson set a franchise record with nine straight wins.
Fans have witnessed some of the best individual performances in Sound Tigers history during this streak. Goaltender Kevin Poulin kicked the streak off with three consecutive shutout wins during the first week of January, falling less than 30 minutes short of breaking a 50-year old AHL record. Rookie forward Casey Cizikas has posted 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) and a plus-19 rating during the 18-game stretch, linemate Rhett Rakhshani has followed with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) and a plus-15 rating in 13 games, and defenseman Matt Donovan currently ranks second on the team in scoring with six goals and 25 assists.

“We have great prospects in this organization,” Thompson explained. “When I see players like Ullstrom, Cizikas, Rakhshani, Ness, Donovan, de Haan, the list can go on…these guys have such high-end skill and huge upside, you knew it was a matter of time until this all clicked, as long as they continued to work hard.

Donovan has appeared in every game from that 2-10 stretch that included multiple close losses to the hot streak that the team is on now.

“You hope that something like this happen and that you can turn it around,” Donovan explained. “At times, it was hard to stay positive but we finally got it going. A lot of those games at the end of the streak were one-goal games where we didn’t get any bounces. We knew we’d start winning once we got a bounce or put one more puck in. We weren’t winning at the time, but we also knew that we weren’t that far away.

When the offense has run into hot goaltending during this time, second-year forward David Ullstrom has had the answer. Ullstrom returned to the lineup midway through January and has posted 19 goals in just 31 games this season, including an overtime game-winner against the Whale on Feb. 12, two more goals against Adirondack on Feb. 18 and the only goal in a 2-1 shootout win on Feb. 19 vs. Hershey.

These are players that Thompson and the entire Islanders organization expected results from, and perhaps they’ve exceeded those expectations just as the team has over the past 18 games. What’s been just as impressive, if not more impressive, is what the supporting cast has done.

The aforementioned names that Thompson alluded to are familiar to Islanders fans and have been key to the team’s success.

Everyone in that room holds everyone accountable. One of the things is that our leadership has never wavered. Jeremy Colliton has been a leader on this team, players like Micheal Haley, Ty Wishart when he was here…even Casey Cizikas is young but shows his leadership abilities - Brent Thompson, head coach
Names like Scott Howes, Kael Mouillierat and Jon Landry? Not so familiar, but just as important to what this team has accomplished the last two months. Plucked from the ECHL, Thompson has brought in a group of young and somewhat inexperienced players that have been just as pivotal in the Sound Tigers resurgence.

Howes signed a professional tryout contract (PTO) with the Sound Tigers on Nov. 20. Playing in just his sixth AHL game, Howes recorded the game-tying goal early in the third period of an eventual 5-3 comeback win over the Adirondack Phantoms. Howes has posted 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 32 games, and has gone 3-for-4 in shootout attempts.

Kael Mouillierat joined the Sound Tigers midway through December and has centered a line with Ullstrom and Micheal Haley, notching 15 points (six goals, nine assists) including a game-winning goal and a four-assist outburst vs. Springfield in 25 games. Mouillierat had just six games of AHL experience prior to his stint with the Sound Tigers.

Perhaps defenseman Jon Landry is most representative of what’s gone on in Bridgeport over the last two months. Landry had just two games of AHL experience back in 2006, and spent four seasons with the Arizona Sundogs of the Central Hockey League before heading to Europe to play in Germany and Scotland. Landry has run the point on the power play alongside Matt Donovan and Ty Wishart and boasts one goal and nine assists in just 14 games. Landry took center stage on Feb. 19 with a game-winning shootout goal against a Hershey Bears team loaded with AHL stars and veteran players.

Howes, Mouillierat and Landry are just three examples of players that have made the most of their opportunities with the Sound Tigers this season. Other players like forward Blair Riley and defensemen Brandon Gentile and Steve Oleksy have come in to provide strength and solid play on the back end. As the head coach of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces the past two seasons, Thompson knew exactly what each of these players brought to the table before bringing them to Bridgeport.

“I expected an effort from each of these players we’ve brought in,” Thompson said. “These call-ups brought work ethic and details, and have really pushed the prospects that were already here. I knew from past experiences in the ECHL what these players were about. We’ve got a great supporting cast to surround the prospects.”

“I think these guys came in at a great time when we were starting to turn things around,” Donovan said. “They jump right in and it gives us confidence in each other that we can continue playing well regardless of who is in what spot. We have confidence in them knowing they can jump right in for guys who are hurt or called up.”

While this recent 16-1-0-1 stretch is rarified air for a Sound Tigers team that has experienced moderate success in the past 10 years, Thompson led an even more impressive run last season in Alaska. The Aces finished their season on a 38-5-1 run, including a 12-1 record in the Kelly Cup playoffs en route to the league title. Thompson explained what he felt are the keys not only to winning, but winning over an extended period of time.

“I think it’s important to never be satisfied,” Thompson said. “The leaders on your team need to have that same common goal. You win a game and it’s a step forward towards what you want to accomplish, but that’s in the past once the game ends. You can’t win the Cup every day. The guys on this team have the same mentality that last night’s game is done…now we need to worry about how we improve and focus on the next game.”

Leadership has not been an issue for a team that saw it’s longest tenured captain in Mark Wotton hang up his skates after last season. Team captain and Sound Tigers all-time leading scorer Jeremy Colliton has picked up where Wotton left off, and the leadership group of Micheal Haley, Trevor Frischmon, Justin DiBenedetto and even some younger players has gelled nicely.

“Everyone in that room holds everyone accountable," Thompson said. "One of the things is that our leadership has never wavered. Jeremy Colliton has been a leader on this team, players like Micheal Haley, Ty Wishart when he was here…even Casey Cizikas is young but shows his leadership abilities.”

While this stretch has rejuvenated the team and the fan base, Thompson understands there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“We haven’t accomplished anything,” Thompson stated. “We are in the middle of the season, still haven’t reached first place and are fighting for our playoff lives. That’s how you keep everyone focused. You look at the supporting cast and everyone has bought in to what we’re doing here. To me, it’s collectively realizing we are just taking steps forward and need to play the same way every night. As soon as you start feeling like you’ve won something, you’ll lose that edge. That breeds inconsistency. Winning yesterday was great, but today we need to put our noses to the grindstone and get better. The guys believe in it… and that’s the biggest thing.”

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