The Springfield Falcon Report - By: Damon Markiewicz
/ Tampa Bay Lightning
The Springfield Falcons and Tampa Bay Lightning both entered the second year of their affiliation agreement with much anticipation as the Lightning's future stars fine tune their skills at the American Hockey League level. Head coach Dirk Graham returns behind the Falcons bench for the second straight season, along with assistant coaches Phil Russell and Darren Rumble, and the trio truly believes the lessons learned during the 2004-05 season has paid dividends for a very successful start to the 2005-06 season for the Falcons. The Falcons remain near the top of a very competitive Atlantic Division, and it has been the Falcons play on the road this season that has been an indicator that this year's Springfield team is a group possessing a desire to win.
The Falcons have quickly been given the nickname of "Road Warriors" posting an impressive 8-2-1-1 through their first 12 road games. Springfield has earned 18 of a possible 24 total points away from home and this year's club set a Falcons franchise record for consecutive wins on the road recording five straight victories from November 19 - December 7. Also on the Falcons highlight chart was their victory on November 4 at Wilkes-Barre when they snapped the Penguins nine-game winning streak by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins top farm team in overtime, 4-3. Wilkes-Barre is known throughout the AHL as one of the toughest buildings for opposing teams to earn a win.
As the Falcons enter the halfway point of their 80-game schedule, it has been the play of a pair of rookies that has been the talk of the town for the Falcons. Rookie center Ryan Vesce, who was signed by the Lightning as a free agent this past summer, has had an impressive start to his professional career. Vesce concluded the month of November as a runner-up to Manchester Monarchs rookie Jeff Tambellini as the RBK Hockey/AHL Rookie of the Month after collecting six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 14 games. Vesce arrived in Springfield with the reputation of a center that could create offense and the first-year pro continues to lead all AHL rookies in scoring this season posting eight goals and 22 assists for 30 points in 29 games played. Vesce's early season production has shown fans throughout Springfield why the Lightning were very interested in signing the youngster this past off-season. Vesce has played in all situations, including playing the point on the power play and also killing penalties. His speed and energy have certainly been a healthy addition to this year's team.
Joining Vesce on the list of rookies making an impact is goaltender Gerald Coleman. Coleman entered the 2005-06 campaign competing for a roster spot in Springfield and he has not only earned a position with the Falcons, but currently is fourth in the AHL in wins with 11. Coleman has teamed with teammate Brian Eklund to provide the Falcons with steady goaltending all season long. Coleman made his professional debut on October 15 at Manchester, and also collected his first professional shutout in the very same building on December 3. Coleman came back just four days later and collected his second shutout of the season on December 7 when he blanked the Lowell Lock Monsters 3-0.
Not only have the Falcons been blessed with a strong crop of rookies, but one can't underestimate the importance of the veteran leadership. Veteran Norm Milley was signed by the Lighting this past off-season and remains tied with Vesce for the team scoring lead. Veteran Jim Campbell has been a calming influence up front, while experienced blue liners Todd Rohloff and Harlan Pratt have complemented youngsters Doug O'Brien and Timo Helbling very well on defense. Captain Ryan Craig and center Jason Jaspers also remain two of the most consistent Falcons players this season with Craig remaining in a tie for the team lead in goals, while Jaspers is also averaging a point-a-game with 28 points in 28 games.
Already this season, fans have witnessed youngsters Paul Ranger and Evgeny Artyukhin have an impact on both the Falcons and Lightning lineups. With the constant development of Tampa Bay prospects in Springfield, that list is most certain to grow throughout the 2005-06 campaign.