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by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning
By: Damon Markiewicz

As the Springfield Falcons concluded the month of October and began November, the team started to evolve and form an identity of a club that has a solid mixture of young prospects and experienced veterans who will remain resilient this season.

The Falcons had an opportunity to come together as a group immediately playing their first three games of the regular season on the road, including a road trip to Norfolk, Virginia on October 13 and 14. For a team that only had a short training camp to try and come together together before opening night on October 7 in Hartford, an 11-hour bus ride to Norfolk early in the campaign was a good way to build team chemistry for the Birds.

"Anytime you have a chance to get together as a team early in a new season, it can be a positive," said Falcons right wing Norm Milley, who was named team captain on October 6. "At the AHL level, you usually have a lot of new faces trying to come together in a short amount of time, but I think it has been clear right from the start that we have a group that enjoys playing together."

Springfield posted a record of 1-2-0 on their early season three-game voyage, including a 3-2 opening night win on October 7 at Hartford. In the Falcons' first game of the season against their divisional rival, several rookies made an immediate impact in their professional debuts. Rookie defenseman Matt Smaby scored his first pro goal just 45-seconds into Springfield's first game of the year, while rookies Justin Keller and Blair Jones also collected assists in their opening period at the AHL level. For Jones, Keller and Smaby, it was a nice way to start their pro careers.

"I think we were all very excited about opening night," said Smaby, who played last year for the University of North Dakota. "We have a nice mixture of young players and experienced players, which is helping us a lot."

As the month of October evolved, so did a line combination which features a mixture of two players with more than 850 games of AHL experience, centered by a highly regarded prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The line of Milley, Jones and veteran forward Eric Healey started to take shape through Springfield's first two weeks of the season, but the trio absolutely exploded in a home-and-home series with the Lowell Devils on October 27 and 28. With the Falcons trailing the Devils 4-0 on October 27, Milley, Jones and Healey led the Falcons to six unanswered goals and the trio combined for 13 points in a 6-4 win. All three players were represented in the game's three stars and the line emerged as the Falcons main source for offense through the first seven games.

"Playing with a couple of veteran guys in Norm (Milley) and Eric (Healey) really helps my confidence on the ice," said Jones, who was ranked third in the AHL in rookie scoring to begin November. "I think we really started to gain confidence as a group in that game against Lowell and we have been able to keep things going pretty well. Both guys are great leaders and playing with them is a lot of fun."

Entering the second month of the season, another first-year pro has started to adjust to the AHL level and appears to gain more and more confidence each game. Keller scored his first professional goal on November 3 against the Rochester Americans, while also adding three assists while collecting the game's first star. The Summerland, British Columbia native scored the game-winning marker just two-days later in Lowell helping the Falcons to a two-game winning streak.

"I think when you are still getting your chances to score, it keeps you from losing your confidence," said Keller, who led the Western Hockey League in goals last year scoring 51 for Kelowna. "I was fortunate to have a couple of chances go in and most importantly it helped us win as a team."

Also assisting Springfield in earning victories has been the play of goaltenders Karri Ramo, Sean Burke and Jonathan Boutin. Ramo earned his first professional shutout on October 22 at Bridgeport, while Burke earned the win in Springfield's October 7 opening night triumph. The defense has been anchored by veteran Andy Delmore, while third-year pros Doug O'Brien and Mike Egener continue their development. Smaby has also been a steady force on Springfield's blueline thus far this season.

"Matt (Smaby) has been very good for us at times and he continues to learn as well," said Falcons head coach Steve Stirling, who is in his first season as Springfield's bench boss. "Andy (Delmore) adds some experience back there for us and also provides some offense and quarterbacks the power play. It's a good mix and as a group they have all played a role at times in us having success as a team."

It's a long season, but the Falcons have already started to come together as group. When asked what the team will need to do on a regular basis to continue to win games, Stirling has an honest approach.

"Keep things simple," said Stirling. "When we are getting pucks in deep and working hard as a group, we have had success. I like the work ethic of our team, the guys come to work everyday prepared and we just need to keep building momentum each month."
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