BRIDGEPORT -- On Jan. 4, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers played in Springfield, Mass., for a share of the Northeast Division lead, looking for their fifth win in a row.
Five losses and the start of the NHL season later, they were in a dip from which they never fully recovered. They never did put together a five-game winning streak. They missed the playoffs by five points.
There were moments of greatness, moments when they seemed ready to be a playoff team. Those moments for a young team didn't always carry over to the next night.
"It's a tough league to play in. Three-(games)-in-three-(nights), bus travel, tough teams, tough schedules," said Matt Watkins, who was named captain on Feb. 22.
"(For young players) it's tough to be consistent every night. That's something you learn as you go through it."
They had some stellar moments and stellar seasons. Rookie Brock Nelson scored 25 goals. Nino Niederreiter scored 28 in his second full pro season, shaking off a tough year in the NHL last year. Matt Donovan was a tiebreaker off the league scoring lead for defensemen.
But they allowed 242 goals, most in the league. Goaltending, turnovers, defensive positioning, penalty kill: all had their nights as culprits.
In mid-February, Bridgeport tightened up its defensive game, going from being outshot by about one a game to averaging roughly five shots better than its opponents over the last 27 games, shaving about a half a goal a game off its defensive average.
"We made huge strides in our consistency and our game and our structure," coach Scott Pellerin said. "If you look at the first 50 games, we went on runs, we went on streaks, we gave up 35 shots. ... We were very up-and-down, where we couldn't find our game, but there were successful elements in our game."
Though they found some of those more consistently, wins didn't always follow. They were at .500 after Game 50, and they finished at .500, at least in points, with seven overtime losses.
There were plenty of new faces, including Pellerin. Of the 32 players on the roster at the end of the season, 17 weren't here at the end of last season.
Really, of those 32 plus the coaches and the training staff, the only ones who were here in February 2011, before some youngsters trickled in from college and junior, were defenseman Ty Wishart, forward Brett Gallant (who'd just arrived) and equipment manager Leni DiCostanzo.
"There were a lot of new guys here, a lot of young guys," said Nathan McIver, one of the few true veterans but also one of the new guys.
"Everybody came together later on in the season. When you look back at where you lost points, three more wins and we're in the playoffs."
Injuries hurt. Top defenseman Calvin de Haan dislocated his left shoulder on an innocent-looking play in Game 3 and needed season-ending surgery.
Nelson suffered a broken jaw Dec. 14. Johan Sundstrom, one of their best first-half players, returned from injury March 8. In between, Bridgeport played 28 of 32 games without at least one of those top centermen.
And while other teams went on runs, Bridgeport found its game but not enough victories.
"Everybody says `inconsistent,' but I really don't want to use that word. To me, it's a negative," Pellerin said. "I think `growth' is more of the word I'd like to use. We grew as a group. We made mistakes, but we got better."
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