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Sound Tigers season wrap: Young team grew but not enough

Updated 2:16 am, Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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  • New York Islanders' Casey Cizikas (53), Matt Martin (17), Josh Bailey (12) and Michael Grabner (40) celebrate a shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets in an NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saturday, April 20, 2013. Cizikas played part of the season with the Sound Tigers. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods) Photo: John Woods, Associated Press / The Canadian Press

    New York Islanders' Casey Cizikas (53), Matt Martin (17), Josh Bailey (12) and Michael Grabner (40) celebrate a shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets in an NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saturday, April 20, 2013. Cizikas played part of the season with the Sound Tigers. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods)

    Photo: John Woods, Associated Press

 

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5 Sound Tigers questions for 2013-14
WHO'S BACK?: A good chunk of the Sound Tigers' young core is signed for next year, though several of them -- Brock Nelson, Nino Niederreiter, and Matt Donovan probably first among them -- are candidates for promotion. They were a young group this year. A little experience could help.
WHO'S NEW?: Bridgeport got a look at some of its potential 2013-14 rookies, like defensemen Scott Mayfield and Andrey Pedan, who add size, and forward Joey Diamond, who wasn't afraid to battle the big guys in front of the other net. The Sound Tigers signed three college players to AHL deals this week -- including Riley Wetmore, who scored a goal Sunday, and Quinnipiac defenseman Mike Dalhuisen -- who'll add depth.
WHAT NEXT?: The Sound Tigers finished near the bottom of the league two years ago in an injury-plagued season. They eked out a division title last year. Another injury-plagued and young team this year fell five points and a tiebreaker shy of the playoffs. Can they take another step?
WHO LEADS?: First-year coach Scott Pellerin has been reported to be a candidate to take over at his alma mater, the University of Maine. Pellerin wouldn't comment on his potential interest in the job. He is already the team's fourth head coach in three seasons.
WHO WATCHES?: The team announced an average of 5,300 fans every night, a team record for Bridgeport-only dates (two 2004-05 games at Nassau Coliseum boosted that season's average higher). You can say the number is skewed by the free tickets the team gave out Nov. 3-4, a goodwill gesture in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but cut those down to previous-year comparables, and that only dings the average by about 237 a night: it's still team-best. The team's operation of Webster Bank Arena, finishing its second full season, encouraged package deals, and the team plans to keep improving the suite level.
-- MICHAEL FORNABAIO

Contract status
SIGNED FOR NEXT SEASON: G -- Rick DiPietro, Anders Nilsson. D -- Marc Cantin, Mike Dalhuisen, Calvin de Haan, Matt Donovan, Scott Mayfield, Aaron Ness, Andrey Pedan. F -- Jason Clark, Joey Diamond, Mike Halmo, Kirill Kabanov, Greg Miller, Brock Nelson, Nino Niederreiter, John Persson, Ryan Strome, Johan Sundstrom, Riley Wetmore
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: F -- Brandon DeFazio, Brett Gallant
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: G -- Kenny Reiter. D -- Jordan Hill, Mike Keenan, Jon Landry, Nathan McIver, Ty Wishart. F -- Sean Backman, Scott Campbell, Max MacKay, Blair Riley, Ben Rosen, Matt Watkins
-- MICHAEL FORNABAIO

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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 Casey Cizikas was called up for the last 20 of those 32 games, along with captain Colin McDonald, David Ullstrom and Travis Hamonic as the NHL lockout ended. Other teams' rosters changed as well.

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."

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/fornabaioctp; http://blog.connpost.com/fornabaio

 

 

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