HARTFORD - So much for this regular-season nonsense.
The Connecticut Whale disposed of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in three games to advance to the second round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs on Sunday.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, enjoyed their best regular-season performance in a decade, capturing the newly created Northeast Division—their first divisional crown since 2002. But once the puck dropped in the postseason, the regular season was rendered nothing more than a fond memory. The Tigers, who have struggled mightily in the postseason throughout their 12-year run in the American Hockey League, haven't advanced beyond the first round since the aforementioned 2001-02 season.
And so it was again this season as they were shown the door—with a broom no less—as their in-state archrivals, the Connecticut Whale, AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, eliminated the Sound Tigers in three-straight games to capture the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series 3-0 before 3,856 fans at the XL Center on Sunday. With the win, the Whale advances to the second round where they will face a still-to-be-determined foe. The Sound Tigers, on the other hand, go home for yet another early offseason of golf.
The third and decisive game of the series was won in the most dramatic of fashions when, with Bridgeport’s Tony Romano in the penalty box for slashing, Casey Wellman took a feed from Wade Redden in front of the Bridgeport net and put one over the left shoulder of Sound Tigers’ to seal the game—and the series—for Connecticut 14:40 into the extra session. Marek Hrivik had two goals for the Whale—his third and fourth tallies of the series—and Ryan Bourque, son of former Bruins’ and Rockies’ legendary defenseman Ray Borque, also found the back of the net for Connecticut.
Justin DiBenedetto scored on the power play late in the first period while David Ullstrom and Rhett Rakhshani scored third-period markers for the Sound Tigers—Rakhshani’s coming with 3:21 remaining in regulation and sending the game into OT and setting the stage for Wellman’s dramatic game-winner.
While Bridgeport’s pattern of postseason futility continues—this is the fifth straight time the Sound Tigers have been bounced from the playoffs in the first round—it also represents the first time Connecticut has advanced past the first round since 2006 when the team was known as the Hartford Wolf Pack.
“Everybody is contributing and pulling their weight and that’s what it takes, and that’s why it’s been such a good feeling tonight,” said Whale head coach Ken Gernander, himself a former Wolf Pack star.
After two straight shutouts, the Sound Tigers were finally able to solve Cam Talbott, getting three past the former Alabama-Huntsville star. On Sunday, it was Bridgeport’s Kevin Poulin who was on top of his game, stopping 50 shots before Wellman’s game-winner sent the partisan crowd home happy.
The Whale, which hadn’t won a regular season game in Bridgeport all season, won both playoff contests at the Webster Bank Arena. They now await the winner of the first-round series between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears. The Pens currently lead 2-0 in the best-of-five quarterfinal series with game three scheduled for Wednesday night in Hershey.