The Sound Tigers were 5-1-1-1 in the first eight meetings with their intrastate rival, though the Whale had lost twice in overtime and once in a shootout.
But for the second straight Friday night, the Whale prevailed thanks to another stellar performance by goalie Chad Johnson, who had 38 saves in a 3-2 victory after two quick visits to the New York Rangers this week as a backup to Martin Biron filling in for the ailing Henrik Lundqvist.
While Johnson was No. 1 star and reason the Whale (32-20-3-5) took the outright Northeast Division lead over the Sound Tigers (32-20-3-5), it was defenseman Jared Nightingale taking one for the team that proved the spark to the team improving to 13-4-1-0 after an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January.
A series of turnovers against the Sound Tigers’ strong fore-checking led to the Whale being outshot 15-5 in the first 15 minutes of the second period, with Johnson making brilliant saves on Tomas Marcinko alone in front with 7:16 left and Tyler McNeely bursting in off right wing on a 3-on-2 with 6:48 to go to keep it a 1-0 game.
Then with 4:52 left, former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing/enforcer Trevor Gillies punched Tim Erixon in the face, knocking the Whale defenseman to the ice as referee Marcus Vinnerborg was headed up ice. After Gillies also knocked down Casey Wellman, who had a second straight three-point game (one goal, two assists), Nightingale had had enough. He stepped in to challenge one of the game’s toughest players, and though Gillies got the better of the fight, Nightingale had made his point, especially to his teammates.
“I just saw Timmy laying down and wanted to come his aid,” Nightingale said. “Then it worked out that he had just finished his hit on Wellman, and I was right there. It doesn’t matter who it is. (Gillies) was running around, and then it just worked out when he finished his hit on Wellman that I was right there.
“It’s not always the point to win a fight. It means a lot just coming to the aid and showing up. Guys respond better, and I think it might have sparked the team even more when he was hitting me when I was down. It kind of fired up the guys. … It’s a great character win, especially since we had a slow second period and came back and took it to them in the third.”
When informed several of his teammates commended him for coming to Erixon’s defense, Nightingale paused, smiled and said, “That’s nice.”
Johnson was more emphatic.
“That was awesome and I think that kind of turned things around,” said Johnson, who is 4-2-1 against the Sound Tigers. “When you’re on your heels, a fight can change things up a bit and definitely gave us a boost fighting one of the tougher players. I think that helped to give us a little bit of energy.”
All-Star rookie wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, who had two assists, called Nightingale “a warrior.”
“(Gillies) should have had a penalty on Timmy in the corner, and Nightie went right after him,” Audy-Marchessault said. “He knew it was Gillies, and just to see that act of courage he gave us gave us some strength to go to the other end. We said, ‘Come on, guys, we need a better shift,’ and that’s what we did. They put Casey with me and Newbs, and it went well.”
Two shifts later, the Whale tied it with 3:07 left in the period when Wellman converted the rebound of a shot by Audy-Marchessault, who had spun away from Rhett Rakhshani in the right circle and skated into the slot. It was Wellman’s 21st goal, third in two games and seventh in 17 games with the Whale since being acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 3.
The Whale kept the lead thanks to another alert stop by Johnson on Trevor Frischmon’s deflection in the waning seconds of the second period. Marcinko’s slashing penalty early in the third period gave the Whale a 5-on-3 for 31 seconds, and they took advantage as Erixon one-timed Audy-Marchessault’s pass, the puck slithering through Poulin at 3:30 for the defenseman’s third goal and a 2-1 lead.
Johnson then was at his best during the Sound Tigers’ fourth power play with four saves, including two point-blank bids by Tony Romano. Given those reprieves, the Whale got the winner when Wellman circled the net and found a wide-open Newbury in the right circle for a shot into an open net for his team-leading 22nd goal with 2:27 left.
“I was calling for the puck and just took a wrist shot,” Newbury said. “Normally I don’t take a wrist shot, but maybe it’s something I’ll try a little more. … It’s a big two points and something to build on for the rest of the weekend, but we know we can play better. Johnson is giving us a chance to win every night, and it’s a good time for him to get hot. But we know we can make some corrections and give him a little easier job, but right now, everyone is confident with him back there.”
Johnson said it was just a continuation of feeling good all season.
“They’re all going to be tight games coming down the stretch, and we always have battles with Bridgeport, so it was an important game for us to get,” said Johnson, who is 11-4-0 while starting 16 of the last 18 games and missed the other two because of an injury. “They come hard with a lot of speed and finish all their checks, but I felt good, and it was good to get the two points.”
After pulling Poulin for a sixth attacker, the Sound Tigers got to 3-2 as Frischmon scored off a scramble with 1:08 to go. Despite pulling Poulin a second time, the Sound Tigers couldn’t get the equalizer and suffered their fourth straight loss, the first two via shootouts, starting against the Whale last Friday when Newbury scored with 4.9 seconds left in regulation and then Johnson stopped all three shots in a shootout while All-Star Mats Zuccarello, Wellman and Brendan Bell were scoring for the Whale. Zuccarello was called up by the New York Rangers on Sunday, and he was joined Friday night by Erixon, recalled after the game.
The Whale finished 4-0-0-1 in their five XL Center games against the Tigers and have the AHL’s best home winning percentage at .724 (18-5-2-4), including only two regulation losses in their last 20 games (13-2-2-3).
“A goalie keeping us in the game is helping us to get some big points, and now we’re first in the standings, and a lot of it is because of him,” Audy-Marchessault said. “We know (Johnson) is as big as a house in the net.”
The Whale had the game’s first good scoring chance, but Poulin (31 saves) made a brilliant glove stop of Andre Deveaux’s laser from 25 feet in the slot at 3:08. Then with the Sound Tigers on their first power play, Johnson denied Frischmon off right wing at 7:06.
But 16 seconds after the power play ended, Sound Tigers defenseman Jon Landry fired a shot that Justin DiBenedetto deflected past Johnson for his team-leading 18th goal at 7:20.
Johnson kept it 1-0 with 8:59 left in the period when he denied Sean Backman on a 2-on-1. Poulin then kept the Sound Tigers in front with two brilliant save in the final 3:42. First, he stopped Scott Tanski bursting in alone off right wing off a terrific feed from Tommy Grant and then turned aside Nightingale off a Newbury setup.
After the Whale didn’t allow the Sound Tigers a shot on their second power play early in the second period, Grant came out of the penalty box and broke in down right wing but was stopped by Poulin at 5:52. Then at 7:58, Johnson was alert to stop Michael Haley. Haley was his third go-around with the Sound Tigers after he and goalie Anders Nilsson were reassigned by the New York Islanders on Monday.
The Whale were then hemmed in much of the second period before Nightingale took on Gillies and turned the tide.
“We had a long stretch in the second period where they controlled play, and we didn’t help ourselves,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “They were playing hard and carrying the momentum for large portions, but we could have helped ourselves with a little better decision making. We had opportunities to at least get pucks deep, get a line change and alleviate some of the pressure, but we were too stubborn and they countered and came right back when we shouldn’t have been looking for home run plays.
“I thought (Johnson) had a great game obviously. He had stretches in the second period and late in the third where he made numerous saves and was quick on the rebounds and has been very strong for us the last six weeks. And I give Nightingale full marks for standing up for a teammate. I think that was a big catalyst as far as getting us going. With five minutes to go in the second, we seemed to get a little better for the rest of that period, but we were certainly better in the third than we had been to that point.”
VALENTENKO RETURNS FOR WHALE
Valentenko returned and was paired with Mike Vernace after missing two games with an injury sustained in a 3-1 loss to the Norfolk Admirals last Saturday night. The Whale scratched defenseman Sam Klassen and injured wing Francois Bouchard.
The great and very talented Mike Fornabaio takes you inside the Bridgeport locker room at CTPost.com.
(Standings provided by TheAHL.com)
SOUNDS OF THE GAME:
Ken Gernander Post-Game Press Conference
* Whale General Manager Jim Schoenfeld was in the house and was the one who told Tim Erixon he was headed to New York and could be heard from outside the door saying, “So, you doing anything tomorrow?” Erixon had a HUGE smile on his face when leaving the coach’s office after being told of his promotion. What a great way to tell a young man that he’s getting the next step in his ascension to the NHL. Kudos to Schoenfeld for that.
Audy-Marchessault – Newbury – Deveaux
Bourque – Wellman – Thuresson
Grant – Tessier – Tanski
Prough – Owens – Parlett
REDDEN – Erixon
Bell – Nightingale
Valentenko – Vernace
(Captain in CAPS / Assistant Captains are Italicized)
Francois Bouchard – Broken Wrist – Indefinite
Chad Kolarik – Knee – (Can’t Play Due To Roster Issue)
Sam Klassen – Healthy Scratch
Sean Avery – Healthy Scratch
1. CT – C. Johnson
2. CT – C. Wellman
3. CT – J. Audy-Marchessault
ON ICE OFFICIALS:
Marcus Vinnerborg (45)
Brent Colby (7)
Jim Briggs (83)
Springfield continues their I-91 Rivalry at the XL Center Saturday night. You can hear all the action on WCCC.com starting at 6:50pm.
To watch the game live, you can purchased it for $6.99 at AHL-live.
For Ticket information for all home games, call (860) 548-2000.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers 2 at Connecticut Whale 3 – Status: Final
Friday, March 16, 2012 – XL Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Bridgeport 1 0 1 – 2
Connecticut 0 1 2 – 3
1st Period-1, Bridgeport, DiBenedetto 18 (Landry), 7:20. Penalties-Wishart Bri (tripping), 3:45; Thuresson Ct (interference), 5:04.
2nd Period-2, Connecticut, Wellman 21 (Audy-Marchessault, Newbury), 16:53. Penalties-Grant Ct (hooking), 3:25; Gillies Bri (fighting), 15:08; Nightingale Ct (fighting), 15:08; Erixon Ct (tripping), 18:09.
3rd Period-3, Connecticut, Erixon 3 (Audy-Marchessault, Wellman), 3:30 (PP). 4, Connecticut, Newbury 22 (Wellman), 17:33. 5, Bridgeport, Frischmon 9 (Haley, McNeely), 18:52. Penalties-Landry Bri (holding), 1:32; Marcinko Bri (slashing), 3:01; Tanski Ct (hooking), 14:58.
Shots on Goal-Bridgeport 9-18-13-40. Connecticut 10-10-14-34.
Power Play Opportunities-Bridgeport 0 / 4; Connecticut 1 / 3.
Goalies-Bridgeport, Poulin 17-16-3 (34 shots-31 saves). Connecticut, Johnson 21-14-5 (40 shots-38 saves).
Referees-Marcus Vinnerborg (45).
Linesmen-Brent Colby (7), Jim Briggs (83).