It may have been a hockey game, but for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers it was a classic case of “one-two-three strikes you’re out!” as the Toronto Marlies completed a three-game sweep of the Tigers in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs before 7,822 fans at the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto on Thursday night. To call this series a mismatch is an understatement of enormous proportions. Marlies’ defenseman Connor Carrick had a monster night (three goals, two assists, five points) to lead Toronto, which ended the regular season with an AHL-best record of 54-16-5-1 (114 points).
How lopsided was this series? For starters, the Marlies had far and away the best regular season in the league (54-16-5-1; 114 points), while the Sound Tigers came into the playoffs with the worst record of all Eastern Conference teams that qualified for the post season (40-29-4-3; 87 points), and second worst in the league (to San Jose’s 73 points). San Jose, interestingly enough, had played in Worcester for nine season (as the Sharks) before moving to California this season to be closer to its parent team, the San Jose Sharks.
And consider this: After Bridgeport scored the first goal of the series (Justin Florek, 11:30 into the first period in Game One), the Tigers didn’t score again until Marc-Andre Cliché fired the opening salvo last night, 6:00 into the opening frame. After Carrick tied the game, finding the back of the net with his first tally of the game 4:22 later, the Sound Tigers showed their first sign of life in the series, opening up a 4-1 lead midway through the second stanza. The Marlies lifted starting netminder Antoine Bibeau, who had allowed four goals in the 12 shots that he faced, and his replacement, Garret Sparks, shut down Bridgeport from that point on.
“Down 4-1 with half a game remaining is something I feel this team can overcome,” said Sparks, who ended the game with 12 stops. “We were taking penalties, and any time you give a team with its season on the line that opportunity, they’ll seize it. The major difference once I was in there was we stayed out of the box.”
“Not a lot was said,” said Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe about making the switch. “We made the goalie change and somehow in hockey that seems to re-set things and off you go. We just had to stay out of the box. We had a lot of confidence in our ability to score.”
And that confidence was certainly worthy. Five unanswered Toronto tallies—including two more from Carrick in a 1:53 span at the end of the second stanza—send the Sound Tigers packing.
So the Sound Tigers, who were playing in the postseason for the first time since 2012, and are now 1-13 (yes, you read that correctly) in their last three playoff appearances, begin to think about next year. The biggest question is; will it be in Bridgeport? One thing definitely not working in the city’s hope to keep the Sound Tigers put is the fact that the team drew just 3,940 fans per game, ranking No. 25 in the 30-team league. Furthermore, that total was the second worst in the 15-year history of the franchise. And the two-game attendance total in Bridgeport in this series (6,575) was just 1,300 more than the one game played in Toronto. Is that enough to sustain a franchise in the top minor league circuit in professional hockey?
The elephant in the room is the fact that the Nassau Memorial Coliseum, the former home of the Sound Tigers’ parent team, the New York Islanders, until the Isles moved to The Barclays Center in 2015, is in the final stages of renovation. The new Coliseum is expected to reopen in late 2016, or, more likely early 2017, as a state-of the art, albeit downsized, 13,000-seat venue (ideal for AHL hockey, in other words). Nassau County—and Long Island in general—has a long-term love affair with the Isles that hasn’t subsided, even after team moved 20 miles down the BQE to Brooklyn. While the New Jersey Nets have committed a D-League team to play at the new Nassau Coliseum, a gaping hole exists in the new facilities’ schedule until a hockey team is found to fill in the dates. Whether that will be an Islanders’ affiliate (either AHL or ECHL), or some other team, remains to be seen. And should the Islanders’ opt to break their contract with Bridgeport and move the Sound Tigers to Long Island, what will replace the Tigers in the Park City?
These and many other questions remain to be answered in the off-season. Stay tuned…