5 Takeaways From the T-Birds ScheduleJul 14, 2017
The Springfield Thunderbirds learned their 2017-18 schedule on Tuesday, more than a month earlier than they received their 76-game docket the year before. With those extra days to prepare for a second AHL season, “Voice of the Thunderbirds” Ryan Smith took some time to delve into his biggest takeaways from Springfield’s slate.
Rivalry Games May Very Well Determine Thunderbirds’ Playoff Fate
Springfield Thunderbirds fans should be thrilled that 47% of the club’s 76-game schedule will be played against the three most frequent opponents: 14 matchups with the Providence Bruins, 12 with the Hartford Wolf Pack and ten with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The other constant between Springfield and their closest geographical foes? Close games. Of the combined 34 games against the Bruins, Wolf Pack, and Sound Tigers last season, half of them (17) were decided by one goal. That included eight games that required overtime or a shootout.
While the Thunderbirds had a respectable 15-13-4-2 mark against the trio of clubs last season, it was not enough in an Atlantic Division that boasted five of the AHL’s 11 best records (based on points percentage). The Sound Tigers – sitting at 44 wins, 92 points, and a .605 points percentage – missed the playoffs, marking perhaps the biggest indicator of the depth rooted in the Atlantic a year ago.
It was the Thunderbirds themselves who fired the closing shot against the Sound Tigers, knocking Bridgeport out of playoff contention with a resounding 7-0 win at the MassMutual Center last April 14.
As strong as the Atlantic Division played out in 2016-17, the Thunderbirds should not expect their rivals to take a step back, especially with another addition to the loaded Atlantic waiting on the horizon.
The Kinnear Factor vs. A “New” Opponent
That new team in the Atlantic Division, the Charlotte Checkers, is a squad that made the Calder Cup Playoffs last spring and took a 2-1 series lead in the first round over the Chicago Wolves – a team boasting two AHL first-team forwards in Wade Megan and league MVP Kenny Agostino – before bowing out in five.
While much of the Atlantic Division will have distant connections to their new foe, the same cannot be said for the Thunderbirds. Head coach Geordie Kinnear enters his second season behind the Springfield bench with plenty of background on the Checkers’ young history.
Prior to his first head coaching job with the Thunderbirds, Kinnear spent six seasons as an assistant coach in Charlotte from 2010-16. While the Checkers are now led by newly-hired head coach Mike Vellucci behind the bench, Kinnear himself has just one degree of separation from Vellucci, who previously served from 2014-17 as Assistant GM and Director of Hockey Operations for the Checkers’ parent club, the Carolina Hurricanes.
16 Checkers who saw action in 2016-17 played under Kinnear during his final season with Charlotte in 2015-16. How much that translates into an “insider’s edge” against a former team remains to be seen, but it certainly cannot hurt the Thunderbirds to have Kinnear’s presence versus their newest divisional rival.
Kinnear’s first game against his former club takes place on Nov. 15 in Springfield. The Thunderbirds make their first trip to Charlotte on Dec. 1. The two teams will meet eight total times in 2017-18.
Home-Ice Advantage Early, Road Warrior Status Late
In a word, the Thunderbirds’ first half schedule is eye-popping – eye-popping in the sense that home ice will be their friend. Of the club’s first 38 games, 21 will be hosted at the MassMutual Center, including 15 on Friday or Saturday. Also included in that stretch is a pair of five-game homestands before New Year’s Day.
For believers in home-ice advantage (and proponents of the adage “What have you done for me lately?”), this aligns nicely for Springfield. The Thunderbirds came flying down the home stretch at the MassMutual Center to the tune of a 12-2-0-0 mark in their final 14 home games last season, including five consecutive triumphs to close the home slate.
Piggybacking that strong finish to the 16-17 season could get the Thunderbirds off and racing in the new campaign, which would not be unheard-of. Bear in mind, Springfield started strong in 2016-17, winning five of its first seven games.
However, with the home-loaded first half, the Thunderbirds will need to find more success as the visitors in the second half of the season. With nine of their final 13 games away from Springfield, the importance of taking care of home ice in the first half could reveal itself in the closing weeks of the season. The Thunderbirds did not take kindly to the road in the final six weeks of 2016-17, dropping each of their last seven away games to counter-balance their 12-2-0-0 closing mark at home.
Adding to the road warrior task, five of Springfield’s final nine road tilts come against playoff teams from 2016-17, and all three of their trips to Canada will take place in the span of just two weeks from March 25 (at Toronto) through April 6 (at Laval).
New Sights To See
The 2017-18 season may be just the second in Thunderbirds history, but it will feature first-time trips to three different venues. As stated previously, Geordie Kinnear will get his first chance to return to his former city on Dec. 1 for two games in three nights at the Bojangles’ Coliseum against the Charlotte Checkers.
After playing their first five seasons at the Time Warner Cable Arena, the Checkers moved back into the Bojangles’ Coliseum in 2015-16. The venue, which opened as the Charlotte Coliseum in 1955, underwent renovations prior to that season to welcome back the Checkers, who previously played hockey in that facility in the ECHL from 1993 until 2005.
Another renovated facility to welcome the Thunderbirds in 2017-18 will be the Yardmen Arena in Belleville, the new home of the Ottawa Senators’ AHL affiliates, some 167 miles from Canada’s capital city. An $18.5 million renovation will precede the city’s first pro hockey season. The OHL’s Belleville Bulls competed out of the facility from 1981 through 2015.
The final new setting for a Thunderbirds road trip also takes Springfield north of the border on April 6 to Place Bell in Laval, Quebec, against the newly-launched Laval Rocket. The Montreal Canadiens’ new AHL affiliate, named for legendary Canadiens’ forward and Hockey Hall-of-Famer Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
The brand-new facility will boast the capacity for 10,000 fans while being situated just over 30 minutes northwest of Montreal. The inherited team – previously the St. John’s IceCaps – were a playoff participant a season ago.
Save on 3-in-3’s, Pay the Price on Wednesdays
A noticeable change in the 2017-18 Thunderbirds schedule from 2016-17 is the subtraction from 12 to nine stretches of three games in three nights. No matter the league, three games in three nights has an impact over the length of a season, so this reduction should be of great help to a Thunderbirds team that had only one player (Chase Balisy) skate in all 76 games a season ago due to injuries and organizational transactions.
With the drop in 3-in-3’s, however, comes a few caveats. Firstly, while the number of three-game weekends has fallen, they are bunched together. Springfield will play four of their three-game weekends in the span of five weeks from Feb. 16 to March 18, right before the season takes its predominantly road-filled turn for the stretch.
The second “however” comes in the form of mid-week matchups. On two separate occasions this season, the Thunderbirds will play three or more Wednesdays in a month. That includes a stretch of four consecutive Wednesday games in the month of November, as well as three consecutive Wednesdays in the month of January. In a coincidence, four of those seven games will come against the Hershey Bears, a club that defeated the Thunderbirds in all six matchups a season ago.
The Thunderbirds will need to keep focus levels high during their 13 Monday-through-Wednesday games, which do not allow for much recover time on the heels of weekend contests. In 2016-17, the Thunderbirds went 4-4-4-1 in games on Monday through Wednesday.
The silver lining for the Thunderbirds, though, is that the final seven weeks of hockey feature just two of those Wednesday games, on top of 10 games against teams that failed to reach the playoffs in 2016-17.
Interested in joining the Thunderbirds hockey family next season? Earn your wings with Springfield Thunderbirds 2017-18 Ticket Memberships, which start as low as $12 per game and feature the most exclusive benefits, including a commemorative jersey and brand new Collectors Mug. For more information, fans may call the Thunderbirds ticket office at (413) 739-GOAL (4625) or visit www.SpringfieldThunderbirds.com.