6 Reasons to Be Excited About This T-Birds TeamOct 26, 2018
Few people in hockey want to delve on past failures. Few people in hockey want to even think back to past successes in a business that constantly begs the question “what have you done for me lately?”
What the passage of time does tell us, though, is how quickly things can drastically change. On November 11, 2017, as the Thunderbirds were about to welcome the Laval Rocket – and David Ortiz – to the MassMutual Center. The Thunderbirds also needed something – anything – to raise their confidence following a 2-11-1 start.
While Geordie Kinnear’s club would ultimately right their ship to go 30-26-4-2 the rest of the way in 2017-18, the early scuffles had already done them in and taken away playoff hopes.
12 months later, a whole new narrative is being written in Springfield on the ice inside the Thunderdome. Their leadership group screams New England passion: captain Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H., University of New Hampshire) and alternate captains Bobby Farnham (North Andover, Mass. & Brown University) and Harry Zolnierczyk (Farnham’s collegiate teammate at Brown) do not possess a single “quiet” attribute between them.
Through six games, this iteration of the Thunderbirds – one that has, by far, the most NHL and AHL experience of their short history – has turned the entire Eastern Conference’s heads. After being the final team in the conference to win a game in 2017-18, the Thunderbirds are now the only team in the league without a regulation loss through the season’s first three weeks.
At the risk of being told “it’s still early – let’s not get ahead of ourselves” – I see many major reasons why it is worth being excited about the Thunderbirds.
Reason #1 – Goaltending
Kinnear has said both at the conclusion of 2017-18 and during training camp, that the offseason was pivotal for Sam Montembeault. On the heels of a rookie pro season that saw “Monty” endure many ups and downs in a short window of time, his head coach challenged him to find day-in and day-out consistency in both preparation and on-ice play.
The Thunderbirds probably did not expect Montembeault to be thrust right into the madness, but after Michael Hutchinson dazzled with 44 saves in his T-Birds debut on Oct. 6 in Wilkes-Barre, he was summoned to the Panthers due to an injury to Roberto Luongo.
Since that night, Montembeault has drawn the starting assignment in three of the past five T-Birds games, and he has flourished, posting a .941 save percentage (95 saves on 101 shots) and a 2.01 goals against average, while going 3-0 in the process.
Included in those three wins was a memorable victory in his home province against the Laval Rocket on Oct. 19, in which the 21-year-old stopped 30 of 33 pucks in front of more than a dozen friends and family members.
Chris Driedger has also provided two excellent starts for Springfield, serving as a reliable third option in net for the T-Birds. Save for a two-goal comeback by Lehigh Valley on Oct. 13 late in the game, Driedger has allowed just four goals in his other five periods of game action, stopping 68 of 74 shots. He scooped up his first win with the Thunderbirds with 38 stops on Oct. 20 in Laval. Springfield needed Driedger to be at his best that afternoon, as the T-Birds were outshot 40-16.
The staggering team goaltending line reads: 2.27 goals-against average, .937 save percentage – good for 207 saves out of 221 shots against.
Reason #2 – “SPECIAL” Teams
Both of Springfield’s special teams’ units sit in the top 10 of the AHL through six games. Furthermore, the T-Birds’ power play has turned into a crowd silencer away from home, scoring five times on one night alone in Allentown on Oct. 12. The franchise-record performance came before the Thunderbirds had Jacob MacDonald join the team from Florida. MacDonald led all AHL defenders in goals and points a season ago, and his impact has been immediate with Springfield to the tune of three goals in three games.
Not to be outdone, the T-Birds’ penalty kill has continued its form from 2017-18, which saw the club finish fifth in penalty killing efficiency. More than once, players up and down the Springfield lineup have accepted pain as a trade-off for making key blocks in the passing and shooting lanes. The penalty kill also contributed perhaps the biggest goal of the young season when rookie Jonathan Ang raced behind the defense to tie the score in Laval last Friday heading into the third period. Without that goal and the shift in momentum, are we talking about a 4-0-0-2 team today or a 3-1-0-2 one? Fortunately, T-Birds fans do not have to answer that hypothetical.
Reason #3 – Surplus of Skill
One of the most intriguing speculations at the start of the season was just how much depth and skill Kinnear may have at his disposal. Suffice it to say that the Thunderbirds have shown an ability to beat their opponent with many different players leading the charge offensively. As a result, the T-Birds lead the entire AHL with a 4.67 goals per game clip in the early season.
Their 28 team goals are split among 14 players, to go along with the seven skaters posting at least one full point per game (Anthony Greco, Zolnierczyk, Thompson, Henrik Borgstrom, Blaine Byron, Joel Lowry, MacDonald). When you take the time to consider Dryden Hunt has only one goal on a team that averages nearly five per night, you understand that this team is dangerous way beyond its top-six forwards.
In fact, no T-Birds player who has skated in at least two games has failed to register a point.
Reason #4 – Second-Half Strength
Would Kinnear like his team to have more than five first period goals in the club’s first six games? Absolutely. But the Thunderbirds real offensive muscle has come during the game’s most important moments. In second periods, Springfield has outscored their opponents 12-3, and in the final period, Springfield has an 11-5 goals edge.
Those figures show two key elements the Thunderbirds lacked in their prior two seasons: first, it reveals an ability for the team to come up with clutch goals at key times. Secondly, it shows a team that has learned how to toe the line between remaining aggressive while not sacrificing scoring chances going the other way.
The one time the Thunderbirds saw a game get away from them on Oct. 13 against Lehigh Valley, the club bounced back to win three contests in a row. In each of those wins, they held a multiple-goal lead in the third period and made it stand up.
Reason #5 – Five-on-Five Force
The simple math tells us that the majority of every hockey game is played at even strength, 5-on-5. Not only have the Thunderbirds come away with 10 of a possible 12 standings points, but they have earned their way to that through assertive play at full strength.
Springfield has outscored their opponents by a whopping 17-7 margin through just six games at 5-on-5. As the season rolls on and games come down to even strength play, the Thunderbirds have proven that they can win the battle in this discipline. Sustaining this early pace could go a long way to punching a ticket to the postseason.
Reason #6 – Is it Possible the Best is Yet to Come?
Now forgive me if reason #6 comes off sounding a bit negative in the prefacing notes. The Thunderbirds are 4-0-0-2 – if you take away the closing minutes of Oct. 13, this team could very easily be 5-0-0-1. But furthermore, the Thunderbirds are finding ways to win games even when they are not at their best.
An argument could be made that Springfield’s only “perfect” performance this season was a 7-0 blowout over the Phantoms on Oct. 12 – the evening the power play tallied a franchise record five goals with the man advantage, as well as the night Montembeault stopped all 35 shots he faced.
Despite that, the Thunderbirds have been outshot in every game, and in some cases outshot by a two-to-one ratio. Springfield sits 30th of 31 teams with just 25.67 shots on net per game. The T-Birds saving grace is they have scored on a remarkable 18% of their shot attempts.
On the other side, T-Birds goaltenders have been taxed more often than any other goalies in the Eastern Conference, to the tune of 37.17 shots against per game. Many goaltenders say they like to get a feel for the puck early to maintain focus and an overall rhythm. However, it is hard to believe a goaltender would not want a lighter, 20-25 shot night every now and again, either.
Also on the improvement list for the Thunderbirds: finding power play success at home. Seven of the Thunderbirds’ eight power play goals have come away from the MassMutual Center, but only MacDonald’s late power play marker against Providence on Oct. 14 got Springfield out of a goose egg on man advantages at the Thunderdome.
However, as a recycled sports cliché states, winning can serve as the best medicine, and despite all these figures trying to indicate the potential for losing outcomes, Springfield has instead found ways to scrape together points. In a 76-game season, it is impossible for every win to be perfect or “pretty,” but there are no bonus points for aesthetics.
So, before you say “when are things going to take a downturn?”, let me give you permission right now: it is 100% acceptable to be excited for where the 2018-19 Thunderbirds could soar.