by Sasha Kandrach | AHL On The Beat
Kieffer Bellows is scoring in bunches.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ sophomore winger has been on a recent tear with 12 goals and 13 points through his last 14 games, including his first professional hat trick on Dec. 28 – his sixth straight home game with a goal.
Throughout his remarkable scoring stretch, Bellows and the Sound Tigers have picked up seven crucial wins to help them improve their overall record to 13-17-4-1. The secret? Bellows is committed to Bridgeport’s detailed system and playing his designated role within the team’s structure.
“I’m just focused and sticking to the small details that [head coach Brent] Thompson talks about,” Bellows said. “He preaches about just keeping it simple and always staying mentally focused during the game. I’ve worked on that a lot this year from last year. It’s come full-circle.”
There was a dividing line in Bellows’ full circle. The New York Islanders’ first-round draft pick (19th overall) in 2016 had one goal and three points in the first 19 games of the season, so Thompson made the decision to scratch Bellows for two straight games on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24, hoping that seeing the game from up top would help.
“There were some inconsistencies with his game at that point, so we talked with him,” Thompson explained. “We had a discussion and we sat him out and let him watch a game from up top. Sometimes that just gets a guy going. It’s a motivational thing and then you realize, ‘OK, if I simplify, I’m going to have more opportunities offensively.’”
The response was immediate.
In Bellows’ first game back on Nov. 27 against the Springfield Thunderbirds, the winger scored a goal and had an assist on the night. His bought-in trust in the Sound Tigers’ process was reflected in his overall, consistent and elevated game that followed.
“I was getting good scoring chances and playing well,” Bellows said. “The pucks just weren’t going in for me, the bounces weren’t going my way. (Thompson) wanted me to go watch from the stands and take a step back, almost calm down a little bit and take some of that pressure and building frustrations off of myself. When I came back, I went out there with the mindset of just playing my game, doing what I was drafted to do and doing what you’re supposed to do. It’s brought me some success.”
Now, with the puck finding the back the of net at impressive cadence, Bellows leads the Sound Tigers in goals with 13. The 21-year-old is discovering more confidence in his own game and has found chemistry alongside linemates Matt Lorito and Colin McDonald. Bellows attributes his personal success to the ideal synergy of skill mixed with work ethic within their experienced line.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself and my abilities to go out there and contribute and make plays,” Bellows said. “When you go out there and find some chemistry with some other guys it helps. You remember and see where each other are on the ice, where each guy likes to be, where they like the puck and where they don’t, it’s a correlation of both.”
Immediately after his hat trick on Dec. 28, Bellows gave all the credit to McDonald and Lorito and commended a full-team effort despite Bridgeport ultimately falling 4-3 in overtime.
“It’s a special moment getting your first pro hat trick,” Bellows said. “But I couldn’t have done it without my linemates Colin McDonald and Matt Lorito. It was a full-team effort there tonight, we didn’t get the two points, but it was a good sign of our team coming back there.”
Following a 19-point rookie season (12 goals, seven assists) and having posted three points (2g, 1a) in five games of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs, Bellows came into in his second season eager to further sharpen his 200-foot game and establish himself as a playmaker at the pro level.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound winger is embracing the opportunity for bigger minutes and looks on the power play. Bellows is now tied for the team lead in power-play goals with Andrew Ladd and Travis St. Denis, who also have two conversions on the man advantage.
“What I like about him is that he’s always worked extremely hard on and off of the ice,” Thompson said of Bellows. “He comes to practice every day and tries to be better. He works on his shot; he’s probably frustrated with himself with the production offensively. He’s controlling the puck. He’s making the right decisions. His puck protection is big, he’s going to the net. You’re starting to see him being more of a consistent player shift-to-shift and game-to-game. That’s what I like about him right now is his consistency and work ethic. And he’s finding the back of the net.”
Of the many lessons professional hockey teaches, one of the vital ones is mental rigor. Bellows has relied on his experience from his rookie season where he weathered the challenge of enduring point and goal droughts.
“Through that first year I went through a lot of ups and downs and I think that tested my mental strength,” Bellows said. “Carrying that over into this year was huge. Especially with that start that I had. I was playing well, like I said. Just going through that mental grind when you’re not scoring or pucks aren’t going your way, just not getting down on yourself. I’ve learned a lot just from that last year.”
With consistency on their side as the Sound Tigers are nearing a fully healthy roster and beginning to string a few wins back together, the team is confident in their ability to make a push in the second half. Players like Bellows, who are hitting their stride and radiating confidence, will be assets as Bridgeport looks to continue ascending in the standings.