Fresh start paying off for Peca

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

“We’re playing T-birds hockey.”

That is the simple and to-the-point quote from Springfield Thunderbirds Game 1 hero Matthew Peca, much like the type of hockey that his team has played all season. The Thunderbirds employ a direct, up-and-down game, and it earned them a come-from-behind 2-1 overtime win against the Laval Rocket in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night.

Net-front tips. Board battles. Outmuscling opponents. More can be expected from Springfield in Game 2 between the clubs tonight (5:05 ET, AHLTV), just 18.5 hours after Game 1 ended.

“We understand the stakes, and everybody’s just going out there and elevating their play,” said Peca, whose overtime strike on a slick feed from defenseman Matthew Kessel gave Springfield its seventh straight win to begin the postseason.

“We did what we needed to do, and that was not changing anything. I thought we were pretty adamant in the locker room that we were playing really good hockey.”

Peca, an elite two-way center who can play top-line minutes in any role, can speak to the elevated standard of play that the Calder Cup Playoffs demand. After all, he has been this far into the Calder Cup Playoffs and more. He and the Syracuse Crunch went to Game 6 of the 2017 Calder Cup Finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins, an experience that honed a comfort level with the pressure and minimal margin for error that is June hockey. In that run five years ago, Peca played a significant shutdown role for the Crunch while also contributing 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) on a 22-game playoff journey.

“[The] biggest thing I learned was just keeping your composure,” Peca said. “There are so many things that happen through a playoff series, game, shift, you name it. You’re going to go through some adversity. So, it’s just about keeping your cool.”

Peca put together another fine regular season in which he supplied 60 points (23 goals, 37 points) in 68 games for Springfield while also playing five games on recall for the parent St. Louis Blues. Last night’s game-winning goal gave Peca 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in seven playoff games.

With the Blues possessing a deep, experienced lineup this season, recall spots were not easily found for St. Louis prospects. Peca signed last summer with the Blues following the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic that had challenged many players in roles similar to his last season. He took to the stability that this season in Springfield provided.

“It was a little bit of a fresh start in the sense that I had more of an understanding and idea of where I was going to play, what my role was, how I wanted to play to fit in [with] a team and help the team win,” Peca explained.

“For me, it was just keep your head down and work hard, and I wasn’t overly worried about call-ups or anything, and I think it benefited me.”

Now those months of work have earned Peca and the Thunderbirds a chance to pursue a Calder Cup.

“We’re a composed group,” Peca said. “We work extremely hard, and my favorite thing about it is that it hasn’t really been talked about all that much. It hasn’t exactly been addressed in the locker room.

“It’s just expected of us.”