Kessel showing growth just two months into pro career

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

Pressure is becoming rather routine for defenseman Matt Kessel and the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Springfield endured three overtime games with Laval in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning two of them. They prevailed in a Game 7 against the Rocket, a 4-0 masterpiece to secure their place in the Calder Cup Finals against Chicago.

So while the Thunderbirds found themselves in a third-period hole to the Wolves in Game 1 of the Finals yesterday, they were also in a familiar space.

They dug in. They went to work. Just 24 seconds after Stefan Noesen’s insurance goal made it 4-2 in favor of the Wolves in the opening minute of the third, Thunderbirds captain Tommy Cross put a shot through net-front coverage and past Wolves goaltender Alex Lyon. Then with 1:28 to go in regulation, a left-side shot from Springfield blueliner Brady Lyle eluded traffic in front of Lyon for a four-all tie.

In his 29th game with Springfield following three seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Kessel picked an opportune moment for his first pro goal. Accompanying an entry into the Chicago zone as a trailer, Kessel took a short feed from James Neal before stepping into a shot that beat Lyon at 5:09 of overtime, giving the Thunderbirds a 5-4 win and a 1-0 series lead.

Kessel’s goal dealt the Wolves their first home playoff loss. Game 2 is tonight at Allstate Arena (8 ET, AHLTV).

“What I like about this group is we don’t talk a lot,” Cross said of his team before Game 1. “I think we’re pretty matter-of-fact. We take it upon ourselves to make sure that we’re as close to our ‘A’ game as possible and try to outplay the other team. And then we move on to the next one. I don’t think we overthink it. I think that simplicity has served us well.

“As the playoffs have gone on, we’ve reset after every round, but we still have that quiet confidence that we’ve had all year.”

With that mentality, the Thunderbirds have been able to usher in a new key piece of their lineup like Kessel quite efficiently.

Two days after UMass lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, ending Kessel’s junior season, he had his name on a two-year, entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues and an assignment to Springfield, 25 miles down the road from Amherst.

Kessel, who will turn 22 on Thursday, was a fifth-round pick by the Blues in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft.

Postseason pressure has become something familiar for Kessel, who had 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 37 games at UMass this season and took a spot as a Hockey East Third Team All-Star. Last season as a sophomore, he won a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament Team in helping Massachusetts to claim the 2021 national championship. Three years before that in the United States Hockey League, he won the Clark Cup with Sioux Falls before advancing to the college level.

“During his time at UMass, Matt went from a low-key defensive player to one of the best and toughest two-way defensemen in college hockey,” Massachusetts head coach Greg Carvel said following Kessel’s signing with St. Louis. “His discipline, maturity, and consistency of character made him an important part of the championship teams he played on and led.”

Kessel made his pro debut with the Thunderbirds on Apr. 1 and put in 15 regular-season games, picking up three assists. In a pairing with Cross, he quickly has become a regular in the Springfield defensive rotation, playing all 14 Calder Cup Playoff games so far.

“It’s been great,” Kessel said. “All the guys here have made the transition super easy. It was also nice being just 30 minutes away from my school, so it’s not a totally new area.

Springfield head coach Drew Bannister’s words similarly echo those of Carvel.

“Constant growth,” Bannister said of Kessel following Game 1. “It’s been unreal. Playoffs have been so good for our young players… It’s amazing where he’s come.”

Chicago did and still does present a substantial obstacle to the Calder Cup for the Thunderbirds, who are now just three wins from that title. But Cross and the Thunderbirds have been believers long before this Game 1 victory.

“We’ve always been a pretty confident group,” Cross explained. “We had a good season, and we matched up against some of the top teams in our division. There was always kind of a quiet confidence in our game.

“We’ve always said, ‘Let’s play our best.’ If we play our best, we like our chances.”