📝 by Patrick Williams
The Springfield Thunderbirds have that special something.
Head coach Drew Bannister sees it. So does goaltender Charlie Lindgren. And no less than James Neal, he of 869 National Hockey League games and two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, can pinpoint it as well.
Lots of teams have talent, the Thunderbirds among them. But Springfield also has that all-for-one mindset that any serious Calder Cup contender must possess. A win tonight on home ice against the Laval Rocket in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals (7 ET, AHLTV) would take that mission one step closer.
Neal is an alternate captain in Springfield, as he was in the NHL with Nashville and Vegas. Captain Tommy Cross also donned a “C” for three years with the Providence Bruins. Luke Witkowski, acquired at the NHL trade deadline by the parent St. Louis Blues from Detroit, is a former Syracuse Crunch captain. Calle Rosen won a Calder Cup with the Toronto Marlies. Sam Anas is a former AHL scoring champion, and Steven Santini and Mackenzie MacEachern have both played more than 100 games in the NHL.
“I just think it’s just the leadership within our group,” Bannister said of his club’s ability to bear down even at difficult times ― such as a 2-0 deficit in Game 5 at Place Bell from which the Thunderbirds eventually rallied for a 3-2 overtime win.
Neal first sensed what this group of Blues prospects might have when he attended training camp last fall in St. Louis on a professional tryout deal. Soon most of those prospects, like Joel Hofer, Nikita Alexandrov, Dakota Joshua, Tyler Tucker and Klim Kostin, found their way to Springfield. Neal played 19 games in the NHL before heading to Springfield himself in February, and he endorses what the Blues have going in Springfield.
“It’s really good,” Neal said of the Thunderbirds’ camaraderie. “I had a great sense right from the start in St. Louis when I was at camp with these guys [and] then coming down and playing with them and getting to know them all very well. It’s a great group of guys. They’re winners in there.
“They’re good dudes, and we have a lot of fun playing with each other. We want to keep this thing rolling. Right from day one, it’s been good to get to know them and play with them.”
But the Thunderbirds are more than just a likable group off the ice. Those “good dudes” Neal speaks of also carry that approach to the ice. A common sentiment centered around the Thunderbirds is their on-ice adaptability, their ability to shift to changing conditions and challenges posed by opponents.
Doing so, however, requires everyone on the game roster on a given night to adjust accordingly.
“I think our biggest strength is that we can play any style you want us to play,” said Bitten, one of the most versatile players in a lineup full of them.
“If it’s skating, we’ve got that. If it’s physical, we’ve got that. Whatever it is, we can shut it down. But we can score goals. We defend well, and we’ve got two number-one goalies [in Lindgren and Hofer]. It’s from the bottom to the top. Everyone’s doing their job.
“We’re all bought-in.”
Whatever may happen tonight, in a possible Game 7 that would be Wednesday, or even beyond in a potential move into the Calder Cup Finals, the Thunderbirds have fostered an environment that will serve these players well in the future ― be that in St. Louis, Springfield, or elsewhere.
“Every single guy in that locker room,” Lindgren said, “will do whatever it takes to win.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.