Weekend notebook: Better health, better results for T’birds

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

Better health has meant better results of late in Springfield.

Carrying a four-game losing streak with them to the Midwest, the Thunderbirds swept a three-game gauntlet through Milwaukee, Rockford and Grand Rapids. Springfield enters the weekend in seventh place in the Atlantic Division, but just two points behind the logjam of Lehigh Valley, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Bridgeport, who are all tied for fourth.

Earlier this month, the Thunderbirds saw the return of a top-line presence in Matthew Peca, who made his season debut Jan. 13 following offseason shoulder surgery. A force on the club’s run to the Calder Cup Finals last spring with 16 points in 18 playoff games, Peca has contributed five assists through his first six contests this season.

In addition to Peca, injuries have cost Springfield the services of Luke Witkowski, Nathan Todd, Mathias Laferriere, Griffin Luce and captain Tommy Cross for long stretches this season.

Last weekend, Springfield got forward Nikita Alexandrov back in its lineup after a three-week recall to the St. Louis Blues. Alexandrov assisted on the tying goal and scored the overtime winner in last Saturday’s victory at Grand Rapids. Defenseman Steven Santini also returned to the Thunderbirds from St. Louis this week.

“Overall we’ve been really positive [about] the way we’ve played battling through the amount of injuries that we’ve had this year,” said head coach Drew Bannister. “Our guys did an outstanding job of moving forward.”

Springfield hosts Belleville tonight and Saturday at MassMutual Center.


A North Division rivalry takes center stage when the Cleveland Monsters host the Laval Rocket in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week on Saturday (7 ET).

The Rocket, 3-0-1-1 in their last five games, sit fifth in the North, with the Monsters only four points back with three games in hand. The teams begin their two-game weekend match-up tonight at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

🏒 The AHL saw seven more players make their NHL debuts in the past week, bringing the season total to 50 AHL graduates.

Last Saturday, Rockford’s Jaxson Stauber led the Chicago Blackhawks to a 5-3 win at St. Louis, stopping 29 shots in his first career NHL appearance. That same night, Calgary Wranglers forward Jakob Pelletier saw his first action with the NHL Flames, skating in their home game against Tampa Bay.

On Monday, Bridgeport’s AHL All-Star defenseman Samuel Bolduc headed to the parent New York Islanders and made his NHL debut at Toronto. Rockford’s Luke Philp joined the Blackhawks for his first NHL game on Tuesday in Vancouver, and Tucson’s Milos Kelemen debuted with the Arizona Coyotes as they hosted Anaheim.

Rounding out the group were a pair of rookie forwards, Will Cuylle and Ridly Greig, on Wednesday night. Cuylle, who will be representing Hartford and next week’s AHL All-Star Classic, made his debut with the New York Rangers in his hometown of Toronto, while Greig debuted with Ottawa and picked up an assist in their 2-1 win over the Islanders.

🏒 In Hartford, the Wolf Pack will continue their season-long quest for consistency this weekend.

Last weekend, the club rebounded from a 5-3 loss to Providence on Friday with a convincing win over Rochester on Saturday and an impressive comeback victory over the Bruins on Sunday. But Wednesday, they allowed three goals in the opening 7:28 and fell to Bridgeport, 6-2. Hartford has earned points in nine of its last 11 games (5-2-2-2), but still sits last in the remarkably tight Atlantic Division.

“I don’t have an answer,” goaltender Louis Domingue said of the team’s inconsistency. “It’s been clearly hard trying to get out of the bottom. We had a good chance doing that [Wednesday], and we couldn’t do it.”

Said head coach Kris Knoblauch, “We were absolutely flat. I think everyone wants good things to happen. Their minds are in the right place, but there’s ultimately just the difference of coming and competing [versus] just being there.”

The good news for the club is that only two points separate the eighth-place Wolf Pack from the fourth-place Lehigh Valley Phantoms going into this weekend. The Wolf Pack head back to Providence tonight before Syracuse visits the XL Center on Saturday.

🏒 Before the Crunch go to Hartford, they get another crack at the Utica Comets.

The I-90 rivals met only twice in the first three months of the season, but they have been making up for that lost time with three match-ups in a six-day span last week, with Syracuse earning two wins and an overtime loss. And after tonight, they meet again Feb. 1 in Utica.

The Crunch enter their three-in-three weekend, which concludes in Providence on Sunday, with a 5-0-1-0 mark in their last six games. The Comets won the completion of their suspended game with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Tuesday before a 4-0 loss to Charlotte on Wednesday.

🏒 Belleville faces another bit of adversity in net this weekend, with Antoine Bibeau and Mads Sogaard dealing with injuries and Kevin Mandolese called up to Ottawa on Thursday.

The Senators appear to be headed into their weekend trip to Springfield with a goalie tandem of second-year pros and ECHL call-ups Logan Flodell and Luke Peressini. Flodell played three games with Belleville earlier this season.

🏒 AHL All-Star Anthony Richard continues to make his case with the Laval Rocket.

Signed by the Montreal Canadiens in the offseason, Richard is tied for fourth in the AHL with 20 goals — just four off his career high — in only 34 games. Earlier this season he earned seven games with the Habs and recorded his first NHL goal Dec. 21. Now back with the Rocket, that most recent NHL stint left him confident. He gained ice time, reaching a high of 13:46 at Tampa Bay on Dec. 28.

Injuries have pummeled the Montreal lineup lately, but Richard has been handling his business with the Rocket, picking up nine points (two goals, seven assists) in seven outings since returning to Laval.

“I know when I get the chance I [have got] the skills to play there,” Richard said, “and it’s just a matter of when I get back there and stay there.”

🏒 A blistering start has given way to a more level go of late, but you will not see even-keeled Milwaukee Admirals head coach Karl Taylor get rattled.

The Admirals won 14 of their first 19 games to start the season, but are 8-9-1-2 since then. All-Star forward Tommy Novak remains on recall to the Nashville Predators, and Mark Jankowski and Juuso Parssinen seemingly have stuck with Nashville following strong early-season runs with Milwaukee.

Last weekend the Admirals took three of four points from a two-game visit to Iowa, ending the Wild’s six-game home winning streak. Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win pleased Taylor, but did it relieve any pressure? Not really.

“Pressure’s what you create on your own, in my opinion,” Taylor said. “So, did we need to win? Sure. But we’re in a good spot, and we have guys elevated in our lineup playing a bigger role. Sometimes that is a challenging situation for guys to grab that opportunity when it’s presented.

“Pressure’s there every day. I don’t think there’s any relief.”

🏒 Bakersfield Condors goaltender Calvin Pickard finally feels like his season is on the tracks.

An offseason signing by the Edmonton Oilers, Pickard had gotten into an early groove when he sustained an ankle injury Nov. 15 against Colorado. Losing a premier veteran hurt the Condors, who were 7-3-1-0 before the injury but lost 14 of 18 without Pickard in the crease.

Pickard was walking shortly after the injury and initially thought that his time out of the lineup would be minimal.

“I figured I was only going to [need] a week or two, but it was a long process,” Pickard said, crediting Condors head athletic trainer Josh Bennett, strength and conditioning coach Travis Lay, assistant athletic trainer Corey Dirks and the rest of the club’s support staff with his rehabilitation process.

“It was a tough recovery.”

Healthy for much of his career, Pickard also put in work with goaltending coach Sylvain Rodrigue and returned Jan. 4 by stopping 46 shots in a 3-2 win over Ontario. He had a six-day recall to Edmonton, and has since gotten back into a busy routine in Bakersfield with four starts in eight nights.

“I’ve been feeling good,” Pickard said.

🏒 Stung repeatedly by injuries this season, the San Diego Gulls are last in the AHL with a 12-29-0-0 mark. But head coach Roy Sommer sees hope, reporting that there is a “good chance” captain Chase De Leo could return after the AHL All-Star break. De Leo has been out injured since scoring two goals on opening night in Grand Rapids, and his return would immediately add a first-line threat back to the San Diego lineup.

Another major offseason signing was forward Justin Kirkland, who has been limited to 19 AHL games by injuries and time with the parent Anaheim Ducks. At one point the Gulls counted nine players out of their lineup.

Veteran Michael Del Zotto also been a significant addition in San Diego. Coming over from the Florida organization in a three-team deal on Dec. 19, the veteran of 736 NHL games stabilized the Gulls blue line and enabled Sommer to lighten some of the workload for other defensemen, like Nikolas Brouillard.

“When things started falling apart back there, [he] could go back there and get things back in shape again,” Sommer said. “We just [had not] had that guy.”

🏒 Hershey Bears fans will go for another world record Sunday afternoon when the club hosts its annual Teddy Bear Toss. Last season the Bears collected a record 52,341 teddy bears and other stuffed toys, all of which made their way to more than 35 local charities.

If Hershey fans can break that record this Sunday, the Sweigart Family Foundation announced that it will donate $50,000 to Children’s Miracle Network.


🗣️ “Old and young, is what it makes me feel like. I don’t fancy myself [as] old. It’s been great having the youthful energy. Every day [they] make me feel like a young person with the energy and passion that they bring to the rink, and it’s rubbed off on our guys.”

— Coachella Valley head coach Dan Bylsma on working with assistant coaches Jessica Campbell and Stu Bickel along with goaltending coach Colin Zulianello. The parent Seattle Kraken constructed the coaching staff last summer for the Firebirds’ first AHL season.