UNIONDALE, NY-Without scanning the ticket stub, fans entering the Nassau Coliseum might have been confused. Three nights after the Islanders won the No. 1 overall draft pick through the lottery, there was post-season hockey in Uniondale.
Kyle Okposo was in uniform, making him one of 14 players on the roster who spent time with the Islanders this season. But with no postseason for the NHL team this season, the Coliseum opened its doors to the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the first two games of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Okposo, the Islanders leading scorer as a rookie, still has options remaining and the club sent him down to gain experience in playoff situations. But even the talented winger’s addition couldn’t help Bridgeport, which fell behind by three goals before its comeback attempt fell short in a 3-2 loss to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in Game 1 of East Division Semifinals.
Bridgeport looked a step slow for little more than the game’s first half. The baby Penguins scored two first-period power play goals, including a tally just 1:22 into the contest.
Trevor Smith, who scored one goal in seven games as Islander call-up this season, countered with a goal and assisted on another in in a 2:27 span to cut the deficit to one before the second intermission. Scranton goalie John Curry turned aside all 15 shots he faced in the third, making 30 saves in total to put the Penguins ahead, 1-0, in the best-of-seven series.
“We just couldn’t get a timely goal in the third period,” Bridgeport coach Jack Capuano said. “We hit a post and had an empty net-we just couldn’t get a bounce.”
Chris Minard put the Penguins on the scoreboard 82 seconds in against Sound Tigers goalie Nathan Lawson ( 22 saves). The winger appeared to whack the puck in with a high-stick and the in-house replays showed his stick was above the crossbar. But the AHL has no video replay system and the goal stood.
Dustin Jeffrey added a goal with 1:09 remaining the period, beating a screened Lawson off Luca Caputi’s crisp pass to make it 2-0. Caputi was on the other end of a good feed 10:58 into the second. Tim Wallace threaded a centering pass right to Caputi after the winger skated behind defenseman Joe Callahan, allowing him to complete the easy one-timer for a 3-0 Penguins lead. Jeffrey picked up the secondary assist, giving him a two-point night along with Caputi.
While Okposo was held off the scoresheet, Smith responded almost four minutes later and added the assist on Rob Hennigar’s goal. Smith led the Sound Tigers with 30 goals in the regular season and displayed those offense skills in front of an announced crowd of 4,927.
“We were getting the chances. I don’t think we were fatigued at all,” Smith said about needing to exert effort in forging a comeback. “We were there right to the end and it came down to a few bounces.”
Mike Iggulden dug the puck out the corner amid heavy pressure before passing it back to an open Smith in the slot, allowing him to bear Curry on Bridgeport’s 16th shot. Smith also picked up the secondary assist minutes later, setting up a give-and-go play between Iggulden and Hennigar that culminated with Hennigar using his stick blade to deflect a shot into the net’s open right side to make it 3-2 with a full period left.
Defenseman Jack Hillen recorded three of the Sound Tigers’ better third-period chances. With almost five minutes remaining, he pinched in and tipped a rebound that came loose in the crease towards the goal line. Curry dived back and two defenders poked their sticks to deflect the puck out as Bridgeport was inches away from tying the score.
“I’m not sure if I missed it or it bounced on me,” Hillen said. “I got a little bit of it and when I went to hit it again and the guy’s stick came out and blocked it. It was a nice desperation play.”
Just minutes earlier, Hillen nearly tied it after intercepting a pass at the blue line before slicing through the defense. Curry prevented the defenseman from completing the athletic play, using his pad to redirect a hard wrist shot and maintain the one-goal advantage. For good measure, Hillen’s shot clanged off the iron with 1:40 left.
“I was trying to get a shot to the net and it went off the guys’ stick and hit the crossbar,” Hillen said. “It just wasn’t going our way all night. A lot of guys had good opportunities. If we keep playing like that, though, it should be good for us
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the rest of the series.”
Unlike the NHL, playing three games on three consecutive days is common in the regular season. That grueling schedule extends into the playoffs, with Game 2 Saturday at the Coliseum before moving to Scranton on Sunday with the third game.
“It’s different,” Hillen said. “You don’t have to that in the NHL, but in college you play three-in-three. I’ve done it before. It’ll be no excuse. It’s not a big deal.”