Springfield Thunderbirds face Laval — with a trip to the Calder Cup Finals on the line
The Springfield Thunderbirds continue their run in the American Hockey League playoffs Saturday night. They'll host the Laval Rocket in the Eastern Conference Finals, and a series victory would vault them into the finals.
Not bad for a franchise that is making its first playoff appearance, and a city that nearly lost professional hockey in 2016.
The Thunderbirds have yet to lose through six postseason games.
The team's broadcaster, Ryan Smith, said the team's success this year does not come down to any single thing.
Ryan Smith, Springfield Thunderbirds broadcaster: And I mean that in a great way. They've really locked things down defensively when they needed to. When they need to get big goals in games, they seem to find a way to get them. Everything seems to start from the goaltending crease out with this team though.
It's hard to be playing much better hockey than what Joel Hofer is doing right now in the goal crease for Springfield. Charlie Lindgren was called up to St. Louis before the start of the Charlotte series. So, really for the first time in a long time, it was one goaltender's job to really run with. Joel, for being a 21-year-old rookie, he did everything and more than this team could have possibly asked for in round two.
And between Joel Hofer's success and the balanced offensive attack, I could go down the list and there's just a laundry list of players contributing. Sam Anas and Matthew Peca, they've been the catalyst and the firestarters all season offensively.
Adam Frenier, NEPM: The Thunderbirds play the Laval Rocket. The two teams split a pair of games this season. As you get ready for the Eastern Conference Finals beginning Saturday night, what's your take on this matchup?
It's an interesting one because obviously when you play in Atlantic Division team against the North Division team, there's not as much familiarity there in the matchup. What's really stood out for me about Laval throughout this season and in the postseason is they are just such a well-coached team. Their head coach J.F. Houle, I believe, is in his first season there with the Rocket and he has really gotten his team to buy into playing a defensively sound system.
You look up and down their roster and they don't have a name that really jumps out at the page at you the way that a James Neal, Matthew Peca, Sam Anas stands out on the Springfield side of things. But the other thing that really stands out for Laval is, a lot like the T-Birds, they have two goaltenders that they can rely upon at all times. It's an interesting matchup — two teams that really are going to, to some extent, learn each other's games pretty much on the fly over the first 10 minutes of Game 1.
For Springfield to reach the Calder Cup Finals, Ryan, what are they going to need to do against Laval to win the four games that they're going to need to win?
Well, the copout answer here, Adam, is to say, 'Whatever you've been doing in the first two rounds, whatever the routine is, whatever the strategy is, whatever everything is that went into the first six games of the playoffs, don't change a thing.' Because it would be awfully hard for any team to knock off the T-Birds the way they are playing right now. And the T-Birds have been one of the best home-ice teams in the AHL all season. They haven't lost at home yet in the postseason. They have home-ice advantage in this series.
T-Birds have also shown that they can win in Laval, which is a big confidence booster for them. Laval was the, I believe, the best home team in the North Division during the regular season. So, it wouldn't shock me in the slightest if home-ice advantage really comes into play in this series as it goes along.
Do I think the T-Birds have a third straight sweep in them? It's awfully hard, just for the sheer law of averages perspective, to expect another sweep. I would expect this series to take a little bit more than four games to get it done. But, at the same time, if the T-Birds keep doing what they did in the first two rounds, will I be surprised if they manage to pull the trick a third time? Not at all.