The Springfield Falcons have three games left to play in a season where they will finish with the most wins and probably the best winning percentage since joining the American Hockey League during the 1994-1995 season. The way the team has played this season has been nothing short of impressive. With the NHL locked out to start the season, this team benefited with a number of players. However, the NHL announced that they were starting back up halfway through the AHL season and that was when the Falcons showed how strong they really were. On January 12th, they went on a six game winning streak and have not gone more than two games without at least a point for the entire season.
Looking at the success of this group, it has definitely been a full team effort with players stepping up as needed. One player that has been consistently wowing, would be veteran goaltender Curtis McElhinney. In just 47 starts so far this season, he has recorded an amazing nine shutouts. Despite his impressive numbers, he remains humble and puts a lot of the credit for the success on the efforts of the team as a whole.
“There have been a lot of blocked shots in front of me. I would give a lot of credit to the people playing out front,” McElhinney said humbly of his season. “For myself there have been only a few small changes.”
Another important factor to note is first year head coach, Brad Larsen. Larsen was an assistant coach in Springfield from 2010-2012 before earning the promotion to head coach for the 2012-2013 season. Prior to coaching, he spent 12 seasons playing professional hockey in the AHL and NHL. Nolan Pratt returned for his second year as an assistant coach with the Falcons. He brings 16 seasons of experience playing professional hockey, 12 of which were in either the AHL or NHL. Between Larsen and Pratt, they have 886 NHL games played under their belts. Rounding out the team is assistant coach Jared Bednar who has played 9 seasons of professional hockey primarily between the ECHL and AHL. These three have been a big part of the success of the team. There have been a lot of call-ups to contend with during the second half of the season, but the team has continued to win. Despite that, the coaches still put the emphasis on the players and the fact that nobody wants to let up.
“The players put a lot of work into getting that position in the playoffs. At the end of the day, nobody is satisfied. There are still games and then the playoffs,” said Larsen.
This has been a team that worked hard and refused to place the credit on any one member. They have also been fortunate to be led by veteran captain Ryan Craig. He currently sits at third on the team in points (47) and tied for first in goals (20) with Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. Craig returned to the organization after having been a Falcon during the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons. It is clear that everyone in the organization respects their captain and really enjoys playing with him. With 190 games in the NHL, he has a lot to offer and can really help shape the game his teammates play.
Although it is sometimes an overlooked statistic, the Falcons have two players gracing the top fifteen in the league in plus/minus rating. One is Jonathan Audy-Marchessault who participated in the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic and was recently named to the 2012-2013 AHL First All-Star team. The other is defenseman and assistant captain Nick Holden. It might not seem as important a measure of success as goals or assists, but it shows that good things happen with those players on the ice. Audy-Marchessault leads the team with 20 goals and 44 assists in 71 games this season. Nick Holden is third on the team in assists with 30. In the three games from April 5th to April 7th, Holden recorded 7 assists.
“I think I just got lucky and got secondary assists,” Holden joked of the 7-assist weekend. “I think a lot of guys are plus because we’ve been good defensively and we’re scoring lots of goals.”
This is going to be the first playoff trip fans in Springfield have seen since the 2002-2003 season, when the team lost in the first round. The team has not made it past the first the 1996-1997 season. There are also a number of players on the team that have not had the chance to take part in a playoff game yet in their professional careers. It offers an entirely different atmosphere to regular season games and it is something everyone on the team is looking forward to.
“It’s nice to win and clinch the division. For the city of Springfield and the franchise, it’s great,” Holden said. “Obviously our goal is to win. I’m just excited to have the chance to play for the first time in the pros. I’m excited to see what we can do with this team.”
The Falcons were the first team to clinch their division, but that did not mean that they were willing to let up at all. This past weekend they had another three games and went 2-1 on the weekend. The Providence Bruins, who sit atop the conference, handed them a 2-0 loss on Saturday night. It has been important to Brad Larsen and the rest of the team to keep playing their game so that they do not lose any momentum. Making the playoffs for the first time in ten years is something that the team definitely celebrated. However, they have been a team that worked hard all season and that was certainly not something that would change through the end of the regular season.
“It’s just about worrying about ourselves,” Coach Larsen said. “We can’t control other teams and what they’re going to do. It’s just about making sure we’re all on the same page and still bringing compete.”
With it being the end of the season, the Falcons currently have 30 players listed on the roster on their website, including 3 goaltenders. This means that some players do not get into as many games as others. For some of those players, they get a little bit of extra attention at practice. At the end of practice, the Falcons have what they call their 3 on 3 where the coaches take on three of the players that have not been cracking the line-up lately. Last week Larsen, Pratt, and Bednar took on forwards Nathan Moon, Cody Bass, and Tim Spencer. The mood is light but that does not mean that they do not keep score. In fact, lately the coaches have been victorious far more than their players.
The Falcons only have three games left on their schedule before they start the playoffs. They are currently in second place in the conference and are not out of the race for the top spot. It might be only a slim chance as they are four points behind the Bruins, but the two teams do square off this weekend. If the Bruins are able to win that game, it will seal the conference for them. The AHL season comes to an end on Sunday, April 21st. Springfield closes their season on the road in Adirondack on Saturday, April 20th. Then it comes to the most exciting time of the hockey season, the playoffs which will be kicking off the following weekend. Springfield will hope to bring the Calder Cup home for the first time in franchise history.
Photo Credit: masslive.com