SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The Springfield Thunderbirds are on a mission as the 2022-23 American Hockey League season winds down, and their objective is to prove that their improved roster makes them a threat in the playoffs. The defending Eastern Conference Champions have gone through plenty of challenges, with roster instability being the foremost concern, and had a measuring-stick game at home on Friday. Their opponent, the Providence Bruins, has been one of the top teams in the Atlantic Division for most of the campaign, and the Thunderbirds answered the bell with a 6-3 win. Vadim Zherenko turned in 32 saves in the win while Kyle Keyser took the loss with 35 stops.
The stage was set nicely as the Thunderbirds played host to their Pink the Rink Night, aptly calling the night “Cross-Check Cancer” with the ice a slightly tinted shade of pink. Springfield had a total team effort on the ice that got started just one minute and four seconds into the game. Matthew Peca and company went to work on a failed outlet pass, with the high-scoring forward setting up Martin Frk for a blast to the back of the net for his 23rd of the campaign. Frk, who previously won the AHL’s Hardest Shot contest with a blistering 109.2 MPH shot back in 2020, is the ideal man for such a shot to get the home fans on their feet early.
Springfield doubled their lead by the midpoint of the first period when Adam Gaudette made a clever behind-the-back pass to Hugh McGing over the blue line, giving the forward a lane to net with two Bruins going to Gaudette. McGing let the shot fly and beat Keyser to the blocker side for his 11th on the season.
Providence responded minutes later when Oskar Steen deflected a shot from Michael Callahan to cut the lead to one, but Springfield would regain the two-goal edge going into the intermission as Matthew Kessel’s point shot found twine through a maze of bodies through Keyser.
It looked like the Bruins would mount a comeback with the only goal of the second period with a goal nearly identical to their first as Callahan fired a shot that Steen deflected past Zherenko to reduce the lead to one. Keyser kept the Thunderbirds at bay with a pair of gorgeous stops on Peca, one on a power play blast and the other on a two-on-one rush with Frk. However, the Thunderbirds dissuaded their notion of a comeback just 19 seconds into the third as Kessel wound up for a big slap shot that Gaudette deflected in for his 21st goal on the year.
WE'RE JUST LOVING 4 GOAL GAMES LATELY pic.twitter.com/gICBh1N0qs
— Springfield Thunderbirds (@ThunderbirdsAHL) March 11, 2023
Gaudette, who the St. Louis Blues acquired as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade before the deadline, has 218 games of National Hockey League experience to his name and had been making his mark with the Toronto Marlies this season with 34 points in 40 games played. The tally on Friday was his first in ten games in Springfield since the trade and his three-point night earned him first star honors. Springfield furthered their lead when Greg Printz read a pass at his own blue line, catching up to the puck and feeding Mitchell Hoelscher to make it five goals for the Thunderbirds.
Although Providence went down, they did their utmost to try and catch up in this one, cutting the lead to two goals and firing 17 shots on Zherenko in the third period. Springfield’s netminder stood tall and Peca would seal the game on an empty-net goal.
It’s a big win for Springfield to keep pace in the Atlantic Division as both teams around them in the standings took wins on Friday, with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms capturing a win and the Charlotte Checkers nabbing two points. Providence was able to break a trend in their last four games of only scoring one goal, but unfortunately continued another by allowing six goals. The Bruins have allowed five or more goals in four of their last six games, an unusual occurrence for a typically strong defensive team. Providence had top scoring forward Vinni Lettieri in the lineup for the first time since late January, and his presence will go a long way towards helping out their offense.
The Bruins are feeling the heat in the standings with a win for the Charlotte Checkers cutting the lead for second place down to just three points, but the Checkers have the most games played of any team in the division. Providence enters a crucial set of games at home on Saturday and Sunday against the division-leading Hershey Bears to try and right the ship. There will be some interesting divisional play at hand on Saturday with the Thunderbirds playing host to the Laval Rocket to try closing the gap on the top teams in the division further and cement home ice in the play-in round of the playoffs.
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