Bridgeport Sound Tigers at Lehigh Valley Phantoms, SATURDAY, 7:05 P.M. Gibson helps bring optimism to Sound Tigers
BRIDGEPORT — Though the Bridgeport Sound Tigers loaded up with some key veterans for their 18th season, a lot of the faces are familiar, though one of the more important familiar faces has it covered by a mask all night long.
Christopher Gibson could’ve gone anywhere this summer. The goaltender stuck with the New York Islanders.
“I really like this organization,” Gibson said Friday before the Sound Tigers got on the bus to Allentown, Pa., where they’ll meet the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Saturday night.
“Ever since I got traded here (in 2015), they’ve treated me really well. I wanted to come back. It’s a good thing I came back.”
Additions like Chris Bourque, Mike Sislo and (out injured) Matt Lorito, joining some solid holdovers and a defense corps full of young prospects, have made the Sound Tigers optimistic about their chances not just to break a two-year drought without playoff hockey, but to make a run into the spring.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys, and it’s a good group of guys,” Gibson said. “It’s nice to start the season on the road and get even closer as a team.”
They’ll go on to Hershey on Sunday before returning home to prepare for the Oct. 13 home opener.
“It’s what everybody’s been waiting for, to start the season,” captain Ben Holmstrom said. “Going through training camp, preseason games, it seems to start to drag on after a little bit. It’s great to have points on the line and start working our way toward our ultimate goal.”
Bridgeport and the parent Islanders lengthened the lineup so far that the Sound Tigers roster runs afoul of the AHL’s veteran rule to start the season. Six players qualify as veterans, and only five can play on a given night.
Still, having that experience can help an organization develop young players.
“Guys like Holmstrom, (returning defenseman Seth) Helgeson, there are a lot of veteran guys here to help the young guys,” rookie Kieffer Bellows said this week, “learning the ways of treating yourself off the ice, on the ice, just the little habits you need to know for professional hockey.”
The entire coaching staff returns, too, led by coach Brent Thompson, beginning his sixth Bridgeport season, and assistant Eric Boguniecki, in his eighth.
“For me, being here, it’s the third year now working with Brent, and some of the things I think he’s very good at doing are developing players, instilling the work ethic that he’s instilled in the team,” Bridgeport general manager Chris Lamoriello said earlier in training camp. “The first year (2016-17, the team earned) 92 points and not being able to get in the playoffs because of the format.”
It’s the same format this year as 2016-17, when Bridgeport’s point total would’ve won the North Division but left them fifth in the Atlantic, where it counted.
The Sound Tigers will have knock off at least one of Lehigh Valley, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Providence or Charlotte to make the playoffs while holding off Hartford, Springfield and Hershey.
With Gibson, who had the AHL’s 11th-best goals-against average last year at 2.42, and veteran free-agent signing Jeremy Smith, they have a good start in goal.
“Having Gibby back is a huge asset. Our goaltending is great. With him and Smith, I think we’ve improved. It gives the Islanders the depth they want,” Thompson said.
“We know each other. He knows the team, he knows the system and he knows the expectation. That’s something that’s always good to have.”
Gibson missed most of 2016-17 with a knee injury, so last year, it was nice to play more than six games, he said with a grin. He played eight in the NHL, too, on top of his 37 AHL games, which was a confidence booster.
And though his age (25) and lack of NHL playing time made him an unrestricted free agent, here he is again, beginning a two-year contract that he signed even before he knew Bridgeport might load up. “
“I hadn’t talked to anyone. I was so focused on my own thing,” Gibson said. “I’m really happy to be back.”
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