BRIDGEPORT, CT - The Bridgeport Sound Tigers (24-17-4-2), proud affiliate of the New York Islanders, scored at least five goals for the ninth time this season, but suffered a 5-4 setback to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (25-16-3-2) at Webster Bank Arena on Friday.
Steve Bernier found the back of the net twice and Otto Koivula earned a game-high three assists, but the Phantoms had the upper hand with six different scorers and six multi-point efforts, led by Mike Vecchione’s four-point performance (one goal, three assists). Five different Sound Tigers had multiple points for Bridgeport.
Between the pipes, Christopher Gibson (11-9-4) and Jeremy Smith (start - no decision) combined for 25 saves on 31 shots, while Mike McKenna (4-3-0) turned away 33 of the 38 shots he faced in his Phantoms debut. He also set a league record, playing for his 13th different AHL team.
The Sound Tigers (54 points) claimed second place in the Atlantic Division following last Saturday’s win over the Phantoms, but after trading wins over the last week, Lehigh Valley (55 points) reclaimed the No. 2 spot by a one-point margin on Friday.
In their fourth of six meetings this season, it didn’t take long for tempers to flare between Atlantic Division rivals. Seth Helgeson and Tyrell Goulbourne dropped the gloves just 20 seconds into the contest after Goulbourne hit Mitch Vande Sompel deep in Bridgeport’s zone.
The Phantoms built off of that energy and scored three goals before the halfway mark of the opening frame.
Justin Bailey opened the scoring at the 5:39 mark when he potted his 12th of the season as time expired on Kyle Burroughs’ tripping penalty. Although James de Haas’ initial shot missed the net wide right, the puck caromed out to Bailey on the left side, who quickly shoveled a puck off of a lunging Smith and into the net. It was his third straight game with a goal and second in a row against Bridgeport.
Greg Carey made it a 2-0 shortly after when he one-timed Chris Conner’s deceptive backhand feed into the back of the net. The goal was Carey’s team-leading 21st of the season, at the 6:54 mark.
The Phantoms’ sticks stayed hot near the midway mark of the first period when de Haas netted his first goal of the season to extend his team’s lead to 3-0. After catching a pass from Dale Weise (in his first AHL game since April, 2011) on the right wing, de Haas took advantage of a 2-on-1 opportunity and found twine on a low snapshot from the right circle at 9:54. Smith was replaced by Gibson following that tally and the Sound Tigers exited the first period trailing 14-7 in shots on goal.
Bridgeport returned rejuvenated in the second period of play and scored two goals just 28 seconds apart to cut its deficit to one. Vande Sompel got the Sound Tigers on the board first when he caught a cross-ice pass from Helgeson and rifled a shot from the top of the left circle that eluded McKenna. It was Vande Sompel’s seventh of the season and first since Jan. 12 against Hartford, which was converted at the 3:47 mark.
On the ensuing shift, Bridgeport’s defense kept the pedal down on the other side of the ice. Burroughs notched his fourth goal of the season at 4:15 to cut his team’s deficit to 3-2 following great forechecks from the Travis St. Denis, John Stevens and Tanner Fritz line. Burroughs received a pass from Sebastian Aho on the right wing, wound up from the top of the circle, and fired a bullet past McKenna. Stevens – who made his season debut on Friday after missing the first 46 games with an injury – earned his first point with an assist on the play.
The Sound Tigers finished the period on a high note by tying the game at 3-3 with just 18 seconds left. With time running out, Koivula advanced a pass to a streaking Bernier over the line, who fought off a defensem and made a power move to the net. He finished through McKenna’s five-hole for his 13th tally of the season, all while skating on a delayed penalty that was signal back in Bridgeport zone.
The scoring continued early and often in the third period, which saw six combined goals and four from the visitors. Bailey reclaimed Lehigh Valley’s lead just 2:12 into the frame with a quick shot through Gibson’s legs for his second of the evening.
But just over a minute later, Chris Bourque knotted the game at 4-4 when he took Koivula’s no-look pass in the slot and guided a wrist shot past McKenna’s glove in one sweeping motion. Bourque’s marker at 3:40 was his 10th goal of the season, which gives him 11-consecutive seasons with 10 goals or more in his stellar career.
The Phantoms regained their lead at 5:40 when Weise potted his first goal with Lehigh Valley to make it a 5-4 game. Exactly seven minutes later, Lehigh Valley added its sixth of the night when Conner forced a shot past Gibson’s stick for his 12th of the year at 12:40.
Bernier gave the Sound Tigers life at the 16:24 mark when he closed the gap to 6-5 in the closing stages. On his second goal of the night, Bernier eyed Helgeson’s rebound in the crease and tapped in his 14th of the season. Koivula’s secondary assist also gave the 20-year-old his first-career three-point night in North America.
Head coach Brent Thompson pulled Gibson for an extra attacker with just over one minute remaining, but Bridgeport’s efforts to tie came up short as Vecchione iced the game with an empty-netter at 18:52.
The Sound Tigers went 3-for-3 on the penalty kill and 0-for-3 on the power play.