📝 by Patrick Williams
The pressure is becoming rather routine for the defender Matt Kessel and the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Springfield endured three overtime games with Laval in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning two of them. They prevailed in Game 7 against the Rocket, a 4-0 masterpiece to secure their spot in the Calder Cup final against Chicago.
So while the Thunderbirds found themselves in a third-period hole against Wolves in Game 1 of the Finals yesterday, they were also in familiar space.
They dug. They went to work. Just 24 seconds later Stefan NoesenThe insurance goal made it 4-2 in favor of Wolves in the first minute of the third, the Thunderbirds captain Tommy’s Cross put a shot through the cover in front of the net and pass the Wolves goalkeeper Alexander Lyons. Then with 1:28 left in regulation, a shot from the left side of the Springfield defender Brady Lyle escaped traffic past Lyon for a four-way draw.
In his 29th game with Springfield after three seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Kessel picked an opportune moment for his first professional goal. Accompanying an entry into the Chicago area as a trailer, Kessel took a short stream of James Neel before firing a shot that beat Lyon at 5:09 of overtime, giving the Thunderbirds a 5-4 win and a 1-0 series lead.
Kessel’s goal handed Wolves their first home playoff defeat. Game 2 is tonight at Allstate Arena (8 ET, AHLTV).
“What I like about this group is that we don’t talk a lot,” Cross said of his team before the first game. “I think we’re pretty pragmatic. We take it upon ourselves to make sure we’re as close to our ‘A’ game as possible and try to outplay the other team. And then we move on to the next one. I don’t think we thought about it too much. I think the simplicity has served us well.
“As the playoffs continued, we reset after each round, but we still have that quiet confidence that we’ve had all year.”
With that mentality, the Thunderbirds were able to usher in a key new part of their roster like Kessel quite effectively.
Two days after UMass lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, ending Kessel’s junior season, he had his name on a two-year entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues and a posting. in Springfield, 25 miles down the road. of Amherst.
Kessel, who turns 22 on Thursday, was a fifth-round pick of the Blues in the 2020 National Hockey League draft.
Playoff pressure has become a familiar sight for Kessel, who has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 37 games at UMass this season and earned a Hockey East Third Team All-Star spot. Last season as a sophomore, he earned a berth on the NCAA All-Tournament Team by helping Massachusetts win the 2021 National Championship. Three years prior in the USA Hockey League, he won the Clark Cup with Sioux Falls before moving to college.
“During his time at UMass, Matt went from being a quiet defensive player to one of the best and toughest two-way defensemen in college hockey,” the Massachusetts head coach said. Greg Carvel said after Kessel signed with St. Louis. “His discipline, maturity and consistency of character have made him an important part of the Championship teams he has played for and managed.”
Kessel made his professional debut with the Thunderbirds on April 1 and played in 15 regular season games, collecting three assists. In a pairing with Cross, he’s quickly become a regular in Springfield’s defensive rotation, playing in all 14 Calder Cup playoff games so far.
“It was awesome,” Kessel said. “All the guys here made the transition super easy. It was also nice to be only 30 minutes from my school, so it’s not a brand new neighborhood.
Springfield Head Coach Drew BanisterThe words of echo those of Carvel.
“Constant growth,” Bannister said of Kessel after Game 1. “It’s been unreal. The playoffs have been so good for our young players… It’s amazing where he’s come from.
Chicago presented and still presents a substantial Calder Cup hurdle for the Thunderbirds, who are just three wins away from that title. But Cross and the Thunderbirds believed in it long before that Game 1 victory.
“We’ve always been a pretty confident bunch,” Cross explained. “We had a good season and we played against some of the best teams in our division. There has always been a kind of quiet confidence in our game.
“We always said, ‘Let’s do our best’. If we play our best, we like our chances.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently co-host of the podcast Around the A.
Patrick received the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for Outstanding League Coverage in 2016.