Postgame blog: Albany 2, Bridgeport 1
Kelly Zajac had the most unique scoring night of his career.
He (inadvertently) headed a puck into the net at the end of the first period to give the Albany Devils a 1-0 lead over visiting Bridgeport on Friday night. Just over five minutes into the third, he broke a 1-1 tie by fighting off the equivalent of an inside pitch, a waist-high screaming pass from behind the net, which he got a stick on and sent goalward for the game-winner in a much-needed 2-1 win.
"You go to the net, you put pucks there, good things happen," Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. "I thought there were a lot of loose pucks bouncing around there; we didn't find as many as we would have liked. I thought they played a pretty tight game, and when that happens, you have to find ways to get pucks. They're ugly ones, but we'll take a bunch of those."
On the first goal, Albany defenseman Dan Kelly skated in low on the left side and fired a shot at goalie Philippe Trudeau, who got a stick on it and sent it straight up above the crease. Bridgeport winger Alan Quine tried to punch the falling puck away from the crease, but he didn't get all of it, and instead of heading away from the goal, it went sideways and off the head of Zajac before ricocheting into the net.
On his late goal, Seth Helgeson had sent a point shot wide-left, and Stefan Matteau gathered it behind the net. Zajac was skating slowly toward the goal below the right circle, and Matteau fired a pass to him, but it sailed to waist-height. Zajac swung at it and sent it off the pad of Trudeau and into the net.
"I didn't even know that went off my head," he said. "I was just trying to stay in front of the net, get to the net like the coaches say. That second one, I think it was an inside pitch, and I was just trying to knock it down. I got a lucky bounce and it went in."
"I thought we had some better quality scoring chances tonight than they did," said Bridgeport coach Scott Pellerin, a former Albany River Rat. "[Albany goalie Keith] Kinkaid made some big saves late through traffic, but the two goals they had tonight, we hadn't seen any of those types of goals all season."
Kinkaid stopped 22 of 23 shots for his first win since March 7 at Portland.
"I finally got the monkey off my back," Kinkaid said. "There were a few games we were winning and they'd tie it at the end. It feels real good to finally get that win again. Hopefully, this is a winning streak to come."
Kinkaid is now 6-0-0 against Bridgeport this season with five goals allowed in those games. He also is 22-13-5, setting a new personal best for wins in a season. He was 17-20-3 in his rookie season and 21-17-6 last season.
"I thought he was real solid tonight," Kowalsky said. "He looked sharp, he was focused, tracked the puck well. There were a couple scrambles in front, and he just jumped on them, gobbled them up. He didn't really provide too much secondary chances."
"Just throughout the whole week of practice and from the first shot today, I was really focused on my game," Kinkaid said. "I felt good out there. It was a little hot out there, but the guys did their job."
The only goal Kinkaid allowed came as the Devils were attempting to kill off a two-man disadvantage. Bridgeport's Chris Langkow somehow pushed the puck wide at the back door, sending it past the left post and behind the net. It came back out on the right side, where Aaron Ness collected it and sent it back up top to Jesse Graham, whose shot from the left post found the net.
ATO-HEAVY SOUND TIGERS
Bridgeport has 10 players on its roster on amateur tryout agreements. Six of them are fresh off the end of their collegiate season and four more from the end of their season in major juniors. Another three players on the roster had about a dozen games logged in the AHL after having been called up from the ECHL.
Graham is one of those players, netting his first pro goal in his third game. Trudeau also was in his third game, and aside from the two odd goals Zajac got past him, he was pretty reliable.
"Honestly, I just talked to my guys, and a credit to them for their hard work, their attention to detail," Pellerin said. "We've simplified our game. We've really focused on our structure. At game 72, I'm still teaching neutral-zone forecheck and D-zone coverage and stuff that I'm sure Albany is not doing. Their focus is about getting into the playoffs and transitioning and getting their guys to full speed. I'm in a teaching mode with the 10 ATOs I have, so it's a totally different animal this time of the year. My staff has done an unbelievable job of getting our guys on the same page, and I'm proud of the way our guys competed tonight."
"Not really knowing, to be honest with you, probably three-quarters of their lineup ... you're going to run into these situations where you've got some of these ATOs coming in and there's no history on them," Kowalsky said. "They're all young kids that are trying to make an impression, regardless whether they've played pro, they're up from the East Coast league, they're draft picks or guys just getting a look. The one thing they're going to provide, and I thought they did tonight, is they're going to work and they're going to skate. I thought they gave us problems at times tonight, and our guys got a little frustrated. We stuck with it, and I thought the third period was certainly our best. Leading up to the goal and after the goal, we started skating and putting pucks behind and spent some more time in the offensive zone."
One ATO player of note was Guy Leboeuf, who just completed his career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has played 13 games with Bridgeport since the Engineers' season ended.
"I think he's done a really good job," Pellerin said. "For a kid coming in right out of college, I put him in situations and challenged him. The first couple games, he was getting used to the pace, but I thought his defensive habits, his individual habits and his hockey sense, he's done very well. The coaches at RPI, Seth Appert, has done a really good job getting him ready to turn pro."
After taking just one of a possible six points last weekend on a three-game road trip, getting a win to start this three-game homestand was imperative.
Albany is in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 85 points, and it gained a point on both eighth-place Hershey and ninth-place Norfolk, which both lost in overtime. Hershey has 83 points and Norfolk has 82, and both have a game in hand on Albany.
The Devils have four games remaining, three at home. They will host Providence at 5 p.m. on Saturday and host Syracuse at 5 p.m. on Sunday. Getting off on the right foot Friday provided a little momentum headed into the last week of the season.
"This is probably the biggest weekend of the year," Zajac said. "It's a tight race at the bottom for playoffs, and we want to get every point. A big win tonight to start out the weekend was huge."
"We lost each of the past two weeks, the first game of the weekend," Kinkaid said. "But this jumpstarts our weekend. We're ahead of the game, and we've just got to keep going and work hard for all three wins this weekend."