5YA: April 7, 2002 (alternate timeline)

The story you are about to read is totally made up, based on one little tweak to history:

What if Hartford had won that last game in 2001-02?

It just didn’t feel right. Bridgeport had won just one out of five games going into the monumental final day of the 2001-02 season. The Sound Tigers’ run through February and March had propelled them to the top of the AHL, but this swoon made them look vulnerable. Still, Sunday’s winner would finish first overall in the AHL, and the game drew an actual throng to Harbor Yard, one of only a few that year.

Raffi Torres tried to make things happen early in that game. He came out and hit Brad Mehalko and Jamie Lundmark in rapid succession. But then Tomas Kloucek came over and levelled Torres with a clean hit, knocking the Sound Tigers rookie forward out for the rest of the period.

By the time he returned, Hartford had a 2-0 lead, and that was all Johan Holmqvist needed. The Pack won 4-1, and captain Ken Gernander posed next to the Mac Kilpatrick Trophy on Bridgeport ice.

Hartford, with 97 points, finished one ahead of Bridgeport, Lowell and Syracuse. Because Lowell and Quebec drew the second and third seeds as division champs, Bridgeport was seeded all the way down to fourth.

So Hartford took on Manitoba, coach John Paddock’s hometown team, and dispatched them in four.

The Sound Tigers drew Manchester, pitting Stirling against old Lowell boss Bruce Boudreau. The teams split in Bridgeport. The Monarchs won Game 3, but Bridgeport forced a fifth and deciding game. It went on into the night, extending deep into the second overtime. With about a minute and a half left in that period, Juraj Kolnik took a shot that went off Joe Corvo’s shin pad. He got it back and snapped it over Travis Scott’s glove to send Bridgeport into the second round.

Hartford needed only five games to eliminate surprising St. John’s on The Rock. Bridgeport, meanwhile, drew Hamilton. The Sound Tigers won two at home, split the next two in Hamilton and had three chances to win the series. But Hamilton won Game 5, taking the early lead. The Sound Tigers gave away two leads in Game 6 back at home before Louie DeBrusk — Louie DeBrusk? — scored in overtime to force Game 7.

Things couldn’t go better for Bridgeport in Game 7; it just couldn’t buy a goal against Marc Lamothe. But finally, with a minute and a half to go, Raffi Torres took a shot off a defenseman, took the rebound and put it past Lamothe. Two empty-netters later, Bridgeport was in the Eastern Conference Final — and in the dream matchup with Hartford.

And what a series it was.

It started kind of sleepily in Hartford. The Pack won the first game 2-0 with an empty-netter on Holmqvist’s 29 saves and a Rico Fata goal. Bridgeport tied the series with a 3-1 win; DiPietro stood on his head on a five-on-three. But only a combined 7,967 saw the two games, mind-numbing compared to the 10,901 that had seen the penultimate regular-season game.

But then came Game 3, and what a game. The fights (Godard vs. Kane after that hit on Giroux! Mezei vs. Hollweg! Maybe just a few calming words away from DiPietro vs. the first taker in blue!). The playmaking (Giroux faking the slap shot and finding Justin Mapletoft at the side of the net). The goals (Fata rushing end-to-end, circling back against Chris Armstrong and finding Brad Smyth off the bench for the slapper and the tying goal with 3:42 to play).

It remained 2-2 through one overtime, through another overtime. And it threatened to get through a third. But then, with just under four minutes on the clock, Torres threw a hit on Terry Virtue that just knocked the puck loose. Mapletoft, in support, pulled the puck out and found Patrick Leahy in front, and one deke to the backhand later, the Sound Tigers had a series lead.

It was the sixth-longest game in AHL history. And all of a sudden the state noticed these teams were there.

A Game 3 follow was front-page news in both cities — no UConn players with hangnails to divert attention. State TV stations were covering practice, doing features. A caller to WICC said she’d never been to a hockey game before but was suddenly thinking about it.

Attendance at Game 3 was 3,769. There were more than that for warmups Friday for Game 4.

They didn’t leave disappointed, whether they came in Bridgeport blue-and-gold, in Hartford red-white-n-blue, or in business casual. It was hard-hitting, fast-paced, everything the game can be. It was 2-2 after one, 3-3 after two, and then after a ludicrous interference call on Marty Wilford early in the third, Ken Gernander blocked a shot, broke out and beat DiPietro over the glove. The shorty tied the series.

MSG Network had a crew following the Wolf Pack’s every move. Channel 12 had Sound Tigers on every morning, and Juraj Kolnik developed a cult following. Both papers started double-staffing games and, sometimes, even practices.

Attendance at Game 4 was 5,743. For Game 5 Saturday at Hartford, nearly double that showed up.

The Wolf Pack seemed to feed off the energy early and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Bridgeport cut it to 3-1 before Wilford’s second goal of the game sneaked through a screen and off a defender. Hartford was one win away.

But the Sound Tigers faithful wasn’t giving in. A grass-roots “Un-Pack the House” movement started: Loyal fans rallied support at their offices, after church, in Boy Scout troops, wherever they could. To keep the momentum going, the Sound Tigers invested in extra advertising, blanketing the newspapers, local radio, TV.

By Tuesday night, a full house — 8,513, with the standing-room people — was there to watch Game 6. And just like Saturday, the home team fed off the energy. Jason Krog scored three minutes in; Raffi Torres scored at 10:19; Dave Roche scored on a power play after a ludicrous Dave MacIsaac slashing call.

No matter: Bridgeport was on its way before that. DiPietro had the sellout crowd chanting his name and cheering every save, 31 of them, in Bridgeport’s 4-0 victory. One game for the right to take on Chicago.

It happened to be the next night; no momentum-building leadup. Still, 11,021 found their way to Asylum Street for the showdown. Tension hung everywhere, from the crease to the Avco Cup banner. The teams felt each other out for a period. John Tripp blasted home a slap shot midway through the second; the goal hadn’t even been announced before Torres returned the favor. Benoit Dusablon battled through Scott Ricci to the net to take the lead again; Krog found Hunter on the right side to tie it up.

It went to the third. And deep into the third. Tomas Kloucek nearly put Matt Higgins through the boards, but Higgins got up and fed Dave Morriset in front for a redirection that Holmqvist just got a toe on. Back came the Pack for a Jason Dawe shot that DiPietro gloved calmly.

Time trickled away as Chris Armstrong collected the puck from DiPietro behind the Bridgeport net with 1:52 to play. Armstrong looked up and caught Hartford in a change, mostly because Juraj Kolnik had streaked over to the left wing off the bench. Armstrong led the puck ahead to Kolnik, who carried in and waited for Mike Mottau to come to him. That’s when he slipped it back to Krog. Krog dropped it for Hunter at the top of the right circle, and he took just one stride before rifling it over Holmqvist’s glove.

Just 96 seconds and one frenzied scramble around DiPietro’s net later, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers were the 2001-02 Eastern Conference champions.

Sure, Bridgeport lost to Chicago in five games. But that spring helped both state franchises.

When the AHL realigned, there was no way the league could keep Bridgeport and Hartford together. Bridgeport was shuffled to the new East Division with the Mid-Atlantic teams, but with a promise of 10 games against Hartford every year. Those games continued to be big sellers, though that diminished toward the averages over time.

Hartford attendance held steady: not enough to make the Civic Center profitable, but enough to keep the re-opener clauses off the table. MSG continued to operate the building and the Wolf Pack in Hartford, and no one could foresee a day they’d be gone. Some touted the 7,000 averages as reason to try to get the NHL interested again, but cooler heads prevailed.

And in Bridgeport, fan interest continued to grow, all off the momentum of those three home games in 2002. A disheartening loss to Binghamton in 2003 did nothing to drop the demand. And 2004 was another year to remember. The team battled injuries down the stretch, but fans kept coming. The team coughed up a 3-1 series lead to Wilkes-Barre in the first round, and Penguins fans came in busloads across I-84 for Game 7. But Bridgeport fans packed the building and drowned out those Penguins fans. Local legend says Andy Chiodo was so disconcerted by the roar of the crowd that he flinched as Graham Belak launched the game-winning shot through his five-hole. The Sound Tigers got most of their injured players back and beat Philadelphia in six, setting up yet another all-Connecticut conference final. This time Hartford got the bragging rights before falling to a hot and talented Milwaukee team in four; both Connecticut teams got big crowds.

Though Bridgeport’s finances weren’t atrocious, they weren’t great, either, and when Charles Wang made the Boes an offer they couldn’t refuse, the Sound Tigers became part of the Islanders family. Signing a couple of key free agents kept them competitive during the lockout year despite a young defense; they lost in the first round to Philadelphia. The momentum was tough to keep up the following year, but a new coaching staff battled injuries and got the team into the playoffs. Again, rabid fan support was credited with helping Bridgeport to a big win, this time in Game 6 against Wilkes-Barre. The road team won the first five games of the series, and it looked like it might happen again until Matt Koalska tied it late. In overtime, Bridgeport went on a power play, but Ryan Stone had a partial breakaway that Wade Dubielewicz stopped. On his way back, Stone leaned into a Sound Tiger, and the roar of the crowd convinced the referee — notorious for his many five-on-threes — to call a penalty. The Penguins were naturally livid, and even the Sound Tigers privately expressed disbelief. “Something about this barn,” one said. Justin Papineau, sore shoulder and all, scored on the five-on-three, and the Sound Tigers went on… to be swept by Hershey, which was on the march to the Cup.

No matter. Bridgeport had established itself as a solid franchise in the AHL, drawing 5,000 fans a game, closer to 6,000 on weekends.

Hey, just think how good things would be if they had won that last game of the 2001-02 season.

Overly optimistic? Yeah. But it’s funnier that way.

Click here to return to the Lifeboat, ’cause nothin’s swingin’ over here besides this.

Michael Fornabaio