That was more like it for Springfield head coach Drew Bannister.
The Thunderbirds took to heart Bannister’s main point of emphasis from the first two games of the series: create traffic in front of Laval goaltender Cayden Primeau. The result was a 6-3 masterpiece in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night.
Bannister calls Mackenzie MacEachern, Dakota Joshua, and Will Bitten the team’s “identity line.” In Game 3, Bitten had a career night with four goals, MacEachern supplied three assists, and Joshua added a pair of assists to drive much of the Springfield offense.
But the trio has also been an abrasive, physical line capable of wearing down defenders. That down-low play, stressing puck protection, also deprives the Rocket of utilizing their excellent transition game, something that the Thunderbirds will aim to duplicate tonight in Game 4 at Place Bell.
“They are a big part of this hockey club,” Bannister said of the line. “They make life difficult on the other team. As a group, I thought everybody contributed. We came to play.”
The MacEachern-Joshua-Bitten line offers an excellent blueprint for that style. Bitten now ranks second in Calder Cup Playoff scoring with 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in nine games. MacEachern has five goals and five assists, and Joshua has added three goals and four assists.
MacEachern said the key for the line is playing to their strengths.
“I think we all know how to play, and we feed off that,” he said. “[Bitten is] fast. I like to use my speed. [Joshua] likes to hang on to it.”
Of course, few head coaches are ever completely satisfied even after a win, and Bannister is no exception. The Thunderbirds are 0-for-15 on the power play in the series, including a pair of lengthy 5-on-3 chances in Game 3.
“Our group as a whole has to be better on the power play and can’t rely just on 5-on-5 scoring,” Bannister said. “But you have to give [Laval] credit. They’ve done a good job.”
Difficult starts are another area that Bannister has targeted. Laval has scored first game of the series, but both Bannister and MacEachern liked how the Thunderbirds managed Game 3 in the difficult environment of a sold-out Place Bell.
“I think as weird as it sounds, I think when they scored that first one it kind of settled us in,” MacEachern said. “I think we were a little nervous. A lot of guys haven’t played [in front of] a crowd like this before.”
― Patrick Williams