Will Bitten saves a late empty-netter, keeps Springfield Thunderbirds first-round bye hopes alive with win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on ‘Shootah! Night’ (video)

SPRINGFIELD – Heading into Saturday night’s game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Springfield needed a win to keep pace with the bottom two spots in the Atlantic Division.

After nearly two periods of scoreless action, it remained a one-possession game with only minutes remaining. Hoping to add an additional offensive weapon, Penguins coach JD Forrest retired goaltender Joel Blomqvist. But as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton continued their last effort, Nikita Alexandrov replied with a block between the red face-off circles and located an open teammate.

Once Will Bitten maintained control of the puck, he slid through a pair of defensemen. He finally buried the empty net, securing the Thunderbirds a 3-1 win over the Penguins on “Shootah! Night” at the MassMutual Center.

“I’ve been playing with Nikita for a while now, with Todd Walker,” Bitten said of his teammates’ chemistry. “But obviously a lot of guys go up and down. And then when Nathan Todd came in, we now have the Ottawa connection because we play a lot of summer hockey together, which helps us bond. But the three of us are working hard, it’s clicking right now, and we needed it for the playoffs.

“I don’t score that goal if Nikita doesn’t block that shot, so credit it.”

Behind a record 32 saves by goaltender Joel Hofer, Springfield (40-24-6-3) won for only the third time in its last nine games. With outside help from division-leading Charlotte (42-24-5-1) who beat Providence (36-22-4-6) earlier on Saturday, the Thunderbirds slip back into second place, momentarily securing a first-round bye with just three regular-season games remaining.

“(Hofer) is playing with confidence, which is just spreading through the team,” Tommy Cross said of his goalkeeping efforts. “We have always trusted our two goalkeepers. But when he comes out and plays like that, we feed on his confidence.

Although Blomqvist stopped 25 of 27 shots in his AHL debutWilkes-Barre/Scranton went 35-30-4-4 this season.

It didn’t take long for either side to light the lamp when penguin Mitch Reinke connected with Radim Zohorna just below the blue line for a fast wrist halfway through the first period. Less than a minute later, however, Bitten located Cross low, helping Springfield level the score at 1-1 in seven minutes.

The goal was Cross’s eighth of the season, while Bitten and Alexandrov had their 19th and 16th assists.

“It was massive,” Cross said of his team, addressing their early deficit. “You don’t want to be behind too long. As I said earlier, that change after the goal was huge. Getting into the offensive zone and restoring territory, possession and momentum helped. I think the crowd was fantastic tonight.

“Obviously for many reasons with Shooter McGavin in the building. But we brought the crowd back into the game and ultimately played a decisive role.

Moments after the Penguins missed their third power play attempt, Filip Hallander was called for a high batting, securing the Thunderbirds four minutes of the power play.

Matthew Peca responded by maneuvering through the opposition until he located Sam Anas as time continued to tick on the opening frame. And the rest was history as the right winger sent a cross pass to an open James Neal on the weak side, making it 2-1 with four seconds left.

The goal was Neal’s 14th of the season, while Anas recorded his 40th assist.

After 20 minutes of action, Springfield maintained a one-goal lead while outscoring Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, 15-9.

Springfield wraps up its regular-season home schedule tomorrow against the Bruins at 2:05 p.m.

On Sunday, fans are invited to join Boomer’s Birthday Bash, featuring area mascots including Tessie and Wally of the Boston Red Sox. Plus, Spongebob and Patrick will also be on hand for photos in the lobby. After the game, everyone is invited onto the ice to “paint the ice”.

“A potential first-round bye is important to us,” Cross said of his team’s playoff hopes. “It’s also a bit of uncharted territory because the bye format this year features six of the top teams in the division. Nevertheless, our goal is to finish as high in the division as possible. The standings are getting tight, but this bye offers some rest, including one less lap you have to pass.

“But at the same time, I think we’ve done a good job of just focusing on playing well through the process. And if that gets us a goodbye, then so be it. But you will still have to jump through hurdles and overcome hurdles in the playoffs.

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