By Mike Fornabaio
SHELTON, Conn. — They both flew across the country last week for a chance with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
For Dustin VanBallegooie, it was a first chance at the AHL. For Stephen Wood, it was a return from the ECHL to the East Coast. Both joined a beleaguered Bridgeport defense corps and played a solid Sound Tigers’ debut Friday in a 5-3 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “VanBallegooie, I loved his urgency. I liked the way he played with some jam,” coach Dan Marshall said. “Woodsy was smart in the D-zone, chipped pucks out.”
Wood, 25, had the longer travel experience. He left Anchorage, Alaska, and the Aces at 5 p.m. Thursday, Alaska time, after Bridgeport acquired him that morning. He arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport early Friday morning, then drove up to Bridgeport to catch a 2 p.m. bus to Wilkes-Barre. It was worth it to get back to the AHL, and to get back close to home: Wood’s family is from Massachusetts, and his girlfriend’s family lives in Old Saybrook. He has split three seasons between the AHL (Philadelphia and Peoria) and the ECHL (Trenton and Alaska). “Most of the teams I’ve been on, I’ve played a little bit of power play,” Wood said. “Just move the puck, make the easy play. … If I simplify my game, I know I’ll be able to play here.”
VanBallegooie, 23, just had to take the red eye Wednesday night from California, where he was playing for the Fresno Falcons, to play his first AHL game Friday. “The first couple of shifts were a little nerve-wracking,” VanBallegooie said. “Once I got a few shifts, I seemed to calm down. I tried to play a simple game. That’s what they told me.”
VanBallegooie was in the middle of a play that could have put the Sound Tigers away earlier. With three Bridgeport forwards caught deep, the Penguins were rushing three-on-two. But VanBallegooie broke up the rush and chipped the puck ahead to Petteri Nokelainen, just off the bench, for a breakaway goal. “It was good to get the first point out of the way,” he said with a grin. They joined a Bridgeport defense that was missing three because of injuries and a suspension. While the suspended Drew Fata, who played for Wheeling for three seasons from 2003-06, is eligible to return Friday, Jamie Fraser (thumb), who began the season with the South Carolina Stingrays, is probably still out; Rick Berry sat out last week injured. Allan Rourke has sat out two days to rest an injury of his own. Forwards Jeremy Colliton and Jason Pitton have also gotten some extra rest time this week, a brief respite before the Sound Tigers race to the finish with 21 games in the final 38 days.