calder cup playoffs Koivula’s confidence soars in rookie season

April 17, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — It happened just as quickly as it seemed from the stands, Otto Koivula said. The first month of his first season in North America went along quietly, with him in and out of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ lineup.

And then one goal went in for him. And everyone in the world should get one burst of confidence like Koivula got after that.

“The start of the season was tough,” Koivula said earlier this week as Bridgeport prepared for Friday’s playoff opener at home against Hershey.

“Being that player who was always out there, playing big minutes, it was really hard for me, to be honest. It was my first season here, so I didn’t expect a lot. I was always looking forward, positive.”

He had played seven of the first 11 games, no points to his credit. Then, amid an 8-5 Sunday-afternoon slugfest against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Nov. 4, he managed to score a goal as the puck bounced away from him and back to him a couple of times up the ice.

And in his next 61 games after that, Koivula scored 20 more goals. He finished as the AHL’s seventh-leading rookie scorer with 46 points, earning the first seven of those in just five games.

“After that first goal, it just happened. It’s crazy,” Koivula said. “I feel faster. I feel stronger.”

Koivula’s emergence helped the Sound Tigers shake a slow team start, 4-5-1-0 after 10 games, to emerge as one of the league’s better teams, finishing second behind league-leading Charlotte in the Atlantic Division and earning home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time in seven years.

“Obviously there are peaks and valleys as a rookie, but he scored over 20 goals,” said AHL veteran Chris Bourque, Koivula’s linemate for most of the second half of the season. “He was a force out there the majority of the time. Such a big body. He skates well. He has unbelievable hands. He has pretty much every tool.

“It’s been fun to be a part of. I’ve enjoyed playing with him.”

Koivula’s size, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds at 20-years old, stood out from the start. So, to coach Brent Thompson, did Koivula’s hockey sense.

By the end of November, Bridgeport had moved Koivula from the wing to center. He adjusted to different responsibilities, skating more, playing a more physical game in the defensive zone around the net rather than up around the other team’s defense.

“Moving him to center was probably the best thing we did as far as making him move his feet,” Thompson said. “His focus has to be on pace, moving his feet, playing the game at a faster pace.”

Koivula played 53 games last year in his native Finland. And by around his 60th game this year, he’d been in a bit of one of those valleys, admittedly struggling in his own end.

He got a couple of games off (also resting an undisclosed-at-the-time minor injury), came back and scored three goals in the last five games.

“It helped a lot,” Koivula said. “I felt like a new man. It was a good thing for me. I played a good game after that, had more energy.”

Bridgeport will need him against a potent Hershey team that finished one point behind the Sound Tigers after a huge second half.

“He’s pretty solid defensively. He’s a smart hockey player,” Thompson said. “The 200-foot game, he’s actually very good at it. When he gets that other gear, he’s going to be very dangerous. He’s got a bright future for the National Hockey League.”

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; @fornabaioctp; blog.ctnews.com/fornabaio