HAMILTON, ON – After displaying neither bark nor bite in a 3-0 loss on Friday, the Hamilton Bulldogs battled back with a much greater effort against the Western Conference-leading Texas Stars Saturday. Led by a 36-save performance by netminder Robert Mayer, Hamilton came out the winning end of a 2-1 decision after Greg Pateryn broke a deadlock with 3:32 to play.
The ‘Dogs played a much stronger game than being outshot 37-23 would normally indicate, generating far more scoring opportunities than they did the previous night, including forcing Stars’ goaltender Jack Campbell to turn aside a pair of breakaways by Louis Leblanc and Kyle Hagel. Leblanc was one his side’s more dangerous forwards on the night, displaying a high level of skill on multiple zone entries and narrowly missing teammates with several set-ups before ultimately assisting on Pateryn’s winner by taking the initial shot on the play.
Hamilton battled hard right from opening puck drop, looking competitive with one of the AHL’s top squads in a scoreless first period. The Bulldogs were forced to kill off a 44-second 5-on-3 disadvantage, but as they surprisingly often have this season, they managed to escape unscathed. They say your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer, and the rule applied in this case, as Mayer made some of his best tops during the two first period minors, aided towards the end by a strong diving clear from Alexander Avtsin, who was dressed for just the 11th time this season.
Despite the strong play from the ‘Dogs, it was Texas that got on the board first. Mayer – who had been making things look easy up to that point – gave up one of what was not more than a handful of real rebound on the night at 4:41 of the second and Luke Gazdic was Johnny on the spot to tuck it under the goaltender’s leg.
While Hamilton didn’t let up after falling behind, it took some fortune for them to draw even. With a delayed penalty call coming to the ‘Dogs and Campbell on the bench, Alex Chiasson attempted a pass back to the point from beside the Bulldog cage. His pass lacked accuracy, however, and ended up going down the full length of the ice and into his own empty goal. Jason DeSantis, who had been desperately trying to break up Texas passing plays as Hamilton had been stuck in its own end on a long shift, got credit for the tying goal.
Both sides had opportunities in the third, with the Bulldogs twice benefiting from man advantage situations, but their powerplay showed just why it now has a league-worst 9.5 per cent efficacy. With the ‘Dogs buzzing late in the period, a blocked Leblanc shot was kicked out into the slot and a pinching Pateryn – playing big minutes in every situation paired with Nathan Beaulieu – made no mistake in one-timing it to the back of the goal. Add in a few frantic final saves from Mayer in the dying seconds, and Hamilton had registered its second win in the past three outings.
The hero on this night, Pateryn, missed considerable time with injury in this his rookie campaign at the professional level, but has played a big role on the squad since returning. “For six weeks I was back on the ice, from Christmas on. I knew conditioning was a big part because I knew there’s a big difference between practicing and being in a game.”
Winning the game was an even bigger feat when you consider the ‘Dogs were forced to play without some of their core contributors. Frederic St. Denis remains out with an undisclosed injury, while all of Jarred Tinordi, Michael Bournival, and Steve Quailer suffered minor injuries on Friday night and were unavailable Saturday. Tinordi’s likely comes as a result of a fight which saw him take a couple of solid punches, while Bournival limped off the ice after taking a shot off the foot. Late in the game against Texas, Morgan Ellis was nearly added to the injury list on a similar play to that which injured Bournival, and the last thing the team needs is another injury on defense. All players are considered day-to-day at this point.
We’ve asked outselves numerous times throughout the course of the season if a strong Bulldog performance could be the start of something, but the team’s inconsistencies have them sitting 15 big points out the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. It would take nothing less than a miracle for the team to go on a sufficiently dominant run that would see them continuing to play hockey deep into the Spring, and the players seem aware of that fact.
“The pressure is gone for us. I don’t think we can play with any pressure. We’ve had a tough season. Now it’s just about enjoying the moment, be happy to be out there. Really don’t think. Just play and enjoy the moment,” summed up Mayer, who has been one of the few pleasant surprises on this year’s team. “Guys still have to play their best because there can be injuries in Montreal, and you never know what’s gonna happen. You could be called up, so you have to be at your best every game.”