HAMILTON, ON – A team with every reason not to show up on a Wednesday night got some help from two players who strongly believe they have plenty to play for, as the Hamilton Bulldogs – despite any hope of a playoff berth virtually nil at this point – downed the playoff-bound Abbotsford Heat 3-1 at First Ontario Centre.
The win was just Hamilton’s second in their past seven games, leaving them ten points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference with only fourteen games remaining. The situation would have been even more grim if not for a couple of familiar faces that made returns to the line-up.
First was Dustin Tokarski, unquestionably the MVP of a Bulldog team that has struggled to score all season, relying on stellar goaltending to win games. Fresh off a shutout of the Buffalo Sabres Sunday, Tokarski wasn’t forced to turn in his best effort of the season against the Abbotsford Heat, but managed 27 saves that allowed his side to overcome an early 1-0 deficit. As Devan Dubnyk‘s difficult season has continued in the AHL, having Tokarski back between the pipes should bring an extra dose of confidence to his team’s play, just as Carey Price‘s return seems to have done for the Canadiens.
Next was Michael Bournival, returning to game action on a conditioning stint in Hamilton after missing considerable time with a concussion. Bournival was a surprise in making the Montreal roster out of training camp in his second professional season, but hadn’t looked at all out of place in the NHL after hardly lighting the American League on fire last year. He showed in hist first AHL game of the season just how far his game had progressed, slotting right on to the top line with Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto, and energizing it to be the game’s best all night. Bournival would register an assist on Thomas’s game-winning goal, accepting a pass from Andrighetto and firing a shot on Aaron Dell before Thomas would bang home the rebound.
If Dell’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he attended numerous Canadiens’ off-season Development Camps back in the day. Many assumed the organization would sign Dell out of the University of North Dakota given their extended look at him and the thin pipeline in goal at the time, but such a move never came to fruition, and Dell has struggled to establish himself as more than a top ECHL starter to date.
But back to Bournival, a peculiar Sylvain Lefebvre decision was to play the natural center on left wing on the top line. Andrighetto, having played wing all season, was shifted to centre for the first time. While it may be as simple as limiting Bournival’s responsibilities for his first game back in over a month, it’s also interesting to consider the Canadiens may have taken the same approach as they did with Louis Leblanc. That is to say having made the determination that a player doesn’t project to the next level as a centre, and thus permanently switching him to the wing.
Integrating Bournival into the line-up required Lefebvre to make a decision on who to sit. Rather than cut one of his fourth line energy players, the head coach decided to use the opportunity to send a statement to a guy supposed to be one of his offensive leaders but whose game has been in sharp decline as a sophomore. Just as he tried to do in sitting Martin St. Pierre two weeks ago, Lefebvre hopes a one-game benching of Patrick Holland will get the versatile, two-way forward going for the final stretch. The situation is a pretty significant reversal from this time a year ago, where Holland was far more valuable to the ‘Dogs as a first line winger than Bournival as a third line pivot.
At 22, Holland is hardly a lost cause, but if he want another sniff at the NHL beyond the five games played there this year, he’ll need to show in the final year of his entry level contract that the present season was merely a blip on the radar of his development.
Two other notable players were out of the line-up Wednesday, but not by the coach’s own will. An injury plagued pro rookie season for Darren Dietz has come to an end, the team announced, with the defenseman not expected to return until 2014-15. A less serious lower body injury forced Greg Pateryn to miss the game. The d-man is considered day-t0-day, with his absence necessitating huge minutes from a top pairing of Nathan Beaulieu and Davis Drewiske.
Drewiske has played strong two-way hockey since joining the Bulldogs, and will be an important piece if the team manages to win enough games to keep things interesting over the final fourteen contests. Once the season is done, he will undoubtedly serve as one of the “black aces” in Montreal, and will be available to challenge for an NHL roster spot in the Fall, given the year remaining on the contract he signed last summer.
Also interesting to watch we’ll be how Hamilton handles its three-headed monster in goal. Despite Tokarski’s far superior play, the staff never hesitated to sit him for Robert Mayer after a tough loss, and now with both Dubnyk and Mayer in the mix, despite all he’s shown, Tokarski’s leash may be even shorter.
The ‘Dogs have two home games this weekend before heading out on a nine-game road trip. Friday’s game against Milwaukee and Saturday’s rematch with Abbotsford are must-wins, or the team will see the plug pulled on the life support on which its season rests. This also means it may be the last chance for hometown fans to see their team in meaningful action this season, so grab your tickets now from http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.