HAMILTON, ON – The Hamilton Bulldogs may have had their winning streak snapped last weekend, but they remained hot, posting a 2-1-0 record over an always-difficult three games in three nights stretch.
With a 19-15-4 record on the season, they currently sit 7th in the AHL’s Western Conference, and the 7-1-1 record they’ve put up in their past nine games has earned them some separation from the pack of teams lying just below the playoff cut-off (though those clubs do all hold games in hand).
Sunday’s win over the Iowa Wild marked the season’s halfway point for the team, and with that a measurable improvement over where they were last season at this time, with eleven more points in the standings.
Every week, we’ll look at three players who have impressed or are moving up in the depth charts, as well as three players struggling with their games at this junction.
– Sven Andrighetto: The Swiss rookie’s stats have been modest since returning from injury in mid-December (one goal and six points in eleven games), but on a team starved for offensive threats, the 20-year old has become a primary catalyst. Nathan Beaulieu may have scored the game-winner on Sunday, but the play was truly all Andrighetto, as he craftily weaved his way through the offensive zone before releasing a howitzer from the point. Admittedly, Beaulieu’s rebound goal was still from a tough angle requiring an accurate shot to finish the play off, but it was certainly never there for him without Andrighetto’s magic. The former Rouyn-Noranda Huskie finished the game with three shots, but was a constant presence in the attacking zone, just as he had been the night prior despite finishing that game with no points and a -2 rating. Despite his small stature at 5’9”, if the Canadiens are looking for a scoring winger to call up, it should be Andrighetto’s turn to make his NHL debut.
– Gabriel Dumont: Another forward who has elevated his game of late is one well known to Montreal Canadiens fans. A second player likely held back by his height limitations (5’10”) with the number of undersized forwards already in Montreal, Dumont and linemate Mike Blunden have become a heart-and-soul pair for the ‘Dogs, being used in starring roles in all game situations. After surprising point totals last season, Dumont started this year slowly, but has picked up his production with four goals and two assists in his past seven games – including a highlight reel marker to open the scoring on Sunday. Unlike Andrighetto – a more one-dimensional offensive winger – Dumont is a three zone player, and as important as his goal was, the team drew even more inspiration from a big third period shot block while killing a penalty in a one-goal match. Dumont retreated to the dressing room in considerable pain, but limped his way back to the bench minutes later, despite the fact that he wasn’t going to play another shift on the night. If the Habs are looking to fill a fourth line role from down in Hamilton, Dumont should be the one making the trip.
– Nathan Beaulieu: For a player who knows he’s never going to be a shutdown defenseman in the National Hockey League, Beaulieu’s early season output was mildly concerning. Beaulieu boasts incredible skating ability and off-the-charts raw talent. He is capable of taking over a hockey game, which we saw frequently in Hamilton towards the end of last season. This year, his intensity and focus have waned at times, but if the last five games are any indication, he seems to be putting things together. Taken away from usual partner Greg Pateryn – the Dogs’ number one d-man and a player with offensive ability of his own – to be paired with the more defensive Morgan Ellis has contributed to Beaulieu opening his game up. The product of this is points in four of the last five games (two goals and three assists), with a tougher outing and minus three rating in Saturday’s loss to Rochester. These are the kind of inconsistencies you have to live with as a trade-off for a player like Beaulieu, and as long as he can keep being good four nights out of five the rest of the way, he’ll be close to NHL-ready by season’s end.
IN A RUT
– Patrick Holland: I’ve made it no secret that I’m a fan of Holland’s game, but his 2013-14 campaign hasn’t built off the successes he enjoyed late last season. Despite playing with skilled offensive linemates Martin St. Pierre and Sven Andrighetto regularly, Holland has managed only one goal and four assists in 16 games since the start of December. He has lost the spot he frequently patrolled at the point on the top powerplay to a combination of Christian Thomas, Martin St Pierre, and even Mike Blunden at one point Sunday (that is, when the ‘Dogs despite to split Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn), despite being on a similar point-per-game pace to his rookie year. To Holland’s credit, he has rounded out his game well. As witnessed during his brief stint with the Canadiens, he is smart in his own end and a willing candidate to get in the lanes and block shots. It’s certainly not unthinkable for him to develop into an Adam Hall-type down the road, but he’ll have to start producing in order to earn another ticket back to Montreal.
– Darren Dietz: Like Jarred Tinordi, Dietz had a strong training camp in Montreal, only to see things fall apart early on in the regular season. For Tinordi, his play began to go south once confronted with tougher competition on a nightly basis, while it was an injury that derailed a good start to the year for Dietz. Tinordi is gradually finding his groove on Hamilton’s top D pairing, but Dietz has lost his battle for a top four position to Morgan Ellis, finding himself instead on a third pair, most frequently with Joel Chouinard. A threat from the point in juniors – he led all Canadian Hockey League defensemen with 24 goals last year – Dietz is still seeking his first marker at the professional level, having recorded just four assists in 22 games, and having his powerplay minutes cut. No reason to panic over a twenty-year old pro rookie, but Dietz’s path to the NHL seems a little longer than those who watched him in exhibition play might have guessed.
– Robert Mayer: Goaltending has been likely the biggest reason for Hamilton’s success of late, meaning it’s no coincidence that Mayer was in Europe on loan for the Spengler Cup during a big portion of it. After nearly wrestling away the starting job from veteran Cedric Desjardins last season, Mayer was given every opportunity to challenge Dustin Tokarski for ice time by coach Sylvain Lefebvre early on this year. Mayer’s play has been wildly inconsistent, and while there was hope that a brilliant performance in the Spengler Cup final that led his club to victory might give him renewed confidence, the 24-year old’s return to Copps Coliseum marked the end of a six-game win streak for the ‘Dogs, while seeing his save percentage on the season dip below .900. It’s not to say the loss to Rochester was Mayer’s fault, but the significant separation between he and Tokarski (who has allowed only seven goals total while winning his past six starts) is becoming more and more evident. It certainly makes one question yet another of Marc Bergevin’s moves this past summer, being to give Mayer a two-year deal while only signing Tokarski for one (though perhaps that was the netminder’s own preference). Easy to repair the mistake of signing a mediocre AHL netminder of course, but still an odd assessment of player talent.
The Bulldogs will allow some other clubs to play out games in hand this weekend, as they have only a single opponent. Saturday, the Utica Comets visit Hamilton in a game the ‘Dogs can’t afford to lose if they believe themselves to be in serious contention for a playoff position, as the Comets currently sit a distant 15th place in the Western Conference. Tickets are available at http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/