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IceCaps game report

Top Line Carries Bulldogs to Win Over Crunch [with AUDIO]

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

POST-GAME AUDIO: Gabriel Dumont | Mike Blunden | Louis Leblanc | Sylvain Lefebvre

MONTREAL, QC –  Coach Sylvain Lefebvre has long talked about needing a 60-minute effort, and it seems his team is finally listening. For the second night in a row, the Hamilton Bulldogs competed hard from puck drop to final whistle, defeating a quality opponent in the Syracuse Crunch by a 4-1 final. The game was the Bulldogs’ first of two trips to the Bell Centre in Montreal this season, and represented their third straight victory, coming immediately on the heels of what had been a six-game losing straight, and propelling the team back above the .500 mark.

Mike Blunden has brought life to Gabriel Dumont and Justin Courtnall, with the three forming Hamilton's best line this week. (Photo by Rabita Naqvi | Rocket Sports Media)
Mike Blunden has brought life to Gabriel Dumont and Justin Courtnall, with the three forming Hamilton’s best line this week. (Photo by Rabita Naqvi | Rocket Sports Media)

Though the most dominant players on ice in a sloppy opening period were the Crunch’s Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov, it was Hamilton’s most dangerous line – that of Mike BlundenGabriel Dumont, and Justin Courtnall – that opened the scoring. Dumont led a great individual rush, opening up a 2-on-1 with Blunden, and forcing the lone defender to commit before dropping the puck on to Blunden’s stick. From there, all Blunden had to do was fire a shot through Cedric Desjardins and up just under the bar for a 1-0 lead. Blunden, Dumont, and Courtnall have been Hamilton’s best unit since being put together a few games ago.

If the first period was relatively even, Hamilton took the play to Syracuse in the second. Desjardins held the Crunch in the game as long as he could – notably robbing Greg Pateryn on a hard shot from the blueline and Christian Thomas on a quick one-timer – but in a period where the ‘Dogs outshot Syracuse 15-8, he could only resist for so long. At the 11-minute mark, Martin St. Pierre led a rush and dropped the puck on to the stick of Morgan Ellis, who stepped right into a big one-timer, netting his first goal of the season.

Next it was the top line going back to work, as Geoff Courtnall pressed hard on the forecheck, and caused the Syracuse defense to turn over the puck. It bounced out to Blunden, who returned the earlier favour to Dumont, receiving a pass with an empty side of the net in front of him, and making no mistake in one-touching it for his first of the year and a 3-0 advantage.

Syracuse looked like they had gotten one back shorthanded, when the Kucherov – Namestnikov pair led a breakout, but after a first shot block by a diving Christian Thomas, the goal scored when the puck was kicked back out front was waved off as the net had been knocked off its moorings. It was the second disallowed goal for the Crunch on the night, after earlier having one reversed due to incidental contact with Dustin Tokarski in front of the net.

Hamilton reverted into a defensive shell for much of the third, clearly intent on making Tokarski earn the win. The goaltender stood tall until a goalmouth scramble with under five to play saw a puck trickle through him, with credit given to former Hab defenseman J.P. Cote. While losing the shutout was unfortunate for Tokarski on a personal level, the Bulldogs held the lead the rest of the way, with Blunden finishing a great night at the office by hitting an empty net. The 4-1 victory was Hamilton’s third straight straight win, coming immediately on the heels of what had been a six-game losing straight, and propelling the team back above the .500 mark.

Other than the sixty minute effort, the talk post-game focused on the jackpot Lefebvre hit by putting Dumont, Blunden, and Courtnall together. Not only were they the team’s spark offensively, but they matched up against Kucherov and Namestnikov most of the evening, shutting down the pair that looked far too good to be playing at the American Hockey League level.

“I just saw him out there. We practice 2-on-1s pretty often, and we try to go together because we know we’re on the same line. I knew he was gonna post out there. I knew if I had [that defenseman] beat, if I left it there for [Blunden], he was gonna score,” described Dumont of his set-up on Blunden’s first marker.

“Justin came in and we didn’t know much about him. He fought for his place on the team, and since the beginning of the year, he improves every game. He works very hard. Fearless. He completes us pretty well since we play a pretty simple north-south game,” Dumont added on the third member of his trio, whose name didn’t appear on the scoresheet on this night, but whose eff0rt was instrumental to creating Dumont’s goal.

Blunden had equally as glowing reviews for his linemates. “Justin and Gab just work their butts off. I try to do the same thing. We work the D down low, and we scored a couple of goals tonight. We talk a lot, and it’s going well, so hopefully we can keep it going. I’ve really enjoyed our line.”

The Bulldogs complete a “home and home” with Syracuse, travelling to visit the Crunch Saturday night, with the Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate looking for revenge.

 

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IceCaps game report

‘Dogs Fail to Build Momentum as Game Goes to the Wolves [with AUDIO]

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

POST-GAME AUDIO: Sylvain Lefebvre | Mike Blunden

HAMILTON, ON – There was a surprise result in the AHL on Wednesday night as the Hamilton Bulldogs took down a very tough Toronto Marlies team by a 6-4 score on the road, but in typical ‘Dogs fashion, the team was unable to build off the victory to gain momentum for their stretch run.  Friday, the anemic Hamilton offense was back from its one-game outlier six-goal outburst, as the team failed to score in getting shutout 3-0 by the Chicago Wolves.

Mike Blunden was the game's third star in a losing effort (PHOTO: Dan Hickling)
Mike Blunden was the game’s third star in a losing effort (PHOTO: Dan Hickling)

The Bulldogs have customarily started slowly this season and this night was no exception. The team fell into a 2-0 hole early on as first a Michael Davies breakaway and then a fluke Kevin Connauton centering play from along the sideboards just 38 seconds later put Chicago ahead. Hamilton netminder Cedric Desjardins – having a largely disappointing season despite also not getting much help from his teammates – seemed to be fighting the puck for most of the night and was notably slow coming across on Connauton’s goal. Any Habs fans frustrated by the play of Peter Budaj and thinking Desjardins might be a suitable replacement shouldn’t count on it; the goaltending pipeline after Carey Price is exceptionally thin.

The ‘Dogs didn’t manage much in the way of quality scoring chances throughout the rest of the game, with the best coming from a Joey Tenute break, a near-miss of a Mike Blunden rebound, and a Louis Leblanc centering feed that just missed both Gabriel Dumont and Michael Bournival. The latter was perhaps the only real chance Hamilton mustered on numerous man-advantage opportunities as the team’s powerplay remains near-opposite of that in Montreal – it entered the game last in the AHL at an abysmal 9.7%.

Blunden was the best of the Bulldogs on a night where it isn’t saying particularly much, one of the few with more than one opportunity in the offensive zone. Blunden has spent time in the Montreal press box already this season, and given the close eye Martin Lapointe has been keeping on the team – frequently behind the bench since the firing of Ron Wilson – he has impressed enough to remain the top call-up along with Gabriel Dumont, who had a quiet night by his standards this year.

“We just didn’t play as a team. We played as individuals tonight,” was Blunden’s explanation for the loss after the game. “Tomorrow’s a new day and we change things around with a win.”

On his press box stint in Montreal, he added, “They said just keep playing, you’re playing real well. Keep going and when there’s an injury you’ll be back. Obviously they’re going to take whoever’s playing the best down here, you know Dumi [Gabriel Dumont] is playing real well, but my main focus here is to win games. That’s what we’re here for. To win games in Hamilton.”

The loss dropped Hamilton to 9 games below .500, so any hopes of a post-season qualification seems out of reach at this point. But it continues to be a critical development year for a number of legitimate Canadiens’ NHL hopefuls who will be back at it Saturday against the Texas Stars.

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Feature

Bulldogs Preseason Raises as Many Questions as Answers

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON — This ain’t your father’s American Hockey League.

The lockout hanging over the National Hockey League this season means the AHL is as competitive as it’s ever been.  Teams are loaded with fringe veterans who no longer have a second league to float between (think Mike Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion.)  Clubs have sent down young stars who are full-time NHL’ers but still eligible to play in the league (think Jordan EberleRyan Nugent-HopkinsAdam Henrique, Jake Gardiner).  Teams find themselves stocked with depth, not having to worry about NHL injuries and call-ups decimating their rosters.

How will the offense of Bournival and Gallagher translate? Will Nattinen produce more consistently? (Photo: Canadiens.com / NHL)

It may not be quite the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup, but contending in the AHL this year will be a tall order for any organization (well, except maybe the Edmonton Oilers.)  There is/was a lot of buzz around the Hamilton Bulldogs coming into the season, and rightfully so.  The players making debuts with the squad include two first round picks in Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, junior scoring stars Brendan GallagherMichael Bournival, and Patrick Holland, and proven college studs in Steve Quailer and Greg Pateryn.  But while the skill and potential of this club is undeniable, training camp and preseason has triggered certain doubts in the minds of those following the squad.

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin wasted little time this summer identifying the types of players he appreciates the most and felt the organization lacked.  He bolstered the toughness on the Montreal roster through the signings of Brandon PrustColby Armstrong, and Francis Bouillon, and retaining the services of Travis Moen.  But his signing of grinders didn’t end there, with the additions of Zack Stortini and Darryl Boyce, and the retention of Mike Blunden, all on contracts destined for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Was there a need for the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate to become tougher teams to play against?  No doubt, but it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if the club maybe went overboard on that front when there is still a need for skilled goal scorers in the organization.  Given the lockout, we can ignore the potential hole in Montreal’s top 6 for now, and instead focus on Hamilton where goals have been tough to come by throughout training camp.

The Bulldogs opened their preseason on Saturday against the Toronto Marlies, falling 3-1.  Tryout Stephen MacAulay scored the only Hamilton goal, with many of the team’s stars (Leblanc, Gallagher, Bournival…) watching from the press gallery.  Monday saw a rather complete forward lineup for the Bulldogs, but the results were little different as the team came up on the short end of a 2-0 score.  The ‘Dogs lines, of course still a work in progress, were as follows:

Steve Quailer – Michael Bournival – Brendan Gallagher
Aaron Palushaj – Blake Geoffrion – Patrick Holland
Mike Blunden – Louis Leblanc – Darryl Boyce
Joonas Nattinen – Stephen MacAulay – Zack Stortini

In a normal season, this team would be a force to be reckoned with.  I previously proclaimed them as potential cup contenders.  But if we look at the AHL as virtually half-NHL / half-AHL this season, we can understand why scoring may actually be an issue.  Players like Palushaj and Geoffrion are proven AHL scoring stars, but have struggled to produce when called up to the big league, which would make statistical setbacks for them this year understandable.   The hope, however, is that they and Louis Leblanc can carry the load in the short-term while the team is patient with the adjustment process of the rookie line of Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher – which, as a positive sign, has shown some nice chemistry when together.

Who will score for the team?  Will Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher be anything more than intense two-way forwards as pros?  Scoring at this level isn’t the same as doing so in juniors, and there are many who have picked up points in lower leagues only to project as third or fourth liners further into their careers.  There is no forward on the roster who has a certain future as a top-6 player at the NHL level, so it is hard to identify a player the team can send out there when it desperately needs offense.  Grinders are necessary, but wouldn’t a scoring vet have been a better fit in rounding out the roster than the late-added Darryl Boyce or Zack Stortini on a club with plenty of tough customers and penalty killing pros already?

Of course, it’s only preseason. Just as there is no reason to panic or overreact to an NHL team losing exhibition games, no one should give up on Hamilton’s season based on these two results.  But the fact that the difficulty scoring was also noted during the four Red-White intrasquad games the team played raises the issue as a legitimate concern.  It is necessary to be patient with the younger players and not rush them even as AHL stars, but no one should be surprised if the Bulldogs stumble out of the gates a bit during the adaptation process.  Gallagher will be fine.  So will Bournival and Leblanc.  But fans need to temper their expectations of these players given the high level of competition they will be facing and their young age.

Beaulieu’s skills were on display on the powerplay, but the ‘Dogs couldn’t bury one Monday night. (Photo: HUGO-SÉBASTIEN AUBERT, LA PRESSE)

The positives?  The Bulldogs look pretty sound defensively and between the pipes.  Nathan Beaulieu was arguably one of the better Bulldogs through 2 games, rushing the puck well and looking sharp in the offensive zone.  None of the three tryout blueliners, Antoine CorbinEtienne Boutet, or Kevin Gagne, looked out of place, which will mean some tough decisions for management as to who is retained, and yet another unexpected question to be answered.  Frederic St. Denis will be the team’s anchor on the back end, and Hamilton play-by-play man Derek Wills says the hard-hitting Greg Pateryn reminds him of a young Mike Komisarek.

Another question is in goal.  There is no doubt Cedric Desjardins will be Hamilton’s number 1, and he was given both preseason matchups off.  Both Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas were solid in their outings, and either can be a competent AHL back-up, so it is possible the team decides to keep all three on its roster for the time being.  With the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins already having assigned goaltender Patrick Killeen to Montreal’s ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, neither Delmas or Mayer would be a guaranteed clear starter there anyway.

All of the above goes without saying that, should the NHL resume at some point during the season, the landscape of the AHL will change dramatically.  With 23 players on NHL deals already with the Canadiens, it is possible the Bulldogs wouldn’t lose too many players, which can’t necessarily be said of all clubs.  The Toronto Marlies team that beat the Bulldogs twice is coming off a season where they went right to the Calder Cup Finals, and the club then added dominant AHL scorer Keith Aucoin to its roster over the summer.  So should we really be worried?  Of course not.  We’re not even a single meaningful game into the season.  Final cuts have yet to be made to the roster, but they should be on their way.

Still the play of the young prospects up till now is giving fans lots to think about and debate.   With no Habs’ camp results to fret over and proclaim the sky to be falling, in the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps the overwhelming number of chronic Canadiens worrywart fans should be grateful for the entertaining, unpredictable, and certainly challenging road ahead.