By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
POST-GAME AUDIO: Joonas Nattinen
HAMILTON, ON – Losers of five straight, the Hamilton Bulldogs needed to turn a page Friday night if they wanted to avoid squandering a good start to the 2013-14 season, finding themselves a game below .500 entering action at Copps Coliseum. Whatever coach Sylvain Lefebvre said to the team during a lengthy meeting the day prior looked like it was going to prove effective early on, with the Bulldogs building an early lead, but the same old mental lapses crept back into their game come the middle stanza, ultimately costing the club a chance to take the first half of a key divisional home-and-home. A third period insurance marker by former Hab J.T. Wyman sealed the deal, solidifying a 5-3 victory for the visiting Lake Erie Monsters.
There was good news for the Bulldogs before the game got underway, as it was announced that Christian Thomas had been cleared medically from the sports hernia he suffered during Montreal Canadiens’ training camp, and could thus officially join the team, set to make his season debut. He began on a line with Martin St. Pierre and Nick Tarnasky, while also playing the point on Hamilton’s top powerplay unit beside Nathan Beaulieu.
But it would be another line that would allow the Bulldogs to open the scoring midway through the first period. A great individual effort saw Gabriel Dumont work a puck out front, eventually finding Justin Courtnall for an easy tap-in. The period ended with the Monsters getting into penalty trouble, resulting in them starting the second two men short.
When a team fails to cash in on a 5-on-3 powerplay, it can sometimes be a turning point for their opposition. It looked for a moment like this would be the case, as Lake Erie generated a solid chance off the rush in the moments after the second penalty had expired, but Robert Mayer staved off the attack. The Bulldogs ensured they would maintain momentum by turning the puck back up ice, as a great burst of speed from Stefan Fournier created a two-on-one opportunity, with Joonas Nattinen diving to reach a pass and deflect it by a sliding Sami Aittokallio for a 2-0 lead.
It never comes easy for a team looking to snap a skid, however. Less than three minutes after Nattinen’s goal, the Monsters won an offensive zone face-off back to Gabriel Beaupre, whose point shot beat Mayer cleanly – one he’d undoubtedly like to have back. Lake Erie immediately resumed buzzing off the ensuing draw, and Guillaume Desbiens completed a passing play at the lip of the crease just thirty five seconds later, evening the score and forcing Lefebvre to call a timeout in the efforts of settling his troops down.
Any effect of the timeout was shortlived, as two minutes after the tying goal, the Monsters forced Mayer into a highlight-reel one-timer save. The netminder was unable to avoid kicking out a rebound on to a Lake Erie stick, and Lady Luck smiled on the visitors when a centering pass deflected into the Bulldogs net off Magnus Nygren‘s skate without a maroon sweater in sight.
When it rains, it pours, and for the second time in a week, a full second period storm struck Hamilton. While it didn’t come close to matching the dubious team record set the previous Friday against Grand Rapids – allowing four goals in 1:13 – the team would surrender its fourth consecutive marker, as Mitchell Heard collected his third point of the game with a lucky deflection of a point shot that bounced way up high over Mayer and into the cage. The line of Tarnasky, St. Pierre, and Thomas – a source of excitement pre-game – fell to -3 on the night on the insurance marker. The goal signaled the end of the night for Mayer, replaced by Dustin Tokarski for the second time in as many starts.
Facing a sixth straight defeat, undoubtedly Lefebvre has started to feel some pressure for his own job security, and his second intermission speech awoke the slumbering ‘Dogs. Led by the bottom six lines of Gabriel Dumont, Mike Blunden, and Justin Courtnall, and Joonas Nattinen, Steve Quailer, and Stefan Fournier, Hamilton fired whatever they could at Aittokallio, looking to get back into the game, and it was Blunden who would corral a puck in the slot and fire a shot just inside the post to draw back within one. The Finnish netminder would stymie any further attempts, however, until Wyman benefited from an off-balance Tokarski to bank a wraparound in off his pad, giving the Monsters all the production they needed for a win in Steeltown.
Where do you go from here? The optimist would say the only place is “up,” but other than eventual returns of the injured Patrick Holland and Darren Dietz, no further roster upgrades are in sight, given the Canadiens’ improving health. Sometimes it only takes a single win to reverse the trends and find some positives to build on, and Hamilton will get that chance right away on Saturday, as they visit the Monters before returning home for a rare Tuesday night game against the Texas Stars.