IceCaps game report

Beaulieu, Bulldogs Best Marlies in Final Battle of Ontario [with AUDIO]

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

POST-GAME AUDIO: Nathan Beaulieu | Gabriel Dumont | Sylvain Lefebvre

HAMILTON, ON – Tuesday marked the twelfth (no, that’s not a typo) and final meeting between AHL rivals Hamilton and Toronto, and in a season series that has seen a lot of one-sided contests, this one was a dog fight right down till the final minutes. With numerous scoring chances throughout the night, it was the line of Gabriel DumontMike Blunden, and Joey Tenute that ultimately took charge, and a revived Bulldogs powerplay gave the team a 3-2 victory late in the third period.

Nathan Beaulieu - playing nearly 30 minutes a night for Hamilton - was credited with the game's winning goal.
Nathan Beaulieu – playing nearly 30 minutes a night for Hamilton – was credited with the game’s winning goal.

The flow wasn’t in the game from the outset, however. A choppy first period saw six minor penalties called, and despite a strong defensive effort by the ‘Dogs in killing off all four infractions against them, they fell behind 1-0 on a Will Acton converted pass from a tough angle.

In the team’s best period in quite some time, Hamilton would first even the score at 13:48 of the second when a brutal Toronto turnover shorthanded bounced off Joey Tenute and right to Gabriel Dumont. While his shot was stopped, Stefan Chaput was able to cash in his third of the year on a rebound, and the Bulldogs had a rare powerplay goal on the board.

Toronto kept things tight, regaining a lead on a man advantage of their own when an open Joe Colbourne snapped a shot top corner beating a slightly off-angle Robert Mayer. But it would take less than a minute and a half for the ‘Dogs to draw even once again. Dumont sent a hard centering pass across the ice, which bounced off the opposite board and on to the stick of Joey Tenute, whose blistering shot was tipped by Mike Blunden on the way in. The goal was a nice reward for Blunden who has been one of Hamilton’s top forwards consistently of late and had numerous chances in this game.

The Hamilton powerplay – in addition to the gift of a goal – looked as dangerous as it has all season, and Louis Leblanc had a few cracks at beating Jussi Rynnas on centering passes with one such advantage in the final ten minutes of the third. Leblanc’s play has greatly improved since the start of the New Year, and while his production is only slowly coming along, Habs fans should be encouraged that after a summer to fully recover, he should be ready to challenge for an NHL roster spot again in the Fall.

 But it would be the Blunden line again converting on a powerplay with 2:46 to go that gave Hamilton its first lead of the night. A Nathan Beaulieu point shot appeared to be tipped by Gabriel Dumont who was battling in front, and Dumont even reacted by dropping to a knee with an exuberant fist pump. But Beaulieu was officially credited with his fourth of the season.

“It went off my shaft, but then the ref was like, “I gotta give it to Beaulieu because I’m a little bit worried about the height of your stick,” so you know, I didn’t want to ruin that one, didn’t really care, it’s a big win,” joked (I think) Dumont post-game.

Toronto was handed a bench unsportsmanlike minor after the goal, and that was where things got strange. Moments into the Hamilton powerplay, the referee signaled a second call against the Marlies and Mayer took off to the bench for an extra skater. Yet when play resumed, it remained a 5-on-4 advantage. The situation was clarified with the official announcement, that Toronto head coach Dallas Eakins had been assessed a game misconduct, obviously not to fond of the goaltender interference call that led to what would stand-up as the game’s winning goal, and having thrown his clipboard to the ice.

With the win, Hamilton finishes the season with a 5-5-1-1 record against the Marlies, impressive considering the significant gap between the two squads in the standings. The Bulldogs still sit in 30th place in the AHL, but they’ve won two in a row and three in the last four. Beaulieu attributes both his own personal recent successes (being used in all situations and playing close to 30 minutes a night) and those of the team to guys becoming more comfortable at the professional level.

“We sat down and want to take it one game at a time. We got a big win in Toronto and I think it kind of sparked our team. We’re comfortable and we’re playing without fear. We’re not scared to make the plays we have before in different leagues.  [Greg Pateryn, his defense partner] has a couple of years on me, so he definitely knows a lot more than I do. We play really well together. I’m comfortable with him and he helps me a lot.”


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.


End of Lockout not a Cure-All for Bulldogs

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

Dumont wouldn't be wrong to feel like he is "all alone" offensively for Hamilton this season. (PHOTO: Kaz Novak/The Hamilton Spectator)
Dumont wouldn’t be wrong to feel like he is “all alone” offensively for Hamilton this season. (PHOTO: Kaz Novak/The Hamilton Spectator)

TORONTO, ON – After starting the season inconsistently, hovering around the .500 mark for the first 23 games, the Hamilton Bulldogs’ 2012-13 campaign has seen far more downs than ups. In the 18 games that have followed, the club is an abysmal 4-10-4, which has left them 30th overall in the American Hockey League, six points behind their closest Western Conference rival and a full 13 points away from the eighth and final playoff spot.

It seemed all along like the ‘Dogs might be one of the AHL’s best positioned clubs to make a second-half run up the standings ladder with the National Hockey League work conflict resolved. It didn’t look like the team was going to lose any of its core players, it would benefit from weakened opposition league-wide, and it had a need to address – a veteran scoring forward – which it could focus on once the NHL fate of those sitting out had been decided.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Due in part to the health of Max Pacioretty, the Montreal Canadiens have decided to keep Brendan Gallagher – one of Hamilton’s top forwards along with Gabriel Dumont through the first half of the year – for the remainder of the season. Injures have meant Mike Blunden has also been largely unavailable to Hamilton, as he has served as press box filler for the Habs. The club inked local talent Joey Tenute, and while he has performed admirably with four points in six games, he is hardly the veteran fallen-from-grace-NHL’er many had hoped would be acquired.

What did the organization identify as a problem this season? If astute observers questioned the system – or lack thereof – the team had been employing, they may have been right. On January 22nd, in a move strongly reminiscent of the Canadiens’ dismissal of Perry Pearn a year prior, the team relieved Assistant Coach Ron Wilson – easily the most experienced man on the green staff – of his duties, citing a difference in philosophies with Head Coach Sylvain Lefebvre.  A strange move, but an early vote of confidence in the man Marc Bergevin picked to lead his AHL squad over the summer. This marked the second time Wilson has been fired from a job with the Bulldogs, previously leaving the team after the 2008-09 season only to come back on board for 2011-12.  He was the only holdover from last season’s ‘Dogs coaching staff.

That Hamilton is 1-0-0 in the post-Wilson era is very likely more coincidental than causal, and it’ll take more than a scapegoat if the team is to build any momentum. Admittedly the club’s schedule didn’t help in the month of January, with a 3-4-3 record not disastrous for a club that played only 4 home games the entire month. February will be much busier, so stay tuned to for exclusive post-game player interviews and analysis following most contests at Copps Coliseum.

And the month to come should see some reinforcements. While no one is rushing Blake Geoffrion‘s recovery, the other AHL star lost early in the year – Aaron Palushaj – is inching closer to a return. On the blueline, rookie Greg Pateryn had his health status upgraded to day-to-day well over a week ago, and thus should be able to reintegrate into the roster in the coming days to make up for the hole left by the end of Mike Commodore‘s try-out contract. The defense should be one of the team’s strengths moving forward as the trio of promising youngsters – Jarred TinordiNathan Beaulieu, and Morgan Ellis – continue to gain experience and learn the intricacies of the pro game.

Tinordi was a bit of a surprise invite to the Canadiens’ abbreviated training camp, but his rare mix of size and agility combined with Montreal’s need for more toughness on the back end have accelerated his progression towards making an NHL debut, and he looks as though he may be ready to challenge for a job early in the 2013-14 season.

The inconsistencies in Beaulieu’s game have been noticeable, with stretches where he has seemed like Hamilton’s top d-man and other where he seems a long ways from being able to set up residence in la belle province. He is easily the most skilled of the Bulldogs’ defense corps, and if the logjam of offensive blueliners is cleared up this summer through a buyout for Tomas Kaberle and a trade of Yannick Weber, he too may earn some action in 2013-14.

Lastly, based on his dominance at the junior level and well-rounded game, some predicted that Ellis might have the more direct path to the NHL when compared to his first round selection counterparts. He hasn’t been overly noticeable, but that isn’t necessarily troubling for a player who battles hard and does all the little things right. The challenge for Ellis – due to his balanced game – will be to define himself as a professional hockey player.  It’s easy to say the Habs should call up Tinordi if they need size and toughness, or Beaulieu if they need scoring from the point, but under what circumstance will Ellis get his shot? For this reason, he might need a bit more seasoning before cracking the roster, so pencil him in for the Fall of 2014.


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: / 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.