By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine
Post-game audio: Christian Thomas | Sylvain Lefebvre
HAMILTON, ON – With three home games in three days, this weekend was pivotal for the Hamilton Bulldogs to climb back into the AHL Western Conference playoff race. As the team plays 13 of their final 18 games on the road, it was critical for them to close the gap on the 8th and final spot in front of their own fans. But as much as the team got off to good starts, taking an early lead in all three contests, they failed to collect the four or six points they critically needed. And on Sunday, playing to salvage some positives out of the despair, they failed to even pick up two, dropping a 4-1 decision to the Lake Erie Monsters, who leap-frogged the Bulldogs in the process, dropping Hamilton to last place in the West.
Pre-game in Hamilton was unusually eventful, as first there was a notable absence from the team’s warm-up. Captain Martin St. Pierre was announced as a healthy scratch; the latest development in what has been a trying season for the veteran, despite his two assists yesterday. Though St. Pierre may lead the Bulldogs in scoring, almost all of his production has come with the man advantage, nearly invisible at even strength, and frequently guilty of poor penalties. Regardless of his play, benching your team’s top scorer and dressing room leader when as a club you struggle to produce is a bold move. So bold, one might argue, that it represented coach Sylvain Lefebvre‘s last straw tactic to try to get his team to play up to their potential, conceivably putting his own job on the line in doing so.
Next, there was almost a second curious storyline as the Bulldogs had only four skaters on ice throughout the national anthems. Nick Tarnasky was missing in action after being announced as part of the starting line-up. The pugilist raced down the hallway from the dressing room and on to the ice just prior to puck drop, ending any conspiracy theories, and then immediately dropped the gloves with Guillaume Desbiens off the opening face-off.
In Devan Dubnyk‘s second start since joining the Bulldogs, it was his teammate Morgan Ellis who made certain the netminder was sharp early on. Two blatant defensive zone giveaways gave the Monsters the game’s first two quality scoring opportunities, but both times the 6’6″ keeper had the last word, swallowing up any rebounds.
After their goalie’s heroics, Sven Andrighetto got the home team’s offense rolling. A solo rush saw him weaver between defenders before firing a wrister on goal, but despite the ensuing scramble, neither he nor Maxime Macenauer could tap a rebound past Calvin Pickard.
Andrighetto would make good later on in the frame, finding Christian Thomas alone at the top of the face-off circle, with the sniper making no mistake in firing a one-timer top shelf to open the scoring. The Swiss winger would nearly got on the scoreboard himself moments after the first tally, taking a delayed feed from Davis Drewiske during 4-on-4 play, but again Pickard resisted.
Strong firsts are nothing new for this year’s Hamilton Bulldogs squad, but the second frame has been their nemesis. A slow start was reversed following a Sylvain Lefebvre timeout, with the ‘Dogs carrying the play for much of the middle stanza without being able to add to their lead. The best chance came as Hamilton was awarded a penalty shot on a call most recently seen at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. With the puck on Louis Leblanc‘s stick in the attacking zone, a Monster defenseman inadvertently batted a broken stick along the ice at the puck-carrier, and the refs were quick to whistle play down and point to center ice signalling a penalty shot.
Coach Lefebvre went with his most dangerous skater for the shot, but Sven Andrighetto‘s quick backhand to forehand deke was matched with an equally quick Pickard pad.
A common problem for the boys from the Hammer as been failing to capitalize on chances, and thus allowing other teams to hang around for too long. That was the case again in this one, as Nathan McIver would leave his side shorthanded, guilty of an extra two minute penalty prior to a fight with Daniel Maggio. Immediately off the face-off in the ‘Dogs end, David van der Gulik fired a hard wrister up and over a falling Dubnyk to tie the game.
Another common problem has been second period collapses, and in a case of “jamais un sans deux,” van der Gulik was again Johnny on the spot just three minutes later, accepting a dish from Andrew Agozzino completely uncovered the slot and beating Dubnyk with a heavy release.
If the team’s season was on the line in the third period, they disappointingly didn’t play like it. Managing only four shots the entire frame, any hopes of a comeback were wiped out when Matt Hunwick pinched into the high slot on the powerplay, converting on a van der Gulik pass and beating Dubnyk just under the bar blocker side. Michael Schumacher added a fourth tally off a Hamilton turnover, sliding a backhand five hole on the Hamilton netminder in a game that was already out of reach.
Post-game, coach Lefebvre wasn’t entirely happy with his team’s effort, but saw Sunday as a game that could have gone either way. “The powerplay didn’t come up big. Tonight if Andrighetto scores on the penalty shot, it’s 2-0. Our second periods have been nowhere to be found this year. We gain momentum in the first period, then we come out in the second and we’re flat. I don’t know what it is.”
Certainly one of the “what it is” is a lack of scoring, for which the coach also has few answers. “We work on scoring everyday. I wish we could score more goals, but that’s how it is right now and we have to play well defensively. Last night, the empty net goal was the thirteenth this year. We’re in games, but we just can’t find a way to win games when we have to comeback from behind, and scoring is part of it.”
How does a last place team stay motivated with eighteen games remaining in the season and the already slim hope of a playoff berth now requiring nothing short of a miracle? “If we stop believing and we quit, no one is going to benefit from that. It’s our job as coaches and our job as players not to quit, and to battle till the end. Guys are playing for their lives, playing for their livelihoods and their jobs. That’s the plain and simple truth,” summarizes the coach, alluding to the fact that at least on an individual basis, players remain in competition for NHL call-ups.
And then there’s the captain. The team’s lone goal scorer on the night, Christian Thomas, didn’t hide his disappointment in St. Pierre’s absence from the line-up. “It was definitely tough. He’s a presence in the room. He’s a good leader; older guy, brings veteran status out there, but we come to the rink and whatever the lines are, we can’t change it and just have to do our thing out there. He definitely helps, but today I’m not going to blame it cause he wasn’t playing, but we should have showed up more.”
Coach Lefebvre didn’t shy away from tackling the issue of his controversial line-up decision head on. “[St. Pierre] was a healthy scratch tonight. Not happy with his game. Been talking to him a few times, sending him messages here and there not happy with his game. Sometimes as a coach, you have ways to get guys going. Hopefully he’ll rebound and get to playing the way he can play. He’s our captain. He’s the guy that sets the tone, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Things won’t get any easier from here on out, as after three-in-three at home this weekend, they’ll play three-in-three in different cities on the road next week.