HAMILTON, ON – They say the first game home after a lengthy road trip is one of the toughest to win. But if Wednesday night was an indication, the Hamilton Bulldogs aren’t familiar with that expression.
After posting a 1-3-0 record on the road over the last two and a half weeks, the ‘Dogs returned to Copps Coliseum with a decisive victory, chilling the Abbotsford Heat by a 5-3 final score in a game they controlled for two periods but would ultimately have to survive a third period collapse.
Hamilton got off to a good start with the game’s first quality scoring chance as Alex Belzile narrowly missed getting to the rebound of a Joey Tenute shot. Belzile was promoted to the Bulldogs’ top line with Tenute and Patrick Holland for the night – despite it being only the third AHL game of the tryout’s career – based on his production (a goal and two assists) in his two prior outings.
The Bulldogs would make good of their second opportunity however. Michael Bournival took a couple of strides off a Nathan Beaulieu pass and fired a hard wrister off the post and in on netminder Danny Taylor. With Gabriel Dumont in Montreal Bournival led the ‘Dogs in scoring coming into the game with 24 points in 56 contests, and the marker tied him with Patrick Holland for second on the team in goals with 8.
As rare as it has been for Hamilton to score first this season, on this night, they wouldn’t stop there. First Frederic St. Denis would one-time the rebound of a Philippe Lefebvre shot past a helpless Taylor. Brady Vail picked up his first professional point (in his third game) with an assist on the tally. Then just five minutes later, feel-good story Hamilton local Joey Tenute would collect a Belzile pass and fire a rifle top shelf.
The second period saw the Bulldogs add to their lead with a powerplay marker to make it 4-0. Nathan Beaulieu showed great agility in executing a quick spinorama at the point before feeding back to Patrick Holland. Holland would in turn send the puck cross-ice to Greg Pateryn whose slapshot found the back of the net for his 6th in just 27 games. Robert Mayer would close out the period with a number of quality stops as Abbotsford held a 27-16 shot advantage through 40 minutes, though those totals hardly reflected the balance of play.
Nothing has come easy for the boys from Steeltown North this season and this game would not be an exception. The Heat came out buzzing to start the final stanza and markers from Max Reinhart and Roman Horak quickly made it a two-goal affair. Hoping to settle his troops down, coach Sylvain Lefebvre wisely called a timeout.
And it seemed to work. Again the new top line went to work with Holland flashing skill to break in alone on goal, and while he was stepped, Tenute was Johnny on the spot for his second of the night, restoring a three-goal lead. Belzile registered his second helper of the game on the goal – his fifth point in just his third game – and was impressive throughout the night, regularly going hard to the Heat net.
Ben Street would reduce the Heat deficit to two, but that was as close as this one would come, as the Bulldogs pick up a hard-fought and well-deserved win despite what the shot clock might have one think. The win was made all the more impressive by the fact that no fewer than six players were making their Copps Coliseum debuts in the game.
“It’s a little weird for me, just cause I’ve never experienced anything like this,” explained Vail who – given his young age – will return to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in the Fall. “I’m here to experience what it’s like at the next level and learn from the pro guys; what it takes, the work ethic, off-ice stuff. All the little things really. Good to get [the first point] out of the way, and hope I get a few more.”
Belzile, playing his first year outside of Quebec and a little self-conscious about his English, is also looking at this as a learning opportunity. “[The AHL] is way faster [than the ECHL]. Just the intensity – you can’t compare them. You have to be smarter – know what you’re going to do with the puck before it comes. Those little details, and I hope [my adjustment] is going to continue the same way.”