HAMILTON, ON – With little but pride left to play for, the Bulldogs turned to a surprising starter Saturday night in their return to First Ontario Centre from a nine-game road trip. The same day as Dustin Tokarski signed his new two-year contract with the organization, Robert Mayer was given another chance to prove he has value to Hamilton beyond this season, and he supported a ruthless Bulldog penalty kill that helped stage an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit. In the end, however, the visiting Rochester Americans – battling tooth and nail for a playoff spot – would prove too much, prevailing 4-3 in a shootout in the second-to-last game of the season at First Ontario Centre.
Hamilton got the game’s first quality scoring chance when a Christian Thomas point shot hit a crowd of bodies in front of Rochester starter Andrey Makarov. Sven Andrighetto dug the puck out, spun, and fired a backhander on goal, but the netminder had the last word.
Andrighetto would make good on his next drive to the net, however. With five minutes to go in the opening period, the Swiss native entered the Americans zone with speed, cut towards the goal, and saw his shot attempt bounce off Makarov’s pads to a wide open Connor Crisp, who made no mistake in hitting the empty side of the net. The goal was Crisp’s second in his sixth professional game on a tryout with Hamilton.
Rochester would tie the game just two minutes later, however. Nathan Beaulieu attempted a clear off a defensive zone face-off, only to see it kept alive by Tim Schaller at the line. Beaulieu was then beaten to the net by Colton Gillies, who accepted a pass and fired a shot inside the post on Mayer.
A bit of bad luck to start the second, as Mayer made an ill-fated attempt to stop a dump-in behind the goal. A weird bounce had the puck squirt out front to Kevin Porter, who quickly tapped it into the goal before the netminder could recover.
Mayer would redeem himself not long after, sliding across to miraculously stop a Mikhail Grigorenko point-blank shot into what looked like a gaping cage. He couldn’t stop them all, however, as the ‘Dogs were heavily outchanced, and Brayden Irwin found a loose puck at the lip of the crease, slapping a rebound past the keeper just before the period’s halfway mark for a 3-1 advantage.
A 5-on-3 powerplay gave Rochester the chance to put the game out of reach, but strong defensive work by the P.K. unit and even a semi-breakaway for Joonas Nattinen allowed the home side to kill it off. Hamilton seemed to take some momentum from the kill, with each of Gabriel Dumont and Christian Thomas earning quality scoring chances in the period’s final minutes, but both turned aside by the Amerk rookie.
Any chance at a comeback took a serious blow when Dumont was assessed a four minute high sticking penalty as the second period expired. But the aggressive penalty killers got the job done once again, even generating chances for defensemen Nathan McIver and Drew Schiestel.
They say many things can turn the tide in a hockey game, and the two big penalty kills were no exception in this one. The line of Joonas Nattinen, Jack Nevins, and Nick Tarnasky stormed the Rochester crease, and a rebound landed on the Finnish centre’s blade. A slick forehand to backhand shift gave him a clear shooting lane, which he deftly capitalized on to pull his side within one.
The hounds smelled blood with that goal, and Hamilton controlled flow over the next few minutes, but was unable to get anything through to Makarov. Until, that is, Gabriel Dumont turned in a dominant shift. After blocking a shot in his own end, he collected a turned over puck and raced down the ice, roofing a laser beam shot over Makarov’s arm to tie the game.
And the ‘Dogs didn’t stop there. They looked poised to collect a regulation win when in the game’s final minute, the newly assembled unit of Andrighetto, Thomas, and Nick Sorkin – who logged big minutes in perhaps his best AHL game to date – generated three shots on a dangerous offensive zone sequence, but couldn’t seal the deal.
Overtime would solve nothing, and if several big glove saves from Mayer allowed the ‘Dogs to reach the shootout, his play in the skills competition tiebreaker ended things quickly, ceding on three consecutive shots.
Still, the stirring comeback provided an entertaining evening for what was one of the best crowds seen in Hamilton in months, with 6,314 in attendance in addition to 84 dogs for the team’s annual Pucks and Paws night.
“It shows a lot about the guys in the room. Obviously we wish we’d be in the race for the playoffs, and making comebacks to get in, but everybody’s playing for something,” summed up Dumont, the third goal scorer. “The road trip and here today again, the penalty kill was really big for us. We’ve had some success because of special units.”
The shorthanded units were a common theme post-game as a source of motivation that had the bench believing in a comeback. “Obviously with things like that, the team gets some life and power off of it. I can’t say I’ve ever had a 3-on-5 scoring chance before,” added Nattinen, a key role player who had recently spent time in the press box to make room for some of the younger junior call-ups.
Coach Sylvain Lefebvre agreed with Nattinen’s assessment, lauding the efforts of his two-way centreman. “It’s been a tough time for Nattinen. He had some big blocks, and came up with a big game tonight. We killed some big penalties with the 3-on-5 and the four minutes to Dumont. We came up short in overtime and the shootout, but showed some grit and character against a team that needed those points.”
The ‘Dogs close out their schedule with a game in Lake Erie on Tuesday, and then a home date against Syracuse on April 19th. Hamilton fans can get tickets for the last chance to see their team in the 2013-14 season at http://www.hamiltonbulldogs.com/.
NOTES: The game marked the professional debut of Montreal prospect Jack Nevins. Brady Vail will miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. Martin St Pierre also missed the game with an injury suffered in practice on Friday. Morgan Ellis was a healthy scratch.