HAMILTON, ON – Since the beginning of the season, the Hamilton Bulldogs have been a hot-and-cold hockey club. Thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise to many that after their offense exploded for six goals on the road on Saturday, it would go cold again at home Sunday, managing only a single tally while being thoroughly outplayed and outshot in a 4-1 loss, dropping them back out of a playoff position in the American Hockey League’s tight Western Conference standings.
Like the weekend’s two prior outings, the Bulldogs again got off to a good start with Jarred Tinrodi cutting to the net on the opening shift before having his backhand stopped by Chicago’s Matt Climie. Hamilton would also head to the game’s first powerplay a couple of minutes later, but the man advantage has been ice cold of late (0/13 in Friday and Saturday’s games combined) and produced little in the way of chances.
A questionable call on Gabriel Dumont allowed Chicago to open the scoring past the midway point of the period. Dumont was in a one-on-one race with a Wolves skater away from the puck as Hamilton broke out, and by virtue of being stronger than his rival, stayed on his feet while the defender fell. Dumont was whistled for interference, and despite two big Nathan McIver shot blocks on the penalty kill, a rebound out to Dmitrij Jaskin was roofed over a fallen Robert Mayer.
Tinordi would be the beneficiary of two other Bulldog set-ups for great scoring chances, as the speedy big man showed no reluctance to pinch in on the rush. Unfortunately, for all the power in the behemoth’s slapper, it lacks in accuracy, and both opportunities sailed wide.
The Wolves added to their lead just over a minute later, when Jaskin again led a rush down the wing. A weak, off-angle shot was stopped by Mayer, but the goaltender awkwardly deflected the puck right to the crowd in the front of the net, helplessly seeing it bounce off Tyler Shattock and into the cage behind him.
The decision to start Mayer on Sunday was a curious one from the outset. Dustin Tokarski has emerged as not only the team’s true starter, but one of the best goaltenders in the league. While you want to give both goaltenders action in a three games in three nights stretch, Mayer had started Saturday’s 7 PM game ahead of Sunday’s 4 PM afternoon tilt. Certainly, Mayer got the win (2 GA) Saturday compared to Tokarski’s Friday loss (2 GA), but you need to go with the starter you believe gives you the best chance to win, and Tokarski boasts a .928 save percentage, not having allowed more than two goals in his past nine starts (6-2-1 record in that span). Coach Sylvain Lefebvre made it evident early in the season that he was prepared to give Mayer as much as ice time as he could “merit,” while quickly taking it away from Tokarski when the team couldn’t pull through for a win. The platoon system works when you have two netminders of comparable quality, but that is not the current situation with the Bulldogs.
That isn’t to say Mayer was solely to blame for his side trailing 2-0 after twenty minutes, as Hamilton was also outshot 17-5, but his rebound control was off all night.
Home fans got excited in the period’s dying seconds, when a shorthanded Gabriel Dumont rush drew a penalty which prevented the pesky center from shooting. Dumont did manage to spot Mike Blunden at the side of the net, but Blunden was well after the buzzer with his tap-in goal, resulting in a quick wave-off.
It was another Mayer gaff that gave Chicago an insurmountable advantage early in the second. Joel Edmundson fired a shot on a harmless looking rush that caught the Bulldog keeper slightly off his angle and found the corner of the net, stretching the lead to 3-0.
A similar rush the other direction saw Hamilton climb back to within two on a rare second period scoring chance, with Christian Thomas rifling a wrister from the top of the face-off circle past Climie. For Thomas, it was his second goal and third point in his past two games, as he and Sven Andrighetto have taken over as the team’s best forwards. The two were united on a top line with center Maxime Macenauer for the night.
Despite being outplayed and badly outshot, it appeared momentarily like the Bulldogs had pulled within one. After a slick move, Andrighetto fired over the net, but the puck bounced back out in front, off some part of the crowd, and into the net. It looked like it may have caromed off netminder Climie’s back, but the referee ruled that it had in fact gone off Macenauer’s high stick and in, immediately being called no goal with no review of the play.
Before the period was out, the Wolves restored their three goal advantage. A difficult shift for the duo of Darren Dietz and Nathan McIver resulted in a turnover and set-up for Mark Cundari. Mayer was again slow to come out and challenge as Cundari’s shot found the back of the goal.
Adding injury to insult, Morgan Ellis – who had taken on a significant role on the Hamilton blueline of late – slid awkwardly into the boards in the period’s final minutes, laying painfully on the ice until a trainer could reach him. Though he skated off under his own strength, he was tended to immediately on the bench and did not return for the final frame.
Maxime Macenauer had a chance to help the Bulldogs’ climb back into the game before the third period’s midway mark when he finished off a solo rush with a wrister that found only iron. His line and the fourth unit anchored by Joonas Nattinen and Justin Courtnall were the only ones that seemed to be clicking on the afternoon, causing Coach Lefebvre to shuffle his deck mid-game.
Climie hadn’t been tested much throughout the net, but needed to come up big in the closing moments to stymie a comeback effort. First it was a kick save on a Jordan Owens attempt set-up by a spinning Martin St Pierre dish. Next it was a glove stop on Sven Andrighetto who had been alone at the side of the goal after accepting a feed from Jarred Tinordi.
With those stops, the Wolves were able to sit on their lead the rest of the way, handing the fatigued home side their fourth loss in the past six games.
After the game, Macenauer confirmed he did in fact touch the puck on the disallowed goal which could have completely changed the night’s course. “Ya, I touched it. I mean it’s a close call. I felt like they should have probably reviewed it. It was probably a high stick, but you never know. I felt like I might have touched it just below the cross bar.” On his own promotion to the top line, the pivot feels the coach’s confidence in his game has helped him progress throughout the season. “I always thought I could play a lot of minutes in every situation, and that’s what I’ve tried to prove since the start of the season.”
While it wasn’t the outcome he had hoped for, Lefebvre was proud of his team’s compete level after a tough weekend. “Really tough physical game last night. Guys gave everything they had. They emptied the tank big time. Can’t be not satisfied with the effort. It’s tough, but we have guys that can log some minutes. We got to Lake Erie at 4 o’clock Saturday morning, and then back here at 4:30 this morning.”
On his injured blueliner Ellis, the coach also confirmed that the situation may have been just as bad as it looked. “I haven’t talked to doctors yet, but it’s an upper body injury, and he’ll probably miss some time.”
The Bulldogs embark on a lengthy road trip next which will hopefully allow them to regroup from the current struggles. They’ll visit five cities as visitors for their next six games, only returning home to Copps Coliseum for a tilt with the Texas Stars on February 15th.