HAMILTON, ON – Slow starts have been a recurring theme for this year’s Hamilton Bulldogs, but they shirked the trend Saturday night, pouncing on a tired-looking Abbotsford Heat squad right from opening puck drop to take an early 2-0 lead. However, in a reverse of the usual Bulldog set-up, the team suffered a second period collapse, with the Heat drawing even and ultimately prevailing in a shootout, 3-2.
Despite not appearing on the scoresheet, coach Sylvain Lefebvre had been quick to call out strong play from the line of Justin Courtnall, Joonas Nattinen, and Steve Quailer just a day earlier, and it was that line that would open the scoring against the Heat. A strong forecheck from the energy trio generated a defensive turnover that popped on to Courtnall’s blade, and a quick spin-o-rama rifle beat starting netminder Joni Ortio. Ortio got the call due to Reto Berra‘s call-up to Calgary earlier in the day, leaving the Heat to call upon 40-year old personal trainer David Harris as an emergency back-up goalie.
After scoring two powerplay goals for the comeback win against the Toronto Marlies a night earlier, the powerplay would click again to extend the home team’s lead. In similar fashion to the day before, the play was started by strong work by the point pair of Magnus Nygren and Nathan Beaulieu. While Nygren was the shooter against Toronto, this time it was a Beaulieu shot which would see a rebound land on the stick of Martin St. Pierre – he who scored both powerplay goals Friday – for an easy tap-in and 2-0 lead. The second goal came at just the 5:39 mark of the first, and with changing netminders not an option, the Heat was forced to call a timeout to try to get back into the game, but the period would end with a 14-7 Hamilton shot advantage.
Playing with the lead is a relatively new concept for this year’s Bulldog team, and it unfortunately showed in the second. Just a minute in, a defensive end turnover landed on the stick of former Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flame forward Blair Jones and he was quick to fire one past a falling Robert Mayer to cut the lead in half. The situation worsened when already down a man, Gabriel Dumont collided with Ortio during a shorthanded rush and got called for goaltender interference. It must have been a terrifying minute for Harris on the Abbotsford bench, as Ortio lay on the ice, slow to get up, but was fine in the end and stayed in the game.
The Bulldog penalty kill – led by a great period for an under-siege Mayer – managed to kill off the lengthy 5-on-3, but the Heat kept coming and eventually found a way to get a second puck behind the Hamilton goalie. At the tail end of a late-period Bulldog penalty, a Jarred Tinordi clearing attempt was knocked out of the air by Drew MacKenzie, who would eventually find Jones to rocket his second of the night to the back of the cage. The game remained tied through 40 minutes, and the evening out of the shot clock properly reflected what had turned from a one-sided romp into an entertaining and wide-open contest.
If the second period was full of scoring chances at both ends, things tightened up in the third, as neither team could capitalize on opportunities with the man advantage. The biggest notable was that despite sitting on the bench, Nathan Beaulieu didn’t take a shift, wearing a full face shield and visibly reaching up to feel his face numerous times. However after the game, Coach Lefebvre confirmed that Beaulieu was benched for the final frame and was not suffering from an injury.
After no scoring in the third, overtime also solved nothing, with few chances at either end, sending the Bulldogs to their third shootout of the year. The team’s lack of success there continued, as none of Sven Andrighetto, Martin St. Pierre, or Erik Nystrom could beat Ortio, while all of Markus Granlund, Corban Knight, and Blair Jones put pucks past Mayer to complete the comeback.
The Bulldogs still add another point to their strong start to the season, now sitting at 5-2-3. They are next in action Wednesday night in Rochester, before a game at home against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday.