HAMILTON, ON – Sometimes all it takes is one win to rebuild a team’s confidence. Losers of six straight, the Hamilton Bulldogs snapped out of that skid Saturday night, with a shootout road win over Lake Erie. The momentum gained accompanied the team back to Copps Coliseum Tuesday night, where the team’s anemic offense came to life in a dominating 6-1 victory against a strong visiting club in the Texas Stars.
Despite the team’s struggles of late, one cannot criticize the way the Bulldogs have been coming out of the gate. Tuesday night was no exception, as Justin Courtnall – one of the team’s better forwards over the past five games – got the offense rolling, bowling Texas defender Hubert Labrie at the Hamilton blueline and skating down ice, creating a 2-on-1 rush with Mike Blunden, whose shot would be turned aside by Christopher Nilstorp.
But moments later, the line drew the game’s first powerplay, and with William Wrenn in the box for a trip, Hamilton got on the board. Martin St. Pierre spotted a pinching Christian Thomas – who plays the point on the man advantage – and he in turn sent a cross-crease pass to Nick Tarnasky. It took three whacks at the puck, but the tough winger eventually made contact, batting it through a sliding Nilstrop for his sixth of the season.
Much of the rest of the first was spent in the Bulldogs’ end, as the team’s defenders – notably Jarred Tinordi – were guilty of poor breakout passes and frequent turnovers. Fortunately, Dustin Tokarski, now firmly entrenched as Hamilton’s rightful number one netminder in making his second straight start and fourth in the team’s past five games, was sharp, with a handful of stops on heavy shots from the perimeter.
If the way Hamilton ended the opening period was a concern for the second, the Bulldogs didn’t waste much time putting that fear to rest. Less than three minutes into the middle stanza, Joonas Nattinen centered a puck for Stephen MacAulay – called up from the ECHL and playing his first career AHL game – whose shot deflected to Steve Quailer standing just outside the blue paint. Quailer was able to swiftly kick the puck up to his stick, and one-touch a shot just inside the post for his first marker this year.
MacAulay and the Bulldogs kept coming, making this a night to remember for the native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (pretty sure he’s the first ever decent hockey player to come from there). Steve Qualier and Louis Leblanc combined to start a dangerous-looking odd-man rush, and Leblanc spotted a wide open MacAulay at the opposite side of the net, with the former Halifax Moosehead winger making no mistake in one-timing a shot past Nilstorp.
The home team would add one more goal to their lead before the second was in the books. Maxime Macenauer won an offensive zone face-off, and a Jarred Tinordi point shot was tipped in front by Tarnasky, whose second of the night tied him with the injured Sven Andrighetto for the team lead in goals on the season and put the ‘Dogs up 4-0.
Typical of a team with such a big lead, the Bulldogs came out sluggish to start the third, and it would cost Tokarski his shutout bid. American Hockey League leading scorer Travis Morin spotted winger Colton Sceviour in the slot, and his one-timer beat Tokarski far side, reducing the Hamilton lead to three.
While it was an unfortunate turn of events for Tokarski, his teammates weren’t about to let this one slip away. Erik Nystrom fired over the net on a breakaway, but shortly thereafter picked the pocket of blueliner Cameron Gaunce for another chance in alone, and this time lifted the puck over Allen York – in for Nilstrop after Hamilton’s fourth goal – but under the bar. Rounding out the scoring on the night, the goal was Nystrom’s first tally since crossing over to North America this season, coming in his fifteenth contest.
Other than the offensive explosion, the other story on the night was the physical undertone of the game. Five separate fights broke out throughout the evening, all real tussles with punches thrown. Justin Courtnall was involved in two of the altercations, while Gabriel Dumont and Steve Quailer suqarely pounded their opponents, and a Steve Quailer third period bout completed a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Hamilton won the night both on the scoreboard and in the back alley in their hardest fought game to date.
Named the game’s first star, MacAulay was understandably all smiles about his AHL debut after the game. “I thought I was playing pretty well in Wheeling, but I didn’t even score a goal in twelve games. (The Hamilton coaching staff) kinda liked me in training camp but they thought I could learn a bit in Wheeling. They want me to be strong in my own end, kill penalties when asked, and compete every night. That’s what I tried to do tonight and luckily I got the bounces offensively,” said the 21-year old.
Sylvain Lefebvre felt this win was a long time coming, having seen improvement in his troops over the past couple of outings. “Guys were ready for the battle from the start of the game, and I want to say it’s the first sixty minutes we played. We played well Friday and Saturday too, and this is a continuation of our play. We understand that we have to play hard every night. We have to battle, and we have to work harder to get our goals. A game like tonight will hopefully snap as out of little funks as a team, and as individuals,” summarized the head coach.
Riding a two-game win streak, the Bulldogs next travel to Montreal for the first of their biannual games at the Bell Centre Friday night. After a debut like this one, it’s safe to say MacAulay has earned a prolonged stay in the team’s line-up.