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IceCaps game report

Vail Shines but Amerks Come Back to Top ‘Dogs [with AUDIO]

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

POST-GAME AUDIO: Louis Leblanc | Dustin Tokarski | Sylvain Lefebvre

HAMILTON, ON – Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre wouldn’t be the first to struggle to figure out where to play 19-year old Brady Vail. The tryout getting a first taste of American Hockey League action after his Windsor Spitfires failed to qualify for the OHL playoffs was used on three different lines over the past three games, getting limited minutes on a fourth unit in a loss to Abbotsford on Friday.

But Saturday night, Coach Lefebvre seemed to have found some magic, placing the natural center who was even forced to spend some time on defense for Windsor between Louis Leblanc and Steve Quailer, with the trio providing a spark that should have been sufficient to get the ‘Dogs back in the win column. Unfortunately, the two goals they produced wouldn’t hold up to a third period rally from the Rochester Americans, who ultimately escaped with a 4-2 win on truly a one period effort.

Quailer may have found a home with Vail and Leblanc, the trio combining for two goals (PHOTO: Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator)
Quailer may have found a home with Vail and Leblanc, the trio combining for two goals (PHOTO: Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator)

To a man, the Bulldogs have spoken about the importance of quick starts to their success this season, and they took it to heart against the Americans. After earlier being denied on back-to-back chances off a Rochester giveaway, Vail opened the game’s scoring by deflecting a Peter Merth point shot past starter Nathan Lieuwen while mucking it up in front of the net. The goal was Vail’s first (and second point) at the professional level, coming in his fifth game.

Greg Pateryn had a couple of good opportunities to add to the lead for the home team, but a powerplay point shot and an uncharacteristic pinching one-timer were both turned aside, as Hamilton held a 13-6 shot advantage through twenty minutes.

An injury scare saw Lieuwen pulled for David Leggio for the visitors to start the second period, a bad omen for the Bulldogs considering the netminder has recorded two shutouts at Copps Coliseum this season. But the Bulldogs didn’t let up, taking the play to the Amerks again in the second set, winning most races for the puck and one-on-one battles.

Vail continues his strong play, working hard on the penalty kill and effective in his own end, notably making one diving interception and clear to break up a dangerous scoring chance. His line would be rewarded again for their hardwork in the period’s final minute when a Louis Leblanc forecheck got the puck back to Jarred Tinordi whose point shot was tipped by Steve Quailer and just trickled across the goal line for a 2-0 lead.

Rochester wouldn’t go quietly into the night, however. After an Evan Rankin wrister on a rush down the wing got the Americans within one, it was Rankin again leading a charge and taking a shot which got through Dustin Tokarski – who hadn’t been tested much through two periods – and sat in the crease. Zack Stortini was first to get a stick on it, but unfortunately for Hamilton, he inadvertently tapped it into his own cage.

Coach Lefebvre tried to settle his side down with a timeout, but the Amerks kept on coming, taking the lead for the first time of the night on a Jerome Gauthier-Leduc shot from the blueline which hit off Tokarski before finding the back of the net. It wasn’t the goaltender’s finest outing of the season, and the crowd let him know, offering up a Bronx cheer for his next save.

The Leggio storyline would pick back up in the third period, as he made numerous high calibre saves, including on rebound chances for Gabriel Dumont and Alex Belzile to preserve the comeback victory, sealed with an empty netter. It marked the second night in a row where a solid home effort from the Bulldogs still saw them leave Copps Coliseum without a point.

“A loss is a loss. And tonight we came up short,” summarized Tokarski, clearly upset over the result but showing a brave face in facing reporters all the same. “I think we came out fired wanting to win the game, but we gotta learn how to win and how to close out games, starting with myself. It’s a mental thing.”

The positive the ‘Dogs can take on the road is the chemistry on the newly formed Quailer – Vail – Leblanc line, provided Quailer won’t miss any time with a banged up knee after being seen with an ice pack taped around it post-game. “It’s been a tough season, but every player has tough seasons. Keep working hard and keep a good attitude. That’s all I can control and that’s all I’m doing,” explained Leblanc after one of his better performances in recent weeks. “I played with Quailer earlier on this season, and Brady is a new young player who brings some energy. It worked well tonight.”

 

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IceCaps game report

Tokarski Shines but ‘Dogs Winning Streak Ends at Four [with AUDIO]

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

POST-GAME AUDIO: Dustin Tokarski | Sylvain Lefebvre

HAMILTON, ON – The cellar-dwelling Hamilton Bulldogs entered their Monday afternoon matchup against the Rochester Americans as – surprisingly – one of the AHL’s hottest teams, winners of four straight and five of their last six.  But in this game, the ‘Dogs looked to be at their early season form rather than continuing their recent strong play, unable to generate anything in the way of offense, and coming up on the short end of a 3-0 final, flattering only because of stellar netminding from Dustin Tokarski.

It was another slow start for the Bulldogs, who were outshot 18-7 in the first period and fell behind 1-0 when a Brayden McNabb wrist shot from the point found the corner of the net behind Tokarski. It then became further clear that this wasn’t going to be Hamilton’s night when the second began in the same way, with Luke Adam converting on a two-on-one to double the Americans’ lead.

"If you didn't think Tokarski could stop the puck, now you know," said Sylvain Lefebvre of his message to the team. (PHOTO: Dan Kramer, AllHabs.net)
“If you didn’t think Tokarski could stop the puck, now you know,” said Sylvain Lefebvre of his message to the team. (PHOTO: Dan Kramer, AllHabs.net)

The ‘Dogs seemed to steady the ship a bit around the midway mark of the period, and drew a penalty looking to get on the board. But a terrible powerplay saw the team struggle to even gain entry into the offensive zone, and the ice re-tilted in Rochester’s favour thereafter, with the visitors holding a dominant 37-13 shot advantage through 40 minutes.

“I won’t lie, I haven’t faced that many in a long time. But as a goaltender, you gotta be ready to make 20 saves or 50 saves. Ultimately, they scored more than we did, and their goalie outplayed me. I gotta be better,” said Tokarski post-game, clearly his own harshest critic.

Tokarski notably came up big on one goalmoth stand as the Americans crashed the net, but on four occasions couldn’t slipped one passed the newest member of the Bulldogs.

Despite the lack of effort, down just 2-0, Hamilton seemed to find some stored up energy for the third, increasing their shot total to a respectable 30 on the night, and making David Leggio earn his second shutout of the season (the first also came against the Bulldogs). Sylvain Lefebvre‘s new top six combinations of Mike BlundenJoey Tenute, and Patrick Holland and Gabriel Dumont, Michael Bournival, and Louis Leblanc both had their chances, particularly after Tokarski was pulled for an extra skater with 2:47 to play.

“Nothing was happening before that, so might as well pull him right away and see if we can get one quick, and it’s a 2-1 game,” explained Lefebvre on a night where his squad looked weak at both ends of the ice for two periods.

It’s easy to say that Hamilton had earned an off-night based on their recent strong performances, but still near the basement of the AHL standings, there is no room for error if the team wants to get back into playoff contention. Thus, every game is a must-win as the team moves on to the Bell Centre in Montreal for a rematch with Rochester Friday night.

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IceCaps game report

Marlies vs Bulldogs: Mayer Backstops Dogs to Home Opener Win

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

HAMILTON, ON – A packed house filled the lower bowl of Copps Coliseum as the Hamilton Bulldogs upended the Toronto Marlies 4-1 in the first home game for Montreal’s AHL affiliate this season, improving to 2-0-0 to start the year.

Mayer has stood tall two games into the season (Photo by Jennifer Kuhn)

Many were disappointed when it was revealed an injury would prevent Cedric Desjardins from starting the season with the Bulldogs, but undoubtedly the biggest benefactor from this situation is Robert Mayer.  On at least this night, Mayer – who many have criticized to be lacking confidence in his game at times – was spectacular, turning aside 39 shots, including many highlight-worthy stops, and having his shutout bid broken only by an accurate Jake Gardiner howitzer in the third period.  Deservedly, Mayer was recognized as the game’s first star for his efforts.

The ‘Dogs got off to a bit of a slow start, caused in part by early penalty trouble, but they took cues from their goaltender, and Louis Leblanc – fresh out of the box – buried a pass from Darryl Boyce in the dying moments of the first period.  The play was started by Jarred Tinordi with a good breakout pass from his own end, earning him an assist and thus his first pro point.

Hamilton was outshot 16-6 in the first, yet escaped up 1-0, and the line of Steve QuailerBlake Geoffrion, and Brendan Gallagher had opportunities to add to it.  But ultimately it would be Patrick Holland – with his first professional goal – who found a loose puck in front of the net and doubled the Bulldogs lead.

If the Geoffrion-centered line was Hamilton’s tops through a period and a half, it largely disappeared for the remainder of the game.  Fortunately, other players took over, with Aaron Palushaj being the most dangerous forward for either side throughout the third period. His goal put the game out of reach at 3-0, but he could have had one or two others with the way he handled the puck in the attacking zone.  Of importance, his marker came on the powerplay, an area in which Hamilton had looked really weak up till that point, and definitely something the team needs to improve upon.  But Palushaj converted a precision pass from Holland, finishing the play with a hard snipe, and went on to earn honours as the game’s “Hardest Working Bulldog” (a feature Hamilton runs in addition to the three stars) for a thoroughly impressive 20 minutes.

Corbin has impressively fit right in on Hamilton’s blueline (Photo by Journal de Montréal / Jean-François Chaumont)

There were a significant number of Leaf jerseys in Copps Coliseum, and the Toronto faithful were given something to cheer about on Gardiner’s goal at 10:12.  But the ‘Dogs skaters did a solid job shutting it down the rest of the way, with their impressive defensive unit strutting its stuff.  Jarred Tinordi notably had some good shotblocks and clears, though he also bobbled the puck on a few occasions.  Greg Pateryn certainly follows the adage of playing the man and not the puck, and stood up a few Marlie forwards.  Antoine Corbin impressed, and seems to be establishing himself as a deserving AHL’er after earning his contract through a training camp invite.  And lastly Nathan Beaulieu‘s skating and skill level were on display at several points during the evening with rushes that might remind many of P.K. Subban.

Louis Leblanc with his second of the night sealed the deal into an empty net, and thus game 1 of a home-and-home (to be completed Saturday) went to  the ‘Dogs.  Despite expected animosity when these rival clubs face-off, there wasn’t a significant amount of rough stuff on this night, with just one near-fight between Brendon Nash and Nazem Kadri, the latter of whom used his opponent’s helmet as a weapon at one point, jabbing from behind.  Tempers did flare after the final whistle, which led to Zack Stortini rushing back into the fray from near the Hamilton bench, but the referees were very quick to step in before anything got out of hand.

The Bulldogs kept the same lineup as their season opening shootout win, meaning Alexander AvtsinAlain Berger, and Joonas Nattinen (who may still have the flu) were scratched, while Cedric Desjardins and Morgan Ellis have yet to be cleared to return to action.

 

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Feature

Bulldogs Preseason Raises as Many Questions as Answers

By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

TORONTO, ON — This ain’t your father’s American Hockey League.

The lockout hanging over the National Hockey League this season means the AHL is as competitive as it’s ever been.  Teams are loaded with fringe veterans who no longer have a second league to float between (think Mike Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, Blake Geoffrion.)  Clubs have sent down young stars who are full-time NHL’ers but still eligible to play in the league (think Jordan EberleRyan Nugent-HopkinsAdam Henrique, Jake Gardiner).  Teams find themselves stocked with depth, not having to worry about NHL injuries and call-ups decimating their rosters.

How will the offense of Bournival and Gallagher translate? Will Nattinen produce more consistently? (Photo: Canadiens.com / NHL)

It may not be quite the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup, but contending in the AHL this year will be a tall order for any organization (well, except maybe the Edmonton Oilers.)  There is/was a lot of buzz around the Hamilton Bulldogs coming into the season, and rightfully so.  The players making debuts with the squad include two first round picks in Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, junior scoring stars Brendan GallagherMichael Bournival, and Patrick Holland, and proven college studs in Steve Quailer and Greg Pateryn.  But while the skill and potential of this club is undeniable, training camp and preseason has triggered certain doubts in the minds of those following the squad.

Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin wasted little time this summer identifying the types of players he appreciates the most and felt the organization lacked.  He bolstered the toughness on the Montreal roster through the signings of Brandon PrustColby Armstrong, and Francis Bouillon, and retaining the services of Travis Moen.  But his signing of grinders didn’t end there, with the additions of Zack Stortini and Darryl Boyce, and the retention of Mike Blunden, all on contracts destined for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Was there a need for the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate to become tougher teams to play against?  No doubt, but it isn’t unreasonable to wonder if the club maybe went overboard on that front when there is still a need for skilled goal scorers in the organization.  Given the lockout, we can ignore the potential hole in Montreal’s top 6 for now, and instead focus on Hamilton where goals have been tough to come by throughout training camp.

The Bulldogs opened their preseason on Saturday against the Toronto Marlies, falling 3-1.  Tryout Stephen MacAulay scored the only Hamilton goal, with many of the team’s stars (Leblanc, Gallagher, Bournival…) watching from the press gallery.  Monday saw a rather complete forward lineup for the Bulldogs, but the results were little different as the team came up on the short end of a 2-0 score.  The ‘Dogs lines, of course still a work in progress, were as follows:

Steve Quailer – Michael Bournival – Brendan Gallagher
Aaron Palushaj – Blake Geoffrion – Patrick Holland
Mike Blunden – Louis Leblanc – Darryl Boyce
Joonas Nattinen – Stephen MacAulay – Zack Stortini

In a normal season, this team would be a force to be reckoned with.  I previously proclaimed them as potential cup contenders.  But if we look at the AHL as virtually half-NHL / half-AHL this season, we can understand why scoring may actually be an issue.  Players like Palushaj and Geoffrion are proven AHL scoring stars, but have struggled to produce when called up to the big league, which would make statistical setbacks for them this year understandable.   The hope, however, is that they and Louis Leblanc can carry the load in the short-term while the team is patient with the adjustment process of the rookie line of Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher – which, as a positive sign, has shown some nice chemistry when together.

Who will score for the team?  Will Quailer, Bournival, and Gallagher be anything more than intense two-way forwards as pros?  Scoring at this level isn’t the same as doing so in juniors, and there are many who have picked up points in lower leagues only to project as third or fourth liners further into their careers.  There is no forward on the roster who has a certain future as a top-6 player at the NHL level, so it is hard to identify a player the team can send out there when it desperately needs offense.  Grinders are necessary, but wouldn’t a scoring vet have been a better fit in rounding out the roster than the late-added Darryl Boyce or Zack Stortini on a club with plenty of tough customers and penalty killing pros already?

Of course, it’s only preseason. Just as there is no reason to panic or overreact to an NHL team losing exhibition games, no one should give up on Hamilton’s season based on these two results.  But the fact that the difficulty scoring was also noted during the four Red-White intrasquad games the team played raises the issue as a legitimate concern.  It is necessary to be patient with the younger players and not rush them even as AHL stars, but no one should be surprised if the Bulldogs stumble out of the gates a bit during the adaptation process.  Gallagher will be fine.  So will Bournival and Leblanc.  But fans need to temper their expectations of these players given the high level of competition they will be facing and their young age.

Beaulieu’s skills were on display on the powerplay, but the ‘Dogs couldn’t bury one Monday night. (Photo: HUGO-SÉBASTIEN AUBERT, LA PRESSE)

The positives?  The Bulldogs look pretty sound defensively and between the pipes.  Nathan Beaulieu was arguably one of the better Bulldogs through 2 games, rushing the puck well and looking sharp in the offensive zone.  None of the three tryout blueliners, Antoine CorbinEtienne Boutet, or Kevin Gagne, looked out of place, which will mean some tough decisions for management as to who is retained, and yet another unexpected question to be answered.  Frederic St. Denis will be the team’s anchor on the back end, and Hamilton play-by-play man Derek Wills says the hard-hitting Greg Pateryn reminds him of a young Mike Komisarek.

Another question is in goal.  There is no doubt Cedric Desjardins will be Hamilton’s number 1, and he was given both preseason matchups off.  Both Robert Mayer and Peter Delmas were solid in their outings, and either can be a competent AHL back-up, so it is possible the team decides to keep all three on its roster for the time being.  With the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins already having assigned goaltender Patrick Killeen to Montreal’s ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, neither Delmas or Mayer would be a guaranteed clear starter there anyway.

All of the above goes without saying that, should the NHL resume at some point during the season, the landscape of the AHL will change dramatically.  With 23 players on NHL deals already with the Canadiens, it is possible the Bulldogs wouldn’t lose too many players, which can’t necessarily be said of all clubs.  The Toronto Marlies team that beat the Bulldogs twice is coming off a season where they went right to the Calder Cup Finals, and the club then added dominant AHL scorer Keith Aucoin to its roster over the summer.  So should we really be worried?  Of course not.  We’re not even a single meaningful game into the season.  Final cuts have yet to be made to the roster, but they should be on their way.

Still the play of the young prospects up till now is giving fans lots to think about and debate.   With no Habs’ camp results to fret over and proclaim the sky to be falling, in the spirit of Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps the overwhelming number of chronic Canadiens worrywart fans should be grateful for the entertaining, unpredictable, and certainly challenging road ahead.