TORONTO, ON – The early season struggles of the Hamilton Bulldogs have been a popular topic of discussion among Hab fans who find themselves virtually as locked out as the players themselves. In a normal season, with less focus on the AHL squad, the concerns of most would be placated by the valid excuses of the team’s youthful inexperience, some undisciplined depth players, and a lack of bona fide scoring talent. But this season, though we’re just 20 games in, the scrutinizers are already talking about Sylvain Lefebvre‘s suitability as a Head Coach or management’s effectiveness at assembling a balanced roster.
The reality of the situation is – just as things always are with the big club – the team’s difficulties have been greatly overblown. With 20 points, they do sit tied for 2nd to last in the American Hockey League, but they remain just 1 game below .500 and also hold games in hand on most of the other clubs. In fact, last night’s 1-0 win over the Lake Erie Monsters was big for keeping pace with other teams even at such an early point of the year, moving within 6 points of their divisional rival in 4 fewer games. This is also important as the Monsters are currently holding down the 8th and final playoff position in the AHL’s Western Conference, meaning it is far too early to give up hope on the baby Habs’ season.
In many ways, last night’s game illustrated much of both the good and bad we’ve seen from Hamilton this year. As many predicted it would be, scoring is a challenge for the Bulldogs who lack veteran stars to lead the offense. Yes, Aaron Palushaj and Louis Leblanc are proven at this level and have NHL experience, but the loss of Blake Geoffrion has left the team searching for new sources of goal-production. Finishing ability is not a strength of the team, even of leading point-producer Brendan Gallagher, and it was apparent last night with just one goal on 45 shots, due to a combination of a hot opposing goaltender and few second chance opportunities with limited traffic in front of the net. But when your golden opportunities land on the stick of a Kyle Hagel, or Mike Blunden holds down a spot on your top powerplay unit (over a player like Leblanc) – both of which occurred yesterday evening – it is to be expected that goals are hard to come by.
With veteran Zack Stortini sitting as a healthy scratch (being one of those underperforming depth players whose lack of discipline has hurt the club), it was an unexpected source that could have hurt the squad with an untimely penalty. The Bulldogs were already down a man when netminder Cedrick Desjardins was bumped by the traffic in the crease. Angered by the lack of a call, mid-play, Desjardins rose and slammed his blocker and stick against the crossbar, knocking the net off its moorings and stopping play, leading to a delay-of-game call.
Explained Desjardins after the game, “There was a lot of traffic in front and I couldn’t see anything, so I was frustrated. I put my team in a situation, so I had no choice but to bail them out.” And that he did, with some of the Monsters’ best chances of their 29 shots coming during that 5-on-3 advantage in the 2nd period.
On the positive side, the team’s defenders and group of defensive forwards were successful in shutting down the Lake Erie attack with it certainly not being Desjardins’s busiest night or most difficult shutout. The recently inked Mike Commodore has been getting increasingly comfortable on the back end and brings a calming veteran influence to a group of youngsters.
The hero on this night was – eventually – Steve Quailer, with a brilliant individual rush on a powerplay that had been dying for one to go in. After making a nice move to enter the zone, Quailer drove to the net, and though the finish wasn’t quite what he was going for – the puck was swatted into the net by a sweeping defender’s stick – it filled the arena with joy, allowing stuffed animals to rain down and litter the ice on the team’s charitable Teddy Bear Toss night.
“I was going for the Forsberg move, but he (the defenseman) actually made a good play and jammed my stick. The goalie followed me and it went in, so it was pretty lucky I guess,” admitted Quailer post-game. Lucky in this instance perhaps, but Quailer did what few ‘Dogs have this season aside from Gallagher, which was charge the net, and that – plus the fact that the marker came with the man advantage – is something that the team must work on doing more of in the games to come.
After assembling their first back-to-back wins since the opening 2 games of the season, the ‘Dogs now head out on a 4-game road trip. They return to Hamilton on December 21st for a two-game stand pre-Christmas.
(Featured image by HamiltonBulldogs.com)