By Dan Kramer, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

Post-game audio: Martin St. Pierre | Sylvain Lefebvre

HAMILTON, ON –  It’s do or die time for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

A season characterized by an inability to build any kind of real momentum where every win streak was followed up by a losing streak of equal or greater length left the ‘Dogs in 15th place in the AHL’s Western Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot with 24 games remaining. Thus, every game is a must-win here on out, starting with Sunday’s tilt against the San Antonio Rampage, who sat five points up on Hamilton coming into the game.

Pateryn's two assists and strong defensive play earned him the game's second star. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)
Pateryn’s two assists and strong defensive play earned him the game’s second star. (PHOTO: BRANDON TAYLOR via HAMILTON BULLDOGS)

With their backs up against the wall and with the added hardship of completing a three games in three nights in three different cities, the Bulldogs – against all odds – delivered one of their best performance in weeks, getting ahead early and responding well to a Rampage push back in holding on for a 3-1 victory before their home fans at FirstOntario Centre.

After tentative play from both sides for the first few minutes, Hamilton broke through to open the scoring on an odd-man rush. Greg Pateryn carried the puck across the blueline and put a hard wrister off Jacob Markstrom‘s pad, bouncing right onto the stick of a waiting Martin St. Pierre. The captain made no mistake in one-timing the rebound to the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

Maxim Macenauer came very close to extending the home team’s lead moments later, taking a feed from Sven Andrighetto alone in front, but getting denied by a sprawling Markstrom. Justin Courtnall had an equally promising chance on a solo rush, but couldn’t get proper wood on his shot as he was hacked at by a Rampage defender.

The period ended with penalty trouble for the ‘Dogs. Mike Blunden took a poor offensive zone call, and then his partner-in-crime Gabriel Dumont was given an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct for complaining about the referee’s decision, leaving Hamilton down not only two men, but two key penalty killers.

Hamilton survived the dual calls with great work from Joonas Nattinen even creating two rushes while down three-on-five. But a penalty to Louis Leblanc for an defensive zone hook just prior to the midway mark would allow San Antonio to even the score. Ryan Martindale pounced on a rebound loose in front of Dustin Tokarski, and his shot would bounce off Quinton Howden‘s stick before finding the cage.

But the tired ‘Dogs looked anything but, not relenting after letting the visitors back into the game, and restoring their lead with just under eight minutes to go in the middle stanza. In a play reminiscent of the team’s first marker, Nathan Beaulieu fired an accurate point shot that was redirected by St. Pierre in front, but turned aside by Markstrom. However, it was again St. Pierre with a second effort, finding the loose puck bobbled by the netminder and swatting it behind him.

The Rampage looked for an equalizer before the second was through, but a mishandled puck by Garrett Wilson ended one threat, and a diving block by Greg Pateryn broke up an odd-man opportunity.

That set the stage for Hamilton to put the game away early in the third. After a strong shift from Sven Andrighetto and Christian Thomas generated multiple chances, the ‘Dogs were sent to the powerplay, and it didn’t take them long to make good. A Pateryn shot from the line was redirected by Nick Tarnasky, bouncing off bodies in front and landing on the tap of Mike Blunden parked at the side of the goal. The veteran made no mistake in quickly batting it into the empty net to give his side a two goal edge. From there, the defense was able to insulate Tokarski sufficiently to preserve the victory, putting an end to a four game skid at the season’s most critical juncture.

St. Pierre has struggled to produce at even strength this season, but turned in a strong performance with some unfamiliar linemates. Typically paired with fellow skill players like Patrick Holland and Christian Thomas, St. Pierre spent the night on a line with grinders Nick Tarnasky and Stefan Fournier.

“They’re trying to juggle the lines around, and it’s a good thing about our team that we have a lot of depth. Everybody knows their role in the system, and it’s about finding good chemistry. Obviously me, Tarnasky, and Fournier found it today. Kudos to them.  They work hard, and they deserve credit for this,” indicated the captain with a smile.

Part of the reasoning for moving St. Pierre on to a line with bigger bodies is to generate better net-front presence, something the team has lacked all season. “(Markstron) is a big goalie, but we worked on it last week in practice. Getting our cycles going, body position, and getting some traffic. Our D has been getting good shots, but there’s no one in front. I think my second goal was a prime example of that. I’ll take those goals every day.”

Coach Sylvain Lefebvre confirmed that the change was a conscious one, and will be key if the team is to post the kind of winning percentage it needs from here on out to squeak into the post-season. “(Markstrom) is a big guy. Look at our third goal. (Blunden) at the side of the net and Tarnasky in front. That’s why I put Tarnasky on our last two powerplays. We don’t score too many highlight reel goals. We score grind-it-out goals. That’s our trademark. That’s who we are. Some nights we don’t pay the price as much and it shows.”

NOTE: The Bulldogs played without Jarred Tinordi, announced as a healthy scratch during warm-up. This was a surprise at first, given he has been the team’s top blueliner of late, but made more sense when he was announced as a call-up to the Montreal Canadiens just after 5 PM. On the d-man’s progress, his coach had this to say: “He started slow with disappointment probably when he got sent down early in the season, but throughout the rest of the time, he’s been a force back there. He played big minutes, played against top lines. Even scored a few goals lately and had powerplay time yesterday. He deserves this.”