HAMILTON, ON – It was a tough fan appreciation night in Hamilton Saturday, as the Bulldogs closed the book on a disappointing 2013-14 season with their 35th loss, unable to reach the .500 mark on the season which was in play.
Newcomer Jack Nevins gave fans something to get excited about just 14 seconds after opening puckdrop, engaging in a fight with defenseman Joey Mormina, and quickly wrestling him to the ice.
The ‘Dogs carried momentum into the game’s first powerplay, as Mormina sat in the box again for a trip. Nathan Beaulieu pinched downlow, and Mike Blunden found a seam cross-crease, enabling an easy tap-in for the offensive-minded blueliner.
“That was a designed pass. I actually pass the puck,” joked Blunden post-game, making light of his own hands of stone. “I was looking for [Dumont], I kinda lost the puck a bit, and then I just wired at [Beaulieu] right at the net.”
But it wouldn’t be one final game in Hamilton this season if the team didn’t carry on their tradition of tough second periods. The ‘Dogs looked like they might survive despite being thoroughly outshot, until the final five minutes when a pair of strange bounces did them in. First it was multiple giveaways, followed up by an Evan Rankin centering pass deflected off defenseman Joel Chouinard and behind Dustin Tokarski, knotting the game at one.
Just over a minute later, a Luke Witkowski attempted dump-in took a funny hop off Nathan Beaulieu‘s leg and also beat a slow-to-react Tokarski, allowing the visitors to take their first lead of the night into the second intermission.
For a team playing what could be its final twenty minutes of the campaign, the ‘Dogs seemed eager to start vacation, with a fast-moving third yielding few scoring chances, other than a hard Greg Pateryn wrister that made it through a dense crowd but was still stopped by Cedric Desjardins. Then, just after an indisciplined penalty to Nick Tarnasky had expired, Jonathan Marchessault held the puck on a 3-on-1, froze Tokarski in his stance, and whipped a wrist shot through his five hole for an insurance marker that would put an end to Hamilton’s inconsistent year that unfortunately featured far more downs than ups.
“Our powerplay in the second period set the tone. We didn’t generate anything,” summarized coach Sylvain Lefebvre. “We had five shots in the period. We didn’t play well enough to win the game.” As to why, that middle stanza has been the team’s plague all season, Lefebvre had no answers. “If I knew, we wouldn’t be standing here talking like this.”
The loss means the ‘Dogs finish the year at 33-35-1-7, missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Prior to the game, end-of-year awards were given to Dustin Tokarski (MVP), Greg Pateryn (top d-man), Sven Andrighetto (top rookie), Gabriel Dumont (fan favourite), and Morgan Ellis (community involvement).
On being named most valuable player, the team’s starting netminder said he was satisfied with his own season amidst disappointment on the team’s lack of success. “I wanted to come in and turn some heads. Make management have some hard decisions. I think I was able to do that. But on the AHL level, you want to be in the playoffs right now and not going home. That’s tough to take in, but I think the team made strides from last season. It’s a great honour [to be named MVP]. Every guy in the room plays their heart out for the team; I’m the lucky one to be named MVP.”
After signing a 2-year deal with the Canadiens organization last week, Tokarski added that he feels he’s found a good fit for himself. “Montreal has treated me great since I’ve been here. Showed confidence in me. I’m ready to continue to work hard, and have a great summer. Montreal is all class, and to be part of it is real special.”
Post-game, the remaining awards were distributed, going to Martin St. Pierre (top scorer), Tokarski (Molson Cup / 3 stars), and Mike Blunden (hardest worker). Blunden, a pending unrestricted free agent, said he hasn’t given much though to his playing future after serving in a valuable leadership role this season. “I was focused on this year. Having a strong year. I’ve had a lot of fun, and now I”ll take a couple of weeks and think about it. I was joking with [Dumont] that he’ll probably have a better winger next year with much better hands.”
And with that, the ‘Dogs set sail for the off-season. A number of players are expected to head to Montreal Sunday to form a group of “black aces,” skating and practicing to stay in top form in case injury strikes the Canadiens during post-season play and they are pressed into service. The group should include Beaulieu, Pateryn, and Dumont, among others.