11/24/2012 6:12 PM
Story By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, Ont. – After a two-game sojourn to the American Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, its back to North Division play for the Hamilton Bulldogs.
After splitting road games with the St. John’s IceCaps earlier in the week, the Bulldogs embark on a stretch of three straight division games with a visit from the Lake Erie Monsters at 4 p.m. Sunday. The Bulldogs will travel to British Columbia for two games against the division-leading Abbotsford Heat on November 30th and December 1st.
The Monsters, AHL affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche, opened the week Friday night with a 4-2 loss in the first of back-to-back games against the visiting Rockford IceHogs. The loss was the fourth in a row for the Monsters, who fell to 9-7-1-0 for 19 points, good for fourth in the division.
Sunday’s game will be the first of eight during the regular season between the Bulldogs and Monsters. Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre will have some idea what to expect from the opposition after spending five seasons as a coach in the Avalanche organization, including two as an assistant with the Monsters.
“I am familiar with most of the Lake Erie guys from training camps or development camps and some of them had stints with the Avalanche,” Lefebvre said after practice at Copps Coliseum on Friday. “I’ll have some idea what we are up against Sunday, but they have a new head coach in place there so some of their systems could be different.”
After dropping a 6-1 decision on the road to the Toronto Marlies on November 17th the Bulldogs headed east and lost the opener to the IceCaps 3-1 on Tuesday night despite outshooting the home side 46-19. The Bulldogs rebounded to win the rematch the following evening, prevailing 2-1 after Steve Quailer scored the winning goal at 19:36 of the second period after converting a rebound of a Morgan Ellis shot that missed the net. Goaltender Cedrick Desjardins made 29 saves in his second start of the season in the Bulldogs net.
“If you work hard and do things the right way at some point you will be rewarded, I am a big believer in that,” said Lefebvre, whose charges snapped a five-game road losing streak and improved to 6-7-1-1 for 14 points. “We could have been frustrated after the first game because we’d had so many shots and scoring chances and still came up short. We weren’t satisfied that we’d lost but played a good game. The guys showed up in the second game determined to get a split.”
Lefebvre said he had “stopped counting” how many consecutive games the Bulldogs have allowed the opposition to score first but the Bulldogs haven’t opened the scoring in 13 games since Louis Leblanc scored at 19:13 of the first period of a 4-1 win over the visiting Marlies on Oct. 19.
“We always want good starts,” said Lefebvre. “We didn’t have a bad start in our last game in St. John’s, but we just didn’t get too many scoring chances and we didn’t give up too much until we took a couple of penalties. In the second part of the game we scored a big goal to tie it up midway through the second period and took over from there.”
After Sunday the Bulldogs will play all but four of their next 15 games on the road.
“Our last game was a good road win, the guys stayed focused through the whole game,” said Lefebvre. “We were up by a goal and the guys remained focused on our systems and doing things right. That’s how you learn how to win, you have to play the same way every night.”
Lefebvre was happy to see the Bulldogs kill off the IceCaps’ five power-play chances on Wednesday night after his team had allowed six goals in 19 shorthanded situations in the previous three games. The Bulldogs are currently eighth in the AHL in penalty-killing efficiency at 85.9 percent.
“We have to stay poised and stay in control. We want to play with emotion, but that has to be controlled. I don’t want the guys to quit and they didn’t do that. I want the team to be disciplined when it comes to systems and I want them to stay out of the penalty box and that’s one area we have to be better at. It seems that every game we take more penalties than the opponent. Our penalty killing has been pretty good even if it did go into a bit of a rut for a few games. We got it back on track in the last game.”
The Bulldogs are returning to health. Centre Leblanc was back in the lineup for the second game against the IceCaps after missing 11 games with a high ankle sprain suffered in a fight with Toronto’s Jesse Blacker in a 5-0 road loss on October 20th Desjardins missed 11 games with a groin injury with veteran Robert Mayer starting all but two games in his absence.
“It was a long time to be out,” said Leblanc, a 21-year-old with two goals in four games this season. “I was still around the team, working on my upper body strength and working on my ankle. It was good to be back in the lineup. It was a freaky thing to happen to my ankle, but it happens and it’s better it happened early in the season.
“My cardio was off in that game, so was my timing. I might have been a little hesitant going into the corners, but I feel good. Ankle injuries can be tough to recover from and I’ll be battling it for a couple of more months but it should be good.”
Said Lefebvre: “Louis brings energy and he is a big part of the team. Cedrick brings confidence, the guys like to play in front of him, not that they don’t like playing for Robert, but Cedrick is one of the top goalies in the AHL.”
Lefebvre said he expected veteran defenceman Mike Commodore to make his Bulldogs debut at Abbotsford. Commodore, 33, was signed to a professional tryout contract on Thursday. He has played 484 games over 11 NHL seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning.
“He brings experience and stability here. He is a big man and he brings toughness. He can help us block shots and kill penalties. He’s a rugged defenceman and I think he will be a good influence on the young guys. “