11/07/2012 12:35 PM
Story By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, Ont. – The reigning American Hockey League Calder Cup champions may have relocated, but they have not regressed.
Skating last season as the affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning, the Norfolk Admirals crafted one of the greatest seasons in league history, setting a professional hockey record by winning their final 28 games and losing only three playoff games on the way to winning the first league title in franchise history.
Following the season the Lightning ended their affiliation with Norfolk and signed a deal with the Syracuse Crunch, which currently has 16 players on its roster from last season’s championship team. The Crunch meets the Hamilton Bulldogs in two games this week, beginning with a visit to Copps Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The teams will square off in a neutral-site game at the Bell Centre in Montreal at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“They’re a good team, you just have to look at their roster,” Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre said. “It’s going to be a great test for our young guys and a really good gauge for us as a team. If we play well and compete with them we can compete with anybody.”
Through eight games the Crunch has a record of 5-1-1-1 for 12 points, tied for first place in the East Division with Norfolk. Second-year left winger Cory Conacher, a native of Burlington, Ont., is third in AHL scoring with six goals and six assists for 12 points in eight games. Conacher was named the AHL’s most valuable player and rookie of the year last season, making him only the fourth player since 1948 to earn both honours and the first since Stephan Lebeau of the Sherbrooke Canadiens in 1988-1989.
“These games will be interesting,” said rookie right winger Brendan Gallagher. “They were a very good team last year and had that long winning streak so when you are doing something like that you know how to win games and know how to do the little things well.”
Through their first eight games the Bulldogs are 4-2-1-1 for 10 points, fourth in the North Division. The Bulldogs split two games with the Rochester Americans last week, losing 3-2 via shootout at Rochester on Friday night and prevailing 4-3 at home the following evening. The Bulldogs trailed 2-0 in the third period of both games before battling back.
“It shows a lot of character for our guys to come back in both games,” said Lefebvre. “We came up short in the shootout in Rochester, but we didn’t want the same thing to happen here.”
The Bulldogs’ home-ice comeback was started by Blake Geoffrion, who got the rally started at 9:42. Gallagher and Mike Blunden followed with goals 1:50 apart before Geoffrion scored the eventual winner at 15:01.
“We scored two, got the third and the fourth one before they made it 4-3,” said Lefebvre. “We were getting frustrated after the second period with so many missed chances. I told the guys to stay composed and to keep working at it. I told them if we got one, we could get two. I didn’t tell them we could get three or four, but they just kept working at it. The guys are doing a great job and battling until the end of games. That’s all we can ask of them.”
Gallagher acknowledged the Bulldogs need to focus on getting off to good starts.
“We have given up the first goal many times. We’re talking about it and we’re going to fix it. If we can do that we’ll have a better chance to win games. We’ve shown resilience coming back.
“In junior you talk a lot about playing 60 minutes every night, but at the same time if you got down a few goals you knew you could find a way to come back. Not here. Goals are so tough to come by that when you do get the chance to score you better do it. Every shift is so important.”
Gallagher, who has contributed three goals and three assists for six points in eight games, is one of seven 20-year-olds on the Bulldogs roster who have been making solid contributions. He is joined by fellow forwards Michael Bournival and Patrick Holland and defencemen Nathan Beaulieu, Antoine Corbin, Morgan Ellis and Jarred Tinordi.
“The young guys who have come in here are all good prospects,” said Lefebvre. “Those guys were all leaders, either captains or alternates, in junior and it shows. They show up ready and don’t quit. These guys are here for a reason and if they weren’t ready for this they’d still be in junior. They are proving they are ready for this.”
Lefebvre can relate to what his young blueliners are going through. He made his AHL regular-season debut as a 20-year-old with Sherbrooke in 1987-1988. Bulldogs assistant coach Donald Dufresne was also a 20-year-old rearguard on that team.
“It’s only eight games and I can tell you these guys are ahead of the game,” said Lefebvre. “When I came in as a 20-year-old there were a few others the same age and Donald was one of them. The coaches then believed in us and gave us minutes and that’s how you get better and improve. We’re putting our young guys out there in every situation, power play, penalty killing and they are getting lots of minutes. It’s good for their development.”
Lefebvre said the rookie defenders are benefiting from the daily council of Dufresne, who played 268 NHL games, and the occasional visit from Patrice Brisebois, the Montreal Canadiens player development coach, who skated in 1,009 NHL games as a defencemen.
“Donald is doing a great job with the guys, he works them hard before and sometimes after practice. Patrice comes in once in a while and we all use our experience and the number of games we played to help the guys and they are willing to learn.”
The opener of the Bulldogs’ two-game set with the Crunch will see the season debut of blueliner Joe Stejskal, who was recalled Sunday from the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL after rookie defenceman Greg Pateryn suffered a fractured elbow Friday night at Rochester.
Stejskal, 24, had earned one assist in nine games with the Nailers. He played 55 games for the Bulldogs last season, contributing three assists.