02/01/2013 3:29 PM
Story By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, Ont. – As far as Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre is concerned, the Bulldogs’ race for an American Hockey League playoff spot begins now.
The Bulldogs, who host the Grand Rapids Griffins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, return to work after the AHL’s All-Star break 13 points out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. The Bulldogs, with a record of 14-21-1-5 for 34 points are last in the conference with 35 games to play. Hamilton visits the Toronto Marlies at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time and that’s what we are doing right now,” Lefebvre said after the Bulldogs’ morning skate.
“We have to focus on how we have to play, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. That goes for tonight and tomorrow in Toronto. The games are all big for us the rest of the way. We know this is it, we have to make a push and we have to have the killer instinct to want to accomplish something. We want the players to give us everything they have game in and game out. We know what we have to do and how we have to play to get some wins. We know what we need to do as a team and as individuals to help us win.”
The Bulldogs went into the break off a 2-1 shootout win over the Lake Erie Monsters last Saturday night. The win snapped a five-game losing skid and ended a run of 10 straight road losses that matched a club record. Goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, expected to get the start against the Griffins, made 22 saves to snap a personal 11-game losing streak.
The Bulldogs and the Marlies have each played only 17 home games, fewest in the AHL, and the Bulldogs will add to that total in February when nine of their 12 games are at Copps Coliseum. The Bulldogs are 8-6-1-2 at home this season.
“This is a crucial month and we knew that from game one,” said Lefebvre. “We have been on the road quite a bit lately and this has been a tough ride for us. But I feel the enthusiasm in the players right now coming off that big win in Lake Erie the other night.
“We have to play tight defensively if we are going to come up with wins in games like that. That’s how you have to play in the playoffs, that’s how you win playoff games. It was a big boost for our confidence to win that game. Hopefully the break reenergized everyone and gets the guys focused.”
The Bulldogs announced Friday afternoon that veteran right winger Mike Blunden was being returned from the Montreal Canadiens. Blunden, who is not expected to be in the lineup against Grand Rapids, has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in 37 games for the Bulldogs this season. Earlier in the week the Canadiens announced that right winger Brendan Gallagher would be staying with the team for the remainder of the season. Gallagher had recorded 20 points, including 10 goals, in 36 games.
Lefebvre said he is looking for players to step into the void left by Gallagher’s departure.
“It’s a great opportunity for the guys who are replacing him in the lineup or guys who may have been out of the lineup or not getting a lot of minutes. It’s important that guys rise up to this challenge.”
One player who Lefebvre hopes continues to contribute offensively is veteran centre Joey Tenute, whom the club signed to an AHL contract after he had skated in six games on a professional tryout, registering two goals and two assists for four points.
A Hamilton native who turns 30 on April 2nd, Tenute had played 207 games over three seasons with the Hershey Bears and San Antonio Rampage, scoring 69 goals and adding 97 assists for 166 points. A member of the Bears’ Calder Cup-winning team in 2005-2006, Tenute was also with the Bears when they lost to the Bulldogs in five games in the Calder Cup final the following season. He had spent the past four seasons playing in Germany, Finland and Austria.
“He’s done a great job,” said Lefebvre. “He’s a good influence on the young guys. He’s an experienced guy and he knows how the game has to be played. He has been on good teams. He is a guy that we need, especially on our power play. He gives our offence a boost and that’s why we signed him to play here the rest of the season.”