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Bulldogs locked in battle for playoffs

by Al Bozzo and Matt Shott || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Hamilton Bulldogs entered Saturday’s action in a three-way tie for third place in the North Division, part of what is one of the closest AHL playoff races in recent memory.

Once on top of the division in the first half of the season, the Bulldogs have overcome a number of roster movements and injuries in order to stay in the race for the postseason.

“It’s the nature of our league and every team goes through it, some more than others obviously,” Bulldogs captain Alex Henry explained. “It’s given some guys more opportunity to step in and do a good job and get a step ahead in their own development.”

The brightest spot to the Bulldogs’ season during the first half was the outstanding play of David Desharnais, who went on an impressive 13-game point streak during the first month of the season and who still sits second on the team in points despite being called up to the Montreal Canadiens at the end of December.

The Bulldogs’ offense took a major hit when both Max Pacioretty and Desharnais, back-to-back recipients of the Reebok/AHL Player of the Month award in November and December, respectively, were brought up by the Canadiens.

But that didn’t stop the team from adapting to new strategies thanks to head coach Randy Cunneyworth’s system.

“We adjust to every team, some a little more than others,” Cunneyworth said. “I think it’s more about figuring out ways in which we can create some offence or defend depending on whether we have the puck or not.

“It’s more if we see something on tape that we’re doing wrong, we adjust it a little bit differently or alter it,” Cunneyworth continued. “But we are always trying to keep it in a certain style of play so it’s familiar with the players.”

Thankfully, the Bulldogs had the strong goaltending of Curtis Sanford to fall back on when the team’s offense struggled to produce.

Sanford started the season on the injured list but upon his return, his veteran net presence helped the Bulldogs stay competitive and find ways to come out victorious when the offense was unable to get the job done.

Sanford is second in the AHL for save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (1.93) in 40 games played, and is also tied for fourth in the league with five shutouts. But Sanford is also out for the season after undergoing successful shoulder surgery on Mar. 16.

The Bulldogs now put their hopes of strong goaltending in the arms of Drew MacIntyre, who was playing with the Chicago Wolves when he was acquired by Montreal from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for defenseman Brett Festerling on Feb. 28.

MacIntyre has done his part in helping the Bulldogs keep their heads above water in the deep playoff race by putting up an impressive 2.47 GAA and a .920 save percentage in 11 games since his arrival in Hamilton.

But MacIntyre has not been the only addition from the Wolves that has helped the Bulldogs in their push. The Canadiens previously acquired forward Nigel Dawes in a trade that also included Brent Sopel, who went straight to Montreal, in exchange for Ben Maxwell and a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Dawes brought over 27 goals from Chicago before adding six more to become the goal-scoring leader in the AHL. With the emerging play of Aaron Palushaj along with the offensively minded Mathieu Carle helping run the blue line, and the veteran leadership of Alex Henry, the Bulldogs have shown that their depth is what is truly helping them continue to find ways to succeed.

“We are young but we have good veteran leadership, guys that can show the younger players how to be a pro,” Cunneyworth said. “There are veterans who lead by example and guys that have been through it and have experienced life in the American League.”

The Bulldogs’ ability to capitalize on opportunities has also been a major contribution to the team’s success this year.

Currently the ‘Dogs sit eighth in the league on the power play and have maintained a spot in the top 10 for the majority of the season thanks in part to Cunneyworth’s trust in his team’s depth.

“Everybody on this team has an opportunity to be on the power play or the penalty kill,” Cunneyworth said. “Special teams are very important. Obviously certain guys do it a little bit more than others but we identify the players that we want to do those special roles because we have the confidence in them and their abilities.”

An important number to keep in mind for the Bulldogs and their fans as they continue to claw their way into the playoffs is the number of games the ‘Dogs have played so far this season — or haven’t played for that matter.

Hamilton’s 70 games played through Friday are three fewer than both Grand Rapids and Toronto, who are tied for third in the North with the Bulldogs.

So even though the team lost two of their top scorers to call-ups and their number one goaltender to injury, Hamilton has proven that it’s not just three players that make a team succeed, but rather an immensely talented group of skaters and goalies.

And in order to get to the playoffs, the team must rely on all players to help contribute to each and every important win.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or if it’s a nice, pretty game out there,” Henry said. “We have to win games. That’s the bottom line.”