MONTREAL – As February melts into March and the AHL schedule reaches the final month and change of the campaign, the Hamilton Bulldogs appear to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
Nestled in third in the North Division, just a seven-point gap separated them from second-place Grand Rapids, who they’ll face three more times before the end of the season.
Special teams have been key in Hamilton’s success, owners of the fourth-best man advantage in the league at a 19.9% success rate, and an improving penalty kill. But, the biggest force is coming from what coaches preach at every level of the game – how you do in your own end.
“The last little while, we’ve been really solid defensively,” noted head coach Don Lever. “We’ve gotten some really good goaltending from Marc Denis (1.67 goals-against and .948 save percentage in February) and that’s helped settle us down. Our roster has changed over the course of the season so it’s nice to see that we’ve gotten back into a good position.”
Those roster changes have been a necessity rather than a choice. Beset by a boatload of injuries and NHL call-ups, the well of healthy bodies has run rather dry, taking some offense with it. Lately, though, the Bulldogs have filled the void with fresh legs from just about everywhere, as well as a couple of familiar faces.
“Getting Ryan O’Byrne and Sergei Kostitsyn back definitely helps,” said Lever. “Both give us some experience and given that our offense has taken a bit of a hit, having Sergei back is good for our depth.”
While outsiders might be surprised at how his squad has fared under the circumstances, the Bulldogs’ bench boss credits his rookies with reaping their rewards.
|Ryan O'Byrne |
“The young guys have stepped up, taking advantage of the ice time given to them and earning it as well,” explained Lever. “[David] Desharnais has been really good, Ryan White
has taken on a defensive role since Kyle Chipchura’s been gone and he’s stepped in quite nicely.
“Maxwell has improved as the year’s gone on and guys like Weber and [Brock] Trotter are really coming around.”
That’s good news down on the farm, as they get set for a hectic month ahead that will see them hit the ice 17 times in the next 31 days, including seven tilts in 10 days beginning on Friday. A busy month during the calendar’s crunch time can either be beneficial as postseason preparation or a tiring run before stepping into spring. It all depends on how one looks at it. Either way, it’s nothing new to Lever and his troops.
“We had a lighter schedule in the first couple of months but since December, it’s been pretty heavy,” he said as the club enjoyed a quiet four-day respite from competition. “We’ve had full days off and off-ice workouts to give the guys a chance to rest.”
In a solid season where the current results may have been unexpected by many, one might be inclined to reminisce about a similar campaign just two short years ago. Back then, the Bulldogs finished third in their division and steamrolled to a 16-6 run in the postseason to capture the Calder Cup.
While it’s a vastly different roster and there’s still plenty of regular season hockey left before the playoffs roll around, are there any similarities between the championship squad of 2006-07 and the 2008-09 crew?
“It’s hard to compare. When we went on that run, we were pretty much injury-free throughout the year and we got guys back from Montreal in time for it,” said Lever. “This year, we’ve had so many guys out and come in from the ECHL and on professional tryouts; it’s the first time we’ve gone empty.
“But, if we had been healthier, I suppose you could say this team does remind me of that year.”Heather Engel is a writer for canadiens.com