HAMILTON - A drained Hamilton Bulldogs team arrived from Houston to clean out their lockers Thursday after coming 73 seconds short of extending their season.
The sting of a controversial Aeros goal late in their 4-3 Game 7 victory in American Hockey League's Western Conference final was still fresh as players said goodbye after being delayed in Texas because of tornadoes that have struck the U.S. Midwest.
Despite battling back from a 3-0 series deficit, there will be change in the off-season, and nowhere is the situation more unclear then between the pipes.
Drew MacIntyre, 27, is set to become an unrestricted free agent alongside fellow goaltender Curtis Sanford.
Sanford, 31, had an all-star season ended with shoulder surgery, and has left all options open including playing in Europe.
"It's going to be a nerve-racking month until free agency begins," said Sanford.
MacIntyre, who was acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers' organization at the trade deadline, took the opportunity and ran with it, going 12-6-2 in the regular season, including an 8-1 to close out the season and clinch the North Division.
His season ended with a controversial goal that saw Houston's Jon DiSalvatore slide into MacIntyre skates-first, pushing the goalie and the puck into the net with 1:13 left in the third of Game 7.
"For a league that says they're the second best league in the world you gotta have (video replay). That should be number one on their list when they have their meetings," said MacIntyre, still frustrated with the late goal.
"There's too much on the line. People's livelihoods, that we would have been going into overtime and we could have been hosting a game (Friday) against Binghamton (in the AHL final)."
Forward Aaron Palushaj shared the frustration, adding that there should have also been a penalty shot as Hamilton pushed desperately for the tie.
"In that scramble in front there could have been a guy in front holding the puck with his hand in the crease. May or may not have been a penalty shot. The refs owed us one even if it was a close call. It is what it is," said Palushaj.
The 2010-11 campaign marks the second season in a row the Bulldogs have been knocked out in Game 7 a round shy of the Calder Cup final. The Texas Stars knocked defeated Hamilton last season.
Palushaj's sights are firmly set on making the NHL through the parent Montreal Canadiens, but he isn't sure what to expect for next year from the Bulldogs.
"It's an American Hockey League team, so it could be a completely different look," Palushaj said.
The club has gone through a major transformation from the beginning of the season that saw David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Ben Maxwell in the lineup, with Sanford in net.
Montreal is likely to continue their trend of keeping restricted free agents with qualifying offers, and maintaining a core of players available for next year.
Forwards Nigel Dawes, Dustin Boyd, Ryan Russell, and defencemen Frederic St. Denis, Kyle Klubertanz, Mathieu Carle make up the 2011 RFAs. Forward J.T. Wyman is unrestricted.
Hamilton head coach Randy Cunneyworth wouldn't name any players that may have impressed management in the Bullogs' deep playoff run, but added that, everybody has had a good look.
"Hopefully somebody gives me a shot," said Boyd, a late season addition to the team's top line.
When Boyd joined up with Dawes and Palushaj, the trio combined for 35 points in an 8-1 run to close out the season. It extended into the playoffs, where they combined for another 39 points.
The Bulldogs ultimately fell short of their Calder Cup hopes, and will have an interesting off-season as they sort out their roster.
Making a case for himself, Sanford points to a pair of goalies still playing in Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson as examples of goalies playing well past their 30s.
"I had the pleasure to play with Dwayne my first season of pro and it was Worcester in the AHL. That was 11 years ago. He's been in the NHL ever since and he was 30 then," said Sanford.
"I think things can happen, interesting things can happen, it's just a matter of getting an opportunity."