HAMILTON - Tomas Tatar had chased a hat trick many times before, only to fall a goal short.
That hunt came to an end on Friday, as the Grand Rapids Griffins' forward led his team to a convincing 5-1 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs in American Hockey League action.
"This was one of those games where the puck is always following you," said Tatar. "I've had a few tries at a hat trick but I've always missed the last one.
"This is my first, and it's a nice achievement. If I keep going, it might come again. You never know."
Gustav Nyquist and Luke Glendening also scored for the Griffins (25-14-4), and Petr Mrazek made 21 saves in the win.
Frederic St. Denis scored the lone goal for the Bulldogs (14-22-6), while Cedrick Desjardins stopped 21 of 26 shots.
Grand Rapids got off to a quick start in the first, opening the scoring at 1:22 through the recent AHL All-Star Nyquist.
The winger received the puck from teammate Nathan Paetsch and carried it through the centre of the ice as Bulldog defenders backed off. He had no shortage of space to work with, and fired a wrist shot that beat Desjardins through the legs.
Gabriel Dumont nearly scored an equalizer for Hamilton seven minutes into the period, when he one-timed a cross-ice pass from the bottom of the circle only to be denied by the glove of the sliding Mrazek.
The Griffins doubled their lead with 11 seconds to play in the first, when Tatar turned a routine cycle into a goal. Centre Joakim Andersson knocked the puck behind the net from the far boards to Tatar, who spotted Desjardins off of his right post and alertly backhanded the puck past the goaltender.
Hamilton's setback late in the first period didn't seem to faze the Bulldogs as they opened the second quickly. Michael Bournival forced a smart pad save from Mrazek a minute and a half into the period.
The Bulldogs got their first goal of the game four minutes later, when St. Denis walked the blue-line from the left and released a slap shot through traffic that fooled Mrazek.
Momentum had clearly swung in Hamilton's favour when Louis Leblanc was denied an equalizing goal by Mrazek's right post with nine minutes to play in the second.
The play was reviewed by officials, with the original ruling of "no goal" upheld.
Leblanc rued his team's inability to take their chances in the second, when the course of the game could have been radically changed.
"We should have done more," said Leblanc. "We had a power play and I hit the crossbar. I think that was a turning point. If I score that, it's a tied game."
The Griffins weathered the Bulldogs' pressure for much of the period, and Tatar struck for a second time to restore Grand Rapids' two-goal lead at 15:43 of the second. The Detroit Red Wings prospect was once again set up by Andersson, and beat Desjardins with a wrist shot from the right.
Grand Rapids was content to sit back and defend its lead in the third, effectively stifling Hamilton's offence.
Leblanc had one of the Bulldogs' few chances to score with 12:21 to play, when he streaked through the middle and tipped a pass toward Mrazek that the Griffins' goaltender calmly caught.
Grand Rapids added an insurance goal at 15:45, when an unguarded Glendening received a cross-ice pass to the left of Desjardins and snapped a quick wrist shot over his shoulder and into the roof of the net.
Tatar completed his hat trick at 17:31 of the third, when Nathan Paetsch's shot deflected to the winger and he corralled the puck and fired past the flat-footed Desjardins for his team-leading 19th goal of the season.
The winger believed that his team's performance on Friday was an encouraging way to restart the season after the week-long All-Star break.
"I went to Mexico and enjoyed myself, so this is a perfect way to come back, not just for me but for the whole team," said Tatar.
"After the break, you're excited to play the next game, and this is a really nice way to start."
Meanwhile, for Leblanc and the Bulldogs, the result was a step in the wrong direction.
"It's embarrassing," said the Hamilton centre. "Losing 5-1 is unacceptable, and we've got to do better."