HAMILTON, ON – Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre wouldn’t be the first to struggle to figure out where to play 19-year old Brady Vail. The tryout getting a first taste of American Hockey League action after his Windsor Spitfires failed to qualify for the OHL playoffs was used on three different lines over the past three games, getting limited minutes on a fourth unit in a loss to Abbotsford on Friday.
But Saturday night, Coach Lefebvre seemed to have found some magic, placing the natural center who was even forced to spend some time on defense for Windsor between Louis Leblanc and Steve Quailer, with the trio providing a spark that should have been sufficient to get the ‘Dogs back in the win column. Unfortunately, the two goals they produced wouldn’t hold up to a third period rally from the Rochester Americans, who ultimately escaped with a 4-2 win on truly a one period effort.
To a man, the Bulldogs have spoken about the importance of quick starts to their success this season, and they took it to heart against the Americans. After earlier being denied on back-to-back chances off a Rochester giveaway, Vail opened the game’s scoring by deflecting a Peter Merth point shot past starter Nathan Lieuwen while mucking it up in front of the net. The goal was Vail’s first (and second point) at the professional level, coming in his fifth game.
Greg Pateryn had a couple of good opportunities to add to the lead for the home team, but a powerplay point shot and an uncharacteristic pinching one-timer were both turned aside, as Hamilton held a 13-6 shot advantage through twenty minutes.
An injury scare saw Lieuwen pulled for David Leggio for the visitors to start the second period, a bad omen for the Bulldogs considering the netminder has recorded two shutouts at Copps Coliseum this season. But the Bulldogs didn’t let up, taking the play to the Amerks again in the second set, winning most races for the puck and one-on-one battles.
Vail continues his strong play, working hard on the penalty kill and effective in his own end, notably making one diving interception and clear to break up a dangerous scoring chance. His line would be rewarded again for their hardwork in the period’s final minute when a Louis Leblanc forecheck got the puck back to Jarred Tinordi whose point shot was tipped by Steve Quailer and just trickled across the goal line for a 2-0 lead.
Rochester wouldn’t go quietly into the night, however. After an Evan Rankin wrister on a rush down the wing got the Americans within one, it was Rankin again leading a charge and taking a shot which got through Dustin Tokarski - who hadn’t been tested much through two periods – and sat in the crease. Zack Stortini was first to get a stick on it, but unfortunately for Hamilton, he inadvertently tapped it into his own cage.
Coach Lefebvre tried to settle his side down with a timeout, but the Amerks kept on coming, taking the lead for the first time of the night on a Jerome Gauthier-Leduc shot from the blueline which hit off Tokarski before finding the back of the net. It wasn’t the goaltender’s finest outing of the season, and the crowd let him know, offering up a Bronx cheer for his next save.
The Leggio storyline would pick back up in the third period, as he made numerous high calibre saves, including on rebound chances for Gabriel Dumont and Alex Belzile to preserve the comeback victory, sealed with an empty netter. It marked the second night in a row where a solid home effort from the Bulldogs still saw them leave Copps Coliseum without a point.
“A loss is a loss. And tonight we came up short,” summarized Tokarski, clearly upset over the result but showing a brave face in facing reporters all the same. “I think we came out fired wanting to win the game, but we gotta learn how to win and how to close out games, starting with myself. It’s a mental thing.”
The positive the ‘Dogs can take on the road is the chemistry on the newly formed Quailer – Vail – Leblanc line, provided Quailer won’t miss any time with a banged up knee after being seen with an ice pack taped around it post-game. “It’s been a tough season, but every player has tough seasons. Keep working hard and keep a good attitude. That’s all I can control and that’s all I’m doing,” explained Leblanc after one of his better performances in recent weeks. “I played with Quailer earlier on this season, and Brady is a new young player who brings some energy. It worked well tonight.”