Bulldogs drop spot to Kingston
KINGSTON — They still have nine games on their schedule, but as far as the Hamilton Bulldogs are concerned, the playoffs have already begun.
The team played one of its speediest, most hard-hitting games of the season in Kingston Sunday — a preview of a potential first round matchup. And, while it wasn’t the ending they wanted, head coach John Gruden was happy with his side’s effort in the 3-1 loss.
“We competed,” he said. “Our guys never quit, we had lots of good chances and that’s the type of feel it’s going to be. We have to realize that and understand that and do better.”
The Bulldogs went into Kingston one point ahead of the fifthplace Frontenacs in the Eastern Conference. Now, they’re one point behind — in the standings and the fight for home ice advantage. Gruden, however, isn’t fazed. “I don’t think it matters,” he said. “Playoff hockey is playoff hockey.”
His players don’t necessarily agree.
“We want to have home ice,” said Ben Gleason.
“It’s huge,” added Reilly Webb, who returned to the lineup after a nearly year-long absence Thursday. “We’re pushing for that right now.”
On a weekend in which the Bulldogs expended a lot of energy for a solitary point (they also lost, 5-4, in overtime in Ottawa), Webb’s play on the blue line was one of the bright spots.
In spite of missing most of the past two seasons with a shoulder injury, the 17-year-old from Stoney Creek was plus-5 in his first three outings and wasn’t on the ice for any of the opposition’s 11 goals. Against the 67’s, Gruden opted to put him in to kill a penalty with under four minutes left in regulation and a tie score.
“He just simplifies things,” he said. “He does a lot of the little details, he’s got a really good stick and he boxes guys out. He plays the body really well.”
Gleason, who asked to play with Webb when his regular partner, Justin Lemcke, was out with the flu Saturday, backed Gruden up.
“He’s simple,” said the 18-yearold defenceman. “He’s good at moving the puck and he loves to make a good move here or there. He’s smart and he’s quick with his feet. He’s got some things to work on, but that’s part of being young and not having many games under your belt.”
For Webb, meanwhile, the return was nerve-racking. Yet, with each shift, he started to feel — and look — more comfortable.
“Once I got through my first few shifts, I wasn’t nervous anymore. Just back to what I’m used to,” he said. “It felt good.”
On Sunday, Webb’s draftmate Matthew Strome scored the lone Bulldogs goal on a wraparound, while Ted Nichol, Linus Nyman and Brett Neumann had the Kingston markers. Dawson Carty turned aside 18 shots in the loss — his first in seven games.
The turning point was likely Nyman’s game-winner, which he notched with two Bulldogs in the box and Carty out of position a few minutes into the third. It was the second time in two days penalties cost them. In Ottawa, the Bulldogs were booked for six minor infractions and allowed the 67’s to score twice on the power play.
“We lost that part of the game and that was the difference,” Gruden said. But it wasn’t the only factor. On top of Lemcke — who played Sunday, but was still under the weather — the Bulldogs were missing Matt Luff (concussion) and Mackenzie Entwistle (mononucleosis) again this weekend. In particular, their absence was felt against the Frontenacs, who allowed few scoring opportunities and got in the way of a ton of Hamilton shots.
The Bulldogs, who are now 3-10-1 against the Frontenacs, visit Kingston once more before the end of the regular season. When asked if he’ll do anything differently then — or, potentially, in the playoffs — Gruden said no, but he is looking forward to getting Luff and Enwistle back.
“We’re going to be with three lines that are going to come extremely hard. It just comes down to execution and paying the price and special teams. That’s what playoff hockey is all about.”