01/14/2013 2:55 PM
Story By: Stuart McComish
HAMILTON, Ont. – The Hamilton Bulldogs have faced plenty of challenges as they approach the end of the first half of their American Hockey League regular season, but head coach Sylvain Lefebvre feels they will be a better team because of it.
The Bulldogs, who will reach the midway point when they finish off a two-game road trip against the Abbotsford Heat next Wednesday, are fifth in the North Division and 15th in the Western Conference with a record of 13-19-1-3 for 30 points after dropping a 5-2 decision to the host Rochester Americans on Friday night.
After suffering though a three-game losing streak in which they did not score a goal, the Bulldogs earned points in three consecutive home starts before hitting the road. They beat the Rockford IceHogs 3-1 on January 4th, lost 3-2 via shootout to the Lake Erie Monsters the following night and beat the Toronto Marlies 2-1 on Tuesday night.
“Everything we have gone through, either as a group or as individuals, will help us all out,” Lefebvre said recently. “What we’ve gone through over the past few weeks will make us a better team.”
Injuries were one of the more prominent issues facing the Bulldogs through the first half of the 76-game campaign and they began affecting the team before the puck even dropped to start the season.
Veteran goaltender Cedrick Desjardins suffered an injured groin in training camp and missed the first 11 games. Defenceman Greg Pateryn has been out since fracturing an elbow in a 3-2 shootout loss at Rochester on November 2nd and centre Louis Leblanc lost 11 games in October and November to a high ankle sprain. Centre Blake Geoffrion is sidelined indefinitely after suffering a depressed skull fracture in a 4-1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch at Montreal on November 9th and right winger Aaron Palushaj is out after injuring his shoulder in a 1-0 win over visiting Lake Erie on December 11th. More recently, centre Joonas Nattinen has been lost indefinitely to an upper-body injury incurred December 28th in a 6-3 win over the visiting St. John’s IceCaps.
“Obviously we’d like to have a better record,” said Lefebvre. “But we lost some good players. We lost Geoffrion very early, same with Palushaj. I’d have to add Pateryn too, he was one of our best defencemen when he got hurt. Desjardins didn’t start the season, Leblanc got hurt too and all that hurts when guys like that aren’t part of your team.
“But guys filled roles and took advantage of opportunities and, for the most part, they took the challenge and managed to make the best of it. Our record doesn’t really show the kind of team we can be.”
Lefebvre said the Bulldogs’ win over the Marlies shows what his team is capable of. The Bulldogs had been outscored 15-2 in three previous road games against their provincial rival, but outshot the visitors 38-24 and earned the win when Gabriel Dumont scored at 19:12 of the third period.
“That game showed that if we play the way we are capable of, offensively, defensively and in goal, we will win more games than we will lose.”
The Bulldogs have yet to win more than two games in a row and Lefebvre felt a more consistent effort every night would lead to more success. The Bulldogs have scored 78 goals, fewest in the 30-team AHL.
“We’re a team that needs to work and battle and pay the price to score goals. We’re a team that needs to play well defensively and that’s not just one game out of every two or three. It’s every game and there are different situations in a game, whether it’s the power play or penalty kill, when we have to be more consistent on a game-by-game basis. Sometimes it seems like we need to play a perfect game to win.”
While playing close, low-scoring games can be tough on a team, particularly defenders and goaltenders, Lefebvre said it can have benefits.
“In the playoffs those are the kind of games you have to win. So if you look at the positive side of it you need to learn ways to stay in close games and find a way to score goals. What if you get into the playoffs, find yourself in the first or second or third overtime? You have to know how to perform at that time and you can’t get too stressed because that sucks the energy out of you.”
Lefebvre said he is happy with how the team responded following its club-record three-game scoring drought.
“Right now we are all pulling in the same direction. You can sense guys are playing for one another. The guys seem to have more confidence in themselves and in the guy next to them. It’s about accountability, not just to the coaches, but to your teammates. You have to show your teammates you will be there when they need you, not just once in a while, but every day.”
Desjardins and fellow netminder Robert Mayer have both been solid through the first half. Desjardins, who has been plagued at times with a lack of offensive support, has compiled a personal record of 5-10-0 with two shutouts, a 3.10 goals-against average and a save percentage of .898. Mayer, who has started the last four games, is 8-8-3 with a 2.99 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage.
“Any team would like to have two goalies like we have,” said Lefebvre. “We feel comfortable with either guy and right now Robert is hot. I am sure when Cedrick gets the call he will be ready and he will not want to come out of the net. The guys have to prove themselves here every day, it doesn’t matter what position they play.”
In his first season as a head coach Lefebvre has seen other obstacles besides a lack of offence.
“Sometimes it’s the power play, sometimes it’s our defence, sometimes it’s energy, sometimes it’s mental breakdowns. There’s never a dull moment. As a coaching staff we come in every day and know we are going to be challenged and that’s what makes it fun.”
Lefebvre and his assistants, Donald Dufresne and Ron Wilson, and goaltending coach Vincent Riendeau, preside over a team that began the season with nine rookies on its roster.
“I have to stay focused on the job at hand here and that’s development,” said Lefebvre. “I have to make sure if guys make mistakes they don’t make them again and they learn from them. If it’s a recurring mistake we have to do something else about it, but for the most part our young guys have showed they are willing to work in practice. Sometimes their focus gets off during games for a number of reasons, but that’s part of being a professional. The toughest part of being a pro is being the best you can be every night.”
Lefebvre and Dufresne were full-time AHLers as 20-year-old defencemen with the Sherbrooke Canadiens in 1987-88 and they are ensuring the newcomers receive plenty of on-the-job training.
“I don’t know if there is another team in the league like us, at least that we have played anyway,” said Lefebvre. “The minutes and experience the young guys are getting here through half a season are going to be tremendously important through the second half. If you only have a few guys coming in out of junior or college you can spread their minutes out, but we have guys like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, Steve Quailer, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher and Patrick Holland all playing a lot of minutes. I think their development will move faster because they got those minutes early. I think it will be very important for our organization.”
Lefebvre and his staff combined to play 2,229 National Hockey League games and routine visits from Montreal Canadiens director of player development Martin Lapointe and player development coach Patrice Brisebois swell that number to 4,229, giving Bulldogs veterans and rookies alike a valuable resource to draw upon.
“It’s always good to be able to reflect on how you have lived things,” said Lefebvre, who played 945 NHL games and won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. “We are all experienced. As a coaching staff we are a team and if our past experience can help one of the young guys, or anybody on the team, we’ll bring it up. Sometimes it’s the tough times you have been through and how you got out of it, sometimes it’s the good times and how you react to success. Maturity is a big thing here and how you react to success is important. You can’t get complacent. You can’t relax on the ice.
“As a player, and now as a coach, I am learning every day. When you think you know it all you are in trouble. So guys are learning every day here. Every time they are on the ice they are learning something.”
With 40 games to go in the regular season, Lefebvre said he is determined to remain patient with his charges.
“With us it’s one game at a time. We have to focus on the process. We’d like to look ahead, but we need to focus on what we have to accomplish every night. We can’t think about our Abbotsford trip if we have to still play Rochester. We have to play the best we can and if we do that we will have a better chance to win more games than we lose.”