REGINA – John Gruden was disappointed with his team’s effort in their Mastercard Memorial Cup opener against the Regina Pats, a game that saw the hosts score the winning goal in the final minute.
He felt they didn’t make life difficult enough on their opponent’s goalie. And worst of all, Gruden felt his Bulldogs were outworked – something he and his players pride themselves on never having happen.
“That wasn’t us,” the Bulldogs coach said. “We got what we deserved.”
Two games later, the Hamilton Bulldogs are much closer to being who they truly are.
After outshooting the Swift Current Broncos 56-17 on Monday in a 2-1 victory, the Bulldogs continued their winning ways.
They defeated the previously undefeated Acadie-Bathurst Titan 3-2 on Tuesday and secured at least a berth in the tournament semifinal.
“We’re kind of finding our rhythm as the games go on here,” winger Nicholas Caamano said. “That was a good game for us. We kind of lost it, but we played a really solid game.”
The Bulldogs could still receive a spot in the final without playing another game.
A Swift Current win over Regina on Wednesday leaves the Bulldogs and Titan tied for first place with 2-1 records, but Hamilton would hold the tiebreaker because of its head-to-head win.
However, a Regina win over Swift Current would create a three-way tie for top spot between the Pats, Bulldogs and Titan.
The Titan would get a bye to the final because they hold a one-goal advantage based on goals for and goals against in games not involving Swift Current. Hamilton would play Regina in the semis under this scenario.
The Bulldogs haven’t been perfect in getting to this point, but they’ve improved since their loss to the Pats last Friday.
“We’re getting better as the tournament goes on. That’s the main thing,” captain Justin Lemcke said. “But we still need to put a 60-minute hockey game together.”
A night after being repeatedly turned aside by Broncos goaltender Stuart Skinner, Robert Thomas was the offensive catalyst for the Bulldogs against the Titan.
The star centre scored the winning goal on an early third-period power play and also started a rush that led to a goal from Caamano.
Thomas could have had another helper had it not been for some bad luck. He set up MacKenzie Entwistle on a 2-on-1 in the second period, but the shot went through the legs of Titan goaltender Evan Fitzpatrick and off the post.
Defenceman Ben Gleason also had a goal and an assist for Hamilton.
Gleason’s and Caamano’s goals came late in the first period to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead heading into the intermission.
Titan captain Jeffrey Truchon-Viel got his team to within one in the second period after Noah Dobson fed him with a pass on an odd-man rush.
But Thomas’s goal 1:04 into the third – Hamilton’s second power-play marker of the night – gave the Bulldogs some insurance.
It was needed. Samuel Asselin netted his tournament-leading fourth goal less than three minutes later after receiving a pass from Truchon-Viel.
The Titan had a power play with 1:34 remaining, but coach Mario Pouliot opted not to pull his goaltender for fear of allowing an empty-net goal and losing his tiebreaker advantage if Regina wins.
The power play ended up being negated with 16 seconds left on the clock when Dobson was called for slashing.
After letting the Titan back in the game, Gruden wasn’t as pleased with his team’s performance as he was against Swift Current.
“Yesterday we were outstanding. Today we were 60 per cent. I’m just being honest,” he said. “I thought were good for 30 [minutes] and we didn’t play so much in the other 30.”
Still, it wasn’t enough for the Titan. They lost their chance to go a perfect 3-0 in the round-robin portion of the tournament and punch their ticket to the final on their own merit.
“We had our chance. We had our destiny right in our hands,” Asselin said. “We missed that chance because I don’t think we played our best game of the tournament.”
As for the Bulldogs, they’re now sitting pretty – or, at least, as pretty as can be following their underwhelming opening-night showing.
Based on the last two games, it looks more like who the Hamilton Bulldogs really are.
Although, they believe they still have more to give.
“We’ve got away from it a bit here and there,” defenceman Jack Hanley said. “We’re coming together, but we still have better.”