The San Francisco Bulls were ready to win Sunday. They had lost three in a row at home, and the night before they lost 6-2 to the Alaska Aces. Good as the Aces are, the Bulls had never lost by more than three to them. The Bulls had only beaten Las Vegas once before, and they’d lost by bigger margins to the Wranglers, including a 5-0 shutout. Las Vegas wouldn’t be a push over, but the Bulls were due for a win and they took it.
In Saturday’s loss to Alaska, the Bulls started well, just as they had in the previous two games. The Aces scored first, but the Bulls got it back less than two minutes later. It wasn’t until the last minute of the first period that Alaska took the lead again, on a power play. By then, the shot clock read 15-6 Aces.
It took the Bulls almost six minutes tie tie the game up in the second, but not for lack of trying. They held the zone extremely well, including two or three keep-ins by Dylan King at the point. Finally, seeing a shooting lane, King took a shot which Alaska goalie Mark Guggenberg stopped, but the goalie left a rebound which Nick Falite was ready for at the top of the crease.
The Bulls got their first power play less than a minute later when an Alaska player sent the puck out of play. The Bulls couldn’t score on the power play, and as it expired, one of the Aces took control of the puck and got by San Francisco in the neutral zone. The Bulls caught up to him, but he had already taken the shot. Nelson, like Guggenberg, blocked the shot but Alaska’s Alex Hudson was waiting for the rebound.
Head Coach Pat Curcio explained how deflating that goal was:
We tied the game up two two and we had the momentum, we were out playing them and we got a bad bounce and it ends up in our net. Two bad goals bang-bang and you’re down 5-2 before the end of the period. We’re a fragile hockey club without a lot of confidence, so those kind of goals go in on us and we’re in trouble….
When you’re not winning, your confidence is down, and you need somebody to help get that going. Usually you need goalie to steal you a game. We haven’t had that… those one goal games are the ones you’ve got to win.
When asked if he was glad to see the last of the Aces in the regular season, Curcio said the Aces weren’t the problem. It was bad timing for the team to lose good players at this time of year, players like goalie Thomas Heemskerk, called up the day before:
This timing, the timing, all year long, the timing for everything just seems to be really tough on us. We haven’t gotten any breaks this year. We’re going into a big weekend and we lose theoretically our number one goalie who had a great game for us last Wednesday, and he his big game in Vegas to keep it tight 2-1…
Taylor [Nelson] knows the goals he wants back. He’s a first year guy, playing against Coleman, who played in the NHL, last night… MVP of the league, and then Guggenberger is in the same boat…
The fifth Alaska goal was another long shot that Nelson tried to glove, but it rolled over his glove and into the net behind him. Apart from looking a lot like a goal given up just hours before in San Jose by Antti Niemi, it was indicative of some chronic bad luck for the Bulls. Curcio couldn’t point to one thing that his team needed to do better in the next game:
We need to find a way to compete and beat Vegas. There was nothing we did wrong, I can’t blame the players… The sixth goal hit the linesman, and bounced onto the guy’s stick. I don’t know, that’s just the hockey gods, you just have to laugh: did that just happen?
We’re the only team that went to Alaska this year and won two out of three. That has to [build] confidence for us, and in our rink here, [except tonight] with six goals, every game was a one-goal game… I’m not afraid of that hockey team.
The next day, the hockey gods did show mercy. During the broadcast, Jason Lockhart mentioned that the Las Vegas Wranglers were coping with some bad breaks of their own in the form of call-ups and injuries. The Wranglers were missing Eric Lampe and Sean Wiles, ranked fourth and sixth on the team for points. Lampe had given the Bulls some grief in the past. The Wranglers were not, however, missing the rest of their top eight. There were no lucky breaks hiding in the Wrangler’s lineup.
Were the Wranglers tired? If they were, the Bulls were tired too, they had played the same number of games in the week. They had both finished late the night before and started early the next day. If confidence was a problem, the Wranglers should have had the advantage– they had beaten Stockton the night before.
The Bulls would like to have both their goalies, no matter who they are playing. As for the Aces, the Bulls are likely to face them again, if they hang on to make the playoffs. That really doesn’t worry Curcio:
If the hockey gods intervened on Sunday, it was only to remove the bad bounces that had tormented the Bulls for so many games. Beyond that, the Bulls simply outplayed their opponent.
The Bulls came out shooting in the first period, out-chancing the Wranglers by a sizable margin. The Wranglers still scored on their second shot of the period, taking the lead at 6:56. Bulls’ Captain Scott Langdon and Wrangler’s winger Robbie Smith dropped the gloves at 11:25, with the take-down going to Langdon.
Just over a minute later, the Bulls got a powerplay when Scott Pitt took a slashing penalty for Las Vegas. Christian Ouellet tied the game with 24 seconds left on the power play. At 18:48 of the period, Peter Sivak scored a beautiful goal off a pass from Yanni Gourde. It was just a one-goal lead but the goal seemed to seal the deal. The Bulls wouldn’t slow down. With nine seconds left in the period, Tristan King scored another for the Bulls. Another goal from Gourde in the third (his third point of the game) brought the final score to 4-1.
Langdon nodded when asked if the Bulls had minimized those little mistakes that plagued them before:
We used our heads a little bit more tonight I think. Our whole theme today was just getting pucks to the net… Peter did it, Tristan did it, even if it’s not just a shot, they had the puck on their stick and they drove to the net. They found their own space and when they got to the net they buried the puck… That’s how goals go in, that’s what we needed.
The Bulls power play had been struggling for a while. Was it a relief for the team to get a power play goal? Langdon explained that even from the box he knew it was:
Oh, once we got that you could just feel the tension and the weight lifted right off our backs. I was in the penalty box right after my fight, so I was pretty happy… if you’ve had a fight, it’s nice to sit in the penalty box and watch your team score.
So where was this lucky break the Bulls needed? Curcio raised his eyebrows at the question:
A break? I thought the guys had been playing really well the last four or five games and it was frustrating, how long to you have to go before you get your break? It’s a weird analogy, but it makes sense: [it’s] like playing Black Jack, eventually you’re going to get a good hand. Sometimes you go ten hands without anything, but eventually you get a good hand. I knew if we kept playing the right way, that we would be rewarded. Tonight we were rewarded for playing the right way.
Scores & saves:
Alaska: Nick Mazzolini(34)(Nunn, Trupp), Sean Curry(7)(PPG, Crum, Mele), Alex Hudson(12)(Harrison, Crum), Tommy Mele(8)(PPG, Curry, Hughes), Evan Trupp(6)(Curry), Garry Nunn(17)(Trupp). Mark Guggenberger made 24 saves for the win.
San Francisco: Peter Sivak(28)(Walsh, Kwiet), Kory Falite(12)(King, Morrison).Taylor Nelson made 25 saves for the Bulls. The Bulls’ power play went 0/3, their penalty kill 2/4.
San Francisco: Christian Ouellet(14)(PPG, Gourde, Sivak), Peter Sivak(29)(Gourde, Walsh), Tristan King(21)(Cameron, Ouellet), Yanni Gourde(4)(Ouellet). Taylor Nelson made 16 saves for the win. The Bulls power play went 1/2, their penalty kill 2/2.
Alaska: Sarauer(20). Mitch O’Keefe made 29 saves for the Wranglers.
(Originally published at Inside Hockey)