The San Francisco Bulls ended their first year, as they started it, in home whites. After the game, the Zamboni cleaned the ice and the lights dimmed with a loud click over the rink at the Cow Palace. The Bulls had earned three home games beyond the regular season, but the end still felt sudden and harsh. Fresh off the final loss, Bulls Alternate Captain Dean Ouellet summed up the bittersweet season:
I think the boys battled hard all season. We had lots of ups and downs, I think the guys pulled it together in the playoffs, the guys worked hard. Unfortunately we came up short, but I’m proud of the guys’ effort for sure.
It was not unlike the last time the Aces came to San Francisco and won three games in a row. Two of the games were close, one was not. Close or not, the Aces won all three, ending the Bulls’ first post-season run. It was not a bad showing for the eighth seed against the top seed, a Bulls team with nine rookies in the lineup to the Aces’ four. By Game Four, the Bulls were out of spare players, with Daulton Leveille, Tommy Grant, and Tristan King all injured after the playoff rosters were due.
Unlike the regular season visit from Alaska, the Bulls’ worst game came in the first of the three. Game Three ended 4-1, Games Four and Five ended 6-5 and 5-3 respectively. The lone goal in Game Three came from usual suspects, scored by Jordan Morrison with assists from Dean Ouellet and Peter Sivak. As a group, the Bulls looked tentative, appeared vastly outmatched by the Aces in Game Three. A much more confident team came out for Game Four. Bulls Captain Scott Langdon attributed the difference to nerves:
I think maybe the boys were a little nervous on Thursday because we were back home for our first playoff game, and you don’t want to make mistakes. You’re kind of thinking about that. We just went out there [the next night]… and it’s Friday night and we’ve got a good crowd and we just wanted to play well.
The Bulls rallied in Game Four, breaking through the one goal wall that had stifled them since Game One. Langdon started Game Four playing as a forward, partly to add some energy to the offense, and partly as a necessity with the injury-shortened roster. The game started quietly with a lone goal in the first period, a short-handed tally from Dean Ouellet with an assist to Christian Ouellet. Bulls Head Coach Pat Curcio described that goal as an indicator of how Christian Ouellet’s role expanded with the Bulls:
He’s a good penalty killer, he’s good on the power play he’s good five on five, he’s a smart player… I thought the way he read that short-handed play and picked off the pass … not a lot of people can do that, to anticipate a play. He’s special. If you look at our penalty kill since Christian Ouellet has been killing penalties, we’ve scored more short-handed goals in the last 20 games than we did in the first 60.
During the second period, the teams scored six goals in all, four to Alaska and two to San Francisco. Curcio responded to the scoring binge by replacing goalie Thomas Heemskerk with Taylor Nelson after the Aces’ third goal. That did seem to slow the bleeding. The game settled down in the third period, seeing only four goals, two for each team. The end of that period was remarkable as the Bulls recovered from a 6-3 deficit with less than five minutes left in the game to make it a one-goal game. Curcio described those last minutes:
On the bench, we don’t look at the score, we’ve got five minutes to play and we need to play, we use everything we’ve got. The next shift, it was a beautiful goal by Dean Ouellet and [Bryan] Cameron and [Peter] Sivak, and then right back, later, [Kory] Falite goes out and scores again and that was a hard-working goal. It was a blue-collar goal, those are the kind of goals we love. You get first on the forecheck, you bang a body, you get a loose puck and then all of a sudden it’s back to a one-goal game.
It is possible that the high score in Game Four is why Gerald Coleman started the next game in net for the Aces, though each Alaska goalie had played two games in a row. Maybe it was just Coleman’s turn in Game Five.
Game Five was probably most remarkable for the penalties called. The strangest of these resulted in a Bulls goal being disallowed, a goal that would have given them the lead in the second period. A penalty was also assigned for goaltender interference. Whether or not there was cause to make the call, by all accounts the wrong player was sent to the box:
[Nick] Czinder was more involved in the crease than Morrison was, so it’s a crazy turn of events. It’s really tough to believe that that wasn’t a goal.
While Jordan Morrison sat, the Aces scored on the power play and took the lead that the Bulls had been denied seconds earlier. In all, the Aces had the man advantage six times and scored two power play goals while the Bulls had four power plays and scored on one of them. The game only got more frustrating from there. 3:37 into the third, the Aces scored yet another power play goal to bring the score to 4-1. As in the previous game, the Bulls rallied. In the second half of the period, Dean Ouellet and Peter Sivak each scored to bring the team within one goal again. Alaska scored into the empty net with 1:02 left in the game and that was that.
The players lingered for a moment on the ice after the hand-shake, to salute their fans. As they had throughout the season, the Bulls’ audience cheered them to the end. Morrison explained that this unconditional support had not gone unnoticed:
Our fans have been great all year, and you’ve got to give them the respect they deserve. We had stretches where we didn’t win seven or eight games in a row and they still managed to come out, you’ve got to thank them for that. Most players, you know, if you come from Toronto, you lose a couple games up there and fans are booing you when you touch the puck. These guys cheered through storms of 7-0 losses and everything else so you’ve got to give them credit for coming out every night.
What next? Signings for next season do not start until July, but Curcio suggested that anyone who followed the team this season should be able to guess who he will try to bring back. As with all teams, a solid corps group is vital to success and establishing a team identity. Players who lasted in San Francisco the whole season and young players who arrived later all contributed. Curcio would like to see a number of them come back, but there are more factors to consider than what the Bulls’ GM wants. Players may be signed to AHL or NHL contracts, so whether they come back won’t be a simple matter of wanting or being wanted. Fans will have to wait until July to see the roster emerge anew.
Curcio reflected on the season after the final game:
To me it’s surreal right now. To know that we’ve created something that has so much passion and there’s such a culture that goes with it. That’s all that we could ever ask for. I know that eventually we’re going to put a product on the ice that we can be proud of. I was proud of it this year but every year you have to get better. Sometimes you stumble and you have to get up. I thought that this year was full of stumbles, and we continued to get up and found a way to get in the playoffs…
It’s been a long grind since the first day of training camp to where we are today.
(Originally published at Inside Hockey)