When Bob Gainey walked into the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland today, he looked up at the low ceiling and the few hundred seats, smiled and said, "This is old-time hockey." The setting might have been old-time, but the hockey between the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Binghamton Senators was fresh, fast and exciting. It was likely the best many fans in the sell-out crowd had ever seen in person.
It was definitely the first time the local arena announcer had to deal with French, Russian and Swedish names. After struggling with "Klubertanz" (Clubber-tents), "Engqvist" (En-gist) and "Fortier" (Four-tear) while reading the team lineups, the guy announced, "And there are a couple more I'm not even going to try. I give up."
After a bit of a slow start, the 'Dogs looked really good. Randy Cunneyworth is doing something similar to Jacques Martin, in pairing up two parts of a line, then mixing in different players as the third guy. That may stop when the real season begins and he's more certain about his lines. Today, Desharnais and Wyman were almost always together, often with Palushaj as the game went on. Dumont and Fortier made a nice grinding/energy pair and Avtsin skated with Palushaj and with Conboy.
Among the Canadiens prospects, there were a few real standouts. First star of the game, and the most impressive player on the ice for either team, was David Desharnais. He's going to dominate the AHL if he stays healthy this year. He had two goals today, both of them the result of driving to the net and hanging out in dangerous territory. He killed the first minute of every Bulldogs penalty and he won most of his faceoffs. He was quick and opportunistic every time he was on the ice.
Aaron Palushaj was also very noticable. He assisted on both Desharnais goals and was generally involved in something on every shift. He's a good skater and goes to the net to make things happen. He's a high-energy player.
In goal, Peter Delmas was third star of the game. He was solid and made some very nice saves, especially early when the 'Dogs spent a lot of time in their own end. He'll probably end up in Wheeling when Curtis Sanford comes back from injury, but he looks like he could play in the AHL.
Andreas Engqvist didn't have a great game. He's a smooth, strong skater, but he didn't do much with the puck today. He lost a lot of his faceoffs cleanly and he didn't spend much time in the corners.
Gabriel Dumont is a sparkplug. He scored the game's first goal off a nice feed by Olivier Fortier. Both of those guys forechecked aggressively and were solid defensively and on the PK. After seeing them together for a few shifts, they became inseparable in the fan's minds. They just go well together.
Alexander Avtsin is going to be a really good player. He's big and had no problem throwing his weight around when needed. He also wasn't a bit shy about going into the corners or the crease if that's where the puck was. He's got some serious speed when he gets going, but the most impressive thing about him are his hands. This kid can handle the puck. In one sequence, while the 'Dogs were on the PP, Mathieu Carle coralled the puck at the blueline and dumped it blindly into the corner. Avtsin intercepted it behind his back, then passed it between his legs to himself and managed to get a shot off, all in one movement. Very impressive stuff. On the other hand, it's obvious he's just 19 and struggling to understand the coach's English instructions. Sometimes he just looked like he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be, and a there were a couple of times when under pressure he just threw the puck away. Still, there's a lot of talent in that kid if the team can develop him properly.
Mathieu Carle was the best defenceman in the 'Dogs lineup. He had two assists, both on Desharnais goals, and his passing was crisp and accurate. He played a strong positional game, and quarterbacked the PP nicely.
The game ended 3-2 for the Bulldogs, but by the time the third rolled around, they were in control. Bob Gainey had to have been pleased with what he saw, and he was watching closely. He spent both intermissions signing autographs for long lines of fans, but stopped when the game started up again so he wouldn't miss anything. Even so, when Desharnais scored just 35 seconds into the second, Gainey was signing someone's shirt and looked mildly annoyed to have missed the goal. The Joe Byrne is not the kind of rink that provides instant replay on the big screen. In an old-time hockey atmosphere, the young 'Dogs gave a lot of Habs hope for a really promising future. When the final siren sounded, they left happy. Bob Gainey almost smiled.