HAMILTON – For a second straight game, Hamilton Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher benched American Hockey League all-star Cedrick Desjardins in favour of veteran goaltender Curtis Sanford.
And for a second straight game, it worked.
Sanford stopped all 30 shots he faced to earn his first shutout of the post-season, leading the Bulldogs into the semifinals of the AHL playoffs with a 4-0 win over the Abbotsford Heat on Monday.
The Bulldogs won the North Division final in six games.
“Sometimes it’s not just the saves, it’s the demeanour and the way he approaches going to the net and into the room after the period,” Boucher said. “You can see there’s a lot of confidence there (with Sanford). They weren’t lucky saves. They were saves that he meant to do.”
David Desharnais and Aaron Palushaj each had a goal and an assist for Hamilton.
Desharnais scored the game’s first goal with 1:30 left in the first period when he found a loose puck during a scramble in the Abbotsford crease. He took two whacks at the puck, whiffing on the first but striking with the second attempt.
“We knew they don’t give up many chances, so we need our goals to be in front of the net,” Desharnais said. “I was in front of the net, and I took a couple whacks and it went in. It went right under (goaltender David Shantz’s) pads.”
Veteran Abbotsford forward Jason Jaffray said that goal was a turning point after a back-and-forth first period where the Bulldogs outshot the Heat 16-12.
“They got a late goal that really put us back on our heels, and I think it really changed the outlook of the game,” said Jaffray. “Once they weathered the storm, they came back with their own push.”
That push came in the third period, where the Bulldogs scored three goals.
Desharnais set up the Bulldogs’ second goal six minutes into the third period, intercepting a lobbed Abbotsford pass with his glove before the puck slid off to Palushaj between the hash marks. Palushaj fired a perfect backhand that beat Shantz on his glove side.
“(The Heat) were sliding all over the place,” said Desharnais. “I got lucky because I lost the puck, but it went on Palushaj’s stick.”
Trotter added Hamilton’s third goal late in the third period on the power play with a slapshot from the side boards that fooled Shantz. Palushaj earned an assist on the play.
Andre Benoit added an empty-netter for the Bulldogs.
Sanford stymied the Heat offence, which was unable to score on five power-play attempts, including a four-minute power play in the second period.
Boucher’s went with Sanford for Games 5 and 6 despite a long period of inactivity for the goaltender. Sanford had gone 42 days since his last start because of an injury, but he said the time off helped.
“I had a lot of practice time,” Sanford explained. “It paid off. It was a mental battle, but you always have to be prepared and be ready.”
Hamilton will now have some time off before starting their fifth conference final in franchise history. They will play the winner of Tuesday night’s Game 7 match between the Texas Stars and Chicago Wolves.
The Heat’s season, on the other hand, is finished. But Jaffray said it was a success for his team, which was plagued by injuries all year.
“We had a very young group,” said Jaffray. “We didn’t have any playoff games in our back pocket, with the exception of three or four guys on our team.
“You’ve got to view it as a success. You don’t get down to the final six teams in the league very often. I talked to the guys after the game, and told them you’ve got to be proud of what you accomplished.”
Heat coach Jim Playfair had a different take on the loss, however, refusing to take questions after the game.
“Ask the players,” Playfair responded when asked about the series. “They’re the ones that lost.”
Notes: Abbotsford defenceman Staffan Kronwall, who was injured in Game 2, made the trip to Hamilton but did not dress for Game 6.