Mikhail Grabovski, Matt D’Agostini and Eric Manlow had a goal and an assist each in a 6-2 win over the Bears Wednesday, giving Hamilton a 3-1 stranglehold in the Calder Cup final.
The Bulldogs, who finished third in the AHL’s North Division with a 43-28-3-6 record, have yet to trail in any of their four series and can secure the franchise’s first AHL title with another victory Thursday at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton (7:30 p.m. ET).
“We were about tonight’s game and that was it,” said Manlow, suggesting the Bulldogs clearly weren’t looking beyond Game 4.
Michael Lambert also scored for Hamilton (15-6), while Ajay Baines added a short-handed empty-netter in the final minute. Veteran Duncan Milroy scored another short-handed marker with 34 seconds remaining and also chipped in two assists.
Rookie sensation Carey Price stopped 33 of 35 shots for his team record 14th win in a single post-season.
The 19-year-old Price, who played the majority of the season in junior with the Tri-City Americans, wasn’t as busy as the first three games when he faced a total of 126 shots. Despite allowing a few uncharacteristic rebounds early against the Bears, Price was assertive in his crease, aided by a rugged Hamilton defence that minimized any activity in front of the six-foot-three, 212-pounder from Williams Lake, B.C.
At various points in the game, the Hamilton crowd showed their support, chanting “Car-ey, Car-ey.”
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Price said of his contributions to Hamilton’s playoff run. “The guys have really accepted me as one of their own. It was like stepping on a club team. I’ve known a lot of these guys for quite a while.
“It’s been a great experience so far.”
Even with his limited professional experience, Price has had a positive effect on the Bulldogs.
“A lot of times, he might get run around but he’s so calm back there he really does settle things down,” Manlow said of the rookie.
Price’s counterpart Frederic Cassivi struggled for Hershey (13-5), making 20 saves on 25 shots faced.
Wingers Jakub Klepis and Tomas Fleischmann scored third-period goals for the Bears, who need to win three consecutive wins to repeat as Calder Cup champions. Klepis has three of Hershey’s four goals in the two games at Copps Coliseum.
“I think they’re getting frustrated,” said Hershey head coach Bruce Boudreau of his team. “They’re not used to the situation they’re in and I think that sometimes wears a little bit on you.
“We’re a desperation team now.”
With Hershey trailing 4-0 early in the third period, Fleischmann brought the Bears to within two goals on a great individual effort, backhanding a shot over Price as he was being wrestled to the ice by Bulldogs’ defender Jean-Philippe Cote at 14:03.
For the second game in a row on home ice, Hamilton jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on Grabovski’s fifth goal of the playoffs. Grabovski, a 23-year-old centre from Potsdam, Germany, initially rang a shot off the post on a wide-open attempt, but seconds later found the puck and flipped a backhand over the prone Bears’ goaltender.
The Bulldogs have an 11-4 record in the 2007 playoffs when scoring first. “The key was they scored the first goal again like they did two nights ago,” said Klepis. “We have to find a way to stay in the game in the first five minutes.”
“I really thought what we have to do is we have to get a lead,” Boudreau said. “When we score a goal, we get a little bit of confidence and we’re going after them but it certainly hasn’t been easy scoring a goal.”
Hamilton extended the margin at 10:19 of the first period on the power play. Defenceman Andre Benoit carried the puck to the bottom of the circle to Cassivi’s right and slid a pass to the front of the net that D’Agostini tipped in for an early 2-0 Bulldogs lead.
Hamilton’s power play has clicked when most needed, accounting for seven goals in 26 chances with the man advantage through the first four games of the series.
“Our power play looked pretty sharp early again,” said Hamilton head coach Don lever.
Manlow made it 3-0 Hamilton at 4:51 of the second period, a goal that proved to be the winner. The Bulldogs’ winger, with his back to the net, kept his stick on the ice and tipped in an Benoit point shot, which Cassivi wasn’t able to pick up through traffic.
Manlow felt that Hamilton’s ability to stay out of the penalty box for the first time in the series was a key Wednesday.
“A lot of guys realize to win this thing, you have to bite your lip and turn your back and you might not feel proud at the time but in the long run, it can make a world of difference,” he said.
Lambert held off a defender and scored high on Cassivi’s blocker side at
3:29 of the third, before Klepis got one back just under two minutes later on a quick shot from in close that beat Price on the short side.
Only three AHL teams have rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to win the Calder Cup, all occurring in the 1940s. Buffalo defeated Cleveland in 1946, Hershey came back to beat Pittsburgh the following year and in 1949, providence overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Hershey.