HAMILTON – Leading 2-0 late in the second period of Game 7 against Texas, the Hamilton Bulldogs looked to be well on their way to a berth in the Calder Cup final.
But after Ethan Graham’s dump in took a funny hop and eluded Bulldogs netminder Curtis Sanford, the wheels fell off.
That fortunate bounce gave the Stars life and Matt Climie made 41 saves as Texas stormed back with three goals in the third period to beat Hamilton 4-2 on Wednesday night and win the American Hockey League Western Conference final.
“That first goal, that lucky bounce, that really hurt,” Hamilton coach Guy Boucher said of Graham’s goal at 14:38 of the second. “We were lacking that aggressiveness that we had throughout the first part of the game.”
The Stars—playing their first season in the AHL—won the Robert W. Clarke Trophy and will face the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup final.
“Bounces, sometimes, they don’t go your way. The game’s over, and the year’s over, unfortunately,” said Bulldogs defenceman P.K. Subban, who returned to the team after the Montreal Canadiens were eliminated from the NHL’s Eastern Conference final.
Hamilton, which outshot Texas 43-20 on the night, had plenty of chances when the score was 2-0, but couldn’t beat Climie.
“One shot, if only we have got that third goal,” said Boucher. “We couldn’t score that third goal.”
Texas evened things 2-2 at 9:15 of the third off a broken play in the Hamilton zone where the Bulldogs were caught watching Mathieu Beaudoin beat Sanford on the blocker side.
Texas then took the lead with six minutes to go when Hamilton’s Mike Vernace didn’t pick up Perttu Lindgren as he drove to the net and buried a feed from Beaudoin.
Jamie Benn iced the victory for the Stars at 18:33.
Hamilton, which dropped a 3-2 decision in overtime in Game 6, came out strong in the first as Subban set the tone early with a big hit on Benn.
Ben Maxwell was also back in the lineup for the Bulldogs after the Habs’ playoff run, while defencman Mathieu Carle returned after shoulder surgery.
Hamilton opened the scoring with nine seconds left in the first when J.T. Wyman fed David Desharnais in front of Climie.
Max Pacioretty put the Bulldogs up 2-0 at 5:32 of the second on a rebound from Subban’s point shot. The puck came right to Pacioretty in front, who took three hacks at the puck before beating the down-and-out Climie.
Hamilton finished the night 0-for-3 on the power play, while Texas didn’t have a single man-advantage opportunity.
“Our players left everything on the ice there,” said Boucher. “It’s just one of those games where things don’t work out.”
The Stars are the first team since the Chicago Wolves and Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2002 to reach the Calder Cup final in their first AHL season.
The Calder Cup gets underway June 3 in Hershey, Pa.