Playoff Hockey: Underdogs, Upsets and Staying the Course

By Mary Walsh

It has been a busy few days in playoff hockey. Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens pushed back to stop the New York Rangers from taking a 3-0 series lead. That show starred Montreal’s rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski. Friday, the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors won their first Conference Final game at home. Saturday night, the Los Angeles Kings took a 2-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now that the Kings have taken a lead in a series, and scored dozens of goals against the daunting Blackhawks (actually only 11 so far), is it safe to say that maybe the 2013-14 Sharks were not that far from their goal, if they were able to beat Los Angeles three games in a row? No. The Kings have proceeded at an erratic pace but they built up momentum in each progressive series. A strong start does not make up for a weaker finish, so the Sharks can’t take too much comfort in the Kings’ success thus far. The Kings are making a habit of giving up leads only to take them back, but that doesn’t mean there were not a lot of holes in the Sharks roster and strategy. Can the Sharks seal up those holes?

The good news, the biggest and best news from Shark territory so far, is that Larry Robinson has agreed to stay on. His new title is Associate Coach and Director of Player Development. If his title was “Guy Who Does Whatever He Feels Like Doing Today In The General Vicinity San Jose” it would still be a good deal. He is that helpful. It can also be seen as a positive indicator for the team: if Robinson thinks that staying on will not be a futile waste of his time, perhaps fans should have a little faith too.

Thursday on Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, Doug Wilson said that he does not have specific plans to acquire a big name free agent this summer. He did not rule it out but he did not say it was a goal. He also said that missing the playoffs for several seasons starting next year was not his plan. He does not plan to move his best young players. This makes me think that, despite pressure from the fan base and many sources of common sense, he could be planning very little in the way of major roster moves. I do not think that is a bad thing, but I am sure it would be unpopular.

Popular or not, moving big names to shake the team up is an enormous risk. How do you trade away Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau, and avoid slipping badly in the standings, unless you pick up another very high-end forward to replace them? Do you get that player via trade? Who do you get them for if you want to keep your young roster? Do the Sharks have the picks to land such a player? As Wilson mentioned Thursday, however you bring someone in, you need to consider the impact that player will have on your younger players. He needs to not only be productive in his own right but supportive of your development plan.

Do Thornton and Marleau not fit that mold? There is no indication that either one of them undermines or stifles growth in their teammates. Their presence may be growing stale but change for change’s sake rarely pays off.

James Mirtle and Justin Bourne had a Twitter conversation about the high number of minutes being given to fourth lines in the Eastern Conference Final. It makes perfect sense, especially when teams have played a seven game series already, or more, to spread minutes around. But this means that you do need versatile players on that fourth line. You need guys who are reliable in the faceoff circle, tough along the boards, good shots, and reasonably able playmakers. As I said last week, you don’t need Mike Richards on that line but you do need someone who brings a lot more than energy and toughness.

Not so long ago people recognized that space on the bench could no longer be spared for designated fighters who could not do more than fight. Now the bar has been raised still higher: you need four lines that can play more than ten minutes and be better than “not a liability.” Your top six should not need more than 25 minutes per player to get the job done, and your fourth line should merit more than ten. Energy efficiency is about more than Gatorade.

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Dustin Tokarski. Folks who actually follow the Habs probably were not very surprised to see him chosen over Peter Budaj. Putting a rookie goaltender in a high pressure playoff situation is not unheard of, it just doesn’t often work out so well. A rookie comes in with some intangibles in his favor. Even if he has been scouted as much as possible, he simply has not played enough to be thoroughly scouted so the opponent won’t know how to beat him right away. That advantage fades fast. Another benefit can be that his team will rally around him, tighten up on defense to protect him. Or they might let him get shot to pieces like the Habs did in the first period of Game 3. That is where the real surprise was lurking, when Tokarski held the Habs in the game despite a 14-4 shot advantage for the Rangers. Tokarski may not be ready to steal a series but he certainly silenced the death knells in Montreal for now.

I find the Eastern Conference Final much more compelling than the Western, but I like upsets and underdogs. Both the Canadiens and the Rangers are sort of underdogs who achieved upsets. They are good teams, but the Canadiens were not supposed to beat the bestest team ever, aka the Bruins, because winners are supposed to play a big bruising game like the Bruins do. The Habs won anyway, and they did it their way.

The Rangers were not supposed to beat the Penguins because the Penguins have high performance superstars like Malkin and Crosby, while the Rangers had so many underperforming superstars like Nash, Richards and St. Louis. On top of that, the Rangers had to muscle through a brutal schedule to get where they are, and they did so anyway. Personal tragedy is getting a lot of credit for their turnaround, but they had all of these pieces from the get go. It is satisfying to see them go ahead like a dark horse people forgot about.

Speaking of dark horses, the Condors’ Friday win gave them a 2-1 lead in the series against the Alaska Aces. Saturday, the Aces thumped them 4-1 and tied the series back up. That is not very surprising. The Aces are aces. Nonetheless, the Condors are making a little Central Valley history this weekend. That the Condors ever took a lead in the series is impressive and inspiring. This is their first appearance in a Conference Final, and they have held their own. They have earned the nickname “Cardiac Condors” with numerous comebacks thus far and the Aces would be foolish to back off now. If the Aces come back tomorrow and stomp them like they did tonight, Condors fans have still gotten their money’s worth from a team that made an amazing turnaround in a season. After so many years of being perpetual playoff also-rans, this is a mighty accomplishment for Bakersfield.

Bulls Fold To Aces 5-2

Photo Courtesy SF Bulls
Photo Courtesy SF Bulls

By Kahlil Najar

SAN FRANCISCO – The San Francisco Bulls (13-19-2-1) were defeated by the Alaska Aces (21-9-2-1), 5-2 on Saturday night at the Cow Palace. Brett Findlay and Sebastian Stalberg scored for the Bulls on their second annual LGBT night where the team wore special jerseys to show their support for the LGBT community in San Francisco.

Coming off an impressive win the other night against the Aces, the Bulls and their fans were looking forward to another hard fought, nail-biting night of hockey. Unfortunately, the game played out exactly as it did on Friday night but without the impressive comeback.

In the first period the Bulls were getting quality passes off to the front of the Aces goal however no one was there to put the puck home. Meanwhile the Aces seemed to skate into the Bulls zone with ease and set up plays nicely and wait until they got the numbers they needed to mount an attack. The Aces got on the board first when Shawn Skelly scored by coming around the back of the net and jumped on a rebound off a Nick Mazzolini shot and beat Beskorowany to the far post and gave Alaska a 1-0 lead. Less than two minutes later, Mathew Sisca and a fellow Ace were bearing down into the Bulls zone on a two-on-one and after a quick fake pass, Sisca beat Besko through the five hole and gave the Aces a two goal lead.

The Bulls got their first goal of the game and cut the lead in half in the second period when Dale Mitchell picked up the puck from behind the net and shot it out in front of the goal to Brett Findlay who scored into a wide open net. The goal was Findlay’s 26th point of the season and moved him into the fifth position of top rookie scorers in the league. The Bulls were taking shots on Aces goalie Roy however they weren’t quality shots at the all sailed on the ground or saw little flight in the puck at all. Findlay did have a beautiful drop pass to Jordan Morrison but even that shot was turned away by Roy. With 7:01 remaining in the second, the Bulls gave up the puck in their zone to former Bull Peter Sivak who found Tim Coffman in front of the net one-on-one with Besko and beat him top shelf to bring the lead back to two with a score of 3-1.

At the end of the second; after the buzzer sounded, Brett Findlay shot the puck down ice and head referee Stephen Reneau took exception to it and appeared to think he thought it was a knock at him and called an unsportsmanlike misconduct on him to put the Aces on the power play to start the third.

It didn’t take the Aces long to respond as 37 seconds into the final period, Sisca scored his second goal of the game with a nice feed from Coffman and bring the lead to three. At 3:36, Sebastian Stalberg scored his first goal with the Bulls on a nice feed from Dean Ouellet who found him streaking to the net and made it a 4-2 game. The Aces responded quickly when Coffman scored his second of the game when he picked the pocket of a Bulls player and beat Besko top shelf to give the Aces the 5-2 victory.

It was a messy loss for the Bulls as they had more than enough opportunities to capitalize on Alaska’s mistakes. The Bulls weren’t able to connect on a few two-on-one’s and even missed on a few nearly wide open nets when the Bulls had Roy scrambling from in front of the net.

The Bulls now take a few days off before they play again on Wednesday when they take on the Colorado Eagles at 7:30 pm.

Bulls win in overtime thriller

By: Phillip Torres and Kahlil Najar

DAY CITY-The San Francisco Bulls (13-18-4-1) hosted the Alaska Aces (20-10-1-1) on Friday night at the Cow Palace. The Bulls rallied from an early 3-0 deficit to beat the Aces 6-5 in overtime. The victory evened up the three game weekend series at one win a piece and gave the Bulls a chance to win the series on Sunday.

Alaska started of hot as they opened up the scoring just 18 seconds into the contest. Eli Zuck scored his second goal of the season. The assists were earned by Tommy Mele and Peter Sivak. Sivak, the former San Francisco Bull had a huge game against his old team as he racked up four points on the night. He scored his tenth goal in an Alaska uniform at 13:37 in the first period to make it 2-0 Aces. Drew MacKenzie made it a 3-0 advantage with a goal of his own with assists from Ross Ring-Jarvi and Sivak.

The Bulls got red hot in the second period as they scored four goals within a span of 1:31. Jordan Morrison put the Bulls on the board first with his eighth goal of the season at 8:49. Brett Findlay and Dale Mitchell assisted on the play. Forty-two seconds later Mitchell scored a goal of his own on a power play. Mitchell put the puck right in the corner of the net on the glove side of goaltender Oliver Roy. The goal was assisted by Dean Ouellet and Eriks Sevcenko.

With the Bulls down just 3-2, Mitchell scored his second of the game seventeen seconds later to tie the game at three goals each. The play was assisted by Findlay. Findlay broke away with the puck and passed it to Mitchell at the last second as the defender could not get to the puck on time.

Ouellet scored the fourth goal within the span to give San Francisco its first lead of the night, making it 4-3 Bulls. Ouellet scored at 10:20 with assists from Sebastian Stalberg and Riley Brace.

Beskorowany appreciated the offensive explosion by his team in the second period.

“It was great,” the goaltender said.

“It was great to play with lead. We haven’t played with the lead for a while now and it was great to create some offense tonight,” Beskorowany said with a laugh.

Alaska tied the game with a goal from Tim Coffman past starting goaltender Tyler Beskorowany. Brad Richard slipped Coffman a nice past to earn the assist on the play.

Morrison capped the combined six goal second period with his second goal on the night and in the period. Beskorowany shot the puck back in after making a save to Mitchell deep down the ice and Mitchell flicked it quickly to Morrison as he put the puck on the net to give the Bull the 5-4 lead heading into the third period.  

The third period contained only one goal, and it came early as Sivak struck again to tie the game at five. Mele assisted Sivak on the play. The Bulls played stout defense as they defended the penalty kill great in this period.  Alaska threatened to score on a five on three power play late in the frame. The Bulls killed the penalty with Beskorowany making a couple of tremendous saves to save the game for San Francisco.

“That’s what won us the game,” head coach Pat Curcio said after the game.

“I don’t remember the last time having to kill a five on three power play two nights in a row.”

The score at the end of regulation was notched at five and the game went into overtime. Dean Ouellet put in the game winner exactly one minute into the overtime period with a put back goal into an empty net.

Morrison went in for the score but got tripped up with Roy on the side on the net. With a great second effort Morrison got the puck to Ouellet who tapped in the game winner and sent the Bulls off of the ice as 6-5 winners over Alaska.

“I really didn’t do much on the goal,” Ouellet said after the game.

“It was Morrison’s second effort that got me the puck and I had empty net right in front of me.”

The Bulls and Aces will finish the weekend series on Saturday. The puck will drop at 7:30 Pm at the Cow Palace.

Bulls Rally Falls Short, Fall To Aces 3-2

Photo Courtesy Of SF Bulls
Photo Courtesy Of SF Bulls

By Kahlil Najar

SAN FRANCISCO – In their first meeting in San Francisco since the playoffs last year, the San Francisco Bulls(12-17-4-1))  were defeated by the Alaska Aces (9-9-1-1(,  3-2. Steven Tarasuk and Dean Ouellet scored for the Bulls and Tyler Beskorowany stopped 31 of 34 shots. Martin, Molle and Sisca put up the tally’s for the Aces and Olivier Roy stopped 17 shots from the Bulls.

The Bulls came out fast in the first period as they pelted Roy with four straight shots before the Aces got their first shot on goal. However that first shot got the Aces on the board. James Martin took a nice wrist shot and beat Beskorowany with 8:03 gone in the first.  With a little over three minutes left in the first Dean Ouellet scored on a nice feed from Dale Mitchell that Ouellet was able to lift over a sprawled Roy.

In the second, the Aces kept pounding the puck towards Beskorowany and while Besko was laid out on the ground Dustin Molle was able to life the puck over the Bulls goalie and gave the Aces the 2-1 lead with 4:58 left in the period. Less than three minutes later, the Bulls had the puck in the Aces zone and it looked like they were applying a ton of pressure on and had the Aces on their heels. Then the Aces Brad Richard stuck his stick out and intercepted a Bulls pass and found a streaking Mathew Sisca who was one-on-one with Besko and beat him top shelf with a quick wrister to give the Aces a two goal lead at the end of 40 minutes.

In the final period, Steven Tarasuk, who was recently picked up by the Bulls continued his hot streak as he was able to catch the puck on a crazy bounce in front of the Aces goal and push it in to bring the deficit to one goal and make it 3-2. With a little over one minute left in the game and on a power play Pat Curcio pulled Besko and even though the Bulls were able to take three quality shots, Roy was able to turn them all away and hand the Bulls their 17th loss of the season.

“We looked lazy at times but I thought towards the end we battled hard. We could have got lucky and got a point and took it into overtime. We had an opportunity there at the end but Dale (Mitchell) missed it and that’s the way it goes,” said Head Coach Pat Curcio on the final minutes of the game. “It is what it is. We need to be a bunch that overcomes adversity and we’ve done it all year. We’ll look to rebound tomorrow.”

The Bulls and Aces head back at it tomorrow night at the Cow Palace at 7:30pm.

Aces Shut the Bulls Down 5-0

By Mary Walsh

ANCHORAGE- The Alaska Aces made the San Francisco Bulls pay dearly for ruining their home opener, beating the Bulls 5-0 on Saturday. It is hard to tell from the score, but the Bulls did show signs that they were working better as a team, leaving fewer gaping holes on defense.

The Bulls went in to their second game in Alaska without Dean Ouellet, who was described as having a non-specific upper body injury. If the team was thrown by that development, it didn’t show as they started the game with more composure in the defensive zone than they displayed in the first game. Despite taking too many penalties and giving up more goals than in the previous game, the team actually had more chances and showed signs of improvement.

San Francisco looked sharp to start the game. Things looked bright when Dale Mitchell had a great opportunity on a breakaway. Aces goaltender Joni Ortio was ready for him and thwarted the Bulls’ best chance to take an early lead.

A lapse in defensive focus gave the Aces a 3 on 2 and the 1-0 lead at 10:01 of the first. The goal was scored by Jordan Kremyr, with assists to Dustin Molle and Tommy Mele. That goal took the wind out of the Bulls and they too much time trapped in their own zone. They finished the period credited with only two shots on goal to Alaska’s 17.

The second period got interesting quickly when Dylan King took a boarding penalty while the Bulls were already killing Luke Judson‘s hooking penalty. Kris BelanScott Langdon and Kyle Bigos valiantly killed off a 5 on 3 that lasted for over a minute. Judson came out of the box at the end of his penalty and helped them clear the zone. The Bulls killed off the rest of the penalty and within a couple of shifts seemed invigorated by that success.

Defenseman Kyle Bigos was assigned to the Bulls by the AHL Worcester Sharks. He was conspicuous during the troubled second period, making a number of critical interceptions and clears for his team. Bulls goaltender Tyler Beskorowany doesn’t leave a lot of dangerous rebounds but it was a good sign that Bulls skaters were there to clean them up anyway.

The Bulls were taking too many penalties in the period, and it cost them when the Aces scored on their third power play of the period. That power play goal scored by Evan Trupp, with assists to Peter Sivak and Zach Davies.

Ironically, the Bulls more than doubled their first period shot total during the first half of the second period. They finally earned a power play at 11:58 of the period. It did not start out well as the Bulls let Aces center Nick Mazzolini break the other way unfettered. Narrowly escaping another goal against, the Bulls held the zone for the rest of the power play. They came close but lacked polish and didn’t score. Less than two minutes later, the Bulls were on the penalty kill again, this time with Jordan Morrison in the box. The Bulls killed off the penalty and responded with some good offensive rushes. Still they didn’t score and by the end of the period it was evident that they’d spent too much time short-handed. They had lost a step, but they had also outshot the Aces 8-6 in the period.

The Aces jumped into the third period with an early goal, a second for Evan Trupp off a cross-crease pass from Peter Sivak. As if killing penalties were the Bulls’ theme of the night, Mark Lee went to the box at 4:51 for cross-checking. Before that ended, Brett Parnham was called for the same and the Bulls were down two men. The team survived that but did not make it through their next penalty, Alaska’s seventh power play of the game. That put the Bulls in a 4-0 hole. Alaska’s fourth goal was scored by B.J. Crum, with assists to Sivak and Mazzolini.

A power play at 10:20 of the third gave the Bulls some energy. Alaska seemed to sit back on their four goal lead, still able to frustrate the Bulls’ offense. In the last two minutes of the game, Zach Davies took advantage of Scott Langdon’s errant pass up the boards and scored the Aces’ fifth goal.

The Bulls finished the game on the penalty kill. Sullivan Arena played “All By Myself” while Chris Crane went to the box. To make matters worse, the refs gave Crane four minutes for his high stick.

Scoring summary: Alaska: Jordan Kremyr (Molle, Mele) 11:59, Evan Trupp(PPG, Sivak, Davies) 9:57, Trupp (Sivak, Mazzolini) 1:47, B.J. Crum (PPG Sivak, Mazzolini) 7:55, Zach Davies (Sivak) 18:02. Alaska killed 3 of 3 penalties. Joni Ortio made 17 saves for the win. 

San Francisco killed 7 of 9 penalties and Tyler Beskorowany made 34 saves on 39 shots for San Francisco.

The Bulls play next in Idaho, on Wednesday at 6:10 PT. Listen on KNBR.com or watch on AmericaOneSports.com. The team’s full schedule can be found on their website.

Beskorowany Shines In Bulls’ Road Start

By Mary Walsh

San Francisco’s penalty kill was impressive in their first meeting with the Alaska Aces, but it is safe to say that goaltender Tyler Beskorowany stole the game for the Bulls. The final score was 2-1 Bulls, but the official shot clock favored Alaska 45-19. Beskorowany outdid himself. It was almost unsettling to watch him turn away shot after shot, including all but one of the breakaways that the Bulls allowed. “How good is this goalie?” one observer asked Bulls’ broadcaster  Jason Lockhart during intermission. Beskorowany answered that question during long stretches of sustained Alaska offense. The Bulls’ goals were scored very early (Jordan Morrison from Scott Langdon 2:22 into the first) and late (Brett Parnham from Dale Mitchell and Mark Lee 13:44 into the third) in the game. In the meantime, the Bulls’ new goaltender was that good. Really, that good.

The Bulls faced Beskorowany four times last season, and he was memorable for more than his name. The Bulls scored four times against him in their first meeting, but didn’t come close to that again for the rest of the season. In their final meeting, the goalie shut the Bulls out. No wonder Bulls President Pat Curcio was happy to sign the big goaltender for this season.

No goaltender is infallible, he will have off nights, he will be unlucky at times. Even with a goaltender who makes a spectacular start, it is critical for the rest of the team to do their part. Early in the season, after relatively little time to practice together, it is to be expected that the Bulls will have some communication glitches to sort out. Those glitches were most evident in their defensive schemes. The team allowed multiple breakaways and failed to hold the zone at inopportune times, sometimes doing both at once. Their Friday performance suggested that the team wasn’t reading each other very well, yet the Bulls killed all five penalties assigned to them. In that, fans can find hope. The team does know how to defend, they just need to smooth the edges between offense and defense.

Starting the season with an 18 day road trip is taxing in many ways, and some will downplay the team bonding value of such a trip. For an ECHL team, it really is a significant inconvenience. They don’t leave ice at home for players to practice on (see Grand National Rodeo schedule), and they can’t travel with the whole roster. Still, no one denies that a road trip has value for team chemistry. Playing in multiple arenas, being thrown together in transit and training, at work and at rest, all of this will give the Bulls plenty of time to communicate.

Starting the season against arguably the best opponent in the west is a blistering trial by fire for the team. On the plus side, several Bulls ended last season against the Aces, so the formidable opponent is familiar. Either way, winning on such steeply tilted ice as the Bulls did in their first game is something to be proud of. A win is a win. Bulls fans can look forward to seeing less harrowing wins if the team sorts out their defensive cues.