Photo credit: Madison Fox, Renegades Photography
The Blackfalds Bulldogs’ record on home ice was absolutely sparkling in 2023; in the regular season, they’d lost just once at the Eagle Builders Centre and had only lost once in the playoffs coming into their game three against the Brooks Bandits. After a game one that saw the Bandits dominate and, quite frankly, deserve their victory, Blackfalds had played a superb game two. Despite controlling the majority of the game, a great first period from Brooks in that second game was enough to propel the defending champions to victory.
For Blackfalds, every single one of their previous ten playoff games had one thing in common; the team who scored the first goal had gone on to win in every single instance. In fact, Blackfalds has only won one game in these playoffs after conceding the first goal, which came all the way back in the first round, fighting back from a 2-0 deficit in their game one against the Calgary Canucks to win the game 5-2.
For that reason, a strong start had to be a focus of the Bulldogs, but it was indeed Brooks who opened the scoring. Heath Armstrong’s power move to the front of the net opened up the chance for him to slide the puck under Matthew Hennessey and in to make it 1-0, giving Brooks the all-important first goal. However, Blackfalds managed to do something they couldn’t do in either of the first two games of the series; score a goal to tie the game. A great play by Jake Geraci in the neutral zone set up a rush in which Geraci found some space in the slot with a toe-drag and a wrist shot, which was denied by Ethan Barwick, but Otto Hanson followed up and forced the rebound past Barwick and in to make it 1-1. Hanson, however, was unfortunately involved in the game’s third goal, this time scored by Brooks. Wheeling around his own net and looking for an outlet pass, Hanson tried a pass towards the left wing boards, but the puck hit Brooks’ Hudson Malinoski on the skate. It bounced into the Blackfalds crease, where Aiden Fink was waiting to poke him his second goal of the series, restoring the Bandits lead at 2-1.
It would remain 2-1 Brooks into the second period, but a perfectly-executed Bulldogs three-on-two rush just two and a half minutes into the middle frame would set up the 2-2 goal. Jason Siedem found Connor Dick with a cross-ice pass, leading Dick to hold for a second before picking the top corner over Ethan Barwick’s blocker to make it a tie game. Dick’s goal was his third in three games to start the series, but it wouldn’t keep the Bulldogs even for long. Just 52 seconds after the tying goal, Brooks would strike back, with Jordan Hughesman taking a stretch pass from Luke Marshall and beating Matthew Hennessey over the glove to make it 3-2 Brooks. The Bandits would score the only other goal of the second, with Aiden Fink waiting at the side of the net, taking a quick Hunter Wallace pass from behind the goal, and sneaking it short-side through Hennessey to make it a 4-2 game.
Blackfalds continued pressure and kept generating chances into the third, but Brooks’ defences, namely their penalty kill did a superb job to hold off the Bulldogs, and Brooks would score once more to make it 5-2. Nathan Free broke in one-on-one against Evan Mitchell before pulling the puck to the middle of the ice and snapping it through the screen of Mitchell and past Matthew Hennessey to make it a three-goal game. Kasey Hiemstra would pull one back for Blackfalds with 4:17 to go, taking a long stretch pass from Tanner Willick and breaking in to pull the puck to his backhand and through Ethan Barwick’s legs, making it 5-3. Blackfalds kept pushing and even pulled Hennessey late to try and find a way back, but the Bandits held strong, protecting their two-goal lead and winning by a 5-3 scoreline. The Bandits win game three, taking a 3-0 series lead, and can close out the series Wednesday night in Blackfalds.