Photo credit: Xander Holcomb, Blackfalds Bulldogs
Unlike the start of the second round in which the Blackfalds Bulldogs had a whole week off, the Bulldogs had just two days between the end of the second round and the start of the third. Blackfalds’ regular season record against the Brooks Bandits told the story of a team fully capable of running with the AJHL’s top side.
Blackfalds indeed ran with Brooks to start the game, but it was the Bandits whose pressure paid off early. Pressure from Brooks’ fourth line resulted in a rebound popping out to the top of the Bulldogs crease, where Mikhail Simchuk was waiting to pounce and stick it past Matthew Hennessey for an early 1-0 Bandit lead. Blackfalds pushed back, but more Bandits offensive zone pressure was rewarded, with this time Aiden Fink finding Hudson Malinoski in front of the net, giving Malinoski the time and space to make a move to the backhand and finish perfectly to give the Bandits a 2-0 advantage. Blackfalds controlled the remainder of the second and managed to cut Brooks’ lead in half, with Connor Dick keeping possession of the puck in the offensive zone and eventually finding space in the left wing circle, picking the top corner over Ethan Barwick’s blocker.
The middle 20 minutes, however, was Brooks’ best. The Bandits’ penalty kill in their first playoff round against the Okotoks Oilers was a remarkable 96.2%, and they not only got two crucial penalty kills in the second period, but they also scored once shorthanded, with Caelen Fitzpatrick going wide around Tanner Willick on the one-on-one and finishing off with a one-handed backhand tuck to beat Matthew Hennessey and make it 3-1. Blackfalds’ offensive pushes were in vain, as the Bandits’ control of the second period was evident on the shot clock, as an 8-8 tie in shots on goal after one became a 21-13 Bandits advantage through two.
Brooks added to their lead early in the third period, with Hughie Hooker ripping a one-time drive through Matthew Hennessey and in from the blue line to make it a 4-1 game. From there, the Bulldogs had more chances, and eventually, a five-on-three proved fruitful, with puck movement from the first powerplay unit of Blackfalds finding Brett Meerman, who beat Ethan Barwick to make it a 4-2 game. Blackfalds pulled Hennessey to make a late push, but Caelen Fitzpatrick finished things off with his second goal of the game to make it 5-2, sealing the deal and giving the Bandits a 1-0 series lead.