Photo credit: Xander Holcomb, Blackfalds Bulldogs
59-2-0 was never going to be the record the Blackfalds Bulldogs finished the regular season with.
However, after the Bulldogs won their eleventh straight game, the feeling of invincibility strengthened. While staying undefeated was going always to be an impossibility, the allure of an undefeated October was a tantalizingly close prize to claim.
Looking ahead at the Bulldogs’ schedule, the schedule for the foreseeable future consisted of already-vanquished opponents save for two anomalies; the Fort McMurray Oil Barons and the Brooks Bandits, two of only four teams in the AJHL the Bulldogs hadn’t played yet.
The answer to the question “who will end the winning streak” wasn’t necessarily one of those two teams, but a singular player on one of those teams. His name? Gabe Gratton.
Going into Saturday night’s game between the Oil Barons and Bulldogs, Fort McMurray’s starting goaltender, Gabe Gratton, held a 2-6-1 record, a 4.29 goals against average, and an .888 save percentage, numbers that would land him outside the AJHL’s top 20 in all three categories.
Less than 90 seconds into the game, Liam Rodman caught Bulldogs forward Dakota MacIntosh with an elbow to the face, a collision that would sideline MacIntosh for most of the first period, sending Blackfalds to an early power play. Gabe Gratton proved to be the best Oil Baron penalty killer, denying multiple Bulldogs chances, a theme that would continue. Brendan Ross had numerous chances turned away in-tight, and as the Bulldogs began to take full control, the question of “when” the first goal would beat Gratton was suddenly more “if” he’d be beaten.
13 minutes and six seconds of game time after Liam Rodman’s elbow on Dakota MacIntosh, it was MacIntosh who ended up potting the game’s first goal, taking a beautiful cross-ice from Carter Patterson and dispatching his snap-shot behind Gratton to make it 1-0. Blackfalds would end the first period with a 17-3 shots-on-goal margin, and that domination continued throughout the game. Two major themes persisted alongside Blackfalds’ peppering of the Fort McMurray goal; Gabe Gratton’s invincibility and a level of uncalled holding, hooking, and interference that closely resembled hockey’s seldom-missed “clutch and grab era.”
Despite the seeming impossibility that Blackfalds be awarded a powerplay, the scoring chances continued, but Gratton’s heroics persisted, denying the likes of Connor Dick, Alexander Dimitriadis, Jayden Joly, Brendan Ross, and Ryan Shaw on grade-A scoring chances. The Oil Barons found chances of their own off the rush throughout the game, with many of their 19 shots on target giving Blackfalds’ Ethan Morrow a serious test. Gratton keeping the game 1-0 gave Fort McMurray the opportunity they needed. With under 90 seconds to play in the third period, the Oil Barons won an offensive zone face-off, and Carter Schmidt’s long wrist shot through traffic resulted in a scramble on top of the crease, with Rylan Ringor able to poke the puck behind Morrow before Evan Arnold wrestled it over the goal line, making it 1-1.
Blackfalds’ overtime closely resembled the first three periods, dominating possession throughout, and earning many grade-A scoring chances throughout the three-on-three period. Gratton made each save he needed to make, aided by the post once and the crossbar twice in overtime alone before the game entered the shootout. After Simon Gaul and Dakota MacIntosh traded goals in the first round, Vincent Lamanna in round four was the only other shooter to find the back of the net, with Gratton denying Brendan Ross, Ryan Shaw, and Eddie Moskowitz to earn the victory.
Gabe Gratton was named the game’s first star, stopping 50 saves on 51 shots through four periods and three of four in the shootout.
Blackfalds needed to put what was a frustrating two-and-a-half hours of hockey behind them quickly, as they had less than twenty-four hours to prep for their next game, an away matchup in Olds.
Blackfalds’ visit to play the Grizzlys more closely resembled their status quo of the season so far. The return of Tanner Willick following his two-game suspension was a major boost, and Willick made his impact felt on the scoresheet almost immediately, letting a point shot fly that was deflected in by Layne Loomer just 16 seconds into the hockey game. Brendan Ross would continue the theme of deflected goals, tipping yet another Willick point shot on a man advantage later on in the first, making it 2-0 through one.
As they did in the first period, Blackfalds scored in the first minute of the second period, with Dakota MacIntosh driving the net and finishing a rebound from a Brendan Ross chance to make it 3-1. Daniel North would score to cut the lead down, but MacIntosh and Otto Hanson would add late third-period goals to seal a 5-1 Bulldogs win.
Blackfalds look to close their month of October on a positive note with their Tuesday night clash against the Brooks Bandits. The two teams played ten times last season, with Blackfalds going 2-3-1 against the Bandits in the regular season, before their AJHL South Division final series.