Photo credit: Xander Holcomb, Blackfalds Bulldogs
The Blackfalds Bulldogs and Brooks Bandits have played some high-intensity games this season, and Friday night didn’t break that trend, marking the teams’ fifth meeting of the season. Brooks had won three of the previous four, winning the most recent game between the two teams by a 3-2 margin in a shootout. While every game between the Bandits and the Bulldogs had been spirited affairs, the Bandits’ shootout win marked the first time the two teams played a game decided by less than a three-goal margin, with the Bulldogs winning 6-3 in the first matchup of the year, followed by 6-2 and 3-0 Bandits victories.
Brooks came out firing, with newly acquired Davide Patella stealing the puck in the offensive zone before breaking in and beating Matthew Hennessey with a deke to the forehand to open the scoring. It took the Bulldogs less than a minute, however, to tie the game, with Otto Hanson forcing an offensive zone turnover of his own and firing a perfect snap shot past the glove-hand side of Ethan Barwick to make it 1-1. Just past the halfway point of the first period, David Brandes took a holding minor that was successfully killed off by Blackfalds thanks to a couple of solid stops from Hennessey. As Brandes exited the penalty box, a long stretch pass attempt fired his way ended up just out of his reach and bounced behind the Bandits net. Barwick came out of the Brooks goal to play it, but couldn’t keep control of the puck under pressure from Brandes, who stole it and wrapped the puck into the empty net to make it 2-1 Blackfalds. The Bandits, however, needed little more than 90 seconds to find their way back to level terms, with Heath Armstrong finding a rebound off a Caelen Fitzpatrick shot and firing it over Hennessey’s glove to make it 2-2.
Dominick Campione’s late first-period kneeing penalty gave Blackfalds the chance on the powerplay to start the second. David Brandes rushed the puck from end-to-end before finding Kurt Gurkan on the doorstep to make it 3-2 Blackfalds. This time, there would be no imminent equalizer, and the Bulldogs would be able to make it a 4-2 game thanks to Tanner Willick. Willick had missed every game in 2023 thus far with an upper-body injury, but in his return, would take the puck through the Bandits zone himself, at first not beating Ethan Barwick, but scoring on his own rebound to make it a 4-2 game. Coming into this game, the Bulldogs had to be wary of the Bandits’ powerplay, which sat atop the entire AJHL. So, when Otto Hanson took a cross-checking minor at the 12:25 mark of the second, the Bulldogs had to fear they’d given the Bandits a lifeline back into the game. That, however, couldn’t have been more untrue. First, Ethan Beyer’s overzealous puck handles at the top of the Bulldogs zone handed it to Brendan Ross, who couldn’t be more in alone if he tried, and beat Barwick with a beautiful move to his backhand to make it 5-2. On the same Bandits powerplay, Blackfalds would extend their lead once more, with this time Sam Court handing possession to Blackfalds. Gurkan stole the puck and fed it cross-ice to Kody Willick on the two-on-one. Willick miscued his shot, but it found its way back to Gurkan, who deposited the puck into the empty net to make it a 6-2 game.
Luke Bibby would nab himself and the Bandits a consolation goal in the third period, but in the end, it was the Bulldogs who came away victorious, handing the Bandits their first loss of 2023 and snapping their seven-game win streak in the process. The Bulldogs also become the first team in the AJHL this season to beat the Bandits twice, doing so by the same scoreline, 6-3 at home in September and 6-3 last night. The Bulldogs improve to a .500 record, boating two wins, two losses, and one shootout loss for a total of five out of an available 10 points in games against the Bandits this season. Kurt Gurkan’s two goals not only earned him a first-star nod but pushed him up to five goals in his last three games, as the Yale commit has really found his scoring touch with the Bulldogs. Blackfalds ventures forward, playing the second of their five-game trip in Calgary tonight. Blackfalds will play Drumheller, Okotoks, and Calgary again before returning home to host the – you guessed it – Calgary Cnaucks on February 4.