Photo credit: Xander Holcomb, Blackfalds Bulldogs
The Blackfalds Bulldogs and Grande Prairie Storm had played two games this season, both in Blackfalds at the Eagle Builders Centre; the first, a game at the AJHL showcase that resulted in a 4-2 Bulldogs win, followed by a 2-1 overtime win by Blackfalds in December, thanks to a Brett Meerman game-winning goal. Blackfalds had won three of four games to start 2023, winning 4-3 in Whitecourt Friday night. Grande Prairie won back-to-back games against Drayton Valley to start the year but had lost two straight against Spruce Grove and Calgary coming into Saturday night’s game against the Bulldogs.
Blackfalds got off to a dream start, with Brett Meerman finding the puck in the crease behind Grande Prairie’s Adam Kelly and poking home the game’s first goal. The Storm, however, managed to find their equalizer quickly, with Wesley Golden firing home a seeing-eye shot from the right point that found its way through traffic and past Matthew Hennessey. The game remained tied until just past the media timeout when Blackfalds would regain their lead. With Kasey Hiemstra missing due to an injury, Blackfalds dressed 11 forwards and seven defencemen, meaning forward lines often didn’t stay together as consistent trios. Kurt Gurkan, Connor Dick, and Meerman found success as an impromptu group of three, and they combined to find the second goal, with Gurkan forcing a turnover deep in the Storm zone, leading to Meerman feeding Dick on the doorstep. Dick beat Kelly under the arm, giving Blackfalds a 2-1 lead, and they managed to extend their advantage before the break. The same trio struck again, this time with Gurkan being the beneficiary of a sweet Meerman pass to give Blackfalds a 3-1 lead.
After the first twenty minutes that saw Blackfalds open up a two-goal lead and a 12-7 margin in shots on goal, Grande Prairie started the second period strongly, managing to score the only goal of the second period to cut the deficit to one going into the third period. Alex Atwill took a pass from Nathan Rickey and whistled a bullet of a one-timer over Matthew Hennessey’s blocker on the man advantage to make it 3-2. The Storm started the third in a similar way that they started the second, taking the game to Blackfalds looking to find an equalizer. Thanks in part to Matthew Hennessey’s strong play, it was the Bulldogs who managed to find a powerplay goal of their own to extend their lead to 4-2. After former Bulldog Bailey Ewonus took a tripping penalty, Blackfalds’ top powerplay unit went to work, constructing a gorgeous passing play that sent the puck from Layne Loomer to Tyler Wallace at the side of the net, before Wallace fired a perfect cross-crease feed to Brett Meerman who arrived to slot home his second goal of the game. Hennessey continued to stand tall in between the pipes for Blackfalds, but eventually, Grande Prairie’s pressure would bear fruit, as captain Ty Toews deflected Atwill’s centring pass between Hennessey’s legs to make it a 4-3 game with under four minutes left in the third. The Storm’s comeback efforts came up short, however, as Meerman would complete his hat trick into the empty net, capping off a five-point performance for the Bulldogs captain against his former team to seal a Bulldogs victory.
Late in the third, a high hit from Decker Mujcin on Kurt Gurkan sparked Kody Willick to step to the plate. Mujcin and Willick got five each for fighting, concluding the 5-3 Bulldogs win with some fireworks. Blackfalds win their second straight and four of five to start the calendar year and will play one home game Tuesday before embarking on a four-game trip to close out the month of January.