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OTTAWA, ON - It's been a long time since the Belleville Bulls put a scare into the Ottawa 67's in their barn. A fairly well publicized slump dating back to January 30th, 2009 has the Bulls winless in their last 13 trips to the J. Benson Cartage Centre. That drought nearly came to an end on Thursday night, as the Belleville Bulls fought and clawed their way to an impressive opening period, challenging Ottawa 67's goaltender Petr Mrazek with 19 shots. The Bulls were determined, fearless and explosive in their early attack, but Ottawa managed to weather the storm, pushing the game beyond regulation before their go-to guy landed the finishing blow.
The Bulls certainly deserved a better fate in a crushing 3-2 loss that saw Tyler Toffoli light the lamp at 2:02 of overtime. A physical, intense game of playoff hockey in front of a sparsely populated Thursday night crowd in Ottawa saw the Bulls come close, but come away empty handed to fall behind in their best-of-seven series 1-0.
The Bulls set out to test Mrazek early on. The Czech goaltender was part of the 67's 2011 team that lost in four straight games to the seventh placed Sudbury Wolves. Looking to repeat that very same scenario, the Bulls wanted to make Mrazek work early and he did, making a big save off Joseph Cramarossa on his blast from down the right wing before flashing the glove on Adam Payerl when he found space alone in the slot.
Mrazek held down the fort long enough for his 67's teammates to get their feet under them, and as they have all season, they looked to Tyler Toffoli to lead the charge. With the man advantage, the 67's managed to hold the blueline as Belleville pressured up high in the defensive zone. Winning the battle, Ottawa outmanned the Bulls as Adam Bignell was left to fend for himself in the slot with Toffoli bearing down on him. The crafty Toffoli fanned on his initial attempt, but recovered quickly enough to catch Malcolm Subban going down to his butterfly as he lifted a backhand shot over his blocker at 16:44.
Despite the deficit, the Bulls weren't going to crawl inside their shell as they have in past visits to the nation's capital. Belleville continued to work, and results soon came as a dominant shift to end the first period by Jordan Mayer, Michael Curtis and Luke Judson created the perfect opportunity. After the three hard working veterans jammed away down low with no success, the puck came out to the point to Jason Shaw who's well placed slapshot drew a deflection from Judson in the goalmouth as the Bulls tied the score with just 47 seconds left in the period.
Entering the intermission tied at one, the Bulls controlled the scoring chances 7-4 in the opening frame and outshot their opponent 19-8. "We definately got out to the start we were looking for," said fifth year veteran Jordan Mayer. "I've played in a lot of playoff games and that's as good of a first period as you're going to see on the road."
Ottawa came out of the gate a little more physical in the second, while the Bulls seemed to take their foot off the gas slightly.
Where Mrazek left off, Malcolm Subban took over. The top prospect for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft started the second period off right with a breakaway save off of Toffoli as he denied the Los Angeles Kings hopeful on his attempt through the five hole.
Approaching the midway point of the second, Subban came up with a strong save as Michal Cajkovsky cut through the middle and unleashed a heavy shot that almost snuck through the armor.
With the pressure mounting, the Ottawa attack reclaimed the lead as the line of Mike Cazzola, Shane Prince and Steven Janes got on the board with the big bodied Janes creating space for himself in the slot to hammer in a rebound at 9:11.
The Bulls answered just over five minutes later after a pair of big saves by Subban. Adam Payerl broke down the ice on a two-on-one with Brendan Gaunce, opting to shoot and use 67's defenceman Jake Cardwell as a screen to beat Mrazek through the legs and tie the score at two at 16:08 of the second.
The Bulls fed off the big goal. Closing out the second period, Brendan Gaunce was stopped on a hard wrist shot from the left circle as the puck clipped Mrazek's shoulder and rolled just wide of the empty Ottawa goal.
The 67's would then get their chance to take a 3-2 lead into the intermission when rough n' tumble forward Taylor Fielding was taken down on a breakaway, as referee Scott Oakman pointed to centre to signal the penalty shot. As he has all season, Malcolm Subban remained virtually unbeatable in one-on-one situations this season, turning aside Fielding's attempt to carry the game into the third period in a 2-2 tie.
A tight third frame of responsibly played hockey saw the teams combine for just eleven shots on goal as the 67's took the shot clock 7-4.
As indicated by the low amount of shots, there wasn't much going on in the way of scoring chances. Ottawa came close with just over three minutes remaining when it appeared that Sean Monahan might have handcuffed Subban with a quick release, but the Rexdale native was able to get a piece of the swift moving shot.
Despite a relatively calm environment in front of a crowd of 4,284, the energy level on the ice would've made you think it was a packed house as the two teams lined up for overtime.
The breaking point came very early in the extra frame. Michal Cajkovsky managed to swat a rolling puck up the boards in his own zone as it skipped over the stick of Jake Worrad at the Ottawa blueline and bounced into the neutral zone. Unable to catch the speedy Tyler Toffoli who was going full steam ahead, the OHL's leading goalscorer was off to the races and never looked back, beating Subban with a deke on the forehand to end the night and put Ottawa up 1-0 in the series.
"We just wound up with the wrong guy in behind our defence at a bad point in the game. It was a rolling puck that wound up working out for them," said Bulls Head Coach George Burnett.
It was a tough demise for the Bulls, whose 62 minutes of hard work and determination were erased by a bouncing puck. Despite the game one loss, Jordan Mayer said it wasn't a waste. "I think we sent a pretty clear message tonight," said the Kingston native after the game. "We showed the fans and the opposition that we're going to be here working every night even if we happen to get down a goal. In the playoffs you need to have a short memory, and we plan to forget about this when we go to sleep tonight."
Mayer's line alongside Luke Judson and Michael Curtis was arguable Belleville's best on the evening, prompting Ottawa coach Chris Byrne to change his matchups with the line midway through the game. "I think the three of us compliment each other well," said Mayer. "We've begun to understand where each other will be and I think our experience in the league gives us an edge on the opposition."
Malcolm Subban received the second star of the game after his 40 saves kept Belleville alive in the game, enabling them to reach overtime.
The Bulls walk away from a 3-2 overtime loss on Thursday and get ready to go back to work on Friday when the puck drops at 7:30pm. With their two goals, they've already surpassed the one they scored in last season's first round loss to the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors.
Tune into AM 800 CJBQ on Friday night at 7:20pm for pre-game coverage with Bulls voice Jack Miller. The Bulls Box Office will be open on Saturday from 10:00am-5:00pm selling tickets for Sunday's game three and Tuesday night's game four as we try and pack the Yard.