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BELLEVILLE, ON - The atmosphere was electric at the Yardmen on Saturday night as the Belleville Bulls returned home after a tough 2-1 loss in Ottawa on Friday to play host to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in their home opener. With game sponsor Quinte Broadcasting providing free cowbells to the first 1200 fans into the building, the mood in the building was energetic right from the opening puck drop.
With just fourteen skaters in the lineup, the Bulls embarked on their first home action of the season against a Greyhounds team that is bigger and stronger than their squad a year ago. European newcomers Michael Schumacher and David Elsner would present a challenge to the injury stricken Bulls who saw Stephen Silas become the latest casualty on the injury front, suffering a hip pointer on Friday night.
The Bulls had plenty of jump in their stride right out of the gate, as the usual pre-game ceremonies on opening night didn't seem to hamper their early performance. Austen Brassard presented positive evidence at 2:32 of the first period when he notched his second goal of the season with help from Garrett Hooey and Jason Shaw. Hooey's low shot from down the left wing inspired a rebound off the left pad of Hounds goaltender Matt Murray, as Brassard was in the right place for the tap in.
With Carson Dubchak in the box for the Hounds after a dangerous hit on Carter Sandlak, Michael Curtis brought the 2684 at the Yard barn to their feet with a powerplay marker at 5:36. Curtis managed to slip free of the grip of defender Ryan Sproul out in front of the Soo goal, quickly redirecting a Brendan Gaunce feed through the legs of Murray.
For fight enthusiasts, the highlight of the night came at 8:48 of the first period when Jason Shaw took exception to some excessive force around the crease. After Malcolm Subban was roughed up on Friday night in Ottawa, Shaw sent a clear message that further damage wouldn't be tolerated as he dropped the mitts with Ryan Sproul and landed some strong left and right hands in the bout.
Much like they did in their visit to the Yardmen last season though, the Greyhounds decided to make things interesting and tie the score with a pair of quick goals from European newcomers Elsner and Schumacher.
Nashville Predators draftee Elsner was the first to light the lamp on Malcolm Subban, who was relatively untested through the first frame. With a quick release from the top of the right circle, Elsner handcuffed Subban and beat him over the shoulder for his first career OHL goal at 12:25.
Just over two minutes later, the big 6 foot 5 Los Angeles Kings prospect Michael Schumacher got on the board after linemate Brett Findlay swatted down an airbourne puck to gain the zone. Dishing to his left, Schumacher was in alone and made no mistake, beating Subban on a great shot inside the right post.
The Bulls were relentless though, as they climbed back in front with just 22 seconds left in the first period. Carter Sandlak, who was sporting his usual crash and bang approach to the game got a chippy goal as he hung around the Soo goalmouth. Sandlak backhanded home a rebound off Jordan Subban's low point shot to give Belleville a 3-2 lead headed into the first intermission.
The Bulls outshot the Hounds 13-3 through twenty minutes, and outdid them in scoring chances by a tally of 7-2.
With a short Belleville bench, the Greyhounds elevated their play as the game progressed. The second period was a little more of a test for Subban in the Belleville goal as he was forced to come up with some big saves, including a denial of Nick Cousins on a one-timer from the left circle midway through the period.
Sault Ste. Marie pulled even at 13:30, as Schumacher used his big frame to create space for himself and score on a bank shot off the stick of Adam Bignell. The Bulls however, would be the ones to solidify victory with some pinball tactics just under four minutes later.
At 17:17, newly appointed assistant captain Brendan Gaunce used Belleville native Nick Cousins to his advantage, sending a puck through the slot that hopped off the right skate of the speedy centreman and into the back of the net. Gaunce's eventual game winner would be his first of the new season, but not before a grueling finish in the third period as the Hounds poured on the pressure.
With a tired bunch of Bulls, the final twenty miles of a long game would demand discipline to the system in place. On this night, the Bulls kept things simple late, getting pucks deep and playing responsibly behind their own blueline. "I thought we really came together late tonight," said sophomore Brendan Gaunce following the game. "Everyone was tired and they (Sault Ste. Marie) knew it. Subby (Malcolm Subban) really came through for us and we shut down a lot of big opportunities."
Perhaps the pinnacle of the game came with just three seconds left on the clock as Sault Ste. Marie had an extra attacker on the ice with the puck deep in Belleville's zone. Ryan Sproul snuck in off the point and had plenty of open ice, snapping a high shot that was swatted down by the catching glove of Subban who ensured victory for the Bulls with the big save.
The Greyhounds outshot Belleville 14-6 in the third period, but were unable to find the hole in the armor of Subban who slammed the door shut for his first win of the season.
"It was a great atmosphere to play in tonight," added Gaunce. "The fans were great and it's an awesome feeling to pull out a big win like that in front of them."
The Bulls have started the 2011 season with a record of 1-1-0-0. They see action in three consecutive nights next week with a trip to Peterborough on Thursday, a visit to Oshawa on Friday and a home date with the Niagara IceDogs on Saturday.
Saturday's game begins at 7:05pm and tickets are still available. For information, contact the Bulls Box Office at 613-966-8338.
(Photo Courtesy Aaron Bell/CHL Images)