Last weekend was a test for the San Francisco Bulls. The two games against the Utah Grizzlies measured their skill, their focus, and their roster. The Bulls won the first game in a shootout, with a final score of 6-5. They lost the second game in a 6-2 blow out after giving up a two-nothing lead. San Francisco could have clinched a playoff spot by winning both games, but instead is still two points away. There is no reason to say the Bulls failed the test, but they didn’t ace it either.
It was Utah’s second trip to San Francisco this season, but for some it was more than another visit. Six players were playing against their old team, in their old barn, for the first time: Cody Carlson, Jordan Clendenning, Martin Lee, Jonathan Lessard, Sebastian Trudeau, and Alex Tuckerman. Another player who was traded to Utah by San Francisco never played with the Bulls. Taylor Carnevale was moved three days after arriving. In total, seven players currently on the Utah roster used to be on San Francisco’s. That is a big chunk of an ECHL team.
On the home team, four players had been with Utah earlier in the season: Bryan Cameron, Kory Falite, Mark Isherwood and Ian Schultz. The teams met on the road shortly after the trades were made, so it wasn’t the first time they’d seen each other in opposing uniforms. Bulls Captain Scott Langdon explained how he approaches such games:
It was fun playing against them, but at the same time we’ve got a job to do too.
You want to play them as hard as you can, but you don’t want to … hurt them or anything like that. But you definitely don’t want them to score on you, you want to score on them. Just have a good clean fun hockey game, that’s what I look forward to.
The mood after Saturday’s game was light as players from both teams convened outside the locker rooms. The get-together formed a backdrop as we asked our post-game questions of the players. Langdon was asked if hit any of his old teammates during the game. He had fun with his answer:
I hit Clendenning pretty good. I let up on him. Tuckerman, I almost killed. He’s gonna say he jumped out of the way and dangled me but at the end of the day we both know he almost died.
The first game was the best kind for a fan to watch. Spectators love the suspense of a high-scoring game where neither team leads by more than one at any time. Langdon explained what effect such games have on a player, in particular a defenseman:
It drives me insane, I lose my mind.
Langdon clearly hadn’t lost his mind, or he had found it again by the time we talked to him. Nonetheless, he was more serious when he explained how frustrating a game like that can be:
We score, go out there, get scored on, they kill a two minute power play off, and then there’s miscommunication at our own end, we get scored on… and then at the end of the game, guys are tired and get scored on. But you gotta look at the positives, we came back and won the game, we’re building something.
Head Coach Pat Curcio had a similar reaction to the shootout win:
Last shot wins, huh? It was one of those games… Players were a little nervous, there’s a little bit of tension, you could feel it. I thought they were resilient. They worked hard, they got good chances. Just happy we got the points.
Curcio was suitably disappointed with Sunday’s loss. Half way through the second period, the team had a 2-0 lead. What happened, how did they end up losing 6-2? Curcio described it as complacency:
Our mistakes. Three turnovers in the second period, we got complacent, we thought it was going to be easy, we fell asleep. I was very disappointed in the effort after that. I thought the players went into a selfish mode, they all tried to do it themselves and that’s the result.
The question hanging over the weekend was of course whether the trade with Utah was the right move. Clendenning was a particular favorite among Bulls fans, and whether the team won the trade sometimes pales in comparison to that. The Coach/GM expressed frustration with this situation, in very colorful language. To summarize: he is tired of hearing about Clendenning.
I don’t need to talk about Jordan Clendenning anymore… I did what was best for our hockey club at the time and I still think it was the right move.
In a lighter mood the night before, Curcio had made the point that Clendenning wasn’t the only player he moved in that trade, or the only good one:
He plays so hard, I’ll always have a soft spot for Jordan, but I thought Lessard and Trudeau were good as well, and Tuckerman’s such a work horse.
For his part, Clendenning is happy with his situation in Utah, and still keeps in touch with friends in San Francisco:
I talk to Dean-O every day pretty much. Definitely no hard feelings… [Utah]‘s a class organization, they’re taking [great] care of me… I’m really enjoying it so far.
One of the players who came to San Francisco in that trade is defenseman Mark Isherwood. He is still finding his way with the team, but he shows good instincts for offense and is aggressive in his own zone:
I think he’s a skilled guy, he’s got a lot of upside… we’re going to work with him here. He won a Kelly Cup with Alaska and that’s invaluable experience. We’re excited, with guys like that, they know what it takes to win in any situation.
Kory Falite was another piece acquired in that trade. He looks like he has a secure spot in the lineup. He already has six points in seven games with the Bulls, and a plus four rating. He also has Kelly Cup experience, since he was on that same team with Isherwood.
The value of those two players becomes more significant since Ian Schultz recently missed two games with a lower body injury, and left Sunday’s game with the same. Of the injury, Curcio said only “it doesn’t look good, we’ll know more tomorrow.” Schultz is scheduled for an MRI and is listed as day-to-day.
The reality is that the team has been playing very well since the trade deadline passed. There is no reason to think that the moves will not benefit the team as it makes the run up to playoffs. If Schultz is out indefinitely, he wasn’t the only player to come from Utah, or the only player acquired near the deadline. The team has depth, and more experience than it had before the moves.
As for the playoffs, the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences jumps out at observers because there are only nine teams in the West and there are fourteen in the East. That doesn’t make it easier for a team in the West, Curcio explained:
To get in the post-season [is] hard. Everybody talks about our [conference] with nine teams, eight get in. What they don’t realize is that in the East you’ve got  teams, but you’re playing two-, three- games series, and that’s it for the whole year. We have to play Alaska nine times, we play Ontario ten times, these are top teams that you’re playing against all the time, it makes it that much more difficult. So, it’ll be a huge accomplishment if we get into the post-season.
If competitive spirit is an indication of the team’s chances to reach the post-season and find success there, the late game scrum on Sunday could be an indication. The Bulls had been blown out before. As a franchise, they have lost more games than they have won. They have rarely engaged in such a free-for all melee in response. At 15:41 of the third period, a total of 68 minutes in penalties were assigned, 46 to San Francisco, including a game misconduct.
By the time the teams were back to even strength, there were only four players left on the Bulls’ bench. One Bulls player smashed his stick on the tunnel post after being excused from the game. The Bulls had a bad game, but they were hardly complacent at the end.
Their Captain has every intention of doing whatever is needed to make this work. Asked about his fight in Saturday’s game, Langdon explained:
Yeah, I dunno, we just have this rhythm of getting scored on early in every game. My hand’s taking a beating but you know at this point, we just want to make the playoffs. If I’ve got to fight every game to get the two points, that’s the way she is so…
Defenseman Dylan King did his part on Sunday, taking the only fighting major for the Bulls. That came at the end of the first period, while the Bulls still had the lead. Would another fight later in the game have helped? It doesn’t matter. From the looks of Langdon’s right hand, the team needs to find a better way to get motivated.
Bulls alumni notes:
From March 16:
@210Darryl: According to Capgeek the #SJSharks have signed #WorSharks forward Daniil Tarasov to a 2 year entry level contract that starts next season.
Kris Belan is still with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. The NHL’s Kings called up right winger Tyler Toffoli last week, which should keep Belan in the AHL for a while longer. Manchester doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to send him back to San Francisco. It is an inconvenience for the Bulls, but bodes very well for Belan.