No NHL hockey? No problem. Well that's not true since it's a pretty big problem. But at least the San Francisco Bulls provided a welcome distraction for one night with their inaugural regular season contest at the Cow Palace.
As we're all acutely aware, the Sharks were supposed to begin their regular season last night in Anaheim. That didn't happen. What did transpire, as far as professional hockey in the Bay Area goes, was the first game of the San Francisco Bulls' existence. I'm willing to admit that I'm so starved for hockey I would have probably watched a third-tier beer league squad (or, worse, a Minnesota Wild game) if it was on my television but the Bulls' ECHL debut was legitimately entertaining. There were fights, end-to-end action and a near comeback by the home team as the Bakersfield Condors escaped with a 4-3 victory.
Oh but there were plenty of reminders that this was minor league hockey too, which really isn't even a criticism. The mythology of minor league hockey in North America, as immortalized by Slapshot, is half the fun of watching these games. The most notable reminder came during the third period when there was a nearly ten-minute stoppage to fix the official game clock after it skipped ahead, perhaps spurred on by the diabolical coulombs Dean Lombardi referred to earlier this year. Also, I was watching on TV since I couldn't make it down to the Cow Palace which meant I was treated to a scoreboard overlay straight out of an Atari video game. There was also a guy in attendance wearing an Atlanta Thrashers sweater which I still have no idea what to make of.
The game got off to a quick start as the Bulls' Kris Belan dropped the gloves with Erik Burgdoerfer a little over four minutes in during a San Francisco power play. That set off a penalty-filled first period that also involved Condors goaltender Brian Stewart doing his best Dwayne Roloson impression with a terrific dive that sent Bulls forward Peter Sivak to the box. Bakersfield got on the board first as a series of failed zone exits by San Francisco resulted in a quick shot by Levi Nelson that Bulls goalie Thomas Heemskerk couldn't see or stop. The first goal in Bulls franchise history tied things up six minutes later as Dean Ouellet beat Stewart five-hole on a feed from Jordan Clendenning, who was easily San Francisco's best player all night. Bakersfield regained the lead late in the first as Zach Cohen spun out from behind the net, eluding a Bulls defenseman and beating Heemskerk short side.
San Francisco looked to have tied the game less than thirty seconds into the second period as the Clendenning line launched another successful transition attack that ended with center Justin Bowers tapping a rebound past Stewart. Unfortunately, Bowers was ruled to have played the puck with a high stick and the goal was waved off. The Bulls would be given another chance to tie the game on a power play minutes later but Condors forward Robby Dee was brought down on a shorthanded breakaway by Trevor Hendrikx and was awarded a penalty shot that he promptly converted. San Francisco had plenty of chances throughout the second period, including a Peter Sivak opportunity from the slot and a Dean Ouellet chance set up deftly by Clendenning but they couldn't beat Stewart. Their problems were compounded when Anaheim Ducks draft pick Brett Perlini, part of a line with Cohen and Nelson that terrorized the Bulls throughout the contest, scored on a rebound after defenseman Sacha Guimond inadvertently screened Heemskerk while attempting to block a shot.
Despite entering the third period down 4-1, the Bulls mounted a comeback after killing off the second Condors 5-on-3 power play of the game early in the final frame. With a little over nine minutes remaining in regulation, his knuckles still sore from game-opening fisticuffs, Kris Belan gained the blueline and fed Kevin Baker with a pass that the San Francisco center fired top shelf over Brian Stewart. About a minute later, with a play that would trigger the aforementioned clock controversy, Justin Bowers won an offensive-zone faceoff back to the point for Guimond who redeemed himself with a slapshot goal to pull SF to within one. That's as close as the Bulls would come, thanks in part to a curious decision not to pull Heemskerk until late in the game despite ample opportunity to do so. The team as a whole has a chance for revenge tomorrow night as they host the Condors again and have plenty of issues to work out as Bakersfield dominated play for much of the first forty minutes (at least when Jordan Clendenning wasn't on the ice) but, for an ECHL debut, it was a thoroughly entertaining performance by the guys in orange. And, hey, it was preferable to drowning in whiskey and tears over the Sharks/Ducks game that wasn't.