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Looking back at the last Canadiens AHL farm team to make the playoffs

The last time an AHL affiliate saw playoff action was the 2011 Hamilton Bulldogs.

Manitoba Moose v Hamilton Bulldogs Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images

The St. John’s IceCaps qualified for the American Hockey League playoffs last week in a photo finish. They defeated the Toronto Marlies in the final game of the season and captured the final playoff spot in the North Division.

It’s been six seasons since the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL farm team made the playoffs, more specifically the 2010-11 Hamilton Bulldogs. As the current team gets set for their first-round playoff series, let’s take a look at what the lineup was for the Bulldogs during the 2011 playoffs, and what impact these players had on the Montreal Canadiens in the long-term.

The coaching staff

For starters, the men behind the bench of the Bulldogs that season included head coach Randy Cunneyworth and assistant Randy Ladouceur. It was their first season in Hamilton, replacing Guy Boucher who accepted an NHL head-coaching position in Tampa Bay during the off-season.

Hamilton finished first in the division under Cunneyworth, with an impressive 44-27-2-7 record, good enough for 97 points. “The Randys” were generally seen as an excellent addition to the Canadiens organization, bringing their knowledge to the younger players in the organization, leading the team to their third straight playoff berth that season.

The forwards

Several players graduated to the NHL under Cunneyworth during the 2010-11 AHL season, notably Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Yannick Weber. By the time the AHL playoffs came around these players were full-time Canadiens and not available to the Bulldogs, who made due with a slew of players who were considered good prospects at the time by the Canadiens.

The top scorer for the Bulldogs in the playoffs was Nigel Dawes. He came over from the Atlanta Thrashers earlier in the season along with Brent Sopel. Dawes was the primary force for the Bulldogs, scoring 14 goals and 22 points in 20 games.

Dawes was joined on the top line in Hamilton by Dustin Boyd (5 goals, 11 assists) and Aaron Palushaj (7 goals, 12 assists). Despite strong AHL results, all three of these players saw limited time with the Canadiens that season, with Dawes playing four games, Boyd playing 10, and Palushaj playing three.

Dawes would leave the organization to play in the KHL the following season, where he has been in the top 10 for league scoring since the 2013-14 season. Boyd followed Dawes to the KHL, while Palushaj remained in the Canadiens organization, splitting his time with Hamilton and Montreal. He was eventually claimed off waivers by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013. He too made his way to the KHL eventually.

The second line was composed of European free-agent acquisition Andreas Engqvist (4 goals, 5 assists), J.T. Wyman (3 goals, 5 assists), and Ryan Russell (7 goals, 2 assists). Although all three players eventually made their way to the NHL in a limited capacity, only Engqvist made it as part of the Montreal Canadiens, playing 12 games during the 2011-12 season. More often than not he was a healthy scratch, not being able to seize the opportunity he was given to be the fourth-line centre. He eventually lost the spot for good when the Canadiens traded for Petteri Nokelainen. Engqvist played a total of 15 games with the Canadiens before heading over to the KHL.

Minnesota Wild v Montreal Canadiens
Andreas Engqvist
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The shutdown line was initially composed of Olivier Fortier, Andrew Conboy (1 goal, 3 assists), and rookie Gabriel Dumont (6 goals, 3 assists), but Fortier went down to injury in the first game of the playoffs after scoring a goal, and he would miss the rest of the playoffs.

Replacing him was Ryan White (2 goals, 6 assists). Incredibly, it is White who went on to have the most success with the Canadiens out of the entire 2011 Bulldogs playoff roster, playing 141 regular-season games with Montreal over five seasons.

Montreal Canadiens v Colorado Avalanche
Ryan White had a good run with the Canadiens

There wasn’t really any offence to Conboy’s game, as he was a player of the old-school enforcer mould that found his in-roads to the NHL closed as a result. Dumont, although part of the Canadiens organization for six years, only played 18 games with the NHL team. He spent the majority of his time in the AHL, where he captained the team for the final two years of his tenure in the organization.

The St. John’s IceCaps will be facing Dumont in their first-round series against the Syracuse Crunch, as he’s been returned to the team after his Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated from post-season contention.

The fourth line was all muscle with Jimmy Bonneau (1 goal, 2 assists) and Ian Schultz (2 goals) centered by the out-of-place Dany Masse (2 assists). Schultz was once recalled by the Canadiens during the 2011-12 season.

He was returned to Hamilton after only a single team practice however, shortly after the above locker room interview in fact. That was the only NHL time this line saw.

Forward depth was provided by perennial underachiever Alexander Avtsin (2 assists) and ATO-signee Paul Zanette (2 goals).

The defencemen

The top defensive pairing for the Bulldogs was Frederic St. Denis and Mathieu Carle. St. Denis was a free-agent signee out of the Université de Quebec a Trois Rivieres (UQTR), while Carle was a second-round draft pick in 2006 from the QMJHL. Both defenceman had great offensive success during the 2011 playoffs, trailing only the three players on the top line in terms of points. Carle had 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists), while St. Denis had 10 points (1 goal, 9 assists).

Carle played three games with the Canadiens the season prior, but was unable to make a place for himself, eventually being traded for Mark Mitera. St. Denis ended up playing 17 games for the Canadiens the following season, but even a decent showing at both the NHL and AHL level was not enough to convince management to keep him in the organization and he signed as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013. Coincidentally both players ended up playing in the Deutsche Elite League (Germany). St. Denis has presently taken an assistant coaching position with UQTR.

The defence corps was rounded out by Kyle Klubertanz, Brendon Nash, team captain Alex Henry, Joe Stejskal and Neil Petruic. If these names do not sound familiar it’s because none of these players really made any sort of impact on the Canadiens. Henry played two games in 2008-09 while Nash played two in 2010-11. That’s it. Save for St. Denis, the entire defence corps faded into obscurity soon after this playoff run.

Minnesota Wild v Montreal Canadiens
Alex Henry
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The goaltenders

The starting goaltender for the Bulldogs was Drew MacIntyre who played all 20 games for the Bulldogs in the playoffs. He posted solid numbers the whole way, with a 1.95 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

MacIntyre was already a six-year AHL veteran by the time he was traded to the Canadiens for Brett Festerling in February 2011. Up until that point, the Bulldogs were running behind starter Curtis Sanford, but in February he tore his shoulder and needed season-ending surgery, which necessitated the trade.

Neither Sanford on MacIntyre had any future with the Canadiens after the 2010-11 season. The backup role went to Robert Mayer, a rookie AHL goaltender who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Canadiens after coming as a tryout to training camp. Mayer never got any starts during these playoffs, but he did stay in the Canadiens organization for a total of five years, even getting an NHL call-up at the very end of the 2011-12 season to backup Peter Budaj when Carey Price finished the season injured.

Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens
Robert Mayer in pre-season action with the Canadiens
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The playoff run

Despite a roster of borderline NHLers, the Bulldogs went deep in the 2011 playoffs. They eliminated Jeff Petry, Martin Gerber, and the Oklahoma City Barons in the first round in six games. Then they went seven games against Eddie Lack and the Manitoba Moose in the second round. The final game went into triple overtime, with the winning goal being scored by Dustin Boyd only six second in.

In the semifinal they went up against Matt Hackett, Patrick O’Sullivan, Justin Falk, and the Houston Aeros, and that series also went to game seven, but it was the Aeros who scored a heart-breaking goal with just over a minute left in the third period to take the game, and series, 4-3.

Cunneyworth and Ladouceur were promoted by General Manager Pierre Gauthier to the Canadiens’ coaching staff for the ill-fated 2011-12 season, to serve as assistant coaches for Jacques Martin.

The team began to list heavily under Martin, and by December he was fired, replaced by the ill-prepared Cunneyworth, who was forced into the head-coaching position by Gauthier. Cunneyworth, under the tremendous pressure of being an anglophone in a francophone market, was targeted repeatedly by the media for being unable to get the team back on the winning track.

To his credit, Cunneyworth always presented himself professionally, despite the visible heavy toll the role was putting on him. Gauthier was fired before the season ended, and Cunneyworth coached out the rest of the season not knowing what the future would bring to him.

When Marc Bergevin was hired as the new general manager, he demoted Cunneyworth and Ladouceur back to assistant coach positions, and when Michel Therrien was hired as the new head coach, it was determined that there wasn’t a fit, and Cunneyworth and Ladouceur were let go.

The third-round exit on May 24th, 2011 stands as the most recent playoff game for the Canadiens’ farm team. With the St. John’s IceCaps stepping onto the ice on Friday, exactly 2,160 days will have passed between post-season appearances.

Listen to Andrew weekly on TSN 690 Radio Sundays at 8:05am on Habs Breakfast, part of Weekend Game Plan.