HAMILTON - The Hamilton Bulldogs are entering the next round of the American Hockey League playoffs still missing some key players who are currently enjoying the Montreal Canadiens post-season run.
But the Bulldogs are doing just fine without them.
As the puck drops in the Western Conference final Friday night at Copps Coliseum, several players who were instrumental in their regular season success will not be in the lineup.
Standout defenceman P.K. Subban and forwards Tom Pyatt and Ben Maxwell are all currently with the big club in Montreal, which beat out the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night.
"Right now we're a different team," Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher said as the team prepared to face the Texas Stars in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series.
They may be a different team on the ice, their winning ways have continued into the playoffs. The Bulldogs dumped the Manitoba Moose and the Abbotsford Heat in their quest to play for the Calder Cup for a fourth time.
Boucher says his team can't be concerned about how the Canadiens' success will affect them.
"The main focus is not to wait for the Canadiens," Boucher said. "We want to make sure we stay ourselves."
While Subban would provide a significant boost, the Bulldogs defence continues to produce despite only five healthy players. Blue-liner Andre Benoit is second in Bulldogs scoring with 11 points. They could get a lift this week if Mathieu Carle returns to the lineup. Carle, who hasn't played since January after undergoing shoulder surgery, was practising with the team Thursday.
"We haven't had Carle since Christmas," said Boucher. "And at Christmas he was our best defenceman."
The Bulldogs should have the advantage in net as Cedrick Desjardins and Curtis Sanford have been one of the best combos in the post-season.
Boucher wouldn't say who would start Friday but did note that Desjardins started both previous series.
"We're still discussing it," he said.
The Stars lost No. 1 goalie Brent Krahn to an injury in the first period of Game 6 against the Chicago Wolves in the last round, but Matt Climie has done well in his spot.
"We'll get Krahn back at some point, but not for the first two games," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "We're confident in either guy."
The Stars have been boosted by the return of forward Jamie Benn. The rookie spent all 82 games up with the NHL's Dallas Stars, recording 22 goals and 41 points. In his first 11 games in the AHL—all in the post-season—he leads the team with 15 points, including the Game 7 overtime winner that pushed the Stars into this next round.
"I want the puck on my stick, I want to be the go-to guy," Benn said.
Added: Gulutzan: "He's been huge. There's no hiding the fact that he's an impact player at the NHL level."
Benn is the most obvious offensive threat on the Texas squad, alongside a tough, mobile defence, with Andrew Hutchinson and Maxime Fortunus playing key roles. Hutchinson is third in playoff scoring for the Stars with nine points, and Fortunus is tied for a team-leading plus-10 rating.
On the Bulldogs side, the balanced attack of Mike Glumac, David Desharnais and Brock Trotter will relieve some pressure on the defence.