HAMILTON, Ont. -- The only role that the Hamilton Bulldogs have left to play is that of the spoiler, and on Saturday, they nearly made victims of the Rochester Americans.
Phil Varone scored the shootout winner as the Americans overcame a third-period collapse for a crucial 4-3 win against the Bulldogs in American Hockey League action.
Hamilton head coach Sylvain Lefebvre said he was pleased with his team's performance, even if it came in a losing effort.
"Kudos to the guys, because although we came up short, it was great to see them show some grit and fight back against a team that needed those points," he said.
Colton Gillies, Kevin Porter and Brady Irwin scored in regulation for the Americans (35-27-10), who extended their lead on the ninth-place Charlotte Checkers to three points in the Western Conference playoff race.
Andrey Makarov made 35 saves for Rochester.
Connor Crisp, Joonas Nattinen and Gabriel Dumont had goals for the Bulldogs (32-35-7) and Robert Mayer stopped 38 shots.
Varone skated in slowly and out-waited Mayer before sliding the puck in at the far post. All three Rochester skaters scored in the shootout, while all three Hamilton attempts were denied by Makarov.
The first quality chance in regulation time was by the Bulldogs five minutes into the first period, as the combination of Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto had several opportunities to shovel the puck past Makarov at point-blank range.
But the Rochester goaltender successfully fought through a crowd to kick their weak shots aside.
A burst of speed from Andrighetto paved the way as Hamilton opened the scoring at 15:01 of the first period.
He raced past the defender along the right wing and managed to get a low shot off that Makarov could only kick into the path of the supporting Crisp, who easily slotted the puck into the gaping net.
Just over two minutes later, the Americans tied it when Tim Schaller gloved down a clearing attempt by Nathan Beaulieu and found Gillies unmarked in the low slot. The forward had plenty of time and space in which to operate, and chipped a high shot over Mayer's far shoulder at 17:07.
Rochester capitalized on a strange bounce to take the lead just 11 seconds into the second period.
A routine dump-in play by Matt McKenzie turned into something more when the puck ricocheted off a stanchion behind Mayer's net and slid to Porter in front. He scored easily with Mayer scrambling to recover his position.
Rochester doubled its lead at 7:08 of the period when Schaller received a centring pass and fired a low slap shot that Mayer knocked to his left, where Irwin was waiting to slot the puck in from close range.
Despite trailing by two goals, the Bulldogs crucially killed two penalties, a 5-on-3 midway through the second and a double-minor to end the period, to keep the possibility of a comeback alive.
"Penalty kills are always huge, when you can escape, especially the four-minute call," said Crisp. "We got some help there with the penalty against Rochester, but since I've been with this team, our penalty killing has been really good."
The Bulldogs closed to within a goal early in the third period, when Nattinen and Jack Nevins combined to overpower the Americans in the low slot.
After Nevins outmuscled two Rochester defenders to get a backhanded shot on net, Nattinen gathered the loose puck and out-waited Makarov before lifting a high shot over his near shoulder at 5:07.
Nattinen spoke highly of his young linemate, who he believes to have all the tools to succeed in the AHL.
"(Nevins) seems like a really good player," he said. "You can see though, that he's used to playing bigger minutes. He's good with the puck and makes good decisions.
"He can definitely play in this league."
Dumont completed the Bulldogs' comeback at 10:56, springing a 2-on-1 break alongside Louis Leblanc and deciding to keep the puck, before snapping a hard wrist shot high and past Makarov at the far post.
Hamilton piled the pressure on Rochester in the final minutes of the third, and it took the considerable effort of Makarov, and his left post, to send the game to extra time.
Hamilton was 0-for-2 on the power play while Rochester went 0-for-4.