HAMILTON - The Hamilton Bulldogs used a simple tactic to earn a victory on Tuesday: crowd the crease.
Nathan Beaulieu had two goals from the point, including the winner, as the Bulldogs edged the St. John's IceCaps 4-3 in the American Hockey League.
"We're the type of team that grinds and we're not going to score a lot of pretty goals," said Beaulieu. "Net presence is a pretty huge thing for our team and we practice it a lot.
"I think we perfected it tonight."
Stefan Chaput and Joe Stejskal also scored for the Bulldogs (21-26-6), while Robert Mayer made 39 saves.
"If shots are going (to the net), then bodies are going to gravitate there," said Hamilton forward Patrick Holland. "If shots are going, you know that you need to get there and get your body in the way."
Jason Gregoire, Aaron Gagnon and Raymond Sawada had goals for the IceCaps (23-30-3). Mark Dekanich stopped 25 of 29 shots in a losing effort.
The first scoring chance of the game fell to Hamilton's Chaput seven minutes into the first period.
Beaulieu advanced from the blue-line and released a slap shot that Dekanich kicked directly into Chaput's path in the low slot, but the forward could not get his stick to the puck as it slid past him.
The centre made amends for his earlier miss when he opened the scoring at 13:06, with a Hamilton power play coming to a close.
Chaput held the puck below the goal-line, and curled out in front of the net before chipping a wrist shot from an acute angle that found the top corner beyond Dekanich's far shoulder.
The Bulldogs began the second period strongly, holding the puck inside the IceCaps' zone and cycling well to create chances in the first two minutes. Dekanich was forced to scramble as three Bulldogs crashed his crease, attempting unsuccessfully to poke the puck past the netminder.
St. John's weathered that early pressure, and levelled the game at 2:58 of the second through an impressive individual effort from Gregoire.
The winger carried the puck down the left side and drove behind the net with Chaput giving chase. He outpaced his defender and quickly curled out in front, releasing a heavy wrist shot that beat Mayer above the shoulder on the short side.
Hamilton restored its lead at 10:13 of the second period, when Joey Tenute cycled the puck to Stejskal at the point with Patrick Holland stationed firmly in front of the St. John's net. The defenceman released a routine shot that skipped past the screened Dekanich.
A nearly identical goal put the Bulldogs up by two six minutes later.
Michael Bournival moved to the front of the net with Beaulieu holding the puck on the blue-line, and when the defenceman let loose a hard, low shot, Bournival's screen helped it past Dekanich at 16:07 of the second.
St. John's struck back almost immediately, scoring at the end of a goal-mouth scrum less than a minute after Bournival's goal.
Derek Meech's initial shot from the point was saved, but Mayer let a rebound out in front of him that Gagnon eventually managed to corral and slot into the gaping net at 17:03.
Hamilton found an insurance goal at 6:14 of the third, with Beaulieu and Bournival playing the same roles that they had a period before. The defenceman unleashed another low shot that was aided by Bournival's screen as it eluded Dekanich.
"Shots from the point got three goals for us tonight," said Hamilton head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. "When the defence gets their shot through and the guys are willing to pay the price in front of the net, it creates havoc."
Traffic in front of the net paid off once again, this time for the IceCaps, as St. John's pulled a goal back when Jaffray's shot from the blue line was deflected past Mayer by Sawada at 7:35 of the third.
Hamilton has rarely been faced with the task of protecting a lead this season, having to play from behind in the majority of their contests this season. With that in mind, the Bulldogs were pleased with their ability to see out a lead to the end.
"It's tough to play with the lead sometimes because you tend to sit back a little bit, and other teams come at you," explained Holland. "I thought that tonight we stayed on the gas pedal and it paid off. We didn't really give them much."
Lefebvre agreed with his teammate.
"Sometimes, to take the lead has been hard," said Lefebvre. "But our guys stayed with it and played well. Robert Mayer was really good in net and he made some big saves.
"It was a team effort."