Thunder roar past Bulls at Shark Tank

HP PAVILION — A welcoming crowd jolted to life as hockey returned to the Shark Tank Monday night when the San Francisco Bulls hosted the Stockton Thunder.

Not only did HP Pavilion see hockey for the first time since April, it was also only the second time in ECHL history that one of its games was played in an NHL arena.

Head Coach Pat Curcio couldn’t have said it better:

“We started this with a dream and a name, and the next thing you know we’re playing at HP. … Our goal is just to be part of the Sharks family. Never would imagine that we’d be playing a game at HP. … It’s been unbelievable, it’s so welcoming.”

Assistant coach and veteran San Jose Shark Ryan Clowe said after the game:

“The best part for me was watching those guys and how excited they were…”

The Bulls received massive cheers and applause at the end of the match, despite falling to the fourth-place Thunder 6-4. It was the first time Stockton has beaten San Francisco this season.

Left wing Kris Belan said of the team’s performance:

“We still tried to fight our way back, it was good push in the third. … It seemed pretty easy to get in this game, with that many people and the big stage…”

The ambiance and historic nature of the game must have been what led to five shots on goal in 54 seconds, all from the Bulls. It probably also led to the first of four fights in the game, just 3:14 from the time the puck dropped.

San Francisco would finally capitalize on their attempts with a bee-line shot by defenseman Mikael Tam. (Yes, back from Worchester. Hopped right off the plane and onto the bus at 3 p.m. to meet the team in San Jose.)

The Bulls’ lead would be brief. Following another flurry of fists, Stockton’s Tony Rajala would blow a shot past goalie Thomas Heemskerk to tie the game 1-1.

Rajala would strike again on a power play at 15:25, ending the opening period 2-1 in favor of the Thunder, with the Bulls being outshot 11-10.

The Bulls opened fast in the second period as Belan would get his fifth goal of the season to tie the game 2-2 less than two minutes in. The tie was over a few minutes later, as Stockton’s Mike Little would “flip-cup” the puck past Heemskerk to give the Thunder the 3-2 advantage.

With 4:48 left, Garet Hunt’s goal increased the Stockton advantage to 4-2. Rajala would then achieve his hat trick to increase the deficit to 5-2 going into the final period.

San Francisco would get to work in the third with a power play goal by Sacha Guimond assisted by Rob Kwiet and Andrew Crescenzi.

Then, with 7:14 left in the game, Crescenzi would feed the puck to Alex Tuckerman, who would tumble over himself to shoot the puck past Stockton goalie Cody Reichard to bring the score to 5-4. Dylan King would also pick up an assist.

Following a penalty kill and several dynamic saves by Bulls goalie Taylor Nelson, Cameron Abney would shoot the puck between Nelson’s legs, bringing the score to 6-4 in favor of the Thunder.

The game in a nutshell? Curcio summed it up quite nicely:

“It’s going to take a little time to sink in. But other than losing the game, I think the experience was incredible.”

Note to Bulls fans: I’m going to be disappointed if noise at the next home game doesn’t at least attempt to rival that of the crowd of 12,881 that packed into HP Pavilion Monday night.

The San Francisco Bulls return home to the Cow Palace Friday to face the division-leading Ontario Reign. The puck drops at 7:15 p.m.