Bulls battle familiar faces in playoff push

As the old worn-out saying goes: There’s a first time for everything.

And for San Francisco Bulls fans, Saturday will be the first time they will see forward Jordan Clendenning out on the Colosseo Ice, sporting a rival team’s jersey.

Phoning in from Bakersfield, where the Utah Grizzlies will face the Condors Friday night, Clendenning explained the anticipation of returning to the rink he called home ice for five-plus months:

“It will be weird, it’ll be different. But I’m very excited to get back to SF and play. Definitely looking forward to going back to the Cow Palace.”

The St. Patrick’s Day weekend series between San Francisco and Utah is quite possibly the most highly-anticipated series in the Bulls entire freshman season.

For starters, the Bulls sit just one seat behind the Grizzlies in the hunt for a playoff spot, with a mere 7 points between them.

This weekend’s series is also the first since the ECHL trade deadline that will bring former Bulls back to the Cow Palace.

While the Utah squad as a unit has not been back to San Francisco since November 8, a handful of its players — including fan favorites such as Clendenning and Alex Tuckerman — were rocking Bulls jersey up until last Tuesday.

Bulls President and Head Coach Pat Curcio smiled at practice Thursday at the mention of some of his former players returning to San Francisco.

But Curcio still acknowledged that, while he knows plenty of players on the other team, that he needs to make sure his team is focused on their own play:

“For the most part, it’s more important to focus on what we need to do as a team than worrying so much about the other team. I think if we’re focused on what our responsibilities are, that’s how we get the most success.”

The Bulls come into the weekend series with 53 points following a huge 7-2 victory over the rival Stockton Thunder Wednesday night. The back-to-back wins are what the team needs to get their confidence back, Curcio believes:

“It’s hard, even when you’re playing well but you’re losing, to understand that you are playing well. Without the reward of a win, it’s tough. Sunday’s game was good, and it snowballed into 40-50 good minutes of hockey last night.”

The Grizzlies, an organization that Clendenning describes as “hard-working” and “organized” with “good chemistry on the ice,” are currently sitting in the seventh place seat with 60 points.

They are coming off a 2-1 loss against the Bakersfield Condors, who the Bulls are battling to keep out of the playoff race. Utah and Bakersfield will square off a second time on Friday night.

This will, Curcio says,  give San Francisco an opportunity to sit back and observe the competition:

“They play tomorrow night in Bakersfield, so we’ll have the luxury of watching that game and see what we can pick apart and come up with some ideas for Saturday.”

If anyone is going to be conflicted by seeing so many familiar faces in rival jerseys, it might be the fans. But die-hard Bulls fan Dan Parks, who understands the business side of the most recent trades, looks at the return of familiar players in a positive light:

“It will be nice to see the original guys again. I’m a sucker for original.”

The match-up of course begs the question: Will some of these guys, who were teammates less than a month ago, suddenly drop their gloves and draw five-minute fighting penalties?

You can certainly count Clendenning out of that mix, particularly when it comes to Bulls forward, fellow New Brunswick native and BFF Dean Ouellet:

“I would never punch Deano! Our moms would disown us if that happened!”

The anticipated San Francisco Bulls-Utah Grizzlies series kicks off Saturday. The puck drops at 7:15 p.m.