Battling Bulls thank fans after playoff exit

COW PALACE — Bulls fans, I sat at my computer for who knows how long trying to come up with a catchy opener to this final game story for the San Francisco Bulls’ inaugural season.

But to be honest, nothing seems to properly close out Game 5 of the Kelly Cup Playoffs Saturday night. Sweat and tears and heart were left on the Colosseo Ice as the Bulls fell 5-3 to the Alaska Aces, closing out their 2012-2013 season.

President and Head Coach Pat Curcio summed up the mood in the dressing room after the game:

“A lot of mixed emotions. Real sad right now, real emotional. It’s hard to believe that it’s over. You know, I go back to the day, almost two-and-a-half, three years ago, when we came up with the name. … And to have it end like this, it’s tough. But the players never quit. The resiliency was incredible.”

The term used by Curcio to describe the the team’s play in the previous night’s game was “blue collar.”

Defenseman and team captain Scott Langdon agreed when talking about how the team had shaped itself over the long season:

“We were always a hard-working team. You know, really blue-collared. And at times it was tough for us. But we always battled through it.”

While the Bulls looked aggressive and hungry on Friday night, they would open up Saturday’s game looking very patient, almost stoic.

Teams would be tied at five shots a piece halfway into in the opening period when Alaska went on their first power play. A bad hop would almost get past Thomas Heemskerk, but Simon Danis-Pepin would be in the right place at the right time to scoop the puck out and keep the game scoreless. For next few minutes at least.

The Bulls would get their first chance on the one-man advantage with 1:57 left in the first period.

In a sea of Aces’ sweaters just above the crease, Dean Ouellet would feed the puck to Bryan Cameron, whose quick upper body rotation would rocket the shot past Gerald Coleman to put the home team ahead 1-0. Rob Kwiet would also pick up an assist on the power play goal.

Ouellet walked the media through the game’s opening goal:

“I think we were moving the puck pretty good, and we got installed in their zone. That was one thing … they have the best PK in the league, they put on a lot of pressure. It’s real hard to set up. And I think we had good puck movement there and we found some options. …  I think that was huge. Good momentum for us.”

It wouldn’t take long for Alaska to answer, however, with a goal of their own courtesy of center Bobby Hughes at 18:03.

Both teams would seem to begin skating a little more aggressively once the game was tied up, and following a blocked shot by Coleman, Bulls winger Kris Belan would drop his gloves and let his fists loose on Aces’ B.J. Crum’s face.

The second period would start off much like the first, with both teams creating opportunities but not putting any points on the board.

A potential goal for the Bulls got disqualified at at 6:16, but goaltender interference on Jordan Morrison would keep the game tied, and send the crowd into a frenzy of jeers.

The boos would continue as Hughes would get a goal off the right post with :25 left on their power play to take the lead 2-1.

Curcio lumped the penalty in with several that had been called on San Francisco throughout the season:

“You know, you go from a disallowed goal to a penalty and then you’re down 2-1. And it just seems this year wasn’t going to be a year that we were going to get any breaks, or any calls, or anything that goes our way. And maybe that’s the way it goes in your first year. Maybe you’re like a rookie, and you have to earn your stripes …”

Tempers would flare — as they typically do when a rival pulls ahead — following a goal attempt by Dean Ouellet, in which multiple players would clash in a huddle of fisticuffs in front of Alaska’s net.

While the call to send Ouellet to the penalty box would be wildly unpopular, the Bulls would be able to kill the penalty.

No sooner would they be back to full strength, however, that Alaska’s Alex Hudson would get a break and fire the puck past Heemskerk, who was outstretched belly-first on the ice. The goal would put the Aces ahead 3-1.

The final 20 minutes of play would open up with another power play goal by Alaska, this one from Gary Nunn, putting the Aces up 4-1.

But the Bulls wouldn’t go down quietly. At 11:47, Peter Sivak — who had been pushing the last three games to put the puck in the back of the net — finally got the jump on Coleman and closed the deficit to 4-2. Jordan Morrison and Antoine Corbin would tally assists.

Time would wind down, though, and the Cow Palace crowd almost would become quiet in the fear that the home team wouldn’t score again.

Then, with 1:34 left in regulation, Dean Ouellet would find a window past Coleman and fire the puck to the back of the next, sending the stands into an eruption of cheers and bringing the score to 4-3.

With the possibility of tying the game in sight, the Bulls would pull Heemskerk to put an extra player on the ice.

But the choice would only give the Aces another opportunity, and Zach Harrison would get the empty net goal with 1:02 left to play to bring the final score to 5-3.

San Francisco has taken on their NHL affiliate’s — the San Jose Sharks — habit of skating to center ice and saluting their fans after a game.

But on Saturday night, after lining up and shaking the opposite teams’ hands, the Bulls lingered out on the rink a little longer to raise their sticks to show extra thanks to the crowd. Said Morrison of the fan base:

“Our fans have been great all year, you’ve got to give them the respect they deserve. We had stretches where we didn’t win seven, eight games in a row and they still managed to come out. And you’ve gotta thank them for that. … I come from Toronto, you lose a couple games up there the fans are booing you.”

So what does every good team do when their season is over? They start planning for next season, of course.

Langdon said:

“Really all you can do is get ready for next year! I’m already thinking about October when I should be maybe thinking about now. And that’s the way she goes.”

Of course, stay tuned to SFBay for information regarding the San Francisco Bulls 2013-2014 season.