SF Bulls embrace underdog role as ECHL playoffs open 

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After weeks of anticipation, the puck is finally dropping on the San Francisco Bulls’ first-ever playoff series and the team will need to play near-perfect hockey to advance.

The eighth-place Bulls (25-38-9) will be wearing the underdog hat when they faceoff against the Alaska Aces (49-15-8) for Game 1 of their first-round Kelly Cup Playoff series in Anchorage tonight. But if they limit their mistakes, receive solid goaltending and play with a balanced attack, coach Pat Curcio believes they can upset the ECHL’s top team.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re not giving away anything for free.”

Goals are likely to be in short supply against the Aces, who feature two of the ECHL’s top goalies. Gerald Coleman finished second in the league in goals-against average (2.17) in 32 games played and Mark Guggenberger posted the third-best mark (2.23) in 39 outings. Curcio said the Bulls probably aren’t going to score more than a couple goals a night, so they need to play smart across the board to keep the puck out of their net.

“We make bad decisions at times,” he said. “When we don’t have an option we tend to force a play and that’s what we need to clean up.”

With low-scoring games, the Bulls could be bolstered by the return of goalie Thomas Heemskerk, who rejoined the team after a stint with the AHL Worcester Sharks on Saturday. Curcio said Heemskerk will get the start in between the pipes in Game 1.

“Heemer is a big part of our team that we’ve missed,” he said. “Just as we got hot, he got sick, then he got called up.”

Curcio plans to balance his lines against the Aces, likely skating Tommy Grant with Dean and Christian Ouellet, Bryan Cameron with Kory Falite and Brett Findlay and Jordan Morrison with Kris Belan and Tristan King. Nick Czinder will be the roving forward, playing on both special teams units.

“We need three lines that contribute, so that we’re not easily shutdown,” Curcio said.

The Bulls snapped out of a power-play funk in their last game, scoring two goals after going 0-for-20 in their five previous outings.

Despite a 2-7 record against the Aces this year, the Bulls managed to win two out of three games during their last trip to Anchorage and Curcio thinks the team can draw off the experience in the playoffs.

“It’s huge,” Curcio said.

pgackle@sfexaminer.com

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