Hamilton came out flat against the Houston Aeros on Friday night and by the time the Bulldogs finally struck, it was too late.
Matt Hackett made 38 saves and Jed Ortmeyer scored the eventual winner as the Aeros won 2-1 to take the first game of the American Hockey League's Western Conference final.
"For half a game, we didn't play really well, and for half a game, we played really well," Hamilton's goalie Drew MacIntyre said. "If we play the way we can, we are a tough team to beat. We have to be ready to go from the puck drop, and they were more ready than us."
Game 2 goes Sunday in Houston.
Chad Rau opened the scoring on a power play in the first period for the Aeros before Ortmeyer scored on a breakaway in the second.
Hamilton closed to within a goal with 51 seconds left in regulation when Mathieu Carle tapped in a rebound off a shot by J.T. Wyman, but that was as close as the Bulldogs would get.
Hamilton had one last chance in the dying seconds of a faceoff in the Aeros end, but Frederic St. Denis' shot was stopped by Hackett.
"I thought we got a little better as time rolled on, but it was in spurts," Hamilton head coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We weren't consistent. We didn't press regularly and put a little pressure on them. They were able to come the other way.
"We were standing at times. What we have to concentrate on is being a little cleaner through the neutral zone. I think we were under pressure, and we didn't handle it well."
For just the second time in the playoffs, the Aeros were outshot, 39-28, after Hamilton fired 21 shots in the third period to Houston's 4.
"We know at times that we were all over them," Carle said. "We know it wasn't our best game. We know if we bring our best game that anything can happen. We know we're as good as them if not better, so we have to play better them."
The Aeros took advantage of the Bulldogs' sluggish start when Rau got the Aeros on the board with a power-play goal at 14:52 of the first. Maxim Noreau's shot took a weird bounce off the boards straight to Casey Wellman at the right circle. He slid it to Rau, who one-timed a shot past MacIntyre.
Ortmeyer doubled Houston's lead 2:59 into the second period when Jared Spurgeon sent Ortmeyer in alone. He beat MacIntyre up high.
MacIntyre said he wished he could get another shot at both the goals, especially the first one, which he admitted to making a mistake on.
"I should have known better on the first one," said MacIntyre, who finished with 26 saves. "I threw it up on the glass to create a battle, which is fine in most rinks, but not in this one. The glass is brutal here. I should have known better. It came out to the guy, and he passed it. Then, the breakaway Jed just beat me. Plain and simple."
Hackett was at his best midway through the third period when he stopped Aaron Palushaj on a breakaway.
"He was excellent," Cunneyworth said of Hackett. "I don't think their team is here without good goaltending. We have a lot of respect for their team, but we have to be a little bit better."
Hamilton is the affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, while Houston is the farm team of the Minnesota Wild.