In the inaugural matchup between the new-to-the-AHL Ontario Reign and the new-to-any-league San Jose Barracuda, the Reign continued their rule over the Pacific with a 3-0 shutout.
Kicking off with early Ontario pressure from the newly anointed Michael Mersch-Kris Newbury-Sean Backman starting trio, the Reign attack didn't abate. This led to San Jose backup Troy Grosenick juggling a long Zac Leslie shot, which Andrew Crescenzi pushed across the line. It was a banner beginning for Leslie, who was making his AHL debut: "It's not bad when you get a first shot three seconds in [to my first shift] and you get an assist. That kind of killed all of the nerves."
Halfway into the opening frame, Ontario had already registered 10 shots to San Jose's three. Budaj was tested, however, by a point-blank Ryan Carpenter chance in the slot off an errant Jeff Schultz pass from behind the net. Then a pointless tripping penalty by Justin Auger in the offensive zone almost resuscitated the Barracuda with six minutes left, but prized prospect Nikolay Goldobin whiffed on the puck at the right circle with a ready side of the net.
In all, Ontario's pressure was relentless throughout the first, and they went into the period with a 1-0 lead and a 12-5 shots advantage. This had all the makings of another Reign rout.
The bad news kept rolling in for the Barracuda to start the second, as San Jose was forced to make a goalie change, inserting Aaron Dell. It appears that Grosenick's head hit the crossbar when Jordan Samuels-Thomas brushed by him late in first. No penalty was called, but the netminder seemed dazed when he got up, though he finished the period. Samuels-Thomas wasn't sure what happened: "I don't think I hit him with my body, but I think maybe my skate came up as I got pushed into the net."
Ontario started the middle frame right where they left off, challenging Dell with a couple stuff attempts by Newbury and Backman. But San Jose countered with consecutive opportunities in the slot, as Micheal Haley and Carpenter tried Budaj. Following a pair of Samuels-Thomas high sticking penalties, the Slovakian goalkeeper had to stand tall as the Barracuda crowded his crease.
For the Reign, this stretch of play was perhaps best exemplified by back-to-back Mersch shot blocks to close the period. The crowd was actually moved to their feet, though that was probably more because the clock read zero. For Coach Mike Stothers, however, that was a truly rousing effort: "Prior to that, Mersch and Dowd were killing penalties and they were pretty tired...[Mersch] makes two huge plays like that to get us out of the period."
It was certainly a more tightly-contested period by San Jose, as they actually outshot Ontario 10-9.
Another penalty came early in the final frame, as Barracuda blueliner Karl Stollery went to the box for interference. This gave Ontario the opening to build their lead, as Backman found a streaking Kempe between three defenders in the front of the net, and the wunderkind tipped it in for his first goal of the season.
The Barracuda were gifted with three power play chances after the Swedish dagger, but the Ontario PK snuffed out any significant San Jose puckback.
Down to three minutes remaining, a desperate San Jose pulled Dell, but it was already too late. At the backend of their Southern California back-to-back, the Barracuda's offensive attack was sleeping with the fishes. Mersch sealed it, taking target practice from center ice for his second empty net marker of the young year.
After the game, Stothers waxed poetic about his sophomore star, "Nothing really surprises me with him...He's a guy, when you look at the game and you're making some film for the rest of the team to watch, he's in quite a few of the highlights and for all the right reasons.
"As a coach, you're not supposed to have favorites...I enjoy watching Michael Mersch play. If I was a fan, I would love to come to the rink and watch him play."
He also complimented Leslie: "I saw a really good smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman...he's got to get a little stronger, but I think for a guy who sat as long as he did...he came in and did a real good job. I think you saw how good he was in the backend of the power play."
Really, Coach had a ton of praise for the whole squad, summarizing their work, "It was a pretty efficient game from everybody.
"I'm liking the fact that we're keeping the shots against under 30. For the most part, scoring chances aren't too great."
The stats bear that out, as Ontario held San Jose to 24 shots. And by my estimate, the Reign outchanced the Barracuda 9-7 at evens.
Going into next weekend, when the team has to endure one of those legendary AHL back-to-back-to-backs, it's all sunny in Ontario. When the most worrisome thing might be that Mersch is playing so well that the Kings will have to call him up, you know you're 5-0-0-0. But Stothers sounded one note of caution as he wrapped up, "We're still working on the penalties, some of the ones we take, but it's still a work in progress."
Highlights courtesy ieProSports