After a sluggish effort yesterday in a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Gulls, the Reign looked to bounce back in the second leg of their home and home tonight:
Coming back from a back injury that had sidelined him for a couple weeks, Paul Bissonnette tried to set the tone on his very first shift, challenging Brian McGrattan to a true heavyweight scrap. This was especially meaningful because Mike Stothers called McGrattan out last night for some perceived liberties taken on rookie Kurtis MacDermid. "I wasn’t in the game last night, I just heard and saw what happened so just doing my job," said Bissonnette. "I think taking him out of the equation kind of maybe settles the other guys down a little bit. He’s a pretty scary guy, and he’s been around for a long time."
Stothers had no apologies for McGrattan, who he yapped at from the bench after the fight, "Just asked him how his family was...I suppose he must have read the tweets, I guess, of my postgame comments [last night]. I stand by what I said. He doesn’t like it, too bad."
Unfortunately, McGrattan took this bout with Bissonette decisively, and so the night went for the Reign. Shortly thereafter, Nic Kerdiles gave Ontario what should've been a headstart, as he elbowed Kevin Raine's head into the boards, but a listless power play lost the puck to Tim Jackman in the neutral zone, and Jackman strolled in all alone on Peter Budaj, deking the Slovakian for a highlight-reel shorthanded tally.
While Ontario asserted more control over play after this mishap, they couldn't get much going at either evens or on the PP. In all, they frittered away three power play opportunities in this period, and after one, they owned a fairly unexciting 7-5 shots advantage and 2-1 ES scoring chances edge.
The Reign would've taken "unexciting" in the middle frame. San Diego was the danger to start the second, as Max Friberg and Kerdiles had too much time in front of Budaj to express themselves. The Ontario keeper rebuffed their advances, however.
Just seven minutes in, the Gulls had already outshot the Reign 10-3. Then Ontario's Bissonnette-Ryan Horvat-Scott Sabourin fourth line finally pinned San Diego down for some time...but Sean Backman tripped Mike Sgarbossa. Backman didn't like it and perhaps Sgarbossa fell easy, but nonetheless, Ontario's all-too-brief offensive momentum was squelched.
San Diego proceeded to pile on the shots, but when Chris Mueller rang the post late in the man advantage, it appeared that the Reign would survive this Gulls assault. However, with mere seconds left on the power play, Brandon Montour blasted the puck from the blueline and Kerdiles deflected it past a helpless Budaj. Stothers recognized his rival's power play proficiency afterwards, "You go into this game and you’ve got the two best power play teams in the league going head to head. The fact that they only scored one, I think that’s a moral victory right there.
The Reign needed a spark, and they got it minutes later when Andrew Crescenzi bowled McGrattan over the Ontario bench, electrifying a sold-out CBBA. Sgarbossa stood up for his man but was slapped with an extra infraction, resulting in a much-needed power play for the home team.
Once again, however, Ontario couldn't press their man advantage. The Reign had trouble even getting out of their own zone, victim of sloppy play and a bouncing puck. But really, this had been the case the whole game, and with about four minutes remaining in the second, Adrian Kempe bobbled a hard Zac Leslie breakout, allowing San Diego to keep in. Then, to add insult to injury, Antoine Laganiere beat Kempe to the front, and a Shea Theodore attempt landed in Laganiere's vicinity for a backhand strike.
With a single tick left in the period, Scott Sabourin was whistled for cross checking, perhaps representative of the collective frustration of an Ontario squad which had surrendered an uncharacteristic 14 shots in the second period without mounting much of a counterattack.
However, the Gulls kept handing the Reign chances to make it a game. Early in the third, Stu Bickel's high sticking presented Ontario with yet another power play. But once again, shoddy execution—a bouncing puck and an offside on a Valentin Zykov carry-in—doomed them, and San Diego backup Ryan Faragher was not severely tested. "The power play is where it starts and finishes at," said a very disappointed Michael Mersch. "We had I don’t know how many chances tonight (0-7) but didn’t really have any momentum on it or anything."
Halfway into their last stand, Ontario hadn't displayed much offensive flair. Stothers admitted, "It was hard to get any flow." He was speaking of the game's many penalties, but he may as well have been crediting San Diego's clogging of the neutral zone. Besides the usual suspects of Mersch-Nic Dowd-Jonny Brodzinski, the Reign's most successful attacking unit was probably the Horvat-led fourth line, which was not necessarily a good sign.
But then, with seven minutes to go, Backman forced a Sgarbossa turnover on the Ontario wall, and darted down the wing with only Bickel to beat. At the San Diego left circle, the crafty winger spun around and connected with Kempe, who was hustling down the slot, for a vicious one-timer that broke the shutout.
The Reign's remote comeback hopes, however, were pretty much dashed by a Crescenzi roughing with about four minutes left. San Diego did keep trying to send a reply to Stothers and Bissonnette's loveless letter. The site was once again near Ontario's bench, as Kerdiles hugged Mersch, and Dowd quickly engaged the Gulls pest in an even quicker brawl.
Appropriately, this game—both teams combined to amass 78 PIMS—closed with fisticuffs, as Horvat and Jackman squared off after the final horn. But it was the Gulls who cried, "Mine. Mine." as they swept this weekend home-and-home.
While Stothers once again was able to take the long view, emphasizing, "We know that’s a good team, but we know we’re a good team," he also promised, "Come Monday, we’ll be the hardest working team in practice.
"The weekend is kind of a little blip on the radar for us."
Courtesy the AHL, full game highlights.