It was Teddy Bear Toss night at CBBA, but after 78 penalty minutes in their most recent clash, there would be nothing cuddly about this Ontario-San Diego meeting.
The Gulls swooped in from the get-go, as an early power play yielded cannons from the AHL Pacific's most terrifying pointmen, Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore. Then Max Friberg unloaded a one-timer from just below the left dot, but Peter Budaj got in the way.
The Reign replied with their own PP pressure, as Jeff Schultz crept in tight to pounce on a rebound off a Nic Dowd wrister. But Anton Khudobin got in the way.
However, Ontario couldn't stop the Montour machine. After Curt Gogol tripped Theodore behind the San Diego net halfway into the first (remember Ryan Horvat was scratched last weekend for a similar infraction), Montour appeared to intentionally bank a point shot off the back boards, and Nick Ritchie found a soft spot behind Kevin Gravel for the easy tap-in. The aforementioned machine is second among AHL defenders with 25 points and tied with William Nylander for the league lead in assists with 20.
Those who brought teddys didn't have to bear too long a wait though. Late in the first, Justin Auger blocked a Jaycob Megna attempt from the boards, galloping past the now-vulnerable defenseman for a bid that baffled Khudobin. A game that had seen most of its chances on the man advantage finally let up at even strength, and the teddy bears started flying.
With just 3:32 left in the opening frame and the playing surface littered with stuffed animals, the refs called an early intermission. Among Reign players, only Paul Bissonnette was in a cleaning mood, "I was just messing around. Budaj's kid was on the ice, so I was trying to hand him the big teddy bear."
After the break, it was Ontario that was flying. The newly-formed Sean Backman-Kris Newbury-Valentin Zykov line (Adrian Kempe had just left the team to join Sweden at the World Juniors) swarmed the puck, but Khudobin was the bigger man, as he brushed aside a Newbury wraparound and point-blank bullet on the same shift. "I’m just starting to feel back in the rhythm," said Newbury, in just his fifth game back after over a month out. "It took me a couple games. I know I was bobbling pucks in Charlotte and last week at home."
But any push that the Reign were beginning to mount crumbled because of mistakes from the most unlikely of sources. In front of Budaj, an untouched Dowd fumbled the puck. "First [turnover] I just lost it and tried to kick it up, maybe just skipped on me, I don’t know." Ritchie scooped it up, but Budaj stood tall, giving the two-way stalwart another chance to clear from behind the net. "The second [turnover] was just, I guess lackadaisical, went to turn back and play it over to Schultz and it got tipped off my stick. The guy made a good play." That guy was Stefan Noesen, who touched the puck to Ritchie. In the chaos, Anaheim's 2014 first-round pick had two whacks at it, and he put San Diego ahead again.
A couple shifts later, Kevin Raine's breakout pass up the middle unintentionally set up a Friberg slot one-timer. Then Schultz reached for the puck when he shouldn't have at his blueline, springing Nic Kerdiles, Joseph Cramarossa, and Tim Jackman for a 3-on-1. But Ontario lucked out when Cramarossa, who had center drive, opted for a low-percentage backhand which Budaj fought off.
Just 10 minutes into the middle frame, the Reign had already been outchanced 5-3 at evens in a far too wide-open affair. The period closed with a series of relatively punchless power play tries from both sides, and Ontario was fortunate to be down just a goal heading into the final countdown.
The Reign rallied with a much sharper third, but the Gulls, to their credit, clogged the neutral zone and cut off any particularly dangerous chances. And about halfway into the period, it was San Diego that rumbled down the ice for a two-on-one. But a desperate Vincent LoVerde, lying flat, choked off a Brian McGrattan cross-ice feed. Ritchie then gifted a late power play to Ontario, but they couldn't capitalize. A Kurtis MacDermid interference with five minutes to go, which was killed, looked like it might seal the team's fate.
With about a minute and a half left in the game, Budaj went off for an extra attacker. As they did in their last game, would the Reign be able to snatch a point...or two with an empty net?
Forced to his knees on the draw, Dowd managed to will the puck to the point, and Gravel, Backman, and Jonny Brodzinski played catch on the perimeter. Then Brodzinski flicked it from the top of the left circle, and Newbury, left to his own devices behind the goal line, banked the rebound off Khudobin for the equalizer with just 26 seconds left.
Newbury, who had been sharing recipes with McGrattan from their respective benches during the last couple shifts, beelined to his pal and shouted something about a dash of paprika. Or not. "I’m not going to say out loud [what I said]. Probably wouldn’t be able to say it to the media. But we don’t like each other. I don’t like anyone on that team. So just leave it at that."
San Diego was not impressed by Ontario's last-minute heroics, however, peppering Budaj in OT. Friberg was refused service by the Slovakian on back-to-back 2-on-1's, and LoVerde comped the Gulls a 4v3 PP with a couple minutes to go. But Andrew Crescenzi, Auger, and Schultz altered shot after shot on the PK, and a Theodore slash on Dowd helped send the hosts to their first shootout of the season.
But alas, Budaj's magic, which had kept his squad afloat, was spent for the night. Ritchie and Mike Sgarbossa both found light, while the Reign couldn't solve Khudobin, and the Gulls scampered off with a much-deserved victory.
See full highlights here, courtesy of AHL Live.