From hoisting the Calder Cup to the Manchester-Ontario move, 2015 was certainly a year to remember for the Reign. Would they close the calendar on a winning note?
From the get-go, it was a far different affair than Tuesday's swingin' scoring chance swap (Ontario had a estimated 18-15 even strength chances advantage then).
This "ground game," which usually favors the Reign, tilted in the Heat's favor early on, as Bill Arnold dislodged Kevin Raine from the puck on the forecheck, and defenseman Brett Kulak crept behind an inattentive Jonny Brodzinski for a how-did-he-completely-miss-the-net chance in front of Peter Budaj.
It was stroke of luck for the home team, and more than 13 minutes into the opening frame, both teams had combined for a whopping six shots. The Reign, however, were about to roll snake eyes.
Just as a Zac Leslie tripping penalty was about to expire, Jeff Schultz, with a chance to go up the boards from behind the net, opted to backhand a soft pass to Ryan Horvat, who was stationed in front of Budaj. The Heat swarmed Horvat, setting up Oliver Kylington at the top of the circles for a blast that deflected to an unmarked Kenny Agostino off to the side for a shoo-in goal.
It wasn't until just five minutes left in the period when Ontario registered its first ES chance as a Brodzinski bid from the right dot smacked Joni Ortio square.
As I mentioned, all this was in stark contrast to Tuesday. After the first period in that game, ES chances were 7-7. After one here, shots were ONT 6-4.
Coach Mike Stothers noticed, "I thought we skated better the other night than we did tonight. I thought we looked a little sluggish in the first." Paul Bissonnette, Kevin Gravel, and Vincent LoVerde concurred, describing themselves as "flat" in the beginning.
The middle frame kicked off—or shall I say, tip-toed off—in similar fashion. The crowd finally stirred about eight minutes in, when a long Dustin Stevenson shot squirted through Budaj, requiring a Schultz sweep of the crease.
Ten minutes in, both teams had combined for a whopping four shots. The first ES chance for either team this period—I commemorate this hallowed occasion by timestamping it 10:51 into the second—was off a rare Reign outnumbered attack, as LoVerde served Nic Dowd for a one-timer that Ortio fought off.
Actually, the pace was decent for most of the night, but in terms of chances, you could say the champagne flatlined. Stockton themselves didn't post their first ES chance of the period until about seven minutes left, as Morgan Klimchuk beat Valentin Zykov down the chute.
In a prelude for what was to come, the second ended in a flurry of penalties, as the teams traded four infractions quid pro quo. However, Ontario—they've gone 0 for 30 on the power play in the last seven games—couldn't punch out a PP marker. The Reign haven't scored on the man advantage since December 6th in Charlotte. LoVerde owned up, "We’re struggling...just getting pucks and bodies to the net. D have to get pucks through from the point, and, I don’t know."
The hosts looked to flip the script mere seconds into the final frame, as Justin Auger strung a cross-ice pass through Pat Sieloff for a Brodzinski one-timer. Would this turn a brand-new page for Ontario?
Nope. Arnold made a deft neutral zone backhand touch to Ryan Lomberg, who blew by Zykov, Raine, and Gravel for a pair of free rush opportunities.
This kicked off a scramble—on the boards, Zykov alligator-armed their best chance to clear—resulting in another troublesome Kylington laser from the top of the circles. 6'7" Hunter Smith set a pick in front of Budaj, obstructing Gravel and Raine from marking a slippery Emile Poirier, and Calgary's 2013 first-round pick converted the rebound. Gravel took the blame, "We spent a lot of time in our zone tonight. And when you spend a lot of time like that, things are going to happen. Their D were getting shots through."
With almost 18 minutes left, the Reign had plenty of time to make a push—and they tried, aided by a couple Stockton infractions—but mostly, the Heat were able to keep them on the perimeter.
Finally, Bryce Van Brabant rudely slammed the door on his hosts as he lifted a power play wrister over Budaj with just three minutes to go. It was a rare questionable goal allowed for the Slovakian stalwart.
Did I say finally? 22 seconds later, Joel Lowry fed LoVerde from behind the net, and the captain picked his spot from the right dot. But just 45 seconds later, with Budaj pulled, Kulak aimed a soft shot from the opposite blueline into yawning Ontario twine. The game was really, finally over.
Did I say finally? With two minutes left, Lowry fought Lomberg. Then Horvat squared off with Mitchell Heard. Then Sieloff lined up Curt Gogol near the NZ boards, inciting a Jordan Samuels-Thomas/Van Brabant dust-up. This finally led to a meaningless Stockton 5-on-3 with 18 seconds left.
Did I say finally? Please, please let me know if you've seen this before:
Regarding Brodzinski and Sean Backman's actions, Stothers curtly quipped, "Just eager to get on the ice, I guess...Pad their minutes at the end of the night."
Bissonnette was willing to expand a little more, "Stuttsy’s a pretty passionate guy, and I don’t know, I don’t know what to say, probably have to ask Stuttsy, but maybe he wasn’t happy with the officiating and whatnot." The veteran of 202 NHL games noted though, "Yeah, that was the first time I’ve seen that."
Officials cited Rule 74.4 when they awarded the Heat a penalty shot for Brodzinski's illegal substitution:
Budaj stopped Derek Grant. So finally.
See full game highlights courtesy AHL Live.