Like Balboa-Creed Round 15, the Ontario Reign and Texas Stars lurched into the Vault this afternoon, both on the backend of respective three-in-three's. For what it's worth, the Reign have enjoyed the comforts of home for the entire weekend, while the Stars have been living out of their suitcases from Bakersfield to San Diego, and finally, the IE.
Just a few ticks in, it appeared that the hosts would draw first blood, as just-scratched Valentin Zykov, from behind the net, served Adrian Kempe for a sharp top shelf backhand which eluded a frozen Philippe Desrosiers. However, Kempe was whistled for cross-checking Derek Hulak, which explains why the Swede was all alone in the slot in the first place.
Shortly thereafter, Sean Backman, who plays the point on the power play, found an unmarked Michael Mersch rolling hard to the net off to the side, but Desrosiers wasn't fazed.
Ontario failed to parlay a fast start into anything of substance though. Texas actually looked a two-step quicker for most of the period, though it didn't result in any particularly explosive chances for Michael Houser to disarm. Yes, I said Houser. This was his first appearance for the Reign; his first game since November 27th for Manchester; and it was also the first time in 19 games that All-Star Peter Budaj took a break.
After 20, the Reign had zero even strength scoring chances to the Stars' four. Firing just two shots in the opening frame did not please Coach Mike Stothers: "You don't want to know what I said to the guys after [the first period]...you can't print any of it."
That said, it was a surprisingly muted offensive showing from the usually high-flying visitors, who came in leading the AHL in both goals for and goals against. You'd think that would favor Ontario, but seven minutes into the second, the period's very first ES chance belonged to Texas. The Reign had yet to register an ES chance for the game.
Perhaps a Remi Elie cross-checking a few minutes later would turn the home team's goose egg upside down. That...doesn't make any sense actually. What also defied the senses was Houser from the corner, moving the puck up with one hand to Jason Dickinson at the blueline, for basically an empty net short-handed marker.
The netminder admitted, "It was goalie error...I was trying to throw it up to [Leslie] quick...it was a little too hard."
In the words of Bonnie Tyler, Ontario needed a hero. After two, the Stars held a 7-1 ES chances edge. The Reign's first didn't happen until about four minutes left. That's more than half the game before Mersch pulled off a routine-for-him wraparound stuff. Stothers remained exasperated, "Oh my God. How many times can you turn a puck over and only make the opposition skate three-quarter ice or half-ice? "
To Houser's credit, he didn't crumble after his gaffe. And seven minutes into the closing frame, the home team found its Johnny Five.
Nic Dowd sets the scene, "Backs made a good play to stop the rim and got the puck up to the point." The visitors, as per their custom, were moving forward too aggressively in the DZ on the rim, leaving Mersch and Dowd in front against an overmatched Ludwig Bystrom as Vincent LoVerde's shot arrived. "I think [Mersch] may have actually got a piece of it, trying to tip it, and it dropped down...[I] just shot it and happened to find its way in."
Coming off a pair of goals last night, it was another dynamic Dowd performance. The two-way pivot also took 29 of his team's 45 draws, winning 17.
Finally, Ontario claimed a period. At the very end of a three-in-three road trip, Texas proffered only one ES chance in the third. The hosts had three.
"When we got the puck in deep, and we actually got a forecheck going...the whole game changed," explained Stothers. "So make your opponents skate 200 feet. A team that skates as good as they do, if you're only going to make them skate half the ice, oh! You're going to be in trouble."
With about two to go, Mersch lugged the cargo through all three time zones, plowing his way through Greg Rallo and Matt Mangene to the front, drawing a Rallo hook along the way. Also of note, the 5'11" Mangene tried to stand up to Big Mike at the blueline, only to bounce off.
This set up Jeff Schultz near the right half wall with about 30 seconds left. The usually stay-at-home defender feathered a pass through Mattias Backman to Andrew Crescenzi off to the side, and Crescenzi and Justin Auger, rather unbelievably, saw scarcely a Stars stick intrude on their stuff party. "I just tried to spin and jam it in front of the net and luckily it went in," said Crescenzi.
It wasn't the finest 60 from the Reign, but after a gallant third pulled out a victory, who can complain about four out of six points from a three-in-three? As for myself, I'm going to grab my roll-up and go home now.
See full game highlights here, courtesy of AHL Live.