The visiting Manitoba Moose, sporting a league-worst -45 goal differential, had its work cut out tonight against the Pacific Division-leading Ontario Reign. But would returning Southern California natives and Jets prospects Chase De Leo and Eric Comrie author a storybook ending?
It was a Hollywood opening for De Leo and Comrie. About seven minutes in, De Leo forced Kevin Raine to cough the puck up behind the Ontario net; the La Mirada native nudged it to an unmarked Nic Petan off to the side, and Petan scooped a backhand through Peter Budaj.
As for Comrie, he was a matinee marvel. Right after the Petan goal, Justin Auger chipped a Brenden Kichton puck forward, and the 6'7" winger was off to the races, drawing a penalty shot. It was the Reign's first home penalty shot of the season; Michael Mersch missed one on November 7th while visiting Stockton.
Auger broke deliberately on Comrie and tried to power it through the long-time Newport Beach resident's five-hole, only to be met with a resounding paddle. The big winger mentioned, "Yeah, I can’t remember ever taking a penalty [shot]. I think I took one shootout in junior, so that tells you how much I get put out there for shootouts."
But just a couple minutes later, Auger was at it again, as he beat Paul Postma, who had pinched in too aggressively, up the ice, forcing Manitoba's netminder to flash some pad. Coach Mike Stothers noted, "Their D are up the ice all the time."
After a sluggish start, Ontario was starting to flex. And near the end of a late Josh Morrissey penalty, they finally touched up Comrie. Out of the left corner, Mersch found Valentin Zykov, who had just jumped on, for a triumphant blast from the top of the circles. This was the Russian winger's first goal in 13 games.
The Moose tried to charge back. From his own half-wall, right winger Jimmy Lodge laid up a gorgeous puck that Thomas Raffl outskated Kevin Gravel for in the Ontario zone. Budaj, however, rejected it.
It was a bit of an upset after 20 that Manitoba held an 11-10 shots edge and were tied in even strength chances with five. But this would be the last time the visitors would appear to be "in the game."
Just a minute into the middle frame, Mersch sprung Sean Backman by 4-20 (Postma-Jay Harrison) for another breakway. About halfway in, Zykov and Andrew Crescenzi forechecked the puck out of Austen Brassard in the corner, and Crescenzi dished it through Kichton into Adrian Kempe's wheelhouse. Comrie came up with some Comries-pleasing saves—his party included at least 30, according to Reign broadcaster Joey Zakrzewski—but it was just a matter of time for the home team that already owned a 5-1 advantage in second period ES chances.
With about four minutes to go, Mersch, from far above the left circle, slapped it home. Stothers quipped, "Actually, that was the first time I’ve ever seen Mike score on a slap shot. And that’s the first time I’ve seen him score from that far out."
While not quite a goal, Auger really earned his secondary assist, getting the puck in deep from the neutral zone as he was lined up by Morrissey. It was an all-around performance for the second-year man, as he also showed a timely defensive stick throughout the game, frustrating a couple Moose attacks.
Shortly thereafter, Ryan Horvat deflected a Derek Forbort point shot past Comrie. Horvat elaborated, "Just trying to get in front, I was battling with the defenseman in the corner there, so just trying to get good net front position." It was Andrew MacWilliam who the forward beat on the forecheck and redirection.
Frankly, the Moose appeared well done, as they were outchanced at evens 9-1 in the second.
And that they were. It took more than six minutes for the visitors to register their first shot of the third. 13 minutes into the period, Manitoba's purported comeback had offered up just three harmless shots. The Moose's first (and only) ES chance of the final frame came shortly thereafter with 6:32 left.
In the meanwhile, the Reign controlled shot quality with three ES chances, including a Jonny Brodzinski breakaway and a Mersch and Nic Dowd 2-on-0. Comrie wowed there, but even he couldn't stop the Backman empty netter which would close the night out.
Horvat observed, "They're on a long road trip." This was the third of an eight-game Manitoba road trip. "Maybe [we] wore them down a little bit," said Mersch.
"Get in and get the forecheck going, much the same as we did the other night against Texas," emphasized Stothers. "Once we decided to finally get it in and make them go 200 feet, the game changed."
See full highlights here courtesy of AHL Live.