For an Ontario Reign squad that has scored a total of 12 goals in their last eight games, there might have been no more welcome sight than the Texas Stars. The Stars have surrendered an AHL-worst 130 goals; compare to the Reign who, not unlike their NHL counterpart, have given up a league-best 58.
Of course, the Stars, not unlike their NHL counterpart, have rung up an AHL-leading 139 goals; compare to the Reign, who have produced a second-to-last 72.
Would Texas be the antidote for Ontario's goalscoring woes? Or would the hosts be the panacea for the visitors' defensive shortcomings? This tilt promised a true contrast in styles...not unlike a LA Kings-Dallas Stars head-to-head.
Texas showed from the get-go why their speed and aggressiveness is so feared.
"Man, they can go. They can flat out fly," exclaimed Coach Mike Stothers.
Ontario was a step behind, most markedly during back-to-back shifts about eight minutes in, when Brett Ritchie swiped the puck from Kevin Gravel in the corner, leading to a Ritchie one-timer from the top of the circles. Then after a faceoff win, pivot Justin Dowling slipped by a point-watching Nic Dowd for a slot backhand bid. Good thing Peter Budaj was equal to the task, as he would have to be all night. Stothers noted of Dowd, "Sometimes, he puts too much pressure on himself to be the guy."
Perhaps a Reign team mired in a slump was guilty of trying to do too much. There was a 10+ minutes stretch where Ontario didn't even record a shot, and with just two to go, they were down 12-5 SOG. High Texas pressure was certainly a cause, but once again, crisp execution on the breakout eluded the home team.
Minutes into the middle frame, however, the visitors threw a gasping offense a lifeline. A Ritchie tripping call and following too many men on the ice gave the hosts a 5-on-3. Unfortunately, Dowd-Gravel-Sean Backman-Justin Auger-Andrew Crescenzi were far too stationary, and this gift expired.
But everything is bigger in Texas, including the presents. On a penalty kill about halfway into the second, John Muse decided to try to clear the puck through the 6'7" Auger. "I thought he was going to cover it. So I was just going in there trying to make him cover it and he decided to play it and luckily when tried to play it, it hit me right in the stomach, fell right in front, and I just hit it in the net."
Would Ontario, who hadn't enjoyed a lead in a few games, finally clamp down? Well, Budaj would, especially with about four to go. A hard-charging Greg Rallo broke free of a too-aggressive Zach Leslie in the neutral zone...but it would be PB & (glove) save. After 40, the Stars had peppered Peter between the pipes with 10 even strength chances, whereas the Reign only had four.
But seven minutes into the final frame, Ontario's most successful carry-in line tonight came through. Jonny Brodzinski pulled a forechecking Curtis McKenzie toward him before dropping a soft neutral zone pass to his centerman. At full speed, Dowd backed off the opposition, gaining the line. Finally, Auger cut hard from the boards to the slot, shedding Matej Stransky in the process, then flicking a hard wrister past Muse and a far-too deep Ludwig Bystrom. This was the strapping winger's fifth goal in 10 games since Michael Mersch's call-up.
About halfway into the third, the Reign looked like they might skate by, pulled by Budaj's spectacular effort. But the oh so skilled Stars weren't done shining. This time, Ritchie on the man advantage and with a head of steam backed Gravel all the way to the slot—Nick Ebert tried to help, but the powerful winger shrugged him off and picked a corner.
Minutes later, Dowd and Brodzinski didn't pick up a roving Jason Dickinson behind them in the slot, instead opting to converge on blueliner Matt Mangene. Mangene threaded a pass to his unmarked center, and Dickinson ripped it home with about five to go.
Stothers wasn't surprised. "You can play a little bit on the other side of the puck if you know your team can score," he said, speaking of Texas. "Doesn't bother them. You can just tell. It doesn't bother them if they give up a goal, doesn't bother them if they give up two. Because they know they can get it back."
For his team, which Stothers described as perhaps "a little fragile" for the first time this season because of last Sunday's performance, would two goals against in just 2:34 finish them off tonight?
Good God, it's Kevin Gravel's overtime music! In OT, Dowd backchecked the puck out of Dickinson, and Auger smartly spaced himself away from a slow-to-react Julius Honka, setting up a seamless two-on-one with the creeping Gravel.
Of his second OT winner this season, the defender added, "Augie made a good play. He hung onto it for a while, he got the goalie to bite on him and slid it over and I had nothing but net to shoot at and fortunately it went in for us."
Fortunately, indeed. Ontario snapped a three-game losing streak, scoring more than two goals in a contest for the first time since December 12th. As Stothers quipped, "That was a major goal outburst by us."