It was many happy returns for the Reign, as both Adrian Kempe and Derek Forbort re-joined the fold tonight. However, earlier in the week, Coach Mike Stothers warned of a let-down for both as they re-adjusted to the AHL. Would these top Kings prospects actually bring Western Conference-leading Ontario down?
Tonight's first ten minutes was fast-paced but tight. Both teams combined for just six shots and three not very dangerous even strength scoring chances.
But then, Nic Dowd jumped an ill-conceived Oliver Kylington cross-ice, up-the-middle breakout to Turner Elson. "It was definitely high-risk [on my part]," noted Dowd. "If I jump in, and the guy looks me off, then my winger's behind me. So I took a chance, and luckily, I read it well." Stockton on their heels, Dowd's right of the dot wrister challenged Joni Ortio. Brett Kulak bobbled the clear on the rebound, and Jonny Brodzinski disposed of the garbage.
Minutes later, the Heat continued to play hot potato with the puck. Kylington curled at the half wall, finding Ryan Lomberg cross ice, behind Paul Bissonnette, and in the slot. Lomberg, however, couldn't handle the admittedly sizzling dish; that was the story of Stockton's opening frame—close, but after 20, down a goal and in ES chances 4-1.
Life wouldn't get better for the visitors to start the second. Manning the power play half wall, Tyler Wotherspoon was too concerned with his next move with the puck, noticing Kevin Gravel's stick too late. Gravel's push of the puck sprung a hard-charging Andrew Crescenzi and Jordan Samuels-Thomas for a short-handed 2-on-1, and Crescenzi cashed the change from a Samuels-Thomas top of the circles bullet. Stothers commended JST for a particularly energetic effort tonight after some recent inconsistent play.
Stockton tried to make better use of its man advantage the next time around. Kylington beat Forbort on a 50-50 dump just past the Reign blueline, and Peter Budaj withstood bang-bang, up-the-chute blasts from the Swedish wunderkind and AHL All-Star Derek Grant. Unfortunately for the Heat, Nick's brother Drew Shore was called for his extra whack on a covered puck, extinguishing the threat. Shortly thereafter, an Emile Poirier cross-checking—away from the play—gifted the hosts with a brief 5-on-3.
A clean Dowd faceoff victory earned immediate possession. Then tic tac toe: From the blueline, Gravel went to Kempe below the right dot, who threaded it between Grant and Pat Sieloff, to Dowd below the left dot. Ortio scrambled post to post, but to no avail.
Undeterred, Stockton kept pressing Budaj. Despite being up 3-0, this period was probably too wide open for Ontario's liking. With about three minutes to go, Shore beat a puck-watching Kevin Raine on the rush and to the net. From the right circle, Turner Elson tapped it to Shore, who apparently stuffed it past Budaj on the open side. I say "apparently" because play continued on for a couple minutes, despite a Heat celebration. We couldn't tell from the pressbox, but AHL official Jason Hernandez said overhead cameras showed a sure goal.
I had second period ES chances Reign 7-6. Like I said, too wide open. The difference? PB & save after save after save. After the game, Stothers didn't forget his masked All-Star, "They had some good scoring chances. They had three in the second period right from the slot...
"That’s what you need. You need the save when you need the save, and he’s provided that for us."
Ontario mended its gaps in the third, stepping up with purpose in the NZ or keeping Stockton on the DZ perimeter. Then about five minutes in, Kempe, Sean Backman, and Derek Army beat the gambling, too-deep Heat forwards up the ice, and Army set up the Swedish winger in a soft spot between Kylington and backchecking Elson and Bill Arnold for a rocket one-timer through Ortio.
This dagger seemed to take the oxygen out of the room for Stockton. The visiting squad fought back with zero ES chances in the entire third.
Not to be too hard on Ortio—his guys were outchanced 14-7 at evens and terrible on special teams—but unlike his counterpart, he was leaky. A little more than halfway into the final frame, Ryan Horvat, from behind the net, found a mysteriously unmarked Backman for a point-blank SH goal. A couple minutes later, a Gravel PP point shot found a path through the embattled Stockton keeper. That was four goals on special teams for the triumphant Reign, including their first pair of the season short handed.
This effort, unlike New Year Eve's against these same Heat, was marked by crisp tape-to-tape passes and smooth breakouts. Dowd commented on the difference tonight, "I think it just begins with our skating. If guys are going to come all the way back, five-man connected, and come up the ice together, it makes a big difference as opposed to guys only getting back half the zone.
"You turn a 8-10 foot pass into a 30-foot pass, you're going to have the likelihood of a turnover."
As for the return of conquering heroes Kempe and Forbort, Stothers sounded a note of caution. "I thought they looked pretty good. But it’s always the next one that I worry about. That’s the one. So tomorrow will be a better test for those two in how they respond and recover from back-to-back games."
See full highlights here, courtesy of AHL Live.