The Ontario Reign lost three in a row last week and were outscored 10-4, so they were clearly looking for a return to their usual form when they shoved Peter Budaj in net on the same day he was recalled. They got exactly what they wanted from Budaj, but it wouldn't have meant a thing if the Reign didn't score some goals.
BACKMAN BACK-TO-BACK!! It's 6-1. Oh boy!!— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) February 18, 2016
They scored some goals.
A number of Reign players had productive nights in Ontario's 6-1 win. Sean Backman could have made himself the story if his baseball swing to finish a seven-minute hat trick had connected. Michael Mersch scored a goal that I didn't know he was capable of. And Kurtis MacDermid had a couple of assists, validating his continued inclusion in the Reign lineup. But Andrew Crescenzi (he of the 10 points in 44 games coming into tonight) stole the headlines, as his three points in the first two periods helped put the Stockton Heat away.
The play that summed up the tenor of tonight's game came two minutes into the second period. Despite controlling most of the first 20 minutes, Valentin Zykov's fine early goal had been cancelled out by a shorthanded tally by Drew Shore in the dying moments of the period. Mersch had put Ontario right back on top, though...
Mersch! 26 seconds in to the second! Nearly loses the puck on a break, then recovers and coolly goes backhand over Poulin's glove.— Eric (@EricJFTC) February 18, 2016
... and with the Reign looking to gain a further handle on the game, Crescenzi boarded Pat Sieloff behind the Heat net. As those plays go, it looked fairly innocent, but it was clearly a hit from behind. Sieloff wobbled a bit before falling slowly, which is never a good sign. (He skated off under his own power but would not return.) And yet, the play went on, and there was Crescenzi converting a feed from Paul Bissonnette to make it 3-1. He'd gotten the primary assist on Zykov's goal and would get another one on a backbreaking Jordan Samuels-Thomas tally at the end of the second, but this one colored the rest of the evening.
The Heat, already struggling and furious at the non-call, spent the rest of the game engaging the Reign after the whistle, holding them down for an extra couple seconds when they fell near the boards, and lining up hits a little earlier than they normally would. (Colton Orr is playing for Stockton right now, so maybe that's not a huge surprise.) The Reign, meanwhile, continued to dominate the play for the rest of the second and for the first half of the third, and Backman converted two excellent passes to make the rest a formality.
Backman finished them both with aplomb, but special attention to those two passes! Vincent LoVerde set up the first with a seeing-eye pass that evaded everyone except a streaking Backman on the backdoor. Nic Dowd took a different, equally effective tack.
Of course, that was more than enough for Peter Budaj, who picked up right where he left off. He had just enough time to grab a win in New York and watch one of the most hard-fought games I've seen in a long time from the press box before hopping on a flight back to Ontario. Asked about the quick turnaround after the game, he nonchalantly mentioned he'd gotten in at 2:00, which you wouldn't have known watching him calmly turn aside 20 of 21 shots.
The Reign are right back at it against the red-hot Texas Stars on Friday. The Stars have won six straight to turn a seemingly insurmountable Pacific Division lead into an interesting race. Sounds familiar.