The Ontario Reign are the only AHL team which has allowed under 100 goals this season. The Texas Stars are one of only two AHL teams which has scored over 200 goals this season. From this study of contrast, who would emerge victorious?
Texas has also surrendered the most goals in the league this year, and we saw why early on. About halfway into the opening frame, Jesse Blacker bobbled the puck right in front of his goalie. A trailing Jordan Samuels-Thomas scooped up the turnover, but back-to-back backhands were turned away by Maxime Lagace. Samuels-Thomas was then launched into Lagace by Brennan Evans, leaving Valentin Zykov with an open net...and the illusion of time:
Lagace cleaned up once again with about four minutes to go, as Stephen Johns couldn't handle his pass to the corner. Justin Auger came out with the puck, and...I wouldn't say Johns, Esa Lindell, Matej Stransky, and Brendan Ranford even converged on him. Orbited? Well, Andrew Crescenzi almost escaped orbit, but the netminder pulled him down.
It was the Maxime "I wanna call you Manny" Lagace show in the 1st. ONT 5-2 ES chances, including a left pad PP save on Zykov w secs left— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) February 20, 2016
However, Coach Mike Stothers noted, "When a guy’s that good down low with his feet and his pads, you’ve got to get it up."
Three minutes into the second though, Lagace still kept the home team down. Crescenzi slowed a Johns rush at center ice, touching the puck up to Zykov, who advanced it to Samuels-Thomas. That's Lindell between JST and Z:
Lagace's play, as it so often has recently—the Stars came in on a six-game winning streak—set his team up to get ahead, as Christian Ehrhoff and Kurtis MacDermid soon took back-to-back penalties. But the Reign benefited from good luck (Stransky shanked a two-man advantage one-timer with an open side) and better penalty killing (Crescenzi won a big draw with three seconds left to finish off the 3v5).
Shortly after this kill, Samuels-Thomas swiped the puck from a breaking Cole Ully. Lindell, perhaps distracted by a hovering Ryan Horvat, didn't step up, and JST lifted a backhand over Lagace's blocker. "I pop out and no one really came to me and I had a lane to the net."
It was another trademark fist pump for the relentless winger, his second goal in as many games. "I didn't score much last year, so sometimes I get a little excited," Samuels-Thomas quipped. However, he's celebrated in this flamboyant fashion since college. "When I transferred to Quinnipiac, I scored quite a bit there. I was playing in my home state, 40 minutes away from home...[having] fun."
The celebration, however, did not last long for Ontario. A Vincent LoVerde holding resulted in Curtis McKenzie, on the rush, dropping the puck to Jason Dickinson in the slot:
A penalty-filled middle frame marched on, as Ully, Brett Ritchie, and Lindell gave the hosts ample opportunity to re-take the lead with various infractions. And they almost did: About three minutes left, Sean Backman, Nic Dowd, and Ehrhoff played tic-tac-toe, Jonny Brodzinski tipping the German's blueline bid off the post.
Roughly a minute later, Ritchie hurtled out of the box, eluding a LoVerde hook on his breakaway, but Peter Budaj was better. Budaj was better once again when he stopped Nick's brother on the resulting penalty shot.
Aided by this plethora of power plays, the Reign enjoyed a 12-6 shots edge in the second, and a 24-11 lead for the game. But they didn't enjoy a tied-up affair. Who would break the deadlock?
The Stars sure tried. Just a minute into the final frame, Gemel Smith outskated Horvat on the rush for a left dot one-timer. Then Ranford forced a MacDermid turnover behind the net, which Smith rerouted to Derek Hulak for another chance, this time from the slot. Shortly thereafter, Samuels-Thomas and Jeff Schultz both eyed Ully, leaving Johns to saunter through the backdoor by himself. But the beleaguered blueliner bonked the post.
No, it would be another bedeviled backender who would redeem himself about four minutes in, as Dowd outmuscled Julius Honka and Mattias Backman in the corner, feeding LoVerde at the top of the circles, the captain beating Lagace high blocker.
Just a little more than a minute later, Brodzinski tipped an Ehrhoff point shot, putting away his own rebound high as a befuddled Johns witnessed.
The sniper credited a surprising source for his success, "Our goalie coach [Dusty Imoo] actually, he told us...to go upstairs...all three of all goals were upstairs."
Ontario had discovered Lagace's weakness, whereas Texas? Their defeat was written in the Stars. By an AHL All-Star, that is.
Abt 9 mins in, Stars have had a 'lil rough luck in 3rd, I have them up this pd 4-2 ES chances, but they've given up 2 goals...power of Budaj— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) February 20, 2016
Most appropriately, another Texas unforced defensive error, this time by Honka, sealed their deal:
It was a just reward for the on-the-puck all night Crescenzi, who absolutely dominated at the draw too, winning his first ten attempts. It was also his faceoff victory that led to Samuels-Thomas's goal. The Reign owned the circle with a 39-20 record, Dowd the kingpin:
Looking ahead, Ontario will travel for 16 of their final 21 regular season games. Stothers, not surprisingly, is keeping his Western Conference-leading defending champs grounded, "If you want to be taken seriously for playoffs, you need to win on the road. We’ve done OK up to this point. This will be a good test for us."
See full highlights at AHL Live.