After back-to-back shoddy starts, the Ontario Reign looked like a sure bet to roar out the gate against their archrivals, the San Diego Gulls.
And good thing I'm not a betting man...as Ontario once again surrendered a crack-of-the-game goal. Last night, it was 1:41 in; tonight, it took just 1:25.
Surprisingly, Michael Mersch was a main offender, as his soft backhand breakout up the middle was intercepted by Corey Tropp. The San Diego winger gave it to Matt Bailey, who returned the favor, and Tropp blasted it from the right dot. Peter Budaj shouldered the puck above the crossbar, and as it fluttered down, Kurtis MacDermid let Tropp get the step on him:
Mersch took it hard. "I made a terrible play on the wall. That’s been my bread and butter all year.
"We’ve been trying to have good starts, and it was my fault."
The hosts did push back. Just seven minutes in, they already had eight shots. But perhaps they pushed back too hard, as Ryan Horvat was sent off for trying to goad an uninterested Shane O'Brien into a fight.
On the bright side, it was a better opening frame than last night (just one even strength chance on the AHL's second-worst defensive team) and Wednesday (just two shots on goal on San Jose)—the Reign had some chances, down 5-3 in that department after 20. But they didn't play well by any stretch. There was a lot of this:
And just 1:33 into the second period, the hosts gave again. After an artful Nic Dowd breakout, underrated prospect winger Ondrej Kase pickpocketed Kevin Gravel and silenced the crowd:
Well, some of the crowd. About 30-strong San Diego supporters occupied the upper third of Section 122, and throughout the night, their boisterous chants of "Let's gooo Gullssss" were met with vociferous Vault response. It was a playoff-like atmosphere, and one can only hope these two rivals will be planning a postseason rendezvous.
But perhaps Ontario needs the lead for sparks to fly on ice. This time, 5'11" Kris Newbury invited 6'4" Brian McGrattan to dance, but again, the visitors demurred. Mersch noted, "When...you're winning, why do it? Why get involved with that stuff?"
Up two goals, San Diego could afford to hang back a bit. In the middle of a 1:44 shift (HT to Jason Lewis for spotting that), Dowd was swallowed up in the neutral zone:
Here's another example. Look at their defensive posture with Kevin Raine trying to break out from more or less Budaj's spot:
By this point, Stothers was clicking and clicking and clicking the line blender. Newbury with Jordan Samuels-Thomas! Dowd with Adrian Kempe! Mersch with Brett Sutter! Not that you could blame him. The visitors enjoyed a 10-4 second period shots edge and the very best chances, chief among them, Stefan Noesen and Chris Wagner taking Derek Forbort's lunch money behind the net for a Wagner how-did-he-miss-it post.
Frankly, the Reign had nothing. They kicked off the third on the power play and offered just one Justin Auger "blip."
Then about halfway into the final frame, Tropp, Antoine Laganiere, and Brandon Montour converged on Mersch, who was trying to make something happen through the NZ. Nick Ebert was caught up ice, so Tropp and Laganiere were off on a 2-on-1:
Tropp to Laganiere on the 2-on-1, this put Gulls up 3-0 in 3rd pic.twitter.com/ez0V0desqX— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) March 20, 2016
Once again, the Gulls' fourth line had victimized the home team's first. "They got...some creativity...from guys maybe you don’t expect," admitted Stothers. "That’s how you win some hockey games.
"Again, you look at [Mersch, Dowd, and Sean Backman having] a tough night. So, everybody else has got to step up. Newbs has got to come through. Augs has got to come through. Brodz has got to come through."
And while Ontario kept at it—a lovely Kempe carry-in led to a Forbort score, which was followed by some oh-so-close pressure—San Diego capped off their dominant performance with a long, skittering Noesen empty netter.
Stothers observed, "I don’t think we tested [Anton Khudobin] enough. He was good when he had to be, but we didn’t get any sustained pressure.
"A lot of that is, you got to give some credit to their D. They do a good job of boxing you out. It’s tough to get to the net for that second opportunity."
The Reign are now 3-5-1-1 against the Gulls—their only losing record against any opponent so far this season. And in about a month, they close the year with a back-to-back...in San Diego!
Michael Mersch mentioned his minus-4 night five times during 2 minute, 50 second interview.— Lindsay Czarnecki (@ReignInsider) March 20, 2016