On the outside looking in of the playoff picture, would Stockton start their sprint to the postseason by taking the opening heat of a road back-to-back in Ontario?
For the visitors, it was a promising enough beginning, as Zac Leslie took a needless offensive zone boarding to negate the end of a Reign power play. Seconds later, Nick Ebert was tagged for tripping, and the Heat were granted a long 5v3. Speaking of their leading goalscorer Derek Grant, he was roughly treated by Peter Budaj's paddle:
The hosts escaped, and shortly thereafter, they benefited from this deluge of penalties (there were six power plays in the opening frame). Michael Mersch smartly kept the puck away from Dustin Stevenson behind the net, and discovered Jonny Brodzinski off to Kevin Poulin's side:
It was a short reign though, as about a minute later, Ryan Horvat tried exiting the zone through Turner Elson, coughing up the puck. Elson pounced and beat the bejesus out of Budaj:
With about two minutes left, Horvat was almost victimized again, as Emile Poirier deked the hope out of him, ringing the post from the top of the circles.
In a penalty-choked opening frame, Stockton managed to push ahead with a 4-2 even strength scoring chances edge.
"My feeling is just let the teams play," noted Coach Mike Stothers. "Let the teams dictate it unless it starts getting out of control, which I didn’t think it was."
But Ontario would push back just a minute and a half into the second. From the half wall, Justin Auger fired the puck at a Bill Arnold, Pat Sieloff, Kris Newbury, and Adrian Kempe traffic jam. We're not sure if the puck went off Arnold or Sieloff, but regardless, it got past Poulin.
From there, the Reign kept rolling. About halfway into the period, Mersch fought Ryan Culkin and Elson off in the corner to complete a gorgeous turnaround pass to an unmarked Sean Backman at the right dot. Backman's bid deflected off Kenney Morrison, and the puck fluttered off the crossbar.
Then on his next shift, Backman, along with Newbury, pounced on a Brett Kulak blueline fumble. "The D kind of just fell down and it looked like me and Backs were almost going to fight over it for a bit and I eventually got it," chuckled the centerman. He then made a perfectly-placed 2-on-1 pass past Morrison, who was probably backing off too much:
Down a pair, the visitors picked up their pace, but time after time, the home team's MVP cooled down the Heat with save after save. In fact, after 40, both squads were knotted up at a less than defensive-minded nine ES chances apiece.
Impressively though, Brodzinski had fired seven of his side's 17 shots on goal up to this point. Speaking of, the younger sniper had set a personal goal of four shots a game at the beginning of the year. As a mark of his increased comfort with the league, the young sniper followed up by mentioning, "I think it's gone up kind of in the last couple of months here. It's gone up to about six." Stothers agreed, "I think he’s turning the corner...He knows he’s being counted on and relied upon." It was the winger's third goal in four, and his 13th in 39 after a scoreless 17-game AHL debut.
Somewhat cavalier two-way play was evident just a minute into the final frame, as Hunter Shinkaruk, from blueline to blueline, sliced through Brett Sutter and Ebert. From the left dot, the recently-acquired star prospect wristed it off Budaj's left pad and onto the unmarked Kulak's stick at the right dot:
Perhaps it was Derek Forbort who should have picked up the rover?
Regardless, Ontario replied with prejudice. With about 13 minutes to go, Kenny Agostino tried to wheel the puck back to Morgan Klimchuk bull-rushing the slot with Culkin. Newbury tipped the attempted pass up, and the speedy Backman had a half-step on everybody until the too-aggressive blueliner took him down from the side. Then, as this power play was expiring, Jeff Schultz blasted it through a maze of Auger, Newbury, and a trio of red jerseys, a clean shot through Stockton's back.
"I know I don’t score too many goals, so I’ll take them when I can," said a smiling Schultz of his third of the year, which even made the usually stony-faced Kurtis MacDermid beam:
And though the Heat kept crackling, lovely defensive plays like this one from Kevin Gravel kept the opposition from consummating a comeback:
3:34 left, here's a small Gravel defensive play that I absolutely loved...STK pressure, perfect clear pic.twitter.com/6FoiJlwiWK— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) March 26, 2016
This late Kempe shot block also caught my attention too, because the young Swede has (deservedly) been the target of Stothers's "tough love" throughout the season and as recently as this morning.
It's a reminder that Kempe's still being put out there at critical times and isn't shying entirely away from the "little things." Plus, he's just 19.
But I digress from Stockton's playoff hopes, which were dealt another blow by a Western-leading Ontario squad that they played fairly evenly. So evenly, in fact, that both teams ended up with 13 ES chances and 28 shots apiece. The difference? An empty 5v3 and a pair on the PP for the home team.
"They put a lot of pucks at the net. That’s part of their team game plan," observed Stothers. "But there were some good chances that we were, again, still not quite as sharp as I’d like to see us be defensively. We’ll address a few things tomorrow, get ready for tomorrow’s re-match."