The San Diego Gulls had this figure in their favor as they looked to stave off elimination tonight: The Ontario Reign had dropped all five "zero days rest" match-ups between them this season.
The opening frame was so ho-hum, I'm just going to spend a sentence on it: Both teams combined for just 10 shots and three even strength scoring chances. Alright, I'll add this: Ontario did cruise ahead with an 8-2 shots edge. None were very dangerous, but it was a sign of things to come, particularly on the defensive end.
Did Matt Hackett know it was Justin Auger's birthday today? Well, three minutes into the new period, he gave a gift to the wrong guy. Looking to break out a moribund offense from behind his net, the goalie instead fed Joel Lowry, who couldn't turn down free cake:
It wasn't all good fortune though, as the rookie winger related to Scott Coffman of Mayor's Manor, "Both of their goalies like to play the puck. Kind of tried to take the wall away, but last second, I figured he was going to go to the middle."
But besides acts of charity, there wasn't a lot going on for either side. About seven minutes into the middle frame, both teams had combined for five shots. Who would break out?
For a hot minute—or more precisely, 25 seconds—it looked like San Diego might catch fire. Almost midway into the period, Nic Dowd missed a neutral zone stand-up, and the Gulls raced out for a three-on-two. Chris Wagner went stickside successfully, and for a squad which had struggled to muster just five shots after 28 minutes of play, this was a long exhale.
Well, not that long. 25 seconds later, Jeff Schultz interrupted a rushing Matt Bailey with a well-placed stick. Inexplicably, blueliner Brandon Montour continued to press the attack, trying to jump Michael Amadio, but the cool and collected rookie glanced the puck off the boards, springing Justin Auger and Sean Backman for a two-on-one. For the second night in a row, a birthday boy delivered:
The now 22-year-old observed, "Just a good shot right over the pad." When asked if this was the biggest birthday goal that he's ever scored, the towering winger beamed, "I’d have to say only birthday goal ever."
The Reign were starting to roll, ripping off a 7-3 ES chances edge for the period, highlighted perhaps by an Adrian Kempe spy of a Michael Sgarbossa breakout with about 30 seconds to go, which resulted in a walk down San Diego's slot. As hard as Head Coach Mike Stothers has been on the 19-year-old this season, he made sure to lavish the winger with praise tonight:
"He had multiple examples that we showed between periods to the whole team of him angling guys off...I think that kid was unreal."
To that end, the final frame and pretty much the entire game was an Ontario defensive masterpiece. Despite San Diego Head Coach Dallas Eakins's persistent line blending, the visitors couldn't find any combination to unlock the neutral zone.
In fact, the Reign reeled off the first four ES chances of the Gulls' purported comeback period. And 50 minutes in, Ontario had enjoyed 20 offensive zone faceoffs to just 10 defensive draws. So while Hackett and luck kept San Diego close—Amadio hit the post after Kempe dangled Sgarbossa and Joe Piskula, while the backup netminder stopped Kris Newbury cold in the crease—this game felt like one where a two-goal lead would be insurmountable.
But with about 11 minutes remaining, the Gulls were granted a power play off a Zach Leslie holding. Of course, it would come down to the premier match-up of this series: The third-ranked San Diego power play versus the league-best Ontario penalty kill. And once again, the Reign came out on top, as the Gulls barely tested Peter Budaj.
In all, Ontario killed 90% (18-20) of San Diego's power plays in this series and 90.5% regular season/postseason combined (67-74).
"We really forced them down the ice. We have our first guy swinging through and the second guy...we don’t let them get into the zone," noted Auger. "If they don’t have easy entries over our blueline and into the zone, it’s going to be hard for them to get any power play established against us."
So thorough was the Reign's chokehold of the neutral zone that the Gulls didn't squeeze out their first ES chance until seven minutes to go and couldn't pull the goalie until a minute ticking on their season.
It was no normal pull, however, as Backman was sent off for a late tripping, gifting San Diego with essentially a two-man advantage. But fittingly, it would be Ontario's MVP who would finish off the challengers, as he swallowed up a Montour in-tight drive with just 10 seconds on the clock.
Dowd thought it was a signature Reign win, "Budes played well and then you go from the back end, our D was really good, our penalty kill was really good." He added, "I thought we got our forecheck established and we got pucks to the net and I think they had 15 shots."
The defending Calder Cup champs kick off the Western Conference Finals this Saturday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena against either the Lake Erie Monsters or the Grand Rapids Griffins.