The Ontario Reign polished off the San Jose Barracuda with relative ease, as Bastien winner Peter Budaj continued to be the backbone of the Western Conference's top-seed, posting a 1.51 GAA & .925 Save % in the series. The San Diego Gulls, however, will be a stiffer challenge; they're the only opponent that Ontario has a losing record (4-6-1-1) against this season. The Reign will also be challenged by the possible absences of centers Brett Sutter and Ryan Horvat. Top pivot Nic Dowd excelled without the help though, as he rides a four-game postseason point scoring streak.
The Gulls extinguished the Texas Stars with back-to-back routs, winning by a combined 12-3. Gifted blueliners Brandon Montour (12-45-57) and Shea Theodore (9-28-37) support a slew of skilled forwards to form one of the league's deadliest attacks, while Anton Khudobin (2.46 GAA, .921 Save %) is more than capable of erasing any mistake. Khudobin, however, departed Game Four early, and his status is still up in the air going into Thursday night.
|Points %||.684 (1st, Western)||.618 (5th, Western)|
|Goals For||2.82/gm (15th, AHL)||3.06/gm (7th)|
|Goals Against||2.03/gm (1st)||2.94/gm (17th)|
|PP%||16.0 (20th)||20.8 (3rd)|
|PK%||88.7 (1st)||84.1 (11th)|
|PIMs||16.2/gm (25th)||18.2/gm (29th)|
|Date||ONT Corsi For||SD Corsi For||ONT CF%||ONT Scoring Chances For||SD Scoring Chances For||ONT SCF%||Result||Notes|
|11/5/2015||61||41||17||6||ONT 4-1||Kempe scores 2nd period hat trick|
|11/27/2015||26||39||3||7||SD 3-2||Theodore notches game-winner on power play|
|11/28/2015||39||31||7||7||SD 3-1||Both teams combine for 78 PIMs|
|12/19/2015||59||36||12||12||SD 3-2 SO||Newbury ties game with 26 seconds left, but Reign fall in shootout|
|12/26/2015||38||30||9||9||SD 4-1||MacDermid elbows Bailey, gets 12-game suspension|
|1/15/2016||41||31||12||7||ONT 5-0||Samuels-Thomas scores a pair as Ontario dominates|
|1/29/2016||52||43||12||4||ONT 2-0||Clifford starts AHL conditioning assignment|
|2/20/2016||46||60||6||12||SD 4-2||Gulls come back from deficit with three goals in 3rd|
|3/12/2016||56||36||14||10||SD 2-1 OT||Kempe's 3rd period goal ties game up, but Sgarbossa steals it in OT|
|3/19/2016||41||53||6||14||SD 4-1||Mersch records -4 as San Diego coasts|
|4/15/2016||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||ONT 4-2||Reign clinch Western Conference, Gulls rest players|
|4/16/2016||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||SD 3-2||Both teams rest players on last day of regular season|
I'm only focusing on the first 10 games of this series because one or both of the teams rested a number of key players during their regular season-ending back to back. The Reign's poor record against the Gulls might have been somewhat undeserved, considering their control of even strength possession and scoring chances. That said, Ontario clearly had a tougher time with San Diego—for example, they owned 59.3% of chances against San Jose.
Gulls PP VS Reign PK
The reasons for the Gulls' third-ranked power play are quite apparent at just a glance. Dowd noted of their pointman Montour, "Good patience with the puck, gets a lot of shots through."
In fact, Montour's 165 total shots led the entire team, while his 24 power play assists tied for the league lead. And it's pick your poison from the backend when pairing Montour with the equally-dangerous Theodore.
Dan Arel of Mayor's Manor pointed out, "They don't overthink it. They move the puck carefully around the ice until they move the defense far away enough from the net to take a good shot, but they always have someone ready for the rebound."
Someone like Nick Ritchie. "He's a big body that is hard to move in front of the net," observed Jeff Schultz. He also credited a lot of San Diego's power play electricity to a less-ballyhooed source. "[Chris] Mueller is kind of what they feed off on the power play. He's kind of their half wall guy. Good set-up guy, kind of likes to get lost...in those soft areas."
All said though, the Reign's top-ranked penalty kill has held firm against the Gulls, as they've allowed just five power play goals (54 PPA, 90.7%) in their season series.
"I think it's just a good four-man commitment to blocking shots, getting the puck out when we have a chance, winning faceoffs, doing all those little things," said Schultz.
"They keep their PK tight in the zone and don't fall for San Diego's movement of the puck like other teams have," added Arel. "They allow San Diego to make passes without feeling the need to chase the puck the entire shift. They wait for the right moment to break up a pass and get the puck down the ice."
Surprisingly, Ontario has actually outscored San Diego head to head with the man advantage, seven goals to five (11.5 PP% to 9.3). Will they continue to hold court at special teams?
Certainly, the Reign won't want to test their penalty killing luck by giving the Gulls too many opportunities. But will they be able to help themselves?
The two Southern California rivals totaled 498 penalty minutes in their regular season series (ONT 235, SD 263). As a point of comparison, Ontario and San Jose combined for 277 in their 12-game set.
Paul Bissonnette admitted that there is an extra emphasis on discipline, especially against San Diego, "Yeah, it's something you need to mention before you go in.
"I think a lot of times when you have the amount of pressure and fans yelling at you and the intensity of the game and how much it elevates in the playoff, yeah, some times you kind of spaz out and lose focus. You're at the end of a long shift and you don't have much oxygen going into your brain, so yeah, you have brain farts.
"It's kind of something you have to mention all the time and make sure you're not taking any selfish penalties."
The burly winger used another playoff series to illustrate his point, "You look at a guy like Antoine Roussel, who took kind of a silly one in overtime against St. Louis. If Dallas wins that game in overtime, they have a headlock on that series 2-0. But he takes a silly penalty, Backes scores on the power play. All of the sudden, [St. Louis] goes back home, and they have all the confidence in the world.
"It's one little play that can change the momentum of the series."
Ontario-San Diego is the 34th 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 in the AHL's 80-year history, but just the third since 1993.
Assistant Coach Chris Hajt actually played in a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 in 2000, as his Hamilton Bulldogs lost a six-game series to the Rochester Americans. He gave a player's perspective as to how to cope with such an unforgiving playoff format.
"I think the bottom line with the schedule...it's just getting into your routine. As a player, you have a specific routine of how you approach each and every game as far as meals and naps and stuff like that.
"Really, there's no excuses because it's an hour and forty-five minutes down the road.
"Everybody has to get on their routine."
Budaj VS ?
Khudobin, like Aaron Dell last series, was one of the few goalies to outduel Budaj head to head during the regular season. The 'Dobin Wall went 5-2 with a .929 Save % against the Reign this year, while the Bastien Award winner was 4-5-1-1 with a .921 Save %.
"I think what helps the Gulls is their ability to move the puck on the rush, getting defensemen out of position, and making the odds for any goaltender harder," said Arel.
Hajt added, "They definitely go to the net. There's no secret about it. They do a good job of it on their power play. They do a good job of it on their 5v5 play."
As for beating Khudobin, Kevin Woodley wrote:
purely reactionary game that was sometimes all over the place. In the minds of a lot of NHL goalie coaches, Khudobin’s game screamed out for more structure, especially if he wasn’t going to be playing regularly and able to find the timing and rhythm that style typically relies more on. (InGoal Magazine)
Of course, Khudobin's status is pending, but his backup is no slouch either. Matt Hackett, who's just 26, led the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals in 2011.
Score the 1st Goal
In the first 10 games of their regular season series, whoever scored the first goal won the game. San Diego also owned a 31-0-0-0 record leading after the 2nd.
The Gulls employed a very effective trap with the lead. Here's an example—that's Kevin Raine trying to break out, down two in the second period on March 19th:
"Teams know that we like to go through the middle, use our centers a lot," acknowledged Dowd. "Teams do a good job of staying over top and that makes it a little more challenging."
Schultz broke it down from the blueline, "They challenge in all the right areas of the ice. They're challenging before the red lines, so we can't dump it in, and if we do, it's an icing.
"They hold the blueline very well with their defense. It just makes it hard for us to move the puck up the ice."
Of course, one goal doesn't decide a game, and defensively-minded Ontario holds a lead as well as any team.
Jewels from the Crown VS Mayor's Manor
JFTC: Size, goaltending, and skill, San Diego has more than enough to stop the defending champs in its tracks.
This series can really go either way, but I'm picking Ontario in seven. I think the Reign PK continues to limit the Gulls PP, while their even strength superiority manifests itself with just enough goals to take them to the Conference Finals.
This has all the makings of a classic. I'm calling at least a couple overtimes in this series.
Dan Arel: "Fans are in for one heck of a series. I think we could be in for a full seven games.
"This series is going to be very physical, probably more physical than most playoff series. These teams have a true hatred for each other, more than just a respected rivalry. I expect high scores and big hits. I think the team that wins will come down to who can wear the other team out the most. Staying healthy will be key for both sides and I think special teams are going to be the real deciding factor here. Let's be honest, there are going to be a fair amount of roughing penalties alone.
"My final prediction, however, I'll have to go with my hometown boys in a massive upset."