If you weren't sure why pundits were anticipating a bloodbath between the Ontario Reign and the San Diego Gulls before opening night of their 1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1 second-round series, look no further than the 498 penalty minutes amassed between the rivals in their regular season "dirty dozen." In comparison, Reign-Barracuda combined for a relatively tame 277 PIMs in their 12-game set.
Unfortunately for both sides, the war of attrition had already launched before puck drop, as Ontario's strength up front was sapped by the absences of Jonny Brodzinski, Brett Sutter, and Ryan Horvat. Meanwhile, San Diego answered the bell sans significant arsenal: Starting goaltender Anton Khudobin and second-line center Michael Sgarbossa.
From the get-go though, it was the Reign who ganged up. Halfway into the opening frame, they had already run roughshod 9-0 shots and 4-1 even strength scoring chances. But Khudobin's replacement, Matt Hackett, reminded the bullies that he was no pushover—memorably, the 26-year-old led the Houston Aeros to the 2011 Calder Cup Finals.
But off a soft Adrian Kempe dump-in, Justin Auger and Michael Mersch went hard on Andrew Welinski and Shea Theodore behind the net. Mersch bowled over the first-round uber-prospect—indeed, it was an uncalled interference—and Auger backhanded it up to Kevin Raine at the point. Raine connected with Jeff Schultz, who re-routed it back to Hackett, and in one motion, Mersch knocked it down with his boot for a chip-in.
The visitors finally recorded a shot on goal with exactly nine minutes left in the frame. But this wouldn't kick off their comeback...yet. They would have to suffer a lackadaisical Nick Ritchie tripping penalty—then Nic Dowd dangling Kyle MacKinnon, who was protecting the slot, like a marionette, before Vincent LoVerde backdoored it.
Soon after though, Mersch gave San Diego a chance to breathe, as he hooked them into a man advantage. Much has been made of the vaunted Gulls power play—they were third in the league during the regular season—but perhaps not enough has been made of the Reign's top-ranked penalty kill. With the visitors desperate for any momentum, Dowd, Andrew Crescenzi, and Jordan Samuels-Thomas snatched Chris Mueller's half wall like a pack of hungry dogs lunging at a bone. In fact, Auger enjoyed the most dangerous opportunity of SD's PP, as he passed the puck off the NZ boards to himself, almost victimizing a hapless Welinski once again.
If not for Hackett, San Diego's bruisin' might have required emergency medical attention, as Ontario had cruised to a 12-4 shots, 6-2 ES chances edge at the end of one.
Mere minutes into the middle frame, the Gulls transitioned quickly after a Kevin Gravel point shot deflected off Auger and in the opposite direction. Ritchie beat Mersch to the puck at the NZ boards, handing it off to Mueller for a 3-on-2. Gravel and Derek Forbort ended up covering nobody, as the playmaker, who had gained the middle of the ice with ease, fastballed it to Kalle Kossila in front for a pretty tip.
Just two minutes later, Kris Newbury and Corey Tropp, who had pummeled each other earlier in what was essentially a sanctioned street fight, were jousting for the puck on the corner. Newbury actually won it, but Schultz wasn't ready to receive, and the stalwart defender accidentally kicked the puck back to Tropp, who was now behind Peter Budaj. The pesky winger threw it off the goalie, and as Budaj was reaching to cover, Matt Bailey slipped between the puck-watching firm of Samuels-Thomas, Newbury & Raine for a stunning strike.
A Thursday night Citizens Business Bank Arena crowd of just 4,387, which already had to chant down a vociferous pro-San Diego contingent, was quiet. Was Ontario's well-documented trouble with their Southern Southern California rivals rearing its well-tanned, golden-tressed head?
What was perhaps the turning point of the game arrived posthaste: A forechecking Paul Bissonnette intercepted a soft Welinski rim, giving it to Michael Amadio. Amadio set LoVerde up for a drive from below the circles, which rebounded back to the rookie for an open net gimme. But no goal. Apparently, Bissonnette, who was steaming to the front, had accidentally clipped Hackett's mask. So what could've been a 3-2 lead became a goaltender interference penalty.
"I thought it was the other guy’s stick who hit him and I saw the replay in the box and that’s what it looked like," argued Bissonnette. "I think [the ref] might have been on the other side of the net, so I don’t know if he saw it."
Once again though, the Reign's penalty kill grounded the Gulls' high-flying power play. They swarmed Mueller on entry after entry, and again, boasted the best scoring chance, as a perhaps fatigued Theodore at the end of his shift backhanded a breakout to LoVerde jumping up in the NZ, which culminated in Mersch almost whipping Hackett.
Shortly thereafter, Ritchie had a step with the puck, but Gravel activated both speed and stick for a "Cool Rush" recovery.
This defensive derring-do allowed a forechecking Amadio, about five minutes left, to turn over Brian Cooper with a smart stick. The impressive first-year then tempted MacKinnon and three other be-Gulled visitors toward him, before dishing it to an unmarked, hard-charging Joel Lowry for a top shelf snipe.
"The angle that he took on the guy he was going in on was terrific," pointed out Head Coach Mike Stothers. "He really kind of painted him into a corner with nowhere to go."
Stothers was equally pleased with the line's other rookie. "Lowry did a real good job of holding onto it for just a split second and then was able to throw it upstairs. Real good play by a couple young guys, and your line that goes out fourth."
So while San Diego probably outplayed Ontario in the middle frame, they still found themselves looking up at a deficit.
The hosts would bury the birds in the third. Once again, halfway into a period, the Reign had held the Gulls to just one shot on a goal. And once again, Auger and Mersch worked Welinski on the forecheck, resulting in a Raine point shot which an untouched "Big Mike" deflected home—here's looking at you, Shea.
Mersch credited tonight's success to an unlikely source, "Grandpa Mersch calls me every Tuesday, and he asked me why I wasn’t going to the net so much in the first series. And he was like, ‘Did the coach tell you to do that?’ And I was like, ‘No...'
He elaborated further on his recent struggles, "Maybe try to do too much. Maybe getting caught in some of the gray areas on the ice. That’s the way I kind of think about it, [the gray area] is anywhere besides the front of the net."
Perhaps the number-one lesson from Dallas Eakins's video review tomorrow? Tie up Mersch's stick.
Number-two? Free-flowing breakouts. Ontario choked the life out of the game. At three minutes and ticking, they had surrendered a sole shot on goal, while owning a four ES chances to nothing edge.
Third? Hit the net. According to AHL official Jason Hernandez, they missed 23 attempts at evens in all, compared to the other side's 12.
San Diego would make things interesting, as Tropp scored with Hackett pulled, but Schultz would slam the door with an empty net retort.
It was a well-deserved Game One victory for the Reign. Simply put, their bookend periods were clinics.
Or as Schultz put it, "I thought the first period was probably one of our best periods in the playoffs."