Flying ahead 2-0, the Ontario Reign had a chance to stamp the neck of a San Diego Gulls squad which was missing Michael Sgarbossa, Nic Kerdiles, Anton Khudobin, and in a surprise scratch, an ill Corey Tropp. Shea Theodore has also been forced to pair with freshman defender du jour in every game this series: Brian Cooper was his third partner in three nights who has played less than a dozen professional games.
The opening frame was unusual, to say the least. 28 seconds in, a Cooper point shot was deflected off the post, under Peter Budaj, but the red light blared. No goal. Shortly thereafter, on a Gulls power play, Vinny LoVerde and Chris Mueller wrestled each other through the open Reign bench door.
About 10 minutes later, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Andrew Crescenzi, and Sam Herr got caught up the ice attacking, and Kyle MacKinnon led a quick 3-on-2 transition, which resulted in Harry Zolniercyzk batting in another red light special. No goal, stick above the crossbar. Then...
What on earth. Both Mersch and Auger hacking away at Hackett with three Gulls players piling on, and the puck was 20 feet away in the corner— Jason Lewis (@SirJDL) May 9, 2016
As for the rest of the period's action, it was tightly contested, as shots were equal at 10 apiece; San Diego held a 4-3 even strength scoring chances edge. But it was that extra opportunity that made all the difference, as Kalle Kossila slipped Adrian Kempe's attention in front. The 19-year-old winger-turned-center spent far too much time puck-watching setup man Antoine Laganiere.
The middle frame was nowhere as odd, except if you found it strange that an Ontario team which had dominated the first two games went without an ES chance until a Paul Bissonnette stuff with 7:42 left.
On the next shift, however, Ebert and Sean Backman teamed up for a keep-in of a Joe Piskula off-the-glass bid. The puck found its way to Kris Newbury, who spanked it from the slot, but Matt Hackett shrugged it out of play. Nic Dowd followed with a faceoff victory, and from the top of the left circle, Jeff Schultz zinged it off the post.
Unfortunately for the hosts, that would represent the pinnacle of their pressure on Hackett tonight.
"I didn’t think our execution was great tonight," observed Vincent LoVerde. And indeed, they simply weren't sharp, perhaps fatigued from the 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 back-to-back. Of course, San Diego shared the exact same trek, a similar trouble with travels.
A well-documented storyline coming into this series was the third-ranked Gulls power play against the league-leading Reign penalty kill. And what a mighty match-up it's been, which Ontario has pulled out so far, as they've continually frustrated San Diego's attempts to free up point-per-game blueliner Brandon Montour, among other things.
That is until about eight minutes into the final frame and mere seconds left on a San Diego man advantage. Theodore lured Auger over to the left point, creating an overload of white jerseys, before zipping a pass down to Mueller at the right dot.
Smartly, Mueller refrained from forcing a play through Derek Forbort, touching it back to the finally wide-open Montour.
Perhaps betraying the general Reign PK gameplan, everybody laid out for Montour, but nobody bothered with Nick Ritchie, who actually had two untouched whacks before driving the dagger into the home team's heart. Or perhaps they were just tired, as this was a nearly minute-long kill without respite. Or perhaps a stellar power play finally won a much-deserved round.
Two goals in hand, the Gulls clammed up with a 1-3-1 trap. Here are 10 seconds of this at best flirtatious forecheck.
"When we’re just kind of standing back there looking for lanes, it’s easy to clog up, but when we’re moving our feet, things are opening up," acknowledged Kevin Gravel. "Getting the red line ourselves and getting it in deep it backs them off and creates things for us."
Coach Mike Stothers concurred, "If they’re just going to wall the neutral zone, they don’t have speed. You’ve got to lay it by them and then pursue it on the other side." He pointed out though, "I think we did do that except we were giving it to their goalie, which was ridiculous. We weren’t laying it into the soft areas and hunting down their defensemen.
"We even dumped it right at [the goalie], and he covers it up, gets a D-zone faceoff, gets fresh guys on the ice. It was some major brain cramps on our guys."
Perhaps the visitors were just celebrating Guy Boucher's hiring!
Forecheck? We don't need no stinking forecheck! pic.twitter.com/stLaCgQxUI— Jason Lewis (@SirJDL) May 9, 2016
That would be all she wrote, as the Reign were heard from nevermore. Not to say Stothers went quietly. Besides clicking and clicking the line blender to start the period, he pulled Budaj with about three minutes to go, but Jaycob Megna sunk a hole-in-one empty netter from the DZ to complete the whitewash.
So while it goes on record as a Hackett shutout, it can't be said that the backup netminder, who has stopped 71 of his last 73 shots, was severely tested. Gravel agreed, "I don’t know how many opportunities we really had."
"We weren’t nearly good enough to even think that we were going to beat them tonight," admitted Stothers.
Now it's a series, and now the dinged Gulls will have four full days to recuperate. But so will the team up 2-1—will we see Jonny Brodzinski, Brett Sutter, or Ryan Horvat this weekend?