ONTARIO, CA – For those NHL fans who were hoping for another epic battle between the Kings and the Ducks; for those southern California hockey fans who are not ready for the season to end; for those hockey fans everywhere looking for a great series, the California-plus-two division of the AHL has something to fill that void.

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The Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls’ rivalry extends back to when both teams were in the Eastern Conference and has only been intensified by 12 regular season (and 2 pre-season) meetings. There have been borderline hits, a lengthy suspension and a slew of fights even before the playoffs started. What makes the series special is that both teams are also very good and have taken it up a notch in the post season.

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Last night, the AHL Pacific Division Final opened up in Ontario at the Citizens Business Bank Arena. With the two cities only 2 hours away from each other (a quick jaunt for Californians), the fan base was expected to have strong showings at the opposing arena. The Gulls fans set the bar with an entire section of orange and random seeding throughout the rest of the arena. With the Reign fans still fighting traffic in an attempt to make it to the game, the Gulls contingent seemed to overpower the home crowd. The home fans did show up, however, and a spirited contest of heckling and cheering served as a backdrop for the battle on the ice.

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The Reign came into last night’s game without having missed a beat from the San Jose series. They controlled the first period from start to finish, barely allowing the Gulls any time with the puck, much less offensive zone possession. The Gulls’ first shot came mid-way through the period and it was followed 40 seconds later by a Reign goal from Michael Mersch.

At the ensuing puck drop, Kris Newbury and Corey Tropp dropped the gloves for a punch fest that featured no defense.

Four minutes later, on the Reign’s first power play, Reign Captain Vincent LoVerde snuck down to the net while everyone else was tangled up on other side, grabbed a pass from Nic Dowd & fired it past Matt Hackett.

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San Diego was not ready to give up, however, and they came into the second period ready to roll. They took a page from the Reign’s playbook by controlling the possession, keeping everything on Ontario’s side of the ice. The Reign, for their part, did what the Reign do at points this season and took their foot off the gas. They paid for it. The Gulls pulled within one three minutes in and tied the game at 5:32. While the Reign tried to regroup, the Gulls pressed the issue and seemed on the verge of scoring through much of the period. It was the Reign’s fourth line who came through, however. Mike Amadio stole the puck & sent a pass across the zone to Joel Lowry who fired it past Hackett’s shoulder.

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The third period was an even affair, with both teams having settled down into the style of game they wanted to play. Hitting picked up, but emotions were under control and there were no egregious infractions. Mid-way through the period, the Reign broke the stalemate with a bouncing shot from Kevin Raine that Michael Mersch eventually deflected into the net. A push back from the Gulls was rewarded with a goal that brought them within 1 at 17:37. They pulled Hackett and the Reign gifted them with a power play to make the end of the game interesting. Mersch missed the empty net and the hat trick by millimeters, but Jeff Schultz did not, giving the Reign the 5-3 victory.

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The series now switches back to San Diego for game 2 on Saturday night.

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Impressive: Vincent LoVerde had a great game & was rewarded with a ton of ice time. We don’t have any numbers, but it seemed like he never came off of the ice in the second and third periods. He was calm & kept his team under control while leading from the front. We credit him for pulling them out of the lull they had slipped into in the second. On the San Diego side, Chris Wagner seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else on the Gulls. He made every line he was on better and provided most of the pressure the Gulls mustered during the first period.

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Not So Much: The Reign cannot afford to sit back at any point in time during this series. The Gulls exploited a slow second period start for two goals. Had that vacation lasted for the entire period, it might have cost them the game. For the Gulls, they are missing Anton Khodobin. Hackett was solid, but not the wall the Reign faced in Aaron Dell. The Gulls have the ability to counter punch if they can keep the puck out of their net.DSC_0090

Elsewhere in the Playoffs: The Lake Erie Monsters started their series against the Grand Rapids Griffins in a game where goals could only be scored in even periods. The two teams both scored two goals in the second, then played each other to a stalemate until 12 minutes into overtime. In overtime, a slashing penalty by Tyler Bertuzzi gave the Monsters a power play. A minute later, Oliver Bjorkstrand gave the Monsters the 1-0 series lead.

The Eastern Conference will start their series Friday night.

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