When the 2016-2017 AHL schedule came out last year, a few people were surprised that the Ontario Reign would play the San Diego Gulls in four of the last five games of the season. One assumes it was done to promote the Southern California rivalry in the hopes that the series would decide who makes it into the playoffs. Instead, it has become a prelude to the first round match-up between the two teams.
The first of the home and home series began in San Diego on Friday night. The Gulls were icing a team missing seven of their top 10 players (three to call-up, four to injury). The Reign were also missing a couple of their top players but were adding a few back into the lineup.
For the Gulls, the difference was more noticeable, but not by much. Neither team controlled the game for any significant period of time. While Sam Herr put the Reign up 1-0, 15 minutes into the first period, the difference maker was a double minor on Nate Guenin. Captain Vincent LoVerde made it 2-0 32 seconds into the power play. Under a minute later, in the second part of the power play, Mike Amadio put the Reign up 3-0. The rest of the game was a back and forth affair, with chances at both ends, but Campbell was strong in net and kept the Gulls from rallying (with assistance from LoVerde who saved a goal when the puck got behind Jack Campbell). The nail in that particular coffin came when Coach Eakins pulled Jhonas Enroth with eight minutes left in the game. A minute later, Amadio picked up his second of the game with an empty net goal.
Saturday night’s match-up in Ontario was just as evenly matched, with each team controlling large swaths of the game, but unable to put the other team away. The other difference was the amount of penalties the Reign took. With four power plays in the first period alone, the Gulls had every opportunity to break the game open. The Reign penalty kill was on point, however, and the Captain once again buried a point shot to give the Reign the 1-0 lead after the first. The refs pocketed their whistles for the most part after the first and the teams were left to play their game. Austin Ortega was able to finally put one past Campbell to tie the game 24 seconds into the second period. That score would hold until until minutes into the third period, when Zach Leslie gave the Reign the one goal lead again. Campbell locked his net down, refusing to let any more pucks past. This time, it was Brett Sutter who made sure he had a clear shot at the empty net to make it 3-1.
Impressive: After a poor showing in Bakersfield that convinced Coach Stothers to put Zatkoff in net for the next game, Campbell has returned to form, allowing 1 goal on 58 shots over the weekend. Also notable has been the play of LoVerde who looks well and ready for the postseason.
Notable Newbies: Ortega has performed well for the Gulls, picking up his second goal in four games Saturday night. He also has an assist for three points since joining San Diego. Making a decent impression for the Reign was Philippe Maillet. He could be found all over the ice, including in front of the net despite his smaller stature (5’9″) and has picked up two points (1 goal, 1 assist) in his first five games with the Reign.
Elsewhere in the Division: The Condors were in Texas to take on the San Antonio Rampage in a must win situation. Unfortunately, they lost 4-3 while the Stockton Heat increased their lead by beating the San Jose Barracuda 5-2. The Condors are now 4 points behind the Heat and .031 percentage points behind the Cleveland Monsters. The Monsters are 0.001 percentage points behind the Heat. Should Stockton lose a couple of games and the Monsters win their last three, they could take that last playoff spot from the Heat. In Charlotte, the Checkers destroyed the Texas Stars 9-3 Saturday night.