ONTARIO, CA – Tucson has taken the AHL’s Pacific Division by storm so far this season. Their record has kept them at the top of the division, at the top of the Conference for a while with a brief trip to the top of the AHL.
Ontario, on the other hand, has struggled to find a consistent game this year. Still considered a western conference power house, the drama in net and thin blue line has kept them from dominating opponents like they did last season.
The two teams met up in Tucson at the beginning of November for a deceptively close series where the Reign lost one in regulation and one in overtime (after surrendering a lead). Since then, the Reign’s issues in net have become less shaky and the Roadrunners have suffered an upheaval of their own with the frightening events two weeks ago and the subsequent loss of their captain. Both entered the night having lost their previous games.
The Reign struck first during a mash-up in front of the net. Marek Langhamer could not get control of the puck and Brett Sutter forced it past him. Jonny Brodzinki picked up an assist, giving him five points in the past five games. Three minutes later, however, Eric Selleck fired a puck past Jack Campbell‘s shoulder to even the score.
The teams played a nearly evenly matched game from then until 13 minutes into the second period. Picking up a pass from Andrew Crescenzi, Michael Latta brought the puck into the zone and zipped his shot past Langhamer. After that, the Reign settled into a nice pattern of killing penalties. Campbell was on his game, however, and kept the Roadrunners from evening the score once again.
Two minutes into the third, TJ Hensick got the insurance goal with a lot of help from Michael Mersch, putting the Reign up 3-1 over Tucson. Tensions would slowly (for a Reign game) mount between the two teams until after Justin Auger picked up the empty net goal. After that, what had been a relatively quiet game racked up eight penalties in 9 seconds of play. A couple of fighting majors, a couple of game misconducts and a few other scraps that weren’t called and the teams added some spice to the new rivalry.
Impressive: Not appearing on the score sheet, but a force every time he was on the ice was Damir Sharipzianov. His game has improved exponentially since being called up and he has begun perfecting the art of being a wall at the blue line that the opponents bounce off of. Jack Campbell was having a good game of his own, providing an anchor for the struggling penalty kill and holding onto the Reign’s lead when the Roadrunners were pushing.
Not So Much: Adrian Kempe has struggled this season, tallying only 5 points in 15 games. Despite showing improvement in the past two games, he seemed to take a step backwards, becoming largely invisible after the first period. And that penalty kill. While Campbell has managed to bring the numbers down to mildly acceptable, the PK still relies on him too much, often getting caught on the ice for large swaths of time while unable to win a puck battle.
Elsewhere in the Division: Since we last checked in on the Pacific Division, there has been a lot of movement in the standings. A bad weekend which included losses to San Diego and San Jose dropped the Reign down to sixth. Meanwhile, a 5-1 loss to the Gulls before their loss to the Reign has put the Roadrunners back in reach of the rest of the division, but still on top.
Creeping up are the Gulls, having won eight games in a row including last night’s 3-2 win over the Heat. For their part, the Heat sent the Checkers pacing in a 4-2 win Wednesday night before falling to the Gulls. They hold third place, just 0.009 percentage points behind the Gulls. The Texas Stars lost to the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday, dropping them below the 0.600% mark and making their hold on fourth place tenuous. The fifth place Barracuda have been off since beating the Reign 5-2 last Saturday. Bakersfield started their weekend with a 3-0 shut-out over the Charlotte Checkers, but still remain below the 0.500% mark, good for seventh. San Antonio has also been inactive since losing 3-0 to state rival Texas Stars last Saturday, but have a comfortable hold on eighth place in the division.