AHL Pacific Division Finals pairs Southern California rivals
Though the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings suffered what some might consider unkind early exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Southern California arch rivals’ American Hockey League affiliates (Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls) are ready to duke it out on the ice in the Calder Cup’s Western Conference Pacific Division Finals.
The best-of-seven series faces off with an unusual 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format, with each team’s home arena – separated by 111 miles — alternating as playing sites. The top-seeded Reign holds home ice advantage.
The series faces off Thursday, May 5, in Ontario, then switches to San Diego for Game 2 on Saturday, May 7. Then it’s back up Interstate-15 for Game 3 on the Reign’s home ice on Sunday, May 8, then back to San Diego for Game 4 on Friday, May 13.
Game 5, if necessary, would be played Saturday, May 14, in Ontario. If the series continues, Game 6 would be played May 16 in San Diego and Game 7 would be played May 18 in Ontario.
The Reign, which finished with the top record in the Western Conference this season, eliminated the fourth-seeded San Jose Barracuda three games to one in the division semifinals. The second-seeded Gulls, who finished with the fourth best record in the conference and the second best record in the division, eliminated the third-seeded Texas Stars also three games to one to advance to the division finals.
“It’s a great moment for our team,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins said after the Gulls posted a 6-2 victory in the deciding contest against the Stars on April 29. “It’s payback for our home fans who have supported us all season.”
San Diego has announced a “White Out” theme for all its home games in the division finals. Team management is encouraging fans to wear white to create an exciting and intimidating environment in support of the Gulls.
San Diego opened on the road, winning the first game, 3-1, before dropping the second game, 5-1, while absorbing 20 minutes in penalties and coughing up two power-play goals.
Despite dropping five of six games during the regular season to Texas, the Gulls captured the series on the strength of two dominating home ice wins that featured five power play goals and one shorthanded goal. The Gulls won Game 3 by a score of 6-1 and captured the series on the strength of the 6-2 win in Game 4.
Cashing in on opportunities is prime in the postseason, explained San Diego veteran forward Chris Mueller, who won a Calder Cup championship in 2014 with the Stars.
“In the playoffs, you have to score power-play goals,” he explained. “It gets harder; there are fewer chances.”
Ontario also opened on the road with two games in San Jose, taking a 1-1 split back home. The Reign won the series opener by a score of 2-1 on a goal by Jonny Brodzinski with 4:03 remaining in regulation. The Barracuda evened the series at a win apiece after recording a 3-2 victory in Game 2.
Both games on the Reign’s home ice were hotly contested before the hosts managed to pull away in the end to win by scores of 3-1 and 4-1. Adrian Kempe scored twice in Game 3, while Andrew Crescenzi recorded a goal and two assists in the deciding game.
An interesting tidbit to the upcoming division finals series is that despite finishing nine points behind Ontario in the regular season standings, San Diego won eight of the 12 regular-season meetings between the two SoCal rivals.
The teams have developed a mutual dislike that mirrors that of their parent NHL clubs, which should add an extra element of drama to the unfolding series.
Ontario is the defending Calder Cup champion.
“Ontario is a different team than the team we just played,” Eakins cautioned. “They’re big and heavy … like us.”
Reign head coach Mike Stothers has gone on record that he is not a huge fan of the division finals series’ unusual format, calling it “brutal” for the teams.
According to Ontario team president Darren Abbott, the series’ rather unorthodox schedule is a combination of area unavailability on certain dates. He cited arena availability, economics, rest for the teams involved, competitive advantage and travel as elements that all go into playoff scheduling. While three games are squeezed into the first four dates, the remainder of the series is spread over 10 days. Four of the seven games fall on weekend dates – two for each team.
Scheduling gets more tricky as teams proceed deeper into the playoffs, as many teams must schedule around school graduation ceremonies, for instance.
The Pacific Division Finals winner will play either the Lake Erie Monsters or the Grand Rapids Griffins in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals. Grand Rapids, seeded fourth in the Central Division semifinals, pulled off a stunning three-game upset of the too-seeded Milwaukee Admirals while Lake Erie, seeded second, swept third-seeded Rockford in three games.
The Reign has 47 wins on the season, regular season and playoffs combined; the Gulls have 42 wins on the season, regular season and playoffs combined.
Nic Dowd leads Ontario in the postseason with four points (two goals, two assists), while 2015-16 AHL outstanding goaltender Peter Budaj sports a 1.51 GAA and a .925 save percentage.
Justin Auger, Brodzinski, and Dowd each had game-winning goals in the Reign-Barracuda series.
San Diego outscored Texas 16-9 in the teams’ semifinal series, including 12-3 in the final two games. Key was holding the Stars’ potent power play in check after being burned in Game 2. Texas finished 2-for-21 on the power play in the series. The Gulls finished 5-for-20 on the man-advantage against the Stars – 5-for-13 in the final two games.
Mueller and Mike Sgarbossa top San Diego in scoring with five points each in four postseason games. Mueller, who tied AHL All-Rookie Team selection Brandon Montour for the regular season team scoring lead with 57 points, has two goals and three assists while Sgarbossa has a goal and four assists.
Nick Ritchie, who spent 33 games with the Ducks this season, scored a point in each of the Gulls’ four playoff games. He is tied for the team lead with three postseason goals to go with one assist.
Shea Theodore and Stefan Noesen each collected four points in the semifinal series against Texas, both with a goal and three assists. Theodore appeared in six games for the Ducks in their first-round series loss to Nashville before being reassigned to San Diego.
Gulls veteran goaltender Anton Khudobin’s playoff numbers include a 2-1 record, 2.26 GAA and a .934 save percentage.
San Diego is 34-0 when leading after two periods; Ontario is 33-1 when leading after two periods.
Despite being the last team to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs, the Barracuda gave top-seeded Ontario a run for its money with four games that proved squeakers on the ice.
San Jose received two goals from Nikolay Goldobin and one each from Nikita Jevpalovs, Ryan Carpenter, Bryan Lerg and Jeremy Langlois in the series against the Reign. Joakim Ryan led the Barracuda with three points (all assists) in the four games.
Goaltender Aaron Dell played between the pipes in all four games for the Barracuda. He recorded 35 saves on 37 shots in Game 1, made 34 saves on 36 shots in Game 2, registered 36 saves on 39 shots in Game 3 and allowed three goals while making 31 saves in Game 4. He finished the series with a 1-3 record, 2.59 GAA, a .932 save percentage and a pair of assists.
San Jose recorded 31 regular-season wins in 2015-16 to up head coach Roy Sommer’s AHL career coaching record win total to 648 and counting.
Calder Cup notepad
Game 4 in the San Diego-Texas series took an unexpected turn early on when Khudobin was injured in a fierce collision that knocked the net off its mooring. Moreover, Montour was also injured on the play.
Though Montour later returned to the game, Khudobin did not and the hosts inserted backup Matt Hackett into the lineup for the duration of the game. The Stars tied the game shortly after Hackett’s arrival, but the Gulls later whipped off five more goals over the balance of the game to win convincingly.
A team’s inability to overcome an injury to a key player in a key game could mark the turning point in a playoff series.
“You just don’t turn on when you get in the playoffs,” Eakins stated. “We’ve had our ups and downs during season, we’ve had guys hurt or callups, guys demoted. We’ve brought new guys in from juniors and college. The mind-set of our group is that no matter who is in the lineup that there is an expectation for an effort level and a level of execution.
“It’s been a great experience to watch these young men believe in themselves and have the confidence that no matter who’s in the lineup or who is called upon they’re going to get the job done.”
The San Diego coach also said that player development continues in the playoffs.
“This is when the men play, and this is a great time for development as well,” he explained. “We’re always a development team first. The best time for development for me is from winning and playing in the playoffs and our guys are (getting) a taste of that.”
The two series still going on in the Eastern Conference pit top-seeded Toronto against second-seeded Albany in the North Division Finals and top-seeded Hershey and third-seeded Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the Atlantic Division Finals.
Toronto finished with the best record in the league this season with a .750 winning percentage.
– Story & photo/Phillip Brents