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Barracuda, Gulls advance to AHL Pacific Division Finals

 

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The American Hockey League’s (AHL) best-of-five Calder Cup Pacific Division semifinal playoff series came down to dramatic deciding fifth games on May 2.

The top-seeded San Jose Barracuda and second-seeded San Diego Gulls both survived elimination to advance to the division finals and, in the process, remain in the chase for this year’s Calder Cup championship trophy.

Just don’t say it was easy for either team.

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Both semifinals, which were played over an 11-day period, ended three games to two in favor of the Barracuda and Gulls.

In winner-take-all Game 5 matchups, San Jose slipped past the fourth-seeded Stockton Heat 2-1 in a gritty overtime contest while San Diego edged the third-seeded Ontario Reign 4-1.

The Barracuda and Gulls will now engage in a best-of-seven series to determine which team advances to the Western Conference Finals.

San Jose will host the opening two games in the Pacific Division Finals May 5-6 at the SAP Center.

The Barracuda is headed to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in team history; the Gulls will be making their second consecutive trip to the division finals after falling to the Reign four games to one last year.

Both division finalists will bring newly found momentum into the next round.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins explained. “We never thought it would be a short (semifinal) series. We’ ve been given a great gift. If you’re going to be a championship team, you need to experience elimination games. If we get to later rounds, the Calder Cup Finals, we can look back and be glad we faced elimination.”

Final conflict

Playing in a 48-hour turnaround from Game 4 after the underdog Heat tied the series with a come-from-behind 5-3 in in Game 4, the host Barracuda racked up a monstrous 54-28 shot advantage in the teams’ Game 5 encounter.

However, it took a third-period goal from Timo Meier to erase a 1-0 Stockton lead and send the game into overtime. It then took 8:52 into a nervous and tense overtime period for San Jose, the top team in the Western Conference and the second best record in the AHL in regular season play, to earn the right to play on.

Ryan Carpenter electrified the 4,843 in attendance at the SAP Center when he blasted a shot from between the face-off circles past Heat netminder Jon Gillies in finishing off a shorthanded rush with teammate Barclay Goodrow.

Despite being out-shot by a wide margin during regulation, Stockton had several good chances to snatch a win in overtime. Hunter Shinkaruk hit the post on a breakaway in the opening minutes of overtime; the Heat was on the power play when the Cuda struck for the dramatic game-winner.

“In the overtime, we had the opportunities, we were dictating the play,” Stockton’s Mike Angelidis explained. “When you get a power play and you lose on a shorthanded goal, it’s a tough way to lose.

“I think our guys competed and fought until the very end and that’s overtime, you never know what’s going to happen. Any bounce can change things and they got a bounce and they won.”

It was the 11th game to end in overtime in the opening round of the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs.

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Gillies (a career-high 37 saves on 39 shots in 48:52) and Heat starter David Rittich (15 saves in playing a scoreless opening period) combined to make 52 saves in the game for a combined .963 save percentage; Gillies posted a .949 save percentage during his time between the pipes.

San Jose’s Troy Grosenick, the AHL’s 2016-17 Goaltender of the Year, stopped 27 of 28 shots he faced for a stout .964 save percentage.

But it was Stockton that was bidding for the upset win when Jamie Devane beat Grosenick at the 10:38 mark of the second period for his first career postseason goal. Assists went to veterans (and former Calder Cup champions) Brett Kulak and Angelidis.

Gillies made the tenuous one-goal edge stand up until San Jose leveled the score on Meier’s unassisted goal at 9:47 of the third period.

The Cuda pounded the Heat net all game long, out-shooting the visitors 23-4 in the second period despite being held off the scoreboard.

Gillies earned third star honors after Carpenter (first star) and Meier (second star).

“In every year, you try to raise the level of your group and you try to get your culture to a point where the expectation is winning all the time and last year we weren’t able to accomplish that like we wanted,” Heat head coach Ryan Huska said. “I think this year we were able to get some of our younger players developed and at the same time we found our way into the playoffs and I think we were a dangerous team to play against.”

Goaltending played a major role in the Gulls’ Game 5 victory against the arch-rival Reign. Jack Campbell, who had started the opening four games of the series for Ontario, did not dress after suffering a lower-body injury in backstopping his team to a 4-1 win the previous night to stave off elimination. Jeff Zatkoff was slated to start Game 5 for the Reign, but he was injured during pregame warmups.

That unforeseen turn of events led to Jack Flinn, the team’s third-string goaltender up from the ECHL Manchester Monarchs, being thrust into a starting role.

San Diego scored three goals in a three-minute span to chase Flinn, 22, just 11:40 into the contest. Campbell hurriedly dressed and replaced Flinn for the duration of the game, allowing one goal on 15 shots in 44:41 of emergency duty.

Nic Kerdiles, Keaton Thompson and Kevin Roy all scored in a 2:37 span to open up a 3-0 lead for the hosts, playing in front of an energized crowd of 5,634 that gathered on short notice to attend the game after the 24-hour turnaround from Game 4.

Kerdiles, who grew up in Irvine and became the first Orange County product to play for the NHL parent Anaheim Ducks, recorded points on all three early San Diego goals. He set a team record with the most points scored by a Gulls player in a single playoff period.

The three goals set a team record for most goals scored in the first period of a playoff game, the three earliest goals scored in a playoff game and the fastest three goals scored in team playoff history.

“One big thing we talked about was making sure we controlled the first 10 minutes,” Kerdiles said. “We came out hard and we got three goals and, because of that, it kind of transferred throughout the whole game and we were able to keep a lot of momentum.”

Ontario finally broke the goose egg on the scoreboard with 11:48 remaining in the third period on a goal by Brett Sutter, son of former L.A. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter.

Despite out-shooting the Gulls 38-26 on the night, including margins of 16-8 in the second period and 15-5 in the third period, the Reign could not get the better of San Diego starter Jhonas Enroth, who stopped 37 of 38 shots (.974 save percentage) on the night to earn first star honors.

Enroth started all five games in the series, registering a 1.82 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in posting a 3-2 record.

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Campbell was equally stellar with a 1.70 GAA and .934 save percentage (second among AHL playoff goaltenders).

Former Ontario player Jordan Samuels-Thomas sank his old team when he scored at 14:20 to seal the win for the Gulls.

The team that scored first won all five games in the series.

“In an elimination game like this, some teams may come out to play not to lose but came out to lay all our cards on the table and see who was left standing at the end of the game,” Eakins said succinctly.

“I think it was a great experience, especially for the young guys that haven’t been in that situation before,” said Enroth, who posted a 14-4 record, 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentage in 18 regular season games with San Diego. “Now we know we can win big games and hopefully it will bring some momentum into the next round for us.”

Ontario coach Mike Stothers called the bizarre goaltending situation in the team’s biggest game of the season “unfortunate.”

“That’s a real tough situation for anybody to go into and he (Flinn) faced it head-on,” Stothers explained. “He didn’t look the least bit worried or nervous; he just wanted to help his team out.”

Head to head

The format for the Pacific Division Finals features the opening two games in San Jose, the next three games in San Diego and the final two games back in San Jose, should the series go that far.

Game 3 is scheduled May 10 at the Valley View Casino Center while Game 4 is scheduled May 12. Following games in the series, if necessary, would be played in San Diego (Game 5 on May 13) and in San Jose (Game 6 on May 16 and Game 7 on May 17).

While the Gulls and Barracuda have yet to face each other in the Calder Cup playoffs, the 2017 Pacific Division Finals will pit the top two regular season teams in the Western Conference and Pacific Division.

The Barracuda set the bar high this season under AHL Coach of the Year Roy Sommer and AHL Rookie of the Year Daniel O’Regan.

Both teams have a similar style of play braced by solid goaltending and good defense.

Grosenick started all five games in the division semifinals, posting a 2.54 GAA and .907 save percentage with one shutout. During the regular season, he went 30-10-5 with a 2.04 GAA, .926 save percentage and 10 shutouts.

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San Diego went 5-4-1-0 against San Jose during the regular-season, including a perfect 5-0-0-0 record at home. The Barracuda won all five of its home games against the Gulls, including three by shutout.

The teams each won an overtime contest while San Diego claimed an additional win in a shootout.

The Gulls are 13-6-2-1 all-time against San Jose, including 8-1-1-1 at home and 5-5-1-0 on the road.

Both teams are used to winning.

San Jose posted a league-best 15-game consecutive points streak and a 14-game winning streak in midseason to take command of first place in the division standings.

San Diego kept chase close by recording a franchise record 12-game points streak in midseason, The Gulls enter the division finals having won six of its last eight games (3-0 in the regular season, 3-2 playoffs) and have also posted an 18-8-1-0 mark in their last 27 games overall (16-7-1-0 regular season, 3-2 playoffs) and a 35-11-1-1 mark their last 48 games (33-10-1-1 regular season, 3-2 playoffs).

The Barracuda posted a league best 12 shutouts during the regular season and tied for the league lead with 14 shorthanded goals. San Jose will need to do better on the power play, however, after finishing just 1-for-23 (4.3 percent) against the Heat in the division semifinals.

Carpenter led all AHL playoff scorers in the first round with seven points (four goals, three assists). Left wing Buddy Robinson followed on the Cuda score sheet with five points (three goals, two assists) while 21-year-old center Rourke Chartier also collected five assists.

Carpenter and Robinson each scored shorthanded goals in the first-round series against Stockton.

Kerdiles tops San Diego in playoff scoring with six points (three goals, three assists), followed by right wing Nick Sorensen with four points (two goals, two assists).

Kerdiles, Sorensen, Kalle Kossila and Thompson each scored power plays goals in the division semifinals. Kerdiles also added a shorthanded goal.

Corey Tropp paces San Diego with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 12 career games against the Barracuda, while Kerdiles leads the Gulls with seven goals in 16 career contests against San Jose.

Going the distance

Despite trailing 3-2 late in the third period while on the brink of elimination against the visiting Barracuda, Stockton rallied with three goals in the final five minutes of regulation, including two goals in the final three minutes, to escape with a dramatic 5-3 win in Game 4 on April 30 to send the teams’ playoff series back to San Jose.

O’Regan scored just 58 seconds into the game to give San Jose a quick 1-0 lead. But the Barracuda found itself staring at a 2-1 deficit midway through the second period on goals by the Heat’s Shinkaruk and Garnet Hathaway.

San Jose, needing a win to close out the series, righted its ship as Robinson potted this third goal of the series at the 17:55 mark of the second period to tie the game, 2-2. Tim Heed then put the Barracuda ahead, 3-2, when he scored at 4:38 of the third period.

It appeared the season might be coming to an end for Stockton until the biggest turnaround in the series occurred. Andrew Mangiapane, a 20-goal scorer during the regular season for the Heat, netted his first goal of the playoffs with 5:05 to play to tie the game.

Linden Vey then buried what proved to be the game-winner with 2:56 to play and tacked on an empty net goal with 1:22 left to force Game 5. He earned first star honors with two goals and one assist in the exciting contest.

Rittich, earning his second start in the series, stopped 34 of 37 shots (.919 save percentage) to record his second win in postseason play against one loss.

Grosenick (2-2) made 28 saves in the disappointing loss for the Cuda.

“It was a wild game,” recounted Vey, who has 138 NHL games to his credit with the Kings, Canucks and Flames. “They got off to a good start and they had us on our heels, but we’ve pretty much done what we’ve done down the stretch. We just stuck with it, grinded away and found a way to win at home.”

The Reign forced a fifth game by dealing the Gulls a 4-1 defeat on May 1 on their home ice at Citizens Business Bank Arena.

Justin Auger scored twice and Paul LaDue broke a 1-1 tie with a goal early in the third period as the Reign staved off elimination.

Enroth, who had tamed Ontario in successive 2-1 and 3-1 victories to allow the Gulls to take a two games-to-one lead in the short series, held the Reign scoreless in the first period before Auger, taking a breakaway feed from Jonny Brodzinski, scored his first goal of the series at the 5:16 mark of the second period.

The Gulls drew even when Thompson scored a power-play goal with 1:13 left in the period to net his first playoff goal as well.

LaDue scored the eventual game-winner at 3:30 of the third period when he tucked in a rebound for his first playoff goal. Auger scored on another rebound with 5:03 left in the game to increase the Ontario lead to 3-1 and teammate T.J. Hensick, the Reign’s regular-season scoring leader, scored into an empty net with 1:54 left.

Campbell (2-2) stopped 21 of 22 shots (.955 save percentage) to post the win while Enroth (2-2) made saves on 31 of 34 shots (.912 save percentage) in defeat.

Fired up for the Cup

The top-seeded Barracuda faced off its best-of-five series against Northern California rival Stockton with a 4-0 shutout victory on April 21 in front of 6,389 fans at the SAP Center in San Jose.

Grosenick opened postseason play in fine form by stopping all 28 shots he faced to record the shutout victory while Carpenter led the San Jose offense with two goals. Heed, a member of this year’s AHL Second All-Star team, notched what proved to be the game-winning goal at the 6:38 mark of the opening period. Kevin Labanc sealed the win for the Barracuda with an empty-net goal at 19:21.

San Jose out-shot Stockton 36-28. Gillies made 32 saves in the loss for the Heat.

Stockton, which was making its first ever postseason appearance, managed to wrestle away home ice advantage from the Barracuda with a key 6-4 win in Game 2 on April 23 in front of 5,903 fans at the SAP Center.

Mark Jankowski, a member of this year’s AHL All-Rookie Team, netted Stockton’s first Calder Cup playoff goal in team history at 1:30 into the first period, beating Grosenick with a shot to the five-hole. It was the first of four first-period goals scored by Stockton in the game. Austin Carroll, Vey (power play) and Hathaway (breakaway) all followed with goals in the first period as the Heat built a 4-0 lead.

The Cuda rallied with three goals in the second period to close the gap on the scoreboard to 4-3 and, in doing so, chase Gillies from the net.

Shinkaruk scored at 17:43 of the period to put Stockton back on top by two goals at 5- until Robinson returned the score to a one-goal margin when he beat Rittich, Gillies’ replacement, on a shorthanded breakaway at 16:19 of the third period.

Vey denied San Jose’s comeback by scoring an insurance goal into the empty net with 1:05 left in regulation play.

Rittich picked up the win by stopping 11 of 12 shots he faced in the final 28:49 of the game. Gillies allowed three goals on 20 shots before he was pulled at the 31:02 point of the game.

Grosenick, making his second consecutive start for the Barracuda, allowed five goals on 19 shots.

Joakim Ryan (two goals) and Carpenter (two assists) paced the Barracuda, which out-shot Stockton 32-20 in absorbing the loss.

“It was a strange game, but we needed the win,” Huska explained. “It wasn’t do-or-die yet for us, but that was an important game for us to try and get the split. We found a way.”

Stockton hosted its first Calder Cup playoff game in team history on April 28 but came up short, 5-3, in Game 3 to hand home-ice advantage back to the Barracuda.

First period goals by Goodrow and O’Regan staked San Jose to a 2-0 lead. However, the Heat responded with the only two goals of the second period – one each by Angelidis and Brandon Bollig – to tie the score.

Carpenter scored his third goal and picked up his sixth point of the playoff series when he snapped a 2-2 tie with 4:13 left in the third period. Meier, a late addition from the NHL parent Sharks following that team’s elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs, converted on an odd-man rush 86 seconds later to scored what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Stockton rallied on a power play goal by Michael Kostka with 28 seconds left in the game to trim the Heat’s deficit to 4-3. But the visitors sealed the victory with an empty net goal by Robinson with 15 seconds to play, assisted by John McCarthy and O’Regan.

Grosenick (2-1) made 30 saves to post the win in front of 3,917 fans at Stockton Arena. Rittich (1-1) stopped 28 of 32 shots in making his first playoff start for Stockton.

Flight to the Cup

Two late additions to the Reign roster from the parent L.A. Kings, who did not qualify for the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, had a big impact in the opening game of the series in San Diego. Brodzinski scored two goals, including the game-winning goal with just 11.7 seconds remaining in regulation play, while forward Adrian Kempe dished out two assists.

Kempe stole the puck from San Diego rookie Andy Welinski behing the San Diego net and, with time ticking down in the game, sent a perfectly timed pass to Brodzinski, who was crashing the net, to score the game-winner.

“That’s all Kempe … Just found the spot in the slot, great play by him,” Brodinzki said after his team’s breathtaking 3-2 victory. “I thought there was only five seconds left, but I looked up there was 15. I just went hard to the net and got rewarded.”

“Obviously it’s huge that we got Game 1 ,” Kempe said. “But it’s just the first game.”

It appeared the Gulls were trying to run out the clock for overtime by holding the puck behind the net. However, the tactic proved disastrous to the dismay of the 9,075 in attendance.

In a close game, Eakins said the team that leaves the least amount on the table is going to win.

“We tried to slow the play down and we took too long,” the San Diego coach admitted. “We got ourselves in a spot where we didn’t have any more options.”

The Reign opened up a 2-0 lead in the game on a goal by Hensick with 3:16 elapsed in the second period. But the Gulls scratched back to tie the game on goals by Sam Carrick at 10:03 and Kerdiles (shorthanded) at 13:59.

With Ontario nursing a two-goal lead still in the second period, Campbell denied Sorensen on a rare penalty shot that later proved critical in the Reign victory.

Ontario stole home-ice advantage with the Game 1 victory, but could not capitalize on it.

Sorensen came back the next night in Game 2 by scoring a pair of goals 31 seconds apart early in the first period while Enroth stopped 23 of 24 shots (.958 save percentage) to boost the Gulls to a tight 2-1 road victory at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario on April 22.

With the win, San Diego regained home ice advantage in the best-of-five series.

“I love the way our guys responded,” explained Eakins of the quick 24-hour turnaround in games. “We were very calm, we knew what our task was and we were able to get it done.”

Sorensen scored a power play goal at the 4:23 mark, assisted by Spenser Abbott and Kerdiles. Sorensen then upped his team’s lead to 2-0 when he scored on an ensuing two-on-one rush, assisted by Antonie Laganiere and Kossila.

Ontario halved the deficit at 3:29 of the second period on a goal by Mike Amadio.

But Enroth would not be beat after that.

The Reign finished scoreless in three power-play chances in the game.

Campbell, who shut out the visitors after the two first-period goals by Sorensen, made 22 saves on 24 shots in the loss (.917 save percentage).

Eakins said he was surprised that neither of the opening two games went to overtime.

“I’ve said it numerous times – it is like we are playing our twin brother out there,” the Gulls coach said. “They are such a good team and we think highly of our team.”

In what was effectively reduced to a best-of-three series between the Southern California rivals, the Gulls scored the crucial first goal and tacked on the deciding final goal in a clutch 3-1 Game 3 victory in front of a raucous gathering of 10, 391 fans at the Valley View Casino Center on April 28.

The game started on an ominous goal for the visiting Reign as captain Vincent LoVerde was whistled for a holding penalty. Just 19 seconds later, at the 6:00 mark of the first period, Kossila opened scoring with a power play goal assisted by Sorenson and Welinski.

Ontario tied the contest, 1-1, with a power play goal of its own at 9:30 of the opening frame. Amadio got the goal, assisted by Sean Backman and Hensick.

There was no scoring in the second period and tensions rose between the teams as the score remained deadlocked late in the third period.

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Kerdiles then scored the dramatic game-winner with 1:33 to play off a side boards pass from teammate Ondrej Kase, recently assigned by the parent Anaheim Ducks. Laganiere, the Gulls’ regular-season goal-scoring co-leader, then capped the emotional win with an empty net goal with 28 seconds to play.

Ontario out-shot San Diego 39-27, including a 13-6 edge in the third period. Enroth stopped 30 shots in the second and third periods to finish the game with a total of 38 saves on 39 shots (.974 save percentage).

Campbell stopped 24 of 26 shots in the loss (.923 save percentage).

The contest featured 15 penalties between the teams. Eakins said players on both teams likely were using “a whole lot” of ice packs in their respective dressing rooms after the hard-hitting game.

“It just kept going back and forth, highly physical, and I’m sure there (were) a lot of guys hurting on both teams.”

Game 3 featured the home-ice debut of Max Jones, the Ducks’ first round pick (24th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Moving on

The top-seeded Chicago Wolves defeated the fourth-seeded Charlotte Checkers (three games to two) while the second-seeded Grand Rapids Griffins swept the third-seeded Milwaukee Admirals (three games to none) to advance to the Central Division Finals.

Chicago faced a two games to one deficit in its series against Charlotte but captured the final two games to advance, including a 3-2 win in the deciding Game 5.

Two of the three games in the Grand Rapids-Milwaukee series were decided in overtime.

The fourth-seeded Providence Bruins upset the top-seeded Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins while the third-seeded seeded Hershey Bears upset the second-seeded Lehigh Valley Phantoms — both in three games-to-two matchups — to advance to the Atlantic Division Finals.

Zane McIntyre, who finished with the AHL’s second best goaltending average (2.03) and top save percentage mark (.930) this season, made 50 saves and Danton Heinen scored twice as Providence eliminated the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, 2-1, in the fifth and deciding game of their semifinal series on April 30.

The Bruins, who won the final two games in the series (both on the Penguins’ ice) to erase a two games-to-one deficit, became the first team since the Cornwall Aces in 1995-96 to eliminate the AHL’s regular-season champions in the first round of the playoffs.

Hershey, meanwhile, became the second team in AHL history to win every road game of a best-of-five playoff series to advance. The Bears eliminated the Phantoms, 3-2, on April 30 behind 28 saves by former California Titans goalie Pheonix Copley after grabbing the opening two games in the series by scores of 1-0 and 5-4.

Copley enters the North Division Finals sporting a 3-2 record, 2.16 GAA and .933 save percentage.

Meanwhile, the top-seeded Syracuse Crunch defeated the fourth-seeded St. John’s IceCaps while the second-seeded Toronto Marlies defeated the third-seeded Albany Devils — both in three games-to-one matchups — to advance to the North Division Finals.

Grand Rapids got the jump on Chicago by recording a 4-1 road victory in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Central Division Finals on May 3. Californian Matt Ford (West Hills) scored one goal for the victorious Griffins to up his playoff scoring totals to four goals and one assist in five games.

What’s trending

The Gulls and the Ducks are one of three AHL and NHL affiliations to advance to the second round of their respective playoffs. Joining the Gulls and Ducks are the Wolves (AHL) and St. Louis Blues (NHL) and the Bears (AHL) and Washington Capitals (NHL).

Vey led all Stockton players with four goals in the division semifinals while Jankowski and Kulak tied for the team lead with four assists. Vey (four goals, one assist) and Jankowski (one goal, four assists) tied for the team lead in playoff points.

Rittich led the Heat with two wins, a 2.88 GAA and .917 save percentage.

Hensick (two goals, three assists) and Brodzinski (two goals, two assists) led Ontario in the division semifinals.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents