Calder Cup playoff matchups set for California AHL quartet
The San Jose Barracuda, San Diego Gulls and Stockton Heat all turned in record-breaking seasons to secure berths in this year’s American Hockey League (AHL) Calder Cup playoffs.
They join the Ontario Reign in the upcoming Pacific Division semifinals.
The Barracuda recorded the second-best record in the AHL this season, but does the Bay Area team have the proverbial right stuff to go all the way and win a Calder Cup championship?
Will the Gulls or Reign enjoy unrivaled postseason success or will the red-hot Heat make a long postseason run as a dark horse?
The answers will be short in coming as the teams face off their respective best-of-five first-round playoff series.
San Jose (43-16-4-5, .699 winning percentage) finished four points ahead of San Diego (43-20-3-2, .669 winning percentage) to earn the top seed in the divisional round while Ontario (36-21-10-1, .610 winning percentage) finished eight points behind the Gulls to secure the third seed. Stockton (34-25-7-2, .566 winning percentage) finished six points behind the Reign – and five points ahead of the Bakersfield Condors – to clinch the fourth and final playoff berth in the division.
Both best-of-five series face off Friday, April 21, with fourth-seeded Stockton visiting top-seeded San Jose and second-seeded San Diego hosting third-seeded Ontario. Both openers are slated to 7 p.m. PT starts.
The Barracuda will host the opening two games in its playoff series against the Heat while the San Diego-Ontario series features an alternating 1-1-1-1-1 format.
San Jose will host the second game in its first-round series on Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. PT. The series then shifts to Stockton for Game 3 on Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m.
A potential fourth game would be played in Stockton on Sunday, April 30, at 4 p.m. PT while San Jose would host a potential deciding fifth game on Tuesday, May 2, at 7 p.m.
Ontario will host San Diego in Game 2 of its series on Saturday, April 22, at 7 p.m. The series then shifts back to San Diego on Friday, April 28, when the Gulls will host the Reign in another 7 p.m. encounter.
The series would return to Ontario for a potential Game 4 on Monday, May 1, while San Diego would host a potential series-deciding Game 5 on Tuesday, May 2. All games in the series are 7 p.m. starts.
The two semifinal winners advance to the division finals. The Pacific Division champion will meet the Central Division champion in the Western Conference Finals.
The Western Conference champion will engage the Eastern Conference champion in the Calder Cup Finals. The division finals, conference finals and league finals are all best-of-seven elimination series.
San Jose and San Diego finished as the top two teams in the Western Conference during regular-season play.
“I think we have a team that can go deep,” said Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer, who earned distinction as the AHL’s 2016-17 Coach of the Year award-winner.
The AHL’s 81st regular season came to a close on April 15 with plenty of drama still at hand. Two playoff spots remained up for grabs while six of the eight first-round matchups were yet to be determined.
Also at stake were the rights to this season’s Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy awarded to the AHL’s regular-season champion based on winning percentage. San Jose, the top team in the Pacific Division, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the top team in the Atlantic Division, battled to the final regular-season game in a bid to claim the trophy.
In a dramatic finish, the winner of the trophy was not decided until Bakersfield’s Josh Currie scored at the 1:25 of overtime to give the host Condors a 3-2 win over the Barracuda to eliminate San Jose from contention and, in the process, hand the award to the Penguins.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton wrapped up regular season play with a final 51-20-3-2 record and .704 winning percentage.
The Barracuda needed to win its final regular season game at Bakersfield to top Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in winning percentage to claim the trophy. However, the host Condors played spoiler in front of 6,498 fans at Rabobank Arena.
San Jose finished the 2016-17 season just .005 percentage points behind the Penguins.
The overtime winner completed a hat trick for Currie while Condors goaltender Nick Ellis turned aside 35 of 37 shots. The Barracuda out-shot Bakersfield 35-17 in absorbing the untimely setback.
Despite not claiming the AHL’s top regular season record, San Jose will still have home ice advantage throughout the opening three rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs should the team make it that far. The Barracuda finished with the top record in the Pacific Division as well as the Western Conference (Pacific and Central divisions).
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will have home ice advantage as long as it remains in the playoffs.
Calder Cup roll call
The only first-round matchups determined heading into final regular season games were the two Pacific Division semifinals.
The Charlotte Checkers (Central Division) and St. John’s IceCaps (North Division) both sewed up playoff berths on the final day of regular season play. By securing the fourth and final berth in the Central Division standings, the Checkers assured a new Calder Cup champion will be crowned in 2017 after eliminating the defending champion Cleveland Monsters.
Both teams finished with identical .566 winning percentages but Charlotte posted a 5-2-1 head-to-head record in regular-season matchups against Cleveland to capture the tiebreaker and clinch a playoff berth.
Playoff participants in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division include Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (48-23-5-0, .664 winning percentage), Hershey Bears (43-22-8-3, .638 winning percentage) and Providence Bruins (43-23-6-4, .636 percentage-points).
The Syracuse Crunch (38-24-7-7, .592 winning percentage) edged the Toronto Marlies (42-29-4-1, .586 winning percentage) by one standing point to capture the Eastern Conference’s North Division, followed by the Albany Devils (39-32-2-3, .546 winning percentage) and St. John’s IceCaps (36-30-8-2, .539 winning percentage).
The Chicago Wolves (44-19-8-5, 101 standings points) slipped past the Grand Rapids Griffins (43-21-1-5, 100 standings points) also by one standing point to clinch the Western Conference’s Central Division. The Milwaukee Admirals (43-26-4-3, .612 winning percentage) finished third in the division, followed by the Checkers.
The Wolves won the division title on the last day of regular-season play.
The AHL’s Sweet Sixteen is rounded out by the four California qualifiers from the Pacific Division.
San Jose, San Diego and Stockton each set new franchise records for wins and points in one season en route to qualifying for this year’s Calder Cup playoffs.
The Barracuda topped last season’s fourth place finish in the division by a whopping 22 points this season while the Gulls finished seven points better than last season. A strong finish by the Heat allowed it to finish nine points ahead of last year’s sixth-place finish in the division.
Stockton clinched its first Pacific Division playoff berth by defeating visiting Bakersfield, 2-1, on April 14 in its second to last game of the regular season.
The Heat is riding a 7-0-3-1 hot streak entering the playoffs while the Barracuda is 5-2-2-1 in its last 10 games. Stockton captured three of four possible points in a home-and-home two-game set against San Jose April 8-9 to help catapult it into playoff position.
The Barracuda won seven of its 12 head-to-head matchups this season against Stockton while the Heat finished 5-5-2 against San Jose.
San Jose has built its lead in the Pacific Division on the strength of several streaks, including a 14-game winning streak, 15-game consecutive points streak, 14-game home winning streak and 10-game road winning streak.
The Barracuda is 24-6-2-2 at home this season and 19-10-1-3 on the road while Stockton is 21-8-3-1 at home and 13-17-3-1 on the road. The Heat’s 13 road wins are a team record.
The Barracuda leads the AHL this season with 11 shutouts, owns a +56 goal-differential and tied for the league lead with 14 shorthanded goals.
San Jose is 21-1-1-1 when leading after the first period, 30-0-1-0 when leading after the second period and 33-4-1-2 (.863 percentage) when scoring the first goal.
The Barracuda had the most home wins in the division this season. The challenge for the Heat thus will be to win at least one road game in the series.
“To be successful at any level, a team has to be able to win on the road,” Stockton goaltender Jon Gillies said.
The Barracuda, led by AHL Rookie of the Year Daniel O’Regan and AHL Goaltender of the Year Troy Grosenick, will be difficult to unseat.
O’Regan paced all AHL rookies in scoring with 58 points (23 goals, 35 assists) in 63 games. He led the Barracuda in team scoring, recording 11 power play goals and five game-winning goals.
Grosenick posted a 30-10-5 record in 49 appearances this season for the Barracuda with a 2.04 GAA, league-leading 10 shutouts and .926 save percentage. He became just the fifth goaltender in AHL history to reach double digits in shutouts in a single season.
Other players who drove San Jose’s record-breaking season include defensemen Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan, right wings Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Carpenter and left wing John McCarthy.
Heed, who tallied 56 points in 55 games, earned recognition on the AHL’s Second All-Star Team while Ryan generated 49 points in 65 games. Goodrow paced the Barracuda with 25 goals this season while contributing 45 points in 61 games. Carpenter collected 39 points in 54 games while McCarthy recorded 33 goals in 67 games.
The Barracuda has relied on the solid backup play of first-year North American pro Mantas Armalis this season. Armalis compiled a 12-5-3 record, 3.06 GAA, two shutouts and a .885 save percentage in helping spell Grosenick between the pipes.
Stockton is 25-8-4 when scoring the first goal this season. The Heat has some championship bloodline already behind it. Veteran forward Brandon Bollig won a Stanley Cup championship with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 while center Mike Angelidis and defensemen Keith Aulie and Mike Kostka all won a Calder Cup championship with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012.
All four players will have extra incentive to add another championship ring to their collection.
“In my opinion, playoffs are a whole new ballgame,” Bollig offered. “It’s a totally different game and we have plenty of playoff experience whether it be NHL or AHL in this room and that’s going to be beneficial for us. I think we’re in a good spot mentally, physically. The boys are excited and we’re looking forward to getting this series started.”
The Heat’s top scorers this season include centers Mark Jankowski with 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 64 games and Linden Vey with 55 points (15 goals, 40 assists) in 61 games. Left wings Morgan Klimchuk (19 goals, 43 points) and Andrew Mangiapane (20 goals, 41 points) are other top contributors.
Jankowski and Mangiapane are both rookies. Jankowski landed a berth on the 2016-17 AHL All-Rookie Team this season with San Jose’s O’Regan. Jankowski collected four game-winning goals this season while Mangiapane led Stockton with 11 power-play goals.
Stockton’s netminding duo of Gillies and David Rittich has developed into a formidable tandem. Gillies (18-14-1 record, 2.93 GAA and .910 save percentage) earned a call-up to the parent Calgary Flames at the end of the season. The 23-year-old New Hampshire native won his NHL debut on April 6 after stopping 27 shots (.964 save percentage) in a 4-1 win over the host Los Angeles Kings.
Rittich posted a stellar rookie season in 2016-17 with a 15-11-4 record, 2.27 GAA, five shutouts and .924 save percentage. He made one appearance for the Flames in his North American debut this season, allowing one goal in 20 minutes for a .900 save percentage.
Stockton head coach Ryan Huska said the two goaltenders couldn’t be more dissimilar in their style of play.
“Jon uses his size (6 feet, 6 inches tall, 225 pounds) to his advantage while David is more aggressive coming out of the net,” Huska said.
The Stockton duo appears to be playing its best at the right time of the season. Gillies stopped 31 of 33 shots he faced in backstopping the Heat to a 5-2 home ice win over the Barracuda in front of a Stockton Arena crowd of 6,92 on April 8.
Rittich, a Czech native, stopped 27 of 29 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss in San Jose the next night in a head-to-head match-up against Grosenick.
San Diego and Ontario will be meeting for the second consecutive year in the playoffs. The teams met in the division finals last season to determine which team advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The Gulls will be looking to gain the upper hand this season after falling three games to one last year.
Eleven players from each each return from last year’s playoff series.
San Diego and Ontario both finished 6-4-1-1 against each other during the 2016-17 regular season.
San Diego is 22-9-1-1 at home and 20-11-2-1 on the road; Ontario is 22-9-2-1 at home and 14-11-8-0 on the road. The Gulls’ 20 road victories were the most posted by any team in the division.
San Diego is 28-0-1-0 when leading after the first period, 31-1-2-0 when leading after the second period and 28-2-2-1 when scoring the first goal (.894 percentage).
Ontario is 35-4-2 (.860 percentage) when scoring the first goal and is 27-1-2 (.933 percentage) when leading after the second period.
Ontario has a slight edge on San Diego in special teams. The Reign ranked second in the division (to the Barracuda) in power play percentage (22.9). Ontario also posted a slightly better penalty kill percentage than their Southern California rival – 81.2 percent to 80.5 percent.
But it’s time to throw out the numbers where these two teams are concerned.
San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins is expecting a close, hard-fought series between the bitter Southern California rivals.
“We seem to know each other inside out and, for me, the two teams really mirror each other,” Eakins explained. “We’ve said it on our team before when we play Ontario, it’s a lot like playing against yourself. They are disciplined within their system, they play hard, they play a little nasty, they’ve got great passion and I expect every one of these games to be extremely close.
“The games are always tight, always emotional and we know we’re going to have our hands full.”
Eakins said this year’s San Diego team is the hardest working and most dedicated team he has coached.
The Gulls enter the playoffs with a three-game winning streak, including two wins to close regular season play against the Reign. Ontario enters the playoffs riding a 0-1-0-1 streak and is 6-3-0-1 in its last 10 games. San Diego is 5-5-0-0 in its last 10 games, 15-6-1-0 in its last 22 games and has recorded 25 wins in its last 34 contests (25-8-1-1).m San Diego was one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season after recording points in 36 of 45 games (32-9-2-2) since Christmas.
The Gulls and Reign wrapped up their fourth head-to-head meeting in nine days in the teams’ final regular season game April 15 as the Gulls captured a 5-3 decision in front of a sellout crowd of 12,920. It marked the third sellout of the season and the fifth crowd in excess of 12,000 the Gulls have drawn to their nest this season.
Prior to the latest two San Diego wins over Ontario, the Reign had posted a three-game undefeated streak against the Gulls.
There is no love lost between these teams.
“No matter what level league you’re in, everything revs up in the playoffs,” explained defenseman Nate Guenin, a veteran of 205 NHL games.” “Every little puck battle, every little face-off can be the difference in the game. There’s not dipping your toe in the water come Game 1, we’ve got to come out firing and get on the body early and get the arena going.”
“It’s going to be a tight series,” San Diego right wing Nick Sorensen predicted. “It’s really good to have the home field advantage. The playoffs are going to be fun. It will be a tough series. We know them very well; they know us. It’s going to be who wants it more.”
“It’s about executing at this point,” Gulls rookie forward Tyler Morley stressed. “Big guys going at it; goalies making saves, everyone contributing.”
“We used 50 players this year and we think that all of our guys that we have available can get the job done,” Eakins summed up.
Team leaders for San Diego include right wings Corey Tropp (21 goals and 54 points in 62 games) and Spencer Abbott (18 goals and 49 points in 69 games between the Gulls and Rockford). A pair of rookie left wings have lit up the lamp this season: Kalle Kossila (14 goals and 48 points in 65 games) and Kevin Roy (16 goals and 46 points in 67 games).
Tropp leads the team with 11 power play goals while Kossila leads the team with 34 assists. Defenseman Jaycob Megna led the AHL during the regular season with a plus-minus rating of plus-33 while contributing 27 points in 62 games.
San Diego appears well fortified between the pipes with the tandem of Jhonas Enroth and Dustin Tokarski. Enroth sports a 14-4-0 record with a sparkling 1.73 GAA, two shutouts and a .936 save percentage in 18 games with the Gulls while Tokarski is 17-8-1 with a 2.93 GAA, one shutout and a .898 save percentage.
Enroth’s total numbers – 16-5-0, 1.91 GAA and .931 save percentage – lead the league for goaltenders who have played 21 or more games.
A veteran of 153 NHL games, Enroth posted some unreal numbers during his initial assignment to San Diego. He won his first eight starts with the Gulls to highlight the team’s franchise-record 12-game consecutive point streak and compiled a 9-1-0 record in his first 10 games with his new team. Enroth’s numbers with the Gulls in those 10 games included a 1.20 GAA and .954 save percentage.
He went 6-0-0 with a 1.17 GAA and .957 save percentage during the month of January to earn the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award.
Enroth represented Sweden at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and earned a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He helped lead his country to the gold medal at the 2013 World Championships.
San Diego allowed the third fewest goals in the league this season. The obvious question is can the Gulls ride hot goaltending to a championship?
“I’m aware of it, but I don’t really want to think about it,” Enroth said modestly in regard to the upcoming playoff clash with the Reign. “I’m just trying to do my job and hopefully I will get a little help from my teammates.
“Both teams are pretty big. It’s going to be tight, probably low-scoring games.”
Team leaders for Ontario include center T.J. Hensick (16 goals and 52 points in 67 games), right wing Jonny Brodzinski (27 goals and 49 points in 59 games), center Mike Amadio (16 goals and 41 points in 68 games), right wing Teddy Purcell (10 goals and 38 points in 38 games), center Brett Sutter (18 goals and 36 points in 66 games), defenseman Vincent LoVerde (nine goals and 35 points in 61 games), right wing Sean Backman (12 goals and 34 points in 67 games) and left wing Michael Mersch (16 goals and 33 points in 48 games).
Team depth is a definite plus for the Reign. With the Kings eliminated from the NHL playoffs, Ontario may be deeper than it has been all season with players such as Brodzinski, left wing Adrian Kempe and defenseman Paul LaDue trickling back to the Reign.
And then there’s goaltending. While Grosenick has set the pace in the division this season, he’s not alone.
Jack Campbell has been Ontario’s ironman between the pipes in 2016-17 after taking over the position from Peter Budaj, last year’s AHL Goaltender of the Year. Campbell posted a 31-15-6 record, 2.52 GAA, five shutouts and a .914 save percentage while playing in a career-high 52 games this season. He led the league in wins (31), finished second in the league in minutes played (3,071), third in saves (1,365) and tied for second in shutouts (five).
At one point this season, Campbell started 36 consecutive games, winning 22.
The Pacific Division features an overload of goaltending talent this season, and Campbell ranks highly among that group.
The first-year Reign netminder captured the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the week ending April 9 after allowing just one goal on 58 shots in a home-and-home sweep of arch rival San Diego. His 30-save shutout performance in a 4-0 win April 7 in the Gulls’ nest allowed the Reign to clinch a berth in the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs. The win was Campbell’s 30th of the season.
He picked up his 31st victory in a 3-1 win over the visiting Gulls the following night by stopping 27 of 28 shots.
A sixth-year pro out of Port Huron, Mich., the 25-year-old Campbell represented the Pacific Division at this year’s AHL All-Star Classic along with San Jose’s Grosenick. He has appeared in two NHL games in his career, including one with the Kings earlier this season.
Campbell admitted it’s tough to win games in this division.
“Every team seems to have a pretty good goaltender,” Campbell said. “Enroth has been playing real well for San Diego. He’s really changed a lot of the outcomes of the games so far. You look around and every team seems to have the goaltending and it’s really tough to beat. We’ve seen Grosenick (all season). I’m just trying to do the best I can each night.
“I’ve never played nearly that many games as I have this year (his previous high was 40 games with Texas in 2012-13). I’ve had a lot of great coaching from Dusty Imoo, our goaltending coach. We talk about what I need to do whenever I feel tired, when I feel mentally tired, too. Sometimes less is more. I go 100 percent in practice, but if I feel I need a rest, I’ll do it.”
Revenge has to be somewhere in the back of Campbell’s mind after the Gulls handed him back-to-back losses to end the regular season.
“I think it will be a heck of a series,” Campbell projected. “They come at you and never give up. They’re a heck of a team and have some great players.”
Teammates concur with Campbell’s assessment.
“The playoffs are raised to another level,” Ontario forward Justin Auger said. “Every time we play them it’s going to be a physical game. Everyone’s been through it before. They know what the playoffs entail. It’s an exciting time of the year. The games pick up in intensity and it’s exciting for everyone.”
“Every game right now is extremely important,” explained Brodzinski, who scored twice in the regular season finale between the teams. “In a five game series, it only takes three games to win it.”
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Hensick said. “They’re a good, very talented team and play physical. They will be powerful. We feel confident that if we can play our game that we have a chance in the series. The team that wins it will be the team better prepared in the details. It will be the little things that make the difference.”
The home-ice advantage could work in the Gulls’ favor.
“Our fans have been just fantastic and we owe a lot of our success to their support,” Eakins said. “They’re loud and passionate. I think they can have a real great effect on our team.”
The Barracuda enters the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs laden with awards bestowed by the league.
Sommer, 60, received recognition as this year’s winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2016-17 season.
The Oakland native has coached in more games (1,480) and won more games (691) than any other coach in AHL history. He guided one of the league’s youngest rosters this season and molded it into a division champion.
The Barracuda finished with the AHL’s second best offense (3.41 goals per game), second-ranked power play (23.8 percent) while ranking fifth in team defense (2.59 goals per game) and eighth in penalty killing (83.3 percent).
Nine Cuda players saw action with the Sharks this season. During his 19-year coaching career (spent entirely with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate), Sommer has coached 126 players to the NHL.
So far in that 19-year AHL coaching career, Sommer has yet to win a Calder Cup championship. He will be looking to change that this season.
San Jose GM Joe Will called all the individual awards earned by the Barracuda an “extremely exciting and prideful moment for the organization.”
“The commitment and hard work these players have put into their craft this season has been remarkable, and the accolades are well deserved,” he said.
Grosenick was voted the recipient of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s Outstanding Goaltender for the 2016-17 season.
Previously named a 2016-17 First Team AHL All-Star, Grosenick, 27, ranked second in the league in wins (to Ontario’s Campbell), tied for second in the league in save percentage (with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Casey DeSmith) and ranked third in goals-against average (behind DeSmith and Providence’s Zane McIntyre).
DeSmith led the AHL with a 2.01 GAA, while McIntyre posted a .930 save percentage.
Grosenick strung together a scoreless stretch of 248:08 from Nov. 19-Dec. 18 and posted 12 wins during his team’s record 14-game winning streak. He entered the final week of regular season play with a 21-1-1 mark (1.74 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts) in his last 23 decisions, including a 17-0-1 stretch from Jan. 25 to Mar. 18.
The Brookfield, Wis., native led a second-half surge that earned the Barracuda the Pacific Division title and the best record in the Western Conference. Sommer feels his team can ride Grosenick’s hot play in the playoffs to what he termed “the promised land.”
“We saw it a lot the first year we had him (in 2013-14 with the Worcester Sharks),” the reigning AHL Coach of the Year explained. “This year, from training camp on, he’s pretty been lights out for us. I think he’s by far the best goalie in the American Hockey League right now. You can tell he’s deserved it.
“He’s aggressive. He’s real athletic. He never gives up on a puck. He’s never out of the play. He’s been patient. I think the thing that he’s really worked on is to be more patient. He lets the puck come to him rather than chasing them, and it’s really helped his game.”
A fourth-year pro, Grosenick was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week twice this season and was the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for February. He was also the Barracuda’s team winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the local community.
Budaj won the AHL’s top goaltender award last season with a remarkable 42-14-4 record, 1.75 GAA, nine shutouts and a .932 save percentage in 60 games. Budaj played in 59 NHL games this season with the Los Angeles Kings (27-30-3 record. 2.12 GAA, seven shutouts and a .917 save percentage) and Tampa Bay Lightning (3-1-0 record, 2.80 GAA and .898 save percentage).
O’Regan is the recipient of this year’s Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie for the 2016-17 season.
O’Regan, 23, scored a goal in his pro debut on opening night and went on to record 11 points in his first 10 games to earn his first NHL call-up. He made his NHL debut with the parent Sharks on Nov. 21.
He later represented the Barracuda at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic and scored three goals for the Pacific Division in the round-robin All-Star Challenge.
A fifth-round selection (138th overall) by the San Jose Sharks in the 2012 NHL Draft, O’Regan played four seasons at Boston University (were he racked up 66 goals and 159 points in 159 regular-season games) and represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2014.
He appeared in three games with the Sharks this season, recording one goal.
Heed, in his first year in the AHL after earning honors as the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) Defenseman of the Year in 2014-15, finished fourth among AHL blueliners in points (54), tied for fifth in goals (14), third in assists (40), tied for fifth in power-play goals (8) and tied for fifth in game winning goals (4).
The Gulls signed forward and Escondido native Austin Ortega (University of Nebraska-Omaha) and center Mitch Hults (Lake Superior State) to amateur tryout agreements (ATO) prior to the end of the regular season. Ortega picked up his first career point (an assist) in his professional debut on April 1 in Tucson while Hults picked up his first two assists in his second career pro game.
Hults, who collected 54 points in 76 games over the past two seasons with Lake Superior State in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), signed a two-year entry level contract with Anaheim on March 20. He led Lake Superior State as a sophomore in scoring, assists, points per game (0.94), assists per game (0.64), face-off wins (366) and face-off win percentage (54.5).
Ortega racked up 139 points and tied the NCAA record with 23 game-winning goals in 147 games during his four years with Omaha (National Collegiate Hockey Conference). The San Diego County native collected 47 points in 38 games this season, setting career highs in assists (27) and points en route to leading the NCHC in point-scoring in 2016-17.
Hults scored his first professional goal in the Gulls’ 4-3 shootout win at Ontario on April 14. Ortega scored the game-winning shootout goal.
Ortega has proven a big addition to the team with four goals and five points in six games while Hults has collected one goal and four points in six AHL contests.
“We have a system on our team and it’s certainly encouraging to have these young players by into that system and support it,” Eakins said.
Ontario rookie center Philippe Malliet scored his first goal in his first game with the Reign this season in Ontario’s 3-1 road victory in Bakersfield on March 31. Malliet, who helped the University of New Brunswick win the University Cup on March 19, signed an ATO with Ontario on March 27.
Overall, Malliet won two University Cup championships with New Brunswick after tallying 166 points (60 goals, 106 assists) in 101 games. He earned MVP honors at this year’s tournament with 10 points and also received this year’s Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Player of the Year award.
In eight games with the Reign, he has tallied two goals and four points.
Meanwhile, San Jose’s Clarke Saunders made his AHL goaltending debut s a winning one as he stopped 32 of 35 shots in a 6-3 win by the Barracuda on April 1 to sweep a two-game home series against Manitoba.
The Barracuda signed Saunders, 27, to a standard professional tryout agreement from the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL on March 28 after he had compiled a 64-20-5 regular season record and six shutouts in three seasons with the Eagles. He ranked fifth in the ECHL this season in goals-against average (2.60), ninth in save percentage (.913) and is third in wins (28).
Newport Beach’s Eric Comrie won his NHL debut between the pipes for the Winnipeg Jets on April 6. Comrie, 21, made 35 saves (.897 save percentage) in a 5-4 win over the host Columbus Blue Jackets.
Comrie finished his second year with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose with a 19-26-2 record, 2.96 GAA, three shutouts and .906 save percentage.
The 2017 Calder Cup playoffs boast an impressive 11 Californians on postseason rosters. The list includes Mitch Callahan (Whittier) and Matt Ford (West Hills) on Grand Rapids, Pheonix Copley (California Titans) on Hershey, Trevor Moore (Thousand Oaks) on Toronto, Adam Erne (LA Selects) on Syracuse, Nic Kerdiles (Irvine) and Kyle MacKinnon (Walnut) on San Diego, Stefan Matteau (San Jose Jr. Sharks) on St. John’s, Brett Sterling (Los Angeles) and Scooter Vaughan (Placentia) on Chicago and Matt White (Whittier) on Milwaukee.
Chad Ruhwedel (San Diego) was called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins at midseason while Matt Tennyson (Pleasanton) received a call-up from Charlotte to the NHL Carolina Hurricanes this season.
The AHL’s First All-Star Team included two players with ties to the Pacific Division: San Jose’s Grosenick and Bakersfield forward Taylor Beck. Also named to the first team were Lehigh Valley defenseman T.J. Brennan, Syracuse defenseman Matt Taormina, Chicago left wing Kenny Agostino and Chicago center Wade Megan.
Taormina earned honors as the league’s outstanding defenseman for 2016-17 while Agostino, who lead the AHL in regular-season scoring with 83 points (24 goals, 59 assists) in 65 games, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for 2016-17.
AHL Second Team All-Stars included Providence’s McIntyre, San Jose’s Heed, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton defenseman David Warsofsky, St. John’s left wing Chris Terry, Hershey center Travis Boyd and Syracuse right wing Cory Conacher.
With Bakersfield eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs, several Condors have made their way up to the parent Edmonton Oilers for that team’s Stanley Cup playoff run. The Oilers recalled defensemen Mark Fayne and Jordan Oesterle, left wing Joey LaLeggia and center Anton Lander on April 18. Defenseman Griffin Reinhart and goaltender Nick Ellis were recalled earlier in the week.
A total of nine former Condors are on Edmonton’s roster, including winger Zack Kassian, who has two game-winning goals in the Oilers’ first-round series against San Jose.
Bakersfield also announced that right wing Jesse Puljujarvi has been loaned to Finland’s national team for the upcoming World Hockey Championships May 5-21 in Germany and France.
Both St. John’s and Albany enter the Calder Cup playoffs playing their final season in their respective cities. The NHL parent Montreal Canadiens are moving St. John’s to Laval, Quebec, next season to being play as the Laval Rocket while the parent NHL New Jersey Devils are moving Albany to Binghampton, N.Y., next season to replace the departing Senators, who are headed to Belleville, Ont., to be closer to the Ottawa Senators, that team’s NHL affiliate.
By the numbers
San Diego once again led the Pacific Division in average attendance (8,876), followed by Ontario (8,068), San Antonio (6,408), Texas (5,111), Bakersfield (5,087), Stockton (4,531), San Jose (4,312) and Tucson (4,054). The Gulls are the only California team in the division to show an increase in attendance from their inaugural season.
Five teams with winning records did not qualify for this year’s Calder Cup playoffs: Bridgeport Sound Tigers (44-28-3-1, .605 winning percentage), Utica Comets (35-32-7-2, .520 winning percentage), Cleveland (39-29-4-4, .566 winning percentage), Iowa Wild (36-31-7-2, .533 winning percentage) and Bakersfield (33-29-5-1, .529 winning percentage).
— Phillip Brents