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New rivalries drive California’s AHL teams

 

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In its first season, the American Hockey League’s (AHL) new Pacific Division has carved out its own unique identity with new rivalries and a frantic sprint to the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs.

The seven-team division – buttressed by five new California franchises – is actually a jigsaw puzzle assembled from teams that competed in four different divisions last season before the big move west.

The Ontario Reign (Manchester Monarchs) and San Jose Barracuda (Worcester Sharks) both competed in the AHL’s Atlantic Division last season, while the San Diego Gulls (Norfolk Admirals) competed in the East Division, the Stockton Heat (Adirondack Flames) competed in the North Division and the Bakersfield Condors (Oklahoma City Barons) competed in the West Division alongside the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars, all of which transferred to the new Pacific Division.

Despite the mishmash of former geography, all the pieces have fit perfectly in 2015-16.

“Regardless of where the teams are in the division, coming from the bottom or near the top, all the games have been closely contested,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins explained. “There have been instant rivalries. The pace of the games has been great. It’s been an excellent move for the American Hockey League.”

The five California teams have certainly gotten to know the other quite well with 12 regular season games on the schedule against one another.

Both coaches and players have said the large number of games against the teams within the Golden State has helped foster an extremely competitive atmosphere. In fact, all five California teams had posted winning records entering the last month of regular season play.

With 10 regular season games remaining, all five California teams remained mathematically viable in their quest to nail down berths in the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. Throw in the fact that Ontario is the defending Calder Cup champion and the division commands immediate respect.

“There are a lot of division rivalries,” explained Bakersfield forward Ryan Hamilton, a 12-year AHL veteran who has played 30 games in the NHL with Toronto and Edmonton. “You play these guys so often that it gets heated. It’s just natural. It just seems to be ramped up every time. You play guys that many times and you’re going to hate each other.

“I think that goes for pretty much every team in the division. It’s been a battle, it’s been a grind and, I’m sure, it’s exciting for the fans.”

It definitely didn’t take long for rivalries to develop among the new California franchises.

Geographic proximity, high frequency of intrastate match-ups and existing rivalries between parent NHL clubs have all contributed to create exciting match-ups and, more times than not, fireworks on the ice.

Stockton and San Jose, separated by 54 miles, have developed a natural geographic rivalry, as have San Diego and Ontario, which are are located 97 miles apart.

The rivalry between Stockton and Bakersfield is two-fold. Both cities were longtime rivals in the ECHL before last season’s massive coast-to-coast franchise swap took place. The rivalry between the Heat and the Condors also extends to the intense rivalry enjoyed between the clubs’ respective NHL affiliates – the Edmonton Oilers (Bakersfield) and Calgary Flames (Stockton), a rivalry also fueled due to geographic proximity.

“Any time you play a team that many times and are geographically that close, it tends to build that rivalry more quickly, it makes games more fun,” Stockton center Derek Grant explained. “Both teams are similar in the standings … we always have pretty good games against them.”

The NHL rivalry is a definite factor, suggested Grant, who represented the Heat at the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic.

“Obviously, Edmonton and Calgary are both Alberta teams,” Grant said. “Maybe it’s in the blood – right from management down to the coaches to fans to the players, it makes it more fun, for sure.”

Bakersfield defenseman Brad Hunt, who competed alongside Grant on the Pacific Division All-Team, acknowledges the Oilers-Flames rivalry as being important to the AHL teams’ rivalry, but also feels his team shares strong rivalries with all the other California teams.

“I think when you have teams that play each other so many times that you start to create a hatred ,” explained Hunt, a five-year AHL veteran with 21 NHL games to his credit with the Oilers. “It’s a pride thing. It’s huge for the playoffs – you don’t want to lose to teams in your own division. I think it’s a rivalry for all the teams in California.”

What has turned into a heated divisional playoff race this season has obviously added more fuel to the fire.

“I was in Worcester last year and the Gulls were in Norfolk, we played them a handful of times, and some of their players seem familiar,” explained San Jose winger Ryan Carpenter, who represented the Barracuda at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic.

“But it seems there’s more of a rivalry with these teams in California, especially now that we’re all in the mix for playoff spots. I think that naturally creates a rivalry.”

“And early on. there might have been a bad hit on our side – that naturally starts a rivalry with the other team.”

The bottom line, Carpenter said, is that “it’s fun to play out here.”

“There’s a lot of close games, and every game matters,” he noted. “You try to emphasize that earlier in the year but the guys can sense that now – that everything matters – because we’re pushing for a playoff spot.”

Eakins, who served two years as head coach in Edmonton before taking on the reins of the Gulls after the franchise shift from Virginia, believes the rivalries developing between the California teams, in particular, have helped make the new Pacific Division that much more competitive.

“Obviously, Ontario is the big one (for us), but there is a lot of dislike between the other teams now as well,” Eakins explained. “That will happen when you play these other teams a lot. The rivalries get going. There’s a lot of competitive spirit. Sometimes the testosterone gets up a little high. I think that’s been good for our division. There’s nothing better than having a little hatred between the teams.”

Make that a lot of hatred between a couple of Pacific Division teams in particular.

Battle tested

The San Diego-Ontario rivalry may be the fiercest of all among the California teams to develop thus far. Much of that appears to stem from the intense – is that too soft a word? – rivalry between the teams’ respective NHL parent clubs. The Gulls are the affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks while the Kings are the affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings.

Both Anaheim and Los Angeles – separated by a scant 30 miles in driving distance — compete in the same division (NHL Pacific Division) and, thus, stand in each other’s way in search of a Stanley Cup championship.

Similarly, the Gulls and Reign stand in each other’s way of winning a Calder Cup championship.

That the Gulls have won seven of the teams’ opening 10 games has to be particularly frustrating to Ontario players, many of whom are wearing Calder Cup championship rings.

San Diego broadcaster Craig Elsten feels the Gulls-Reign rivalry was destined to develop irrespective of the rivalry between the teams’ parent NHL clubs.

“It’s great for the fans, for the media,” Elsten offered. “It’s intense; it’s physical. It’s been that way from the first preseason game.”

Elsten believes geographic proximity is what got the teams’ heated Southern California rivalry started.

“The distance, especially because of freeways, is not great,” Elsten said. “Fans are coming from San Diego to watch their team play in Ontario and vice versa. When you have that proximity, you can have these types of rivalries building.”

The teams’ Southern California encounters have certain packed in the fans. The six games in Ontario averaged 8,732 (with three sellout crowds of 9,491) while the four games thus far in San Diego have attracted an average of 10,702 fans per game. The Gulls host Ontario in the final two regular season games April 15-16.

If first place in the division, or a playoff berth for one of the teams, is still on the line at that time, an attendance record between the two division rivals could be set.

Fan allegiances definitely have helped spur emotions. It seems there are about as many Ducks and Kings jerseys worn by fans in the teams’ respective arenas whenever they pair up as there are Gulls and Reign jerseys.

“It seems the teams realized they should be rivals and they decided to do just that,” Elsten said. “I think they figured it out really from the first game. It’s certainly been fun for the broadcasters.”

Ontario director of communications and broadcasting Joseph Zakrzewski concurs with much of what Elsten noted.

“It certainly has been fun to play the Gulls,” Zakrzewski chimed in. “Every game is a battle. Recently, both teams have been battling injuries and call-ups, so the last two to three meetings have not been as heated as the first three to four.

“For the broadcasters, it’s a fantastic series because you never know what to expect. Who will be the hero? Who will come up with the timely save or goal? Who capitalizes on the lucky bounces? Whoever scores the first goal wins the game, so it is a war to the first tally.

“Look at the last game in San Diego (a 4-2 Gulls win on Feb. 20) … hard-hitting, heavy game where both teams were trying to grind down their opponent physically and mentally.”

Much could also be said in that regard to the last two games in Ontario – both San Diego victories that clinched the teams’ inaugural season series in the Gulls’ favor.

However, the series’ tempo was set early in the season when San Diego captured four of the teams’ initial five meetings, including one in a shootout.

“Those first couple meeting were nothing like what we saw from Bakersfield or Stockton or San Jose,” Zakrzewski commented. “San Jose plays a very slow moving game, the Condors were never a team to push back after whistles and Stockton has been battling injuries and call-ups, so their line-up changes a lot, so you never get that day-to-day rivalry.”

Ontario head coach Mike Stothers, who played for both the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, describes the Reign and Gulls as “two hard-nose teams that play hard, two good teams.”

“The Kings-Ducks history is long,” Stothers explained. “Both organizations are kind of built the same way – big bodies, play a heavy game, play a physical game — so I could imagine that’s why it sprinkles down into the minor league teams.”

But Stothers is quick to add that the Reign shares rivalries with the other teams in California. “I wouldn’t say it’s us and San Diego,” he said.

But it would be hard for Stothers not to point to the rivalry with the Gulls as the most meaningful, especially after San Diego made a recent move into second place in the division standings.

The teams’ Dec. 26 game in San Diego – witnessed by a crowd of 11,078 – clearly created a buzz when Reign defenseman Kurtis MacDermid delivered a vicious upper body hit on San Diego right wing Matt Bailey during the third period of what would be a 4-1 Gulls victory.

MacDermid, who stands six feet, five inches tall and weighs 208 pounds, received a match penalty for a check to the head while also receiving a fighting major during a tussle with Gulls defenseman Stu Bickel, who immediately came to Bailey’s defense.

The game featured 50 minutes in penalties between the teams. MacDermid later received a 12-game suspension from the league.

The teams’ mutual dislike for each other progressed from there.

“When you play a team that many times and there’s already bad blood from the two NHL teams, you’re never quite sure how far it’s going to go,” Eakins explained. “There is a constant amount of chatter on the ice and you can see the level of physical play as well.”

“We’ve played them a number of times now and it seems like every time we play them something happens or stuff gets heated,” San Diego defenseman Brandon Montour added. “Obviously, they’re a good team there and we’re a good team here. Every game we play them it’s going to be a battle. We get excited every time we get a chance to play each other.”

Ontario veteran center Kris Newbury, a veteran of 15 AHL seasons and 76 games in the NHL with Toronto, Detroit, New York Rangers and Philadelphia, was more blunt in his assessment of the Reign’s deepening rivalry with the Gulls.

“We don’t like each other, I don’t like anyone on that team,” he offered in a post-game interview following a shootout loss to San Diego in December. “That’s a team we play a lot. We’ve got to find a way to beat them. So far, they’ve got our number and we’ve got to find a way around that.”

Defending champs

Stothers doesn’t feel his team is necessarily wearing a big target on its back as the defending Calder Cup champion.

“That was last year,” Stothers emphasized. “We’re in a new state with a new team. Last year is past. We don’t dwell on the past. We look ahead.”

In a league devoted to developing players for the NHL, Stothers pointed out that team rosters differ from season to season as players receive call-ups to their parent clubs or are dealt away in trades.

“It’s completely different,” the Reign coach explained. “We lost quite a few bodies from last year’s club. I think we started the year with seven guys who started on NHL teams from last season. We lost a lot on offense. But we have a nucleus of a good core of returning players. We’ve got great leaders. We’ve got some exciting young guys.

“Just like every year in the American Hockey League, it’s something you’ve got to build as the season goes on. Hopefully, we’ll get batter and hope we make the playoffs.”

Stothers is obviously being modest where his team is concerned.

Ontario, braced by former NHL Colorado Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj‘s league-leading 1.70 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, established itself early on in the 2015-16 season as the team to beat in the Pacific Division and that hasn’t changed as the season enters its final month.

The Reign’s 0.698 points-percentage through 58 games ranked second-best among the AHL’s 30 teams. Only the North Division-leading Toronto Marlies (0.735 points-percentage) had a better record.

The Reign’s magic number to clinch a playoff berth has now hit single digits. With 10 regular season games to play, it’s almost certain Ontario will own home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the division playoffs and possibly even the division finals should the team advance that far.

Top shelf

Ontario’s Sean Backman tops all scorers on the Pacific Division’s five California teams with 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists). Texas’ Brendan Ranford is the division leader with 53 points (17 goals, 36 assists). San Antonio rookie Mikko Rantanen also has 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists).

Montour continues to lead all AHL rookies in assists (39) and ranks second among league defensemen with 49 points.

Hunt ranks ninth among AHL blue-liners with 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists).

Making the save

Budaj leads all AHL goaltenders with 36 wins.

San Jose’s Aaron Dell has fashioned a 2.37 GAA and a .923 save percentage in 31 appearances while collecting 13 wins.

San Diego’s Anton Khudobin is 17-6-1 with a 2.48 GAA and a .918 save percentage.

What’s trending

Grant is back on the ice – and scoring goals again – after nearly a six-week layoff due to a broken jaw. Grant made a triumphant return, in fact, by scoring a pair of goals in a 5-1 win over the Iowa Wild on March 18. Grant opened the season with 23 goals in 30 games with Stockton before incurring the injury. He now has 26 goals in 34 games – the most by any player on the AHL’s five California teams.

Bakersfield’s Matt Ford is right behind Grant with 25 goals, though in 54 games, while the Heat’s Hunter Shinkaruk has tallied 25 goals in 57 games with both Stockton and Utica this season. Ontario’s Michael Mersch has 21 goals in 42 games despite a 17-game call-up to the Kings.

San Diego had its 11-game points streak snapped in a 7-5 home ice loss to Bakersfield on March 18. During that span, the Gulls went 9-0-1-1 to collect a valuable 20 points. Included in that stretch were four consecutive overtime games in which San Diego managed to pull out three wins.

The spate of OT games began with a 5-4 loss to visiting Stockton on March 5, followed by a 4-3 win in Bakersfield on March 8, a 6-5 win over the visiting Condors on March 11 and a 2-1 overtime win in Ontario on March 12. Game winners for the Gulls went to Stefan Noesen, Chris Wagner and Mike Sgarbossa.

San Diego and Ontario are both 8-1-1-0 in their last 10 games. Trying to keep pace in the Calder Cup playoff race are San Jose (5-4-1-0), Bakersfield (3-3-4-0), Stockton (4-5-1-0), Texas (3-4-3-0) and San Antonio (2-8-0-0).

Team to watch: San Diego is 14-3-1-1 in its last 19 games.

Photo/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents