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Reign charting unfamiliar territory in AHL Pacific Division

 

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The Ontario Reign, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, had to be navigating in unfamiliar territory following its 0-6 start to the 2017-18 campaign.

The Reign, AHL Calder Cup champions in 2014-15 and Pacific Division champions in 2015-16, has since earned points in six of its last seven games to move in a more positive direction.

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“It was a tough start for us, but we’ve been persevering and staying with it,” Ontario head coach Mike Stothers explained. “We’ve got a lot of turnover, a lot of new personnel. Sometimes it takes a while to get on track. I think the record was not indicative of some of the games that we played. But that’s how tough it is in the American Hockey League. It’s tough to get a win sometimes, so you just weather the storm.”

The Reign opened the season on a three-game road trip, dropping contests in San Antonio (2-1 on Oct. 7), Iowa (3-0 on Oct. 13) and Chicago (5-2 on Oct. 14).

Ontario faced off its home opening weekend with two-game series against the Bakersfield Condors on Oct. 20-21; the Reign dropped both games (2-0 and 3-1) to further mire itself in the Pacific Division basement.

It was then back on the road – this time to Cleveland for a two-game weekend set in a rematch of the 2016 Calder Cup Western Conference Finals between the teams. Ontario dropped the opening game, 7-4, to fall to 0-6. But things quickly turned around.

The Reign picked up its first win of the season on Oct. 28 to close out the two-game stop in Cleveland. Sean Walker and Michael Mersch each scored power play goals in the 2-1 victory.

Ontario posted its first home ice win of the season on Nov. 1 when it shaded the San Jose Barracuda, last season’s Pacific Division champions, by a score of 4-2. Jonny Brodzinksi netted a hat trick, while T.J. Hensick supplied three assists.

The Reign then picked up five out of a possible six points by going 2-0-0-1 in a pivotal three-game series against the archrival San Diego Gulls. The Reign edged the host Gulls 1-0 on Nov. 3 to present rookie goaltender Cal Petersen with his first professional win and first pro shutout. The Gulls topped host Ontario 4-3 in a shootout the next night as the team’s SoCal Series continued, but the Reign returned to San Diego on Nov. 11 to hand the Gulls a 4-1 defeat as Petersen picked up his second consecutive win against San Diego.

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Ontario’s five-game points streak ended with a 1-0 loss to the host San Jose Barracuda on Nov. 18, but the Reign promptly got back in the win column with a 4-1 win in San Jose the following afternoon.

Petersen earned first star of the game honors in the Nov. 19 contest by making 39 saves on 40 shots while rookie forward Matt Luff earned the second star of the game award with two goals. Defensemen Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue each added two assists.

The Nov. 19 win over the Barracuda moved Ontario out of last place in the Pacific Division standings with a 5-7-0-1 record and .423 winning percentage.

The Reign improved to 4-1-0-1 in November and 5-4-0-1 in its last 10 games – a span that now seems far removed from the team’s anemic start to the season that saw it out-scored 13-3 in its first four outings.

Stothers said a relatively light schedule (one game in a 13-day stretch at one point) has helped his team regroup on the ice.

“Our guys would much prefer to play than practice but it’s been much needed for us after the start we had,” Stothers said. “We’ve had to cover a lot of things. I still don’t think we’re clean in some of areas of our game, and we’re going to try to get better.”

Stothers said he’s taken a stance of patience with this group.

The Reign, which was hampered by a revolving door in the goaltender position last season, has gone with two netminders this season. Both Jack Campbell and Petersen started the season winless in their first three starts.

Petersen evened his record at 3-3-0 with a 1.62 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in six game appearances following the Nov. 19 win in San Jose. The 1.62 GAA and .939 save percentage led AHL rookie goaltenders.

Campbell, who appeared in 52 games last season for the Reign with a 31-15-0 record, 2.52 GAA and .914 save percentage, improved his record to 2-4-1 in eight games this season with a 2.60 GAA and .915 save percentage.

Scoring goals has been a problem for the team, not necessarily the goaltending.

Ontario scored just three goals in four games to start the season – one each by Mersch, rookie Philippe Maillet and Brett Sutter, the team’s new captain (replacing Vincent LoVerde, who left the Kings organization for the Toronto Maple Leafs organization during the offseason).

Petersen, 23, from Waterloo, Iowa, gave up few rebounds, seemed to keep track of the puck and played angles well in shutting down the Gulls, stopping all 27 shots he faced, to post his first pro win/shutout.

Maillet scored what proved to be the game-winning goal midway through the first period on a five-on-three power play; Petersen made the single goal stand up for the Reign’s third consecutive win.

“It was good to finally score with Cal being in the net,” Stothers said after the Nov. 3 game, which attracted 10,951 fans to San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center. “It was the first time we scored with him being him in the net. He played extremely well; he deserved the win.”

A fifth-round pick (129th overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 NHL Draft, Petersen backstopped Notre Dame to 11 shutouts the past three seasons. While excited to post his first pro win, he remained somewhat shy about the notoriety that came with it.

“Obviously, the biggest thing is that it was another win for us, kind of getting back to where we should be in the standings,” Petersen said. “It’s obviously good to get that first one out of the way but a lot of credit goes out to the guys blocking shots.

“I don’t think there would have been the same outcome without the sacrifice of all those guys. For me, obviously, confidence is the biggest thing … getting the confidence that I can play at this level.”

Stothers said the large crowds that gather for the SoCal rivalry series feed energy to both teams, not necessarily just the home team.

“It gets loud in here, it’s hard to hear yourself talk on the bench,” the Ontario coach said. “I think it’s a great experience for the guys. It’s playoff hockey in early November. That’s the vibe you get; I love playing here (in San Diego).”

Petersen’s counterpart, the Gulls’ Leland Irving, tied a franchise record for single-game saves with 41 as the Reign out-shot the hosts 42-27 in the Nov. 3 game.

Ontario took ta 2-0-0-1 lead in the teams’ 12-game SoCal rivalry series with the 4-1 win on Nov. 11 in front of 11,125 fans at the Valley View Casino Center. The win was the fourth in five starts for the Reign.

“It wasn’t pretty, but pretty good from my end of things,” Stothers offered. “It doesn’t matter how they go in; we had a stretch when they weren’t gong in. We’re happy with it. We got five out of possible six points with San Diego in those three games. That’s important for us.”

Andrew Crescenzi led the Reign in the Nov. 11 victory with two goals and one assist. Stothers said the only thing that Crescenzi didn’t have in the game was a fight to complete what he termed a “Gordie Howe-I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-hat trick.”

“I’ll address that with him later,” the Reign coach quipped.

Brodzinski was assigned to the Reign on Oct. 17 and recalled on Nov. 16 after collecting four goals and nine points in eight games with Ontario. He scored his first NHL goal in a 4-0 shutout win over the visiting Florida Panthers on Nov. 18 in his second game with the Kings following the call-up.

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Through the Reign’s opening 13 games, Mersch held the team lead with five goals and 11 points, followed by Brodzinski (nine points) and LaDue (eight points). Hensick topped the team with seven assists while Mersch paced the team with three power play goals.

Military Weekend

San Diego is noted as being a military town and the hometown Gulls honored the United States Armed Forces by hosting Military Weekend Nov. 10-11 at the Valley View Casino Center.

It’s one of the AHL team’s biggest promotions of the season, and the two games attracted a total of 24,045 fans, including a sellout crowd of 12,920 on Nov. 10.

The special-themed weekend paid tribute to local military members and their families, as well as raise awareness for local military nonprofit organizations. During the two games, the Gulls provided tickets, at no cost, to more than 4,000 military members and their families.

Gulls players wore a new, custom camouflage jersey each night. Select game-worn jerseys were autographed and available for a silent auction following the Nov. 11 contest.

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A limited number of game-worn camouflage jerseys were also available via the DASH Auction app, a digital auction platform.

All proceeds raised through the auctions were donated by the San Diego Gulls Foundation to the Armed Services YMCA and Operation Rebound of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

Military Weekend began with military families unfurling the American flag on the ice prior to the national anthem on Nov. 10. The weekend culminated with a pregame tailgate on Nov. 11 and a post-game skate on the arena ice for service members and their families with Gulls players.

Many winning bidders took selfies for posting on social media sites with their newly acquired one-of-a-kind camouflage jerseys.

La Mesa’s Jerry Branger, a season ticket holder, held up his prize Mike Liambas jersey for photographers.

Liambas, a rugged 5-10, 203-pound forward, joined the Gulls this season and has been an impact player. Liambas received a call-up to the parent Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 19, perhaps making Branger’s jersey acquisition even more valuable.

“I love the Gulls … I would be here anyway on Military Weekend,” Branger said. “I’ve always liked Liambas as a player, what he brings to the ice. I have other jerseys but I’ve always wanted a game-worn jersey.”

After being handed the jersey following his winning bid, Branger exclaimed: “It’s still wet!”

Shark attack

San Jose center Daniel O’Regan, the 2016-17 AHL Rookie of the Year, received a call-up to the parent San Jose Sharks on Nov. 18 after collecting six goals and 12 points in 12 games with the Barracuda — both team bests.

San Jose goaltender Antoine Bibeau stopped all 31 shots he faced to record the 1-0 shutout win over Ontario on Nov. 18. In eight games with the Cuda, he has posted a 1.64 GAA, 3-3-0 record, .939 save percentage and two shutouts.

San Jose left wing Rudolfs Balcers has collected 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 14 games to start the season — tops among rookies on the AHL’s California-based teams.

California roll call

•Newport Beach’s Eric Comrie improved his 2017-18 season record to 7-4-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .921 save percentage for the Manitoba Moose following a 3-2 shootout win over the visiting Laval Rocket on Nov. 21.

•Left wing Chase De Leo (La Mirada) has collected three goals and eight points in 19 games for the Moose this season. The Southern California duo has helped Manitoba to the top of the Central Division standings with a 12-5-1 record (.684 winning percentage).

•San Diego native Thatcher Demko, the AHL Goaltender of the Month for October, has appeared in 10 games for the Utica Comets this season, posting a 5-4-1 record with a 2.21 GAA, one shutout and a .925 save percentage.

•West Hills native Matt Ford has collected five goals and 10 points in 16 games for the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins. He has logged three power play goals and one shorthanded goal.

•Rossmoor native Rocco Grimaldi has collected three goals and seven points in 10 games for San Antonio. He’s appeared in five games this season for the NHL Colorado Avalanche with one goal and three points.

•Gardena’s Beau Bennett, who won a Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, has spit time between the NHL St. Louis Blues and the AHL Chicago Wolves this season. Bennett has appeared in six games for the Blues, going scoreless, and eight games for the Wolves with one goal and six points.

What’s trending

The Stockton Heat swept Bakersfield in a two-game weekend set Nov. 17-18 to improve to 10-4-0-1 in the Pacific Division standings, good for second place in the eight-team division.

Hunter Shinkaruk earned first star of the game honors in the Heat’s 4-2 win on Nov. 17 while Andrew Mangiapane, the AHL’s Player of the Month for October, earned first star billing on Nov. 18, a 5-2 victory.

Goaltending has been definite strength for the Heat in 2017-18. David Rittich sported a 5-1-0 record with a 2.17 GAA and .931 save percentage in six game appearances while Jon Gillies had compiled a 5-3-1 record with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage in nine games.

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Gillies received an emergency game call-up to the parent NHL Calgary Flames for a Nov. 15 game against Detroit. He saw 34:53 of ice time, stopping nine of 12 shots.

Three Stockton players reached personal milestones in the Heat’s 6-3 win in San Diego on Nov. 10. Garnet Hathaway recorded his 100th professional point, Shinkaruk his 200th AHL game and Brett Findlay his 50th AHL point. Findlay scored just 27 seconds into the contest.

San Diego, in snapping a three-game home-ice losing streak, swept the Pacific Division-leading Tucson Roadrunners by scores of 8-3 and 3-2 (in a shootout) on Nov. 17-18.

Spencer Abbott tied a Gulls franchise record with four points (two goals, two assists) in the 8-3 rout while rookie Mitch Hults had the biggest night of his pro career thus far with three points (one goal, two assists). The Nov. 17 game marked the San Diego debut of forward Eric Fehr, a veteran of more than 600 NHL games, who picked up two tallies for his newest team.

Rookie goaltender Kevin Boyle was honored with the first star of the game award in the Nov. 18 game after stopping 36 of 38 shots through regulation and overtime.

San Diego leads the 30-team AHL with a 9,658 attendance average. Ontario ranks second among Pacific Division teams with a 6,859 attendance average.

Stockton Heat’s Hockey Fights Cancer game on Nov. 4 attracted 7,008 fans — the most at a Stockton Hockey Cancer game since Nov. 3, 2012. Game-presentation was centered on recognizing and supporting cancer survivors and those who continue to fight the deadly disease.

Bakersfield will host its 19th annual Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday, Nov. 25, at Rabobank Arena. A capacity crowd is expected for the charitable event that will benefit United Way of Kern County. More than 111,000 bears have been collected and donated in the history of the event, which had its genesis when the Condors were members of the West Coast Hockey League in 1999-2000.

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(Nov. 22, 2017)