ONTARIO, CA — They say rivalries can’t be true until teams meet in the playoffs, but whoever “they” happens to be must not have seen the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls go at each other in their first season as divisional rivals this year.
The Reign and the Gulls have only met twelve times, and were affiliates in separate locations in prior seasons, but the rivalry is very strong between the pair of prospect-building affiliates, the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively, of the National Hockey League.
“It’s a fun rivalry, especially with what the Kings and Ducks created,” Ontario forward Sean Backman said in video interviews with Reign public relations staff. “The Gulls and the Reign, we’re not too fond of each other, it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
In those twelve meetings over the past winter, San Diego took eight victories. Head-to-head records or bland stories of the past haven’t truly shown to be a proven marker in analyzing post-season success. However, Ontario only saw the loss column 24 times this season, with over one-third of those losses coming at the hands of the Gulls.
“It’s always been a good rivalry just like L.A. and Anaheim was in the regular season,” said Reign center Nic Dowd. “It’ll be good. I think it’ll be the same type of game. Just gotta play seven games in a row if it comes to it. Each team will look to jump out early in the series and get the advantage.”
“When you play your rival—I would say they are our rivals—it’s been heated and come playoffs you get a little more amped up and should be a little more physical than it was during the regular season. The fans should have some fun with this,” said Reign forward Kris Newbury.
The Gulls collected four wins at home, and four at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. The Reign were outscored by the Gulls, 31-28 over the year, but did shut them out in back-to-back matchups, as well as outscore them 15-3 in victories.
As both teams prep for the series, their game plans won’t change. But the team that can make their minor adjustments count will be the key to moving on to the semi-final round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“Our approach is gonna be the same as it was for round one in San Jose, and we played them a number of times,” said Reign head coach, Mike Stothers. “There’s always things that you, yourself, need to work on and focus on and I think we’ll spend some time on that. We do have an idea of how the Gulls play, so we’ll prepare for that as well. Then, as the games go on, we’ll fine tune and make some adjustments and see if they’ve changed any.”
Perhaps the biggest asset for the Reign, keeping the puck in the offensive zone, will be the key. Getting pucks to the net, traffic in front and pressuring the defense are all standard keys to any playoff series.
“Just like any defensive core, no one wants to go 200 feet and get the puck all night so we gotta get pucks behind them and [we] gotta get contact on them any chance we get—doesn’t have to be a big hit,” said Dowd. “Any seven-game series takes it’s toll. We just gotta make their life difficult getting pucks to the net and playing in the offensive zone. Any defense will tell you they’d rather play 200 feet away from their goal rather than their own end.”
In those victories for Ontario, two players shined, and have done so in the Calder Cup Playoffs as well, forward Adrian Kempe, and goaltender Peter Budaj.
Though he missed a trio of games against the Gulls, Kempe tallied four of his season’s 11 goals, Kempe, recognized as the Kings’ top prospect, tallied four goals against the Ducks’ affiliate. This included his first career hat trick at any professional level, in the teams’ first matchup of the season, a 4-1 victory for Ontario. Kempe has a pair of goals in four playoff games, tying him for the team lead.
Budaj squared up in net against San Diego eleven times over the year, allowing 24 goals in regulation. Budaj twice shut out San Diego, but also allowed four goals a trio of times against one of the AHL’s top offenses.
On the power play, San Diego ranked third in the regular season with a 20.8 percent success rate and they haven’t slowed down in the playoffs, converting five times on 20 times with the man advantage (25 percent). Though the penalty-kill ranged around average during the regular season, San Diego allowed just two power play goals in 21 times shorthanded, along with scoring a shorthanded goal in their four-game opening series.
“They have a good power play, they’ve had a good power play the entire season,” said Ontario defenseman, Kevin Gravel. “First and foremost, we don’t want to put them on the power play. [But] we have a lot of confidence in our penalty-kill so we expect to kill it off.”
The Gulls skated past the Texas Stars in a rather dominating fashion in their first round matchup, taking the series 3-1, outscoring the league’s top offense, 16-9. Twelve of those 16 goals came in the final two games, both at home, as they took the series in dominating fashion earning 6-1 and 6-2 victories to close out the series.
On the flip side, the Reign were a stronghold defensively, so much so, they nearly broke records. Not only was their 2.03 goals against per game the fourth0best in league history, but they also led the league in killing penalties at 88.7 percent. That trend continued in the post-season, as the team has not allowed a power play goal. Moreover, the Reign were shorthanded just nine times in the first round, tops in the league.
“Special teams are gonna play a huge role,” Newbury said. “Obviously, the more penalties they take, the better for us. So try and get under their skin and get them agitated a little bit, and if I’m doing that I’m doing my job.”
All players know the importance of not allowing the extra man on the ice by taking a penalty, and the Reign players are no exception, as their goal is to keep a five-man unit on the ice the entire time by keeping their emotions in check.
“Emotionally, stay even keel,” Gravel said. “The games in the regular season, they got pretty emotional, and in a playoff series it’s a quick turn around. You lose or win a game, you gotta put it behind you. It’s a race to four. As long as you can stay emotionally even through the series and through the game itself, [that’s] gonna be a big thing.”
The rivalry took a new turn in the early stages of the season, when Reign defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, laid a hard check near the half-wall boards on Gulls’ Matt Bailey. The check was deemed an illegal check to the head, and MacDermid was suspended twelve games by the league.
“You just gotta make sure you don’t go over that line, especially during playoffs,” said MacDermid. “You don’t wanna take penalties for your team.”
In their first round matchup, Ontario rallied to a 3-1 series victory, limiting the San Jose Barracuda to just six goals, while scoring eleven of their own.
Ducks goaltender prospect, Ryan Faragher, was recalled prior to the series beginning, with the Gulls primary netminder, Anton Khudobin, being listed as day-to-day. Khudobin did play in all four games the Gulls participated in the first round, but was pulled just over five minutes in to Game 4.
Three separate goalies played in ten or more games for the Gulls over the regular season, including Ducks’ goalie, John Gibson. However, none saw as much playing time at Khudobin, who posted 2.46 goals against average (GAA), which was 14th best in the league. San Diego will likely turn to Matt Hackett, who saw a 3.03 GAA and a .895 save percentage in 22 regular season games. Hackett did play the rest of Game 4 (54:06), allowing two goals on 23 shots on goal.
Ontario has also dealt with injuries over the course of the post-season, seeing Andrew Crescenzi miss a pair of games in the opening series following an in-game collision.
Stothers sees this as the “norm” when it comes to this stage of the season.
“Anytime you’re finishing up the regular season and heading into the playoffs, it’s rare to find guys that are 100 percent healthy,” he said. “If they are, then they haven’t been playing hard enough, or been playing enough, and it they haven’t been playing enough, it’s probably because they haven’t been playing hard enough. That kind of weeds itself out. We play a hard style, we play a physical game, we play a heavy game, so yeah, guys are beat up this time of year. I know they lost a couple of guys in their last game—goaltender got banged up. They’ll probably be ready by Thursday.”
“Just prepare, that’s all you gotta do,” he added. “Play your game. It was a long, 68-game regular season, so you anticipate that the playoffs are always gonna be long. It’s two good teams. Maybe health will be issue. Whoever can stay healthy long enough to get through it, but I don’t see any team with the advantage. Certainly, the scheduling doesn’t give any favors to anybody, so we’ll just drive up and down I-15 and play the games as they are.”
The Reign and Gulls will play in a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 series, swapping home games each contest. The series begins Thursday, May 5, at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario at 7:00 PM PDT. The distance, oddly enough, from Citizens Business Bank Arena to Valley View Casino Center iis…111 miles.
“It’s gonna be a little different with the one-and-one the whole series, but we can’t make that as an excuse,” said Newbury, a veteran of three Stanley Cup Playoff games. “We gotta be ready to play every game. Obviously, we would’ve liked to have had two at home to start, think that’s a big advantage, but we’ll take it one game at a time and worry about it as we go.”
Dating back to 2012, and the ECHL Ontario Reign, Citizens Business Bank Arena will host its fifth consecutive hockey post-season, and the fans have become accustomed to the playoffs. Players and coaches ride along with the home crowd buzz while out on the ice, particularly in a playoff atmosphere.
“It’s a lot of fun, especially when things start going our way in this building and the fans pick up,” said Backman. “We feel it on the bench and we use that momentum that the crowd gives us. Hopefully they’re loud and cheering for us.”
The series will only add to the nature of the beast when it comes to the Gulls and Reign rivalry. Hard checking, high intensity and a new level of play, everything hockey fans like to see in a playoff series between two teams that dislike each other. This goes for both teams as Gulls head coach, Dallas Eakins, brought the attention to the nastiness that could come to the forefront.
“I don’t really care what Dallas said to be honest with you,” said Stothers. “I don’t know about nasty, it’s gonna be a good series. It’s two good teams. I’m sure it’s gonna be a long one and should be a good one.”
“I just think playoff hockey in general gets taken to a whole new level,” said Reign captain, Vincent LoVerde. “It doesn’t matter San Diego or San Jose, the games just naturally get more intense.”
Looking at head-to-head records for a playoff series has become outdated and usually, incorrect. When it comes to the Gulls and Reign though, you can’t ignore the record when Ontario was so much better against everyone else and struggled as strongly against San Diego. Even with this, I have to lean to defense constantly being the winning marker of success in hockey, and every other sport. It’s going to be a long and challenging series for both teams, with physicality leading the way. I have this series going seven games, with the winner being the one with the most depth…Ontario.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center prospect Nic Dowd is expected to be an impact player in the Ontario Reign’s second round playoff matchup against the San Diego Gulls. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
Follow Taylor Blake Ward on Twitter at @TaylorBlakeWard.
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