Perhaps there is no other way to describe it; it was simply a strange and uncharacteristic game for the Ontario Reign. Playing on home ice, the Stockton Heat came out with all they had and forced the Reign to play a physical battle right from the get-go, although the results were rather futile in the end. Goaltender Peter Budaj delivered a solid performance in net, stopping all 38 saves he faced and earned his league-leading fourth shutout on the season to defeat the Stockton Heat 4-0.
The top line of Michael Mersch, Nic Dowd, and Valentin Zykov were held relatively quiet while Jordan Samuels-Thomas netted a natural hat trick to give the Reign a solid lead over Stockton in the early part of the second period and chase Heat netminder Kent Simpson from the net.
Special teams prevailed as penalties dominated the pace of the game for both teams.
Sean Backman put the Reign on the board first during a 5-on-3 power play in the opening stanza, receiving a pass from Dowd to sneak the puck past Simpson. Samuels-Thomas doubled the lead at 16:41 of the first when, after taking a slashing penalty, sprung out of the box and received a pass from 6-foot-7 Kings prospect Justin Auger. Just a few seconds later, Samuels-Thomas got a high tip-in off the stick of Scott Sabourin to give the Reign a 3-0 lead at the end of the first period.
Commotion in front of the Heat net led to a penalty shot for Mersch, yet he was denied by Simpson as the period came to a close.
Samuels-Thomas drove the puck home early in the second period to give him a natural hat trick. Defenseman Vincent LoVerde, a former member of the ECHL Ontario Reign and now captain of the AHL club, earned his 100th career point with the secondary assist, as he sent the puck to Ryan Horvat before it was buried by Samuels-Thomas in front of the net.
The game then got physical as the Heat battled for the puck along the boards and intensified their efforts to get past Peter Budaj in net. Three altercations broke out in the period with Sabourin mixing it up with Stockton’s Dustin Stevenson, Paul Bissonette taking on Hunter Smith and Ryan MacDermid scraping with Colton Orr during the middle frame.
With more penalties, Calgary Flames prospect Drew Shore, older brother of Kings center Nick Shore, attempted a short-handed tally, but although the puck was sitting just behind Budaj, the goal was waved off due to a whistle. The Heat continued to pressure and pour on the shots and the solid netminding from Budaj kept Stockton off the scoresheet.
Although it’s still early in the season, Budaj’s turnaround from his 2014-15 AHL campaign has been nothing short of remarkable. Last year, he went 0-9-6 with the St. John’s Ice Caps, along with a 3.55 goals against average and a .888 save percentage. With his win Saturday night, Budaj holds a 7-1-1 record in nine game with the Reign, including a 1.31 GAA, .947 SV%, and four shutouts.
Post-game quotes and video highlights are below.
Line Combinations and Defensive Pairings:
Samuels-Thomas- Crescenzi- Sabourin
Reign Coach Mike Stothers on the overall game:
“It was kind of a weird game. I don’t think the score was indicative of, I don’t think we played very well at all. That’s not the way we play and somehow the pucks found their way into the back of the net. Not one of our shining moments as far as I’m concerned… We were uncharacteristic with our turnovers, uncharacteristic with our shots against, uncharacteristic with the time we spent in our end and uncharacteristic of me to not be very happy with our players.”
Reign Goaltender Peter Budaj on the win:
“Thankfully, I felt good out there. They came out really strong. They lost the night before, so we knew they were going to come out hard. We weathered the storm and then we were able to score two quick goals and play with the lead. They had a push in the second period, including hitting a few posts. Our guys stick together; they answered the bell and it was a team win. … I’ve been seeing the puck well and the team is playing well in front of me. Obviously, it’s been a great change for me after last year, which was very difficult for me. I just stuck with it and I was able to get a chance here. I want to prove to everybody that I can still play. Hopefully, we can continue on this path.”
Heat Coach Ryan Huska on the overall game:
“We didn’t get a save early on tonight. It might sound strange when you lose a game 4-0 but we played well tonight. We really did. I thought we did a lot of good things in regards to putting pucks to the net. I thought we were physical. It’s tough when you get yourself behind the 8-ball to a very good hockey club , but we competed and battled and played the way we want our guys to play.”
Huska on the first period 5-on-3 penalty kill:
“5-on-3’s are a challenge. I thought we were really doing a good job with that. You’re looking for something good there to build off the penalty kill, but they scored. I thought we finished the kill well and we kept going which was a nice thing. A lot of the time when you give up some goals early or you’re down like we were it’s easy for guys to just cave a little. We didn’t see that at all tonight.”
Heat Captain Aaron Johnson on losing despite having more chances:
“It can be frustrating but we’re just trying to build good things here. We’re going to build off of this and build off the chances that we had and take the positives out of tonight. We just have to turn the page. … I thought we really played a pretty solid game. We had more scoring chances than we’ve had in the last few games. Unfortunately a couple goals against hurt us and we had to battle uphill from there.”
Heat Goaltender Eric Hartzell, who entered the game in the second period after being signed to a PTO earlier in the day:
“I was preparing myself to play from the beginning of the game. You obviously never want something bad to happen to the other goalie, but just in case something does happen you have to be prepared. … I made sure I was prepared for the game regardless of what happened. I felt good out there. At the end there when it got a little chaotic I just tried to control the middle of the net. The defense did a great job of clearing out rebounds and they definitely helped me out.”
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