Roughly one-third of the way through their season, the Ontario Reign are cruising through the AHL’s Pacific Division. With only four regulation losses, it has been nearly impossible from denying the Reign a point after 60 minutes of play. The team that won last year’s Calder Cup in Utica hasn’t looked to have slowed down at all, despite losing several big names from last year’s team. Recent moves have left the team without two of their top scorers, as Mike Mersch is with the Kings and Adrian Kempe joined Team Sweden for the World Junior Championships. The Reign’s resilience once again showed, as a late goal versus the San Diego Gulls forced OT before finally falling to their division rivals in a shootout.
Saturday’s match-up saw the Gulls’ top ranking power-play face off against the Reign’s second rated penalty kill. The Gulls fearsome man advantage struck midway through the first, as Nick Ritchie scored his 10th goal of the year. Brandon Montour received a pass from the right half wall and one-timed it towards the net. Stationed to the right of Peter Budaj, Ritchie collected the missed shot and put it into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Late in the opening period, Justin Auger tied the game at one. Skating down the right side of the ice, Auger entered the offensive zone in an odd-man rush. Opting to shoot, Auger’s initial release was blocked, bouncing off of goalie Anton Khudobin, hitting Auger as he skated by, and redirected into the goal.
In the second period, Ritchie once again broke a tie score to give his team a 2-1 lead. Reign center Nic Dowd turned the puck over twice in the slot deep in his own zone, and Ritchie capitalized by jumping on the second turnover and converting with his second of the game.
For the rest of the game, the Reign struggled as they attempted to claw their way back into the game. It wouldn’t be until the final minute of the regulation that they would be able to beat Khudobin again. After a mad scramble by Ontario, Kris Newbury was able to bank a puck off of the back of Khudobin from just behind the goal line, evening the score at two and sending the hometown crowd into a frenzy.
The overtime period saw hectic back-and-fourth action, though neither team was able to light the lamp. After the allotted five minutes ran down, the game went to a shootout to decide a winner. There, Ritchie scored once again, while Khudobin shut down both Reign shooters he faced before Mike Sgarbossa sealed the deal with a goal of his own.
Budaj was one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise listless effort by the Reign. The veteran netminder appears to have settled in nicely as the starting goalie for coach Mike Stothers. A year ago, Budaj went winless in the AHL and looked like his career was all but done. His somewhat of a resurgence is crucial for the Kings, as he is now the only one in line for a call-up should one of the big club’s goalies go down.
Last year, Dowd’s rookie season started off terrific before cooling off towards the end of the regular season. A strong playoff indicated that Dowd looked likely to take a big step forward coming into his second profession year. However, Saturday was likely one of Dowd’s worst performances since leaving St. Cloud State two years ago. Turnovers plagued the center, as he was directly responsible for Ritchie’s second goal. Known as someone with great character, it would be reasonable to expect Dowd to use this as a learning experience and never commit the same mistakes again.
Dowd’s fellow St. Cloud alum and longtime friend Kevin Gravel, on the other hand, looked terrific on the back end. Now also in his second year, Gravel looks confident with the puck on his stick, something he didn’t look at times last year. His decision making has improved as well. At the same time, his play in his own zone has been nothing short of solid. If his growth continues on this trend, he will find himself in a Kings’ sweater in the coming years.
Another defender showing marked improvement is Nick Ebert. After spending last year coming in and out of the lineup, Ebert looks poised for a full-time position in the Reign lineup. Known as an offensive-defenseman, his work in his own zone has always been a bit of a project. The highlight of his game on Saturday came when he broke up a three-on-one odd man rush by the Gulls. Though there is still work to be done to take the next step in his career, progress like what was shown on Saturday is a positive sign.
In his third year in the organization, and the final year of his contract, Scott Sabourin has a lot to prove this year. One member of Kings’ management told MayorsManor in June that he expected Sabourin to come in and have a terrific training camp. So far, his season has not been off to a hot start. While he does look faster this year than he has in years past, he still struggles to find a way to impact the game. Far too often, Sabourin seems to panic and just throw the puck towards the net instead of making a more intelligent play. If Sabourin wants to continue on in the Kings’ organization, he must find a way to play better than he did Saturday.
On the other end of the rink, Ritchie showed every bit of why he was a 1st round pick by the Anaheim Ducks. The winger possesses great size and is never shy of going to the dirty areas on the ice. A true power forward, Ritchie imposed his presence in front of the Reign net all night. An NHL future looks bright for the youngster.
Lines for Saturday’s game were as follows:
Jonny Brodzinski – Nic Dowd – Justin Auger
Sean Backman – Kris Newbury – Valentin Zykov
Paul Bissonnette – Andrew Crescenzi – Jordan Samuels-Thomas
Curt Gogol – Ryan Horvat – Scott Sabourin
Kurtis MacDermid – Vincent LoVerde
Kevin Gravel – Kevin Gravel
Jeff Schultz – Nick Ebert
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