After besting the San Jose Barracuda in their opening round series, the Ontario Reign face yet another California opponent – squaring off with another division rival in the San Diego Gulls. This isn’t the first time the Kings and Ducks AHL clubs have met in the playoffs in recent memory, as the Norfolk Admirals eliminated the Manchester Monarchs in the opening round of the 2014 post season. In the 2016 match-up, the Reign jumped out to an early series lead, winning game 1 by a score of 5-3. The Gulls had revenge on their minds, while Ontario hoped to jump up 2-0 in the series, as the battle moved south to San Diego for Game 2.
In front of a raucous crowd, the Gulls opened the scoring, tallying the first goal of of the game early, just moments after their power play ended. As the two teams battled along the boards for the puck, Nick Ritchie found a soft spot in the Reign slot, where he was left uncovered, allowing him an easy one-time goal past Peter Budaj.
San Diego dominated the game early, as the Reign suffered from quite a sluggish start. Despite out-shooting the Gulls 17-8 in the first period, the Reign surely couldn’t be happy with the opening 20 minutes, as they failed to create many grade-A chances, opting for shots from the perimeter of the zone.
While the Reign might not have been happy with the first period, neither team could be thrilled with their play in the second. A back-and-forth period with little-to-no flow to it saw both teams parade to the penalty box.
Ontario drew the game even at 1 with an early strike to start the third period. Working the puck from below the goal line, Mike Amadio found Vincent LoVerde at the point, who took a step towards the middle of the ice and wristed a shot on net. Just in front of Matt Hackett, Kris Newbury redirected the point shot into the back of the net.
Both teams traded chances for the rest of the period, yet neither found a game-winner in regulation, forcing an overtime period.
In extra time, the Reign found a game winner off the stick of Justin Auger. A faceoff in the Gulls zone saw Adrian Kempe win a faceoff to Kevin Gravel at the point, whose initial shot was stopped by Hackett before Auger could jump on the rebound and bury it from the slot. The Reign won 2-1 and now lead the series 2-0.
After the game-winner, Hackett crumpled to the ice and was visibly disappointed, with good cause. Hackett made several huge saves, especially with his glove hand, which lead to Mike Stothers joking that he could “win a Gold Glove in center field” with how dominant his glove was on Saturday night. The 26-year-old netminder kept his club in the game when they had no business being there, and his team let him down by being unable to give him more than one goal in support.
Over the last four seasons, Vincent LoVerde went from a player who had to fight his way for an AHL tryout, to signing his first NHL deal with the Kings’ and captaining the Manchester Monarchs to a Calder Cup. LoVerde has improved in almost all areas since first joining the Kings’ AHL affiliate, but one of the most notable improvements has come this year, as the former Miami University Redhawk has shed weight and gained speed on the ice. The defender noted that he came into training camp five-10 pounds lighter than the previous year, in an effort to be quicker on his feet.
It was encouraging to see Auger score the game-winner, as the lanky forwards play took a dip late last year and on into the playoffs. Though he was a regular on said Calder Cup team, there’s no doubt he wants to make more of an impact this year around. Auger knows now what it takes to win at this level, and after the game, he spoke to us about how last year’s run can help benefit this year’s team.
“I think a big thing is experience. A lot of guys on this team have been through four rounds, and been through winning a championship. Last year, we went to overtime a couple times, so we know what to expect. We know that everything is magnified in overtime – one turnover, one shot, the game could be over,” explained Auger. “We know what to expect. We’ve been there before, and that’s a big part – the experience factor that a lot of guys bring this year.”
Ontario heads home to take on the Gulls tomorrow night for Game 3, hoping to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.
Lines for Saturday’s game were as follows:
Kris Newbury – Nic Dowd – Sean Backman
Michael Mersch – Adrian Kempe – Justin Auger
Sam Herr – Andrew Crescenzi – Jordan Samuels-Thomas
Joel Lowry – Mike Amadio – Paul Bissonnette
Kurtis MacDermid – Vincent LoVerde
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel
Jeff Schultz – Nick Ebert
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