Apr. 17, 2018
It was a day that came all too soon for the Gulls as players and staff held their end-of-season interviews at THE RINKS – Poway ICE as the team convened for one last time to end the 2017-18 season. Had coach Dallas Eakins and players reflected on the disappointing end to the regular season, the future and the joy of playing in front of the American Hockey League’s best fans. A true testament to the passionate fans and fervor of hockey in San Diego, the Gulls led the AHL in attendance with an average of 9,305 fans per game to become the first team in 12 seasons to usurp the Hershey Bears atop the attendance charts. San Diego welcomed more than 316,000 fans through the turnstiles this season, which set a new club record following the previous record of 301,000 last season.
On the ice in their third season in San Diego, the Gulls finished the regular season with a 36-28-3-1 (.559%) record which tied for fourth place with San Jose, but the club missed out on the playoffs for the first time based on the first tiebreaker scenario (percentage of games won excluding shootout wins. San Jose won 33 games in regulation or overtime compared to San Diego’s 32. It was a shocking close to the season for all involved, with San Diego needing one point to clinch a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs with three games remaining on the schedule, yet three consecutive losses to the Tucson Roadrunners dealt a blow no one saw coming.
“It is something that obviously does not sit well with me and is still gut wrenching and I’m still reeling from,” said Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins. “I have always prided myself on being able to move forward very quickly and understand that you can’t change five seconds ago, 10 seconds ago, or yesterday, but this one is sticking with me and it’s a tough one to swallow when it is just one point.”
As the primary affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, player movement was again a consistent as the NHL club began the season with injuries to key players in Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen, added by the midseason injury to Ryan Getzlaf and the other ups and downs of roster moves. Altogether the Ducks had roughly 20 different transactions where they recalled a Gulls player throughout the season with 14 players appearing in games for both the Ducks and Gulls during the 2017-18 (Reto Berra, Joe Blandisi, Jared Boll, Giovanni Fiore, Korbinian Holzer, Ondrej Kase, Nic Kerdiles, Kalle Kossila, Mike Liambas, Jaycob Megna, Marcus Pettersson, Dennis Rasmussen, Kevin Roy, Andy Welinski). Four of the aforementioned players made their NHL debuts with Anaheim, including Fiore (Oct. 7 vs. Philadelphia), Roy (Nov. 9 vs. Vancouver), Welinski (Dec. 11 vs. Carolina) and Pettersson (Feb. 15 at Chicago).
“I think this one is going to stick with all of us for a while and I think it’s going to give us a lot of motivation going into the summer to work our tails off and come back next year,” said goaltender Kevin Boyle. “I think we are going to have some bad taste in our mouths coming into next year so we are going to have something to prove. It’s not a great feeling and it’s going to stick with me for a while here but that’s the way sports work and sometimes you are on the receiving end of some bad stuff so we just have to move on.”
This season 39 different players appeared in a game for San Diego, far less than the 50 that donned a Gulls sweater in 2016-17, but the influx of rookies (11 total) combined with five second-year players and a combination of young veterans and experienced veterans with hundreds of game of NHL experience. The team had it’s share of ups and downs, from the club’s record-tying eight-game win streak from Jan. 26-Feb. 17, winning six straight home games from Feb. 3-Mar. 2 and the 15 comeback wins, there were plenty of highs to celebrate. It was the 39 players who competed for San Diego that will shape the season.
In what has been a consistent with development in three years for San Diego is churning out NHL-ready players that have the ability to step in and make a difference with the Ducks. This year alone three prominent Gulls grads took another step in their professional development. Brandon Montour scored 32 points (9G/23A) for a new career high in 80 games, to ranks second among Anaheim defensemen in goals and points, and third in assists. Ondrej Kase scored a career-high 20 goals to ranks second on the Ducks while he added 18 assists for 38 points in 66 contests. Goaltender John Gibson posted a 31-18-7 record with a 2.43 GAA and .926 SV% in 60 appearances, to set new career highs in wins, SV%, saves and appearances, while surpassing the individual single-season Ducks record for SV%. From the All-Star break through the end of the regular season, Gibson led NHL netminders in GAA (1.95; min. 20 games) and SV% (.937; min. 20 games) with a 14-4-2 record.
“We pride ourselves that our NHL team is in the playoffs and the first place team that we (were) playing against got even stronger from players getting sent down from Arizona so that is tough. I think we were the underdog going in right away but for me it’s not even the last game or the last two games, it’s over 68 games we were looking for one point,” added Eakins. “I can remember the second-to-last game and we had 3:10 left and we can’t get it cleared. I remember a game in San Antonio where we had played a flawless game and we were up 1-0 and they scored in the last minute and got one right after on a seeing-eye shot where we should have had two points that night and we ended up with none… I could give you a dozen different places where we could have gotten that point and that’s what makes this so hard.”
“It goes back to our constant messaging here. it’s been like this since the first day I came in, is that this moment and today is a critical moment and you never know how this moment will affect your life, your career, or this season.”
As the long offseason begins, the longest in the three years since the return of the Gulls, players will go their separate ways as they look to start their offseason training regiment and plans to take the next step in their careers.
“It’s hard, and these guys are some of my best friends and it’s hard that everyone is going to be going their separate ways here in the next couple of weeks,” added Boyle. “We are all trying to hang out every day here and just spend as much time as we can with each other because we grew such a bond going through what we did this year and who knows what is going to happen next year and the years to come, so it’s hard.”
Some players, like Berra and defenseman Jacob Larsson, were recalled to Anaheim to aid in their Stanley Cup Playoffs first round series against the San Jose Sharks. Others will look to get stronger, round out their game, and fine tune aspects that will help their development. But one thing that will stick with every player is the fans. Not one players left Monday without a nod to the San Diego fans and how they truly inspire the team and community.
“The fans are awesome here, and like last year this year was the same thing, it’s a great city and a great city to play hockey,” said Kevin Roy. “The fans are pretty special here and it helps the team a lot when we are at home and even when we are on the road they have a strong showing. They did a great job all year again.”
“They are incredible and I think we have the best fans in the AHL, for sure, hands down,” added Boyle. “Every time we come in and play at home they give us a boost and that’s huge for our confidence and we love going out and playing in front of them every game.”