April 21, 2017

The San Diego Gulls (43-20-3-2; 91 points, .669 win %) open the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs with Game 1 of the First Round tonight vs. the Ontario Reign (36-21-10-1; 83 points, .610 win %) at Valley View Casino Center (7 p.m., Mighty 1090-AM). This marks San Diego’s second-consecutive trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs after appearing in the postseason in 2016 during the club’s inaugural season. The Gulls posted a 43-20-3-2 record in the regular season, and enter the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

“It’s the best time of the year,” said Gulls right wing Corey Tropp on the playoffs. “The level of play elevates, there’s more on the line, it’s the difference between our season being over and extending it. We worked during the regular season for this opportunity, so hopefully we come out ready to go.”

The Gulls match up against the Reign in a best-of-five series that features the Pacific Division’s top teams since its creation last season. Over the past two seasons, San Diego and Ontario have the top two records in the Western Conference, with the Gulls earning 82 wins, the most in the Pacific Division.

“We seem to know each other inside out and, for me, the two teams really mirror each other,” said Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins. “We’ve said it to our team before when we play Ontario that it’s a lot like playing against ourselves. They are disciplined within their system, they play hard, they play a little nasty, they’ve got great passion and I expect every one of these games to be extremely close.”

The Gulls enter the 2017 playoffs with an all-time postseason record of 4-5 (1-1 in series play), 2-2 at Valley View Casino Center and 2-3 away from home in the playoffs. San Diego has faced Ontario on one previous occasion in the playoffs when the clubs met in 2016 in the Division Finals, with Ontario prevailing in five games. The hard-fought series featured two overtime games and three one-goal games.

“Most of the guys here have pretty much seen it all,” said defenseman Nate Guenin when asked about Ontario. “Especially with the four games the last couple weeks of the season, we’re not expecting any surprises. Just counting on us playing our game and it’s going to be a battle of wills.”

Rookie center Kalle Kossila (1-1=2), Tropp (0-2=2) and Antoine Laganiere (0-2=2) lead all current Gulls in playoff scoring vs. Ontario. Current Anaheim Ducks Nick Ritchie (2-2=4) and Brandon Montour (0-3=3) ranked second and third respectively in Gulls scoring during last year’s series. The Reign were led offensively by Nic Dowd (2-2=4) and Mike Amadio (1-3=4), while Adrian Kempe and Michael Mersch each earned two-goal games for Ontario.

“That was a really tough series last year,” Kossila said. “There is some hatred there, that’s why it is a rivalry. It comes down from the NHL rivalry and there is definitely no love lost.”

There are 12 Gulls (Bickel, Cooper, Kase, Kossila, Laganiere, MacKinnon, Megna, Sabourin, Samuels-Thomas, Schultz, Tropp, Welinski) and 11 Reign (Amadio, Auger, Backman, Bissonette, Brodzinsksi, Crescenzi, Herr, Kempe, Mersch, Lowry, LoVerde,) remaining from the 2016 Second Round series. Current Gulls Sabourin, Schultz and Samuels-Thomas each appeared in the 2016 series with Ontario.

“I knew this was a possibility when I came here,” said Samuels-Thomas. “The LA organization is all about success and I knew they would have a good team. Last year I got familiar with San Diego from the other side and I saw that the product they put on the ice was great. It only made sense that this would happen.”

Schultz is ready for the battle versus current foes and former friends as well.

“I’ve got a lot of good friends on that team, but once you step on the ice there’s no friends and we’re trying to beat them as much as they want to beat us,” said the veteran defenseman.

In the regular season the teams faced off 12 times with San Diego posting a 6-4-1-1 record against Ontario and a 2-3-1-0 mark at Valley View Casino Center. On the road in 2016-17, the Gulls earned points in five of six road games in the season series, going 4-1-0-1 at Citizens Business Bank Arena, All-time, the Gulls are 14-8-1-1 vs. Ontario in the regular season (6-5-1-0 at home, 8-3-0-1 on road), and 1-4 vs. the Reign in the playoffs (0-2 at home, 1-2 on the road).

“The whole mental battle of riding the roller coaster of a playoff series, might be the most critical part for us,” Eakins added. From goal to goal, to game to game, it is certainly a wild ride at times. I think we’ve set our guys up here well, we try to live in just the day and just the moment and not worry about anything else. It’s worked wonders for us this year going through all of those players that we had to go through and we hope we can have that continued success through the playoffs.”