Jan. 13, 2018
The Gulls (19-13-1-0, 39 pts, .591 win %) conclude a four-game homestand tonight as they host the first place Tucson Roadrunners (18-11-2-1, 39 pts, .609 win %) tonight at Valley View Casino Center (7 p.m., ESPN 1700-AM). The meeting will be the first of three straight matchups between the Pacific Division’s top two clubs before they meet again on Jan. 15 and 17 at Tucson Arena. The Gulls enter tonight looking to finish off a perfect homestand and earn their fifth straight win. San Diego has won 10 of their last 12 contests (10-2-0-0) and 12 of their last 15 (12-3-0-0). They have also won five of their last six home games (5-1-0-0). After ending the Chicago Wolves’ 14-game point streak with a 2-1 win on Wednesday, the Gulls are aiming to take Tucson’s spot at the top of the Pacific Division.
“It’s going to be another good test for us,” said Gulls forward Joe Blandisi. “We know they are a good team and they got the better of us last time they came into our building and won 4-1.”
This season the Gulls are 3-2 against Tucson, while San Diego took the first three meetings, including a wild 7-6 affair at Tucson Arena on opening night on Oct. 7. The Gulls continued their winning ways against the Roadrunners on Nov. 17 at Valley View Casino Center where they unleashed an eight goal attack to down Tucson 8-3. They followed up a night later with a 3-2 shootout decision. However, the Roadrunners would get a measure of revenge a few nights later on Nov. 22 when Tucson blanked San Diego 5-0 behind Adin Hill’s 29 save shutout. It would be San Diego’s first defeat at Tucson Arena in eight games. Tucson then came into San Diego on Dec. 27 and prevailed 4-1 following the Christmas Break.
All-time, the Gulls lead the series between the two Pacific Division opponents by a wide margin. San Diego is 13-3-0-1 against Tucson in the two years of competition with points taken in 14 of 17 contests. At Valley View Casino Center, the Gulls are 6-2-0-1 in nine games. Right wing Corey Tropp (8-8=16) leads all active Gulls skaters in goals and points vs. Tucson while center Kalle Kossila leads the club with nine assists (4-10=14) in 16 games. Goaltender Kevin Boyle has earned wins in five of six career stars vs. Tucson (5-1-0) with a 2.96 GAA and .919 SV%.
A paramount reason for San Diego’s recent success is the goaltending of Boyle and veteran netminder Reto Berra. Boyle (10-6-1) ranks tied for second among all AHL rookie goaltenders in wins (10). The Manalapan, New Jersey native has won five straight games with a 2.11 GAA and a .939 SV% and is now 6-0-0 in his last six home appearances with a 2.06 GAA and .940 SV%. Berra has won his last three decisions, with the Bulach, Switzerland native boasting a 1.33 GAA and a .961 SV% in those contests.
“It’s huge. You know that you’ve got a guy back there that’s going to battle for you if you make a mistake,” said Gulls center Sam Carrick when asked about Berra and Boyle. “I think it gives us confidence to make plays. We are a team that likes to create offensive. I wouldn’t say we are a high-risk team but we know that if there is a breakdown, which is going to happen in games, we have some of the best goalies in the league that are going to back us up.”
Another reason for the team’s success has been the strong penalty kill of late. San Diego’s penalty kill unit has erased 22 of the last 23 penalties (95.7%) and killed 41 of the last 45 against (91.1%) coming into tonight’s contest.
“We have had active sticks,” Blandisi said upon being asked the reason for the excellent results. “I think Dallas (Eakins) calls it windshield wipers with your stick. You want to stay active and take away the passing lanes as much as you can.”
Tucson enter tonight sitting atop the Pacific Division having won six of their last 10 games (6-4-0-0) and allowed the fewest goals among the eight teams (93). Tucson fell to the Ontario Reign last night in a high-scoring 6-4 game that the Roadrunners gave up a 2-1 lead following a four-goal second period.
The Roadrunners are led in scoring by Arizona Coyotes first round picks Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley. The dynamic Strome, who was selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the first round (third overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. He has piled up 34 points (14G/20A) in just 23 AHL games. Strome leads the AHL in points-per game (1.48) and is the lone player ahead of Gulls forward Kalle Kossila (9-20=29, 1.32). Just ahead of Strome for the scoring lead is Merkley, the 30th overall selection of the same 2015 draft. Merkley has 35 points (18G/17A) in 28 games to date this season, including a goal in last night’s loss, which places him tied for third among AHL leaders.
Adin Hill and Hunter Miska have split duties in goals for the Roadrunners this season. Hill (7-8-1) has posted a 2.53 GAA and .908 SV% in 16 appearances to date, while Miska (10-3-0) has posted a 3.12 GAA and .897 SV% in 17 appearances. Miska’s 10 wins place him tied for second among rookie goalies victories with Boyle.
For Eakins, a healthy, stable lineup and the presence of leadership has been key to the hot streak the Gulls have enjoyed and the guide for continued success despite a challenging schedule.
“We are healthy and the Ducks are healthy,” said Eakins following a recent game when asked about his lineup. “That’s what you get. You get lots of options. We moved some guys in and out of the lineup. I think it really says a lot about how far some of our guys have developed and how some of our other guys are continuing to lead and get better.”