Feb. 3, 2017

The Gulls (22-17-1-0, 45 pts., .563 win %) return from the league-wide All-Star break to take on the first-place Tucson Roadrunners (24-13-2-1, 51 pts., .638 win %) tonight at Valley View Casino Center (7 p.m., ESPN 1700-AM). The Gulls have had strong second halves of the regular season (Games 35-68) dating back to 2015-16. San Diego leads the Western Conference and ranks second among AHL clubs with the highest win percentage (.709%), and is tied for second in the AHL in second half wins (50) in that span. San Diego also has the joint-fewest second half losses (19) in the AHL.

The Gulls enter tonight’s contest with wins in seven of their last 11 games (7-4-0-0) and 15 of their last 21 games (15-6-0-0). Tonight marks the first February contest for San Diego where the club have earned an all-time record of 18-4-0-1 during the month. The Gulls play nine games (five home, four away) during the month of February, the fewest in a full calendar month (excluding April: six games).

Tonight’s game marks the third annual Pink in the Rink that will see the team don special pink jerseys in celebration of the night that honors women’s health initiatives and the fight against breast cancer. Gulls players and coaches alike know the importance of the occasion.

“It’s something (breast cancer) that affects everybody,” said Gulls defenseman Steven Oleksy. “It’s a game that everybody looks forward to every year. It’s a way for us athletes to contribute, especially to a good cause.”

“We are all here because of women and we want to really support not only the women in our life but women everywhere,” said Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins. “Any time that we can help support those health initiatives it’s an extremely important thing to us.”

On the ice, the stakes are being raised. After sweeping the two-game set at Bakersfield last weekend, the team returns to action hungry to move up in the standings against their divisional rivals.

“We have to go out and have the right mindset and treat this as the biggest game of the year,” said goaltender Kevin Boyle. “They have a hell of team over there and they have gotten the better of us on many occasions. They are very skilled and they can score and we definitely have to be ready for it.”

Boyle is expected to get the start in net with Reto Berra’s recall to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday. In his last eight starts, Boyle (11-8-1) has earned a 6-2-0 record with a 2.35 goals-against average (GAA) and .931 save percentage (SV%).

The Gulls have won four of the eight previous matchups this season (4-4-0-0), with an all-time mark of 14-5-0-1, good for points in 15 of the 20 matchups between the teams. The Gulls own a 6-3-0-1 record all-time vs. Tucson at Valley View Casino Center with a 2-2-0-0 mark this season. After San Diego won the first three contests of the season, Tucson took the next four consecutive games. The Roadrunners appeared to be on their way to their fifth consecutive win over the Gulls on Jan. 17 before San Diego rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win 5-3 at Tucson Convention Center Arena in large part thanks to Giovanni Fiore’s third period natural hat trick. The Gulls trailed 3-0 at 9:35 of the second period but scored five consecutive goals to match the largest deficit overcome in a win in club history.

Corey Tropp paces all active Gulls skaters in goals and points vs. Tucson in 15 career games (9-9=18) while Kalle Kossila leads the club with 10 assists (4-10=14) in 18 games. Jaycob Megna leads the team with a +14 rating in 14 career games. Boyle has earned wins in five of his seven career appearances vs. Tucson (5-2-0), posting a 3.12 GAA and .912 SV%.

On the other side of the matchup, Tucson enters tonight atop the Pacific Division having downed the Ontario Reign last night by a 4-1 score at Citizens Business Bank Arena to push the team’s record away from home to 13-3-1-1. Mario Kempe scored a pair of goals and the Roadrunners were backstopped by Hunter Miska’s 22-save performance for their seventh win in the last 10 games (7-3-0-0). Miska has now won each of his last seven appearances, and is now a perfect 7-0-0 on the road this season.

Tucson is in the midst of a season-long six-game road trip coming out of the All-Star break spanning 13 days that could define the second half of their season.

“It’s always hard to play on the road, but this year we’ve had success,” said Michael Bunting following the team’s practice on Thursday. “It’s a long road trip for us, two weeks I think, and we’re playing six games during that time, but I think it’s going to be fun for us. It’s going to be a fun challenge, and hopefully if we keep things going, we can get all 12 points.”

Center Dylan Strome, who was selected by the Arizona Coyotes in the first round selection (third overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft, leads the Roadrunners in scoring this season with 41 points (17G/24A) in just 31 games. The skilled forward from Mississauga, Ontario has hurt San Diego this season with 12 points (6G/6A) in just six games. Second in scoring for Tucson is right wing Nick Merkley. Merkley, also a first round selection (30th overall) of the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft, has racked up 35 points (18G/17A) in 29 games. Both forwards recently participated in the AHL All-Star Challenge in Utica, N.Y.

Veteran Eric Fehr is well-aware that Tucson’s stars will need to be kept in check if the Gulls are to come out on top.

“Obviously they have got the top-scoring line in the league right now,” said Fehr. “They have definitely had our number the last couple of times so it will be nice to try and shut them down and do our best to make sure we are playing strong defensively first, and then let the rest take care of itself.”

Adin Hill and Miska have split duties in goals for the Roadrunners this season. Hill (9-10-1) has posted a 2.59 GAA and .905 SV% to date but we recalled to the Arizona Coyotes a day ago, while Miska (14-3-0) has recorded a 2.77 GAA and .903 SV%. Miska’s 14 wins place him second in wins among rookie goaltenders in the AHL behind only Texas’s Landon Bow (15).

“It’s a team that we want to get points from,” said defenseman Andy Welinski upon his return from the AHL All-Star Challenge. “It’s important for us to be ready to go.”