Dec. 22, 2017
The Gulls put their three-game win streak on the line tonight as the club finishes a three-game homestand tonight in the first of a home-and-home weekend series against the Ontario Reign at Valley View Casino Center (7 p.m., Mighty 1090-AM). After winning five of their last six games, San Diego (12-11-1-0, 25 pts.) aims to continue its winning ways as they vault up the Pacific Division standings after a slower than expected start to the season.
With the Gulls and the Reign (13-11-0-1, 27 pts.) virtually tied in the standings, every point matters as the teams battle for potential playoff positioning as the season progresses.
“It’s going to be a tough battle,” said center Sam Carrick following practice earlier this week. “This division is funny. You play the same teams quite a bit and every game matters.”
In the four games to date this season San Diego and Ontario have split the first four games, with the road team victories in each of their two games. All-time the Gulls have earned a 16-10-1-1 record vs. the Reign, with 6-7-1-0 record on home ice (10-3-0-1 at Citizens Business Bank Arena). Corey Tropp leads all active Gulls skaters with nine points (4G/5A) in 13 career games against Ontario. Reto Berra is 2-0-0 vs. the Reign this season, having posted a 2.40 GAA and a .936 SV% in his two appearances.
One of the keys to the two contests will be special teams, most notably the San Diego power play. The Gulls 26.1% mark on the man advantage ranks first in the AHL, with the 31 power play tallies the highest average per game (1.29) in the league. San Diego is also 18-of-61 (29.5%) at home, which leads the Western Conference and ranks second among AHL clubs. San Diego’s 22.4% mark on the road ranks second among AHL clubs. The Gulls have scored six power play goals the past two games (6-of-11, 54.5%) and 19 goals the past 15 games (19-of-65, 29.2%).
Despite losing two key pieces that heavily featured on the power play in Andy Welinski (recall to Anaheim) and Spencer Abbott (trade), the Gulls man advantage has improved despite losing the club’s two leading scorers two weeks ago.
“It just goes to show you that we have some depth on this roster,” added Carrick, who has 10 points in his last 10 games (2G/8A). “Our power play has been pretty good all year around so that is definitely a positive.”
The Reign enter tonight coming off a 4-3 overtime win over the Texas Stars on Wednesday night thanks to Justin Auger’s goal 1:09 into the extra frame. Ontario is led by their captain, veteran center Brett Sutter who was recently named a captain for the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. Sutter, selected by Calgary in the sixth round (179th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft, has played over 700 games at the AHL level. The two-way forward has 10 points (5G/5A) in 25 games and has logged the club’s only shorthanded goal as well.
Further bolstering Ontario’s attack has been the addition of NHL veteran Matt Moulson. A left wing who has logged 650 contests at the NHL level, Moulson once scored 30 goals in a season for the New York Islanders in 2009-10. In his return to the AHL for the first time since 2009 he has piled up 10 assists in only six games for the Reign.
In the net for the Reign will be either rookie Cal Petersen or Jack Campbell. Petersen leads all AHL rookies with a 2.14 GAA and .925 SV%. In tandem with Campbell, the Reign have allowed the third fewest goals against in the AHL this season.
One of the cornerstones of the recent turnaround for San Diego has been the much improved defensive play. Over the past six games the Gulls have allowed three goals or fewer in each of those contests.
“Things are simplified a lot more,” said Gulls defenseman Keaton Thompson. “I think we are playing a simple game. It’s easier to think out there. Guys are in the right spots, everyone is talking to each other.”
In addition, this weekend looks to be the debut of center Joseph Blandisi for the Gulls. Blandisi, selected by Colorado in the sixth round (162nd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, appeared in three games for Anaheim this season following a trade from the New Jersey Devils organization that saw he and Adam Henrique join the Ducks in exchange for defenseman Sami Vatanen. With New Jersey’s primary AHL affiliate Binghamton, Blandisi recorded 14 points (3G/11A) in games earlier this season.
With a suddenly healthy lineup for the first time all year, roster spots are at a premium and the message is to make contributions each game to force the coaching staff to keep players in the lineup.
“I think it’s good for the group to keep the competition up,” said rookie defenseman Marcus Pettersson. “We have had a good week of practice here and now we just have to keep it up.”
Following tonight’s contest, the teams will travel north to the Inland Empire and once again face off in the second portion of the back-to-back at Citizens Business Bank Arena (3 p.m., Mighty 1090-AM).