Dec. 27, 2017

SAN DIEGO – Nick Merkley scored a goal and added an assist as the Tucson Roadrunners ended San Diego’s season-high five-game win streak with a 4-1 win tonight at Valley View Casino Center. The Roadrunners (14-9-2-1) collected a pair of assists from Mario Kempe while winning for the first time in three games in San Diego. The contest marked the final home game of the 2017 calendar year that saw the Gulls conclude 2017 with a 22-11-0-0 record.

Corey Tropp scored his fourth goal in five games for San Diego (14-12-1-0), as the Gulls saw their five-game winning streak come to an end.

“I don’t think we competed hard enough tonight,” said Tropp, who has a season-best six game point streak (4-4=8), “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think we started on time. We had stints where we played well, but we’re going to have to go back to work tomorrow and make some adjustments, and try to get that compete level back in our game.”

Despite the loss, the Gulls lead the AHL in win percentage the last calendar year with a 46-21-3-1 record (.676 win percentage) dating back to Dec. 27, 2016. San Diego’s 46 wins in that span lead the Western Conference.

Playing without their leading scorer Dylan Strome, who was a healthy scratch, the Roadrunners took advantage of an early first period roughing minor against Gulls defenseman James Melindy to grab first goal. Merkley accepted a pass outside right circle of the San Diego zone and had space to drift into the high slot, where his rising wrist shot beat Gulls goaltender Reto Berra (5-3-0) high glove side at 2:35 for his 13th goal of the season.

Merkley’s goal was his eighth power play goal of the season, tops among AHL rookie skaters.

“It’s hard coming back,” said head coach Dallas Eakins, who had seen his team rally from a deficit in each game of their winning streak, “We’ve had some success as of late in doing that. The way we live here is day by day. Today wasn’t our best day.”

Minutes later, a Gulls blue line shot hit the leg of his own man and turned into a breakaway trigger pass for Tucson. While Merkley’s breakaway shot was stopped by Berra on right past, he lost track of the puck, which went behind the net to Mario Kempe. His feed to right circle found Michael Bunting, who wristed into a partially open net his eighth goal of the season at 9:34 for a 2-0 Roadrunners advantage.

San Diego controlled the action in a spirited second period and clawed within a goal courtesy of Tropp’s strong hands in front of the net. Denied on a short side bid by Tucson goalie Adin Hill, Tropp’s momentum carried his body behind the end line, but he was able to keep his stick in front of the goal while skating by and tipped in his own rebound at 7:26 for his fourth goal of the season. Tropp’s goal extended his point streak to a season-high six games (4-4=7) and one shy of his career high of seven. Jaycob Megna and Kalle Kossila earned assists, with Kossila extending his point streak to a season-high six games (3-6=9).

Tucson turned the tables with a quick start to the third frame. A puck flipped into the San Diego slot was lost in rookie defenseman Marcus Petterson’s legs long enough to be recovered by the Roadrunners’ Tyler Gaudet under pressure. His pass to right post connected with Tye McGinn’s stick, and the forward knocked home his fourth goal of the season at 1:13 to establish a 3-1 lead.

Later in the period, a return pass inside the Tucson blue line went under a stick handle attempt by Pettersson on the point, and the loose puck was recovered by the Roadrunners’ Mike Sislo, who jumped in on a breakaway and beat Berra at 7:22 for the final score line of 4-1. Tucson out-shot the Gulls 34-27, including a 16-9 edge in the third period.

The win snapped a two-game losing streak for Tucson at the start of a three city California road trip to end 2017.

“There are no easy games in our division,” said Eakins, “We weren’t taking them lightly by any means.”

San Diego will embark on a three-game road trip beginning Saturday, Dec. 30 at the Texas Stars (5 p.m. PT), followed by contests Dec. 31 at San Antonio Rampage (1 p.m. PT) and Jan. 3 at Texas (5:30 p.m. PT).

Three Stars:
1. Nick Merkley (TUC)
2. Tye McGinn (TUC)
3. Mario Kempe (TUC)