In a Saturday night bout, the San Diego Gulls took on a red-hot Ontario Reign squad poised to extend their lead on the eighth and ninth-ranked teams in their division. The Gulls, San Jose Barracuda, and Tucson Roadrunners are sizably behind the top-six Pacific division teams, making it a close race for the final playoff spot.
On Star Wars night at Pechanga Arena, San Diego welcomed a large and greatly needed crowd of fans. After the longest road trip in franchise history, the Gulls were in the second game of a back-to-back, and eager to play their last game before a three-day break in their schedule.
Bryce Kindopp told the media that “sleeping in (my) own bed felt really good and then back in front of these fans- it definitely boosts our energy. So, it was really good to be back home.”
Also, the Anaheim Ducks has poached some of their minor league affiliate’s talent as of late. Vinni Lettieri and Danny O’Reagan, mainstays in the Gulls’ top-nine forward group, were the most recent to join the NHL club. This lineup needed to get the job done without some key talents.
Propelled by a strong effort from their second line, the Gulls were able to put back-to-back victories together.
Eriksson Ek’s Shutout
On the first part of the back-to-back, head coach Joel Bouchard elected to start starting goalie, Lukas Dostal. He got his job done, keeping a shutout against the Bakersfield Condors. That left the tougher matchup for Olle Eriksson Ek, who entered Saturday with an .883 save-percentage.
Luckily, the San Diego defense put the Swedish netminder in a position to succeed. Allowing only 22 shots through the game, his quantity of chances against were pretty limited.
His best save of the night came at the start of the second period, when his team was only up 1-0. On a 2-on-1, Eriksson Ek saved the Reign forward’s shot and gave his team some great momentum. “I saw Rafferty kind of took the far guy away and I just like tried to focus on the shot and end up with a pretty good save,” said the netminder.
Bouchard mentioned “it hasn’t been easy for him. Like we talked about for a lot of players, he was up, not playing and not even getting the practice time because you know, the reality is the Taxi squad was demanding and he had a lot of time without playing.
“I’m very happy for him,” Bouchard added about his goalie’s shutout.
Eriksson Ek was mainly happy to get back in the winner’s column after some poor starts as of late. He downplayed his first American Hockey League shutout, and mentioned “It’s a great feeling, of course. I’ve been struggling a little bit here lately and it’s kind of a relief. It feels really good and helped the team to get a win.”
Both the first and last goal of the night came from Bo Groulx forcing a key defensive zone turnover for Ontario. His effort gave his squad the required energy for a win coming off a long road trip.
As the head coach pointed out about his game, it is key “for him to sound his game back to better habits, meaning that not that he was not working, but he was working and being more efficient and I think he’s seeing the result right now.
Groulx now has 10 goals and 18 points in 28 games with the Gulls this season. There should be more on the way, according to his coach: “He’s a hard-working kid. You can see it.”
Groulx, the top-line center, will need to continue his success for the Gulls to continue toward their postseason aspirations.
Soaring Second Line
Centered by Kindopp, Nikolas Brouillard and Hunter Drew both enjoyed nice returns to home ice. Kindopp recognized solid defense was a big part of his personal, and the team’s, success “I think we had good sticks. We kept them to the outside and when they got through, Olle was there for us.”
On the second line’s initial goal, Brouillard was able to take a risky Ontario pass and quickly transition to offense. On the ensuing 2-on-1, Drew entered the zone easily and made no mistake with his shot, putting the team up by two.
Kindopp, upon further review, was credited with the next San Diego goal. Once he saw Brendan Guhle with possession at the blue line, “I kind of just got in front of the goalie’s eyes and it just knicked off me and went in. So I’ll take what I can get, but I’m just happy we scored there.”
The center has meshed well with his new linemates. He enjoys that Drew and Brouillard “are really easy to play with, so I think we just got on the forecheck and then we kind of took over from there. We got some chances and we buried on our chances.”
Next, the Gulls will play four consecutive games against the Henderson Silver Knights. If the Southern California club could string together some wins, they could pass the Silver Knights, who sit six points ahead as of now.
But, the Gulls will be undermanned. In addition the recent forward call-ups, the team has missed Greg Pateryn‘s solid defense due to injury. Hopefully back-to-back shutouts prove they can work through his absence in the near future.
What did you think of the Gulls’ recent performance? Let me know in the comments below!
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!