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By Lindsay Czarnecki
Reign Insider | @ReignInsider
The parents don’t get along and neither do the kids.
Just like their NHL clubs, the Reign and Gulls, the AHL affiliates of the Kings and Ducks, aren’t friendly neighbors.
Now their growing rivalry extends into the postseason as top-seeded Ontario meets the No. 2 Gulls in the Pacific Division Finals.
Game 1 is Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena.
“I think it started in preseason,” Reign winger Justin Auger said. “We had a couple preseason games against these guys and right from there we knew it was gonna be a long year. We play ’em 12 times [in the regular season], you can’t expect much more than that.
“You make some enemies out there and this is just what you expect, playoffs is a whole ‘nother level and everyone’s going to be bringing their ‘A’ game.”
The animosity between the first-year SoCal clubs didn’t take long to percolate.
After their second meeting, Reign head coach Mike Stothers called out Gulls enforcer Brian McGrattan for a late punch on rookie defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, questioning his respect and obedience to the unwritten code that fighters hold.
“I don’t like anyone on that team, so just leave it at that,” center Kris Newbury said after the fourth contest between the sides.
In the fifth meeting, MacDermid hit Matt Bailey in open ice, resulting in a 12-game suspension for the Reign defenseman and an extended time out of the lineup for the Gulls winger, who suffered facial and jaw fractures.
The first five games averaged 48 PIM. There was a slight dip in the animosity in the middle of the season as less regulars were in the lineup due to injuries and call-ups. It ramped-up again in their season-ending back-to-back; 60 PIM were called on the first night, followed by a whopping 122 on the second.
Make no mistake, although the rivalry has built over time, this isn’t thuggery on ice. The sides are two of the most talented teams in the AHL and feature players that were up and down much of the season with their respective NHL teams, including the Reign’s Michael Mersch and Kevin Gravel and the Gulls’ Nick Ritchie and Shea Theodore.
San Diego is led by Chris Mueller and Ritchie, who both finished with 57 points in the regular season. Their display of balanced scoring carried into the playoffs, where the Gulls beat Texas 3-games-to-1 in the first round. Two of Ritchie’s three goals in the series were game-winners, and Mueller led the way with five points (2 goals, 3 assists).
Ontario’s offense is more opportunistic. It forced San Jose to make errors and exhibited balance from top to bottom from bigger names like Nic Dowd and Adrian Kempe to third-liners like Auger and Andrew Crescenzi.
Both teams are 3-0 in the postseason when scoring first, and 2-0 at home.
San Diego’s high-powered offense ran at a 4-goals-per-game clip in the opening round against Texas. Its power play was successful 25 percent of the time. The Reign, meanwhile, were a perfect 9-for-9 on the penalty kill in their first-round meeting with San Jose.
“They have a really good power play, so we do our best to try not and put them on the ice,” said Gravel, who’s paired on the blue line with Derek Forbort. “But, you know what, we have a lot of confidence in our penalty kill so when that does happen we expect we’re going to kill it off.”
The Reign’s defense starts with Peter Budaj, who had a goals against average of 1.51 in the first round 3-games-to-1 series win over San Jose. The Gulls will counter with either Anton Khudobin, who left Saturday’s game due to injury, or backup Matt Hackett.
If the regular season is any indication though, the Reign had their most trouble with the Gulls, who were the only team to post a winning record against them at 8-4.
The postseason is the new season and a new story will be written.
“There’s been no love lost between the two teams and I think it just makes for a, not only a great setup on a skill level and a compete level, but also on a physical level,” Gulls coach Dallas Eakins told the Mighty 1090. “This is going to be a very hard series on both teams when it comes to the physical stress that these players are going to feel.”
For Ontario, its goal is to play at an even keel. The rivalry contributes heavily in bringing that focus to the forefront.
“We have some history with this team, and the games get emotional,” Gravel said. “It’s playoffs, the stakes are high. It might happen, but you’ve got to do your best to kind of keep it under control.”
Added MacDermid: “We don’t want to go over the line but we want to play a physical, aggressive game.”
Much has been made of this series schedule, which, if anything, plays only into the hands of the fans.
This second-round best-of-7 will feature a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format, an extremely bizarre and equally challenging grind.
There will be two back-to-backs for Games 2 and 3 and Games 4 and 5. Imagine if there’s overtime on the front-end of either of those.
Stothers called the schedule “crazy,” called it “brutal.”
However it’s categorized, it’s the same for both teams (except for the small fact that the Reign have home-ice advantage and will host Game 7 if necessary).
Eakins said it would be fun. “Let’s just get after it, I don’t care how we do it,” he told 1090.
The commute from arena to arena is just over 100 miles or roughly two hours on the 15 freeway.
The team busses will be busy.
“Certainly the scheduling doesn’t give any favors to anybody,” Stothers said. “So, we’ll just drive up and down the 15 and play the games as they are.”
And as they are, the rivalry will go on.
“We’re really excited to get this thing going, it’s always been a big battle with us and them. It’s going to be a great series,” MacDermid said.