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Ontario, CA – Forward Michael Mersch scored two goals, added an assist and the Ontario Reign (4-1-0-0) edged the San Diego Gulls (3-2-0-0), 5-3, to grab Game 1 of the Pacific Division Finals Thursday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Reign defenseman Jeff Schultz tallied a goal and an assist.
“I thought it was good,” stated Head Coach Mike Stothers about the game. “We got out to a lead and we knew there was going to be a good push from them in the second period, but again the resolve and the mindset of our guys was okay, let’s get back to work.”
Mersch and defenseman Vincent LoVerde fueled the Reign offense with a goal apiece in the opening period. Ontario’s offense got off to a strong pace quickly, tacking on six shots within the first three and a half minutes of action. Netminder Matt Hackett made his first postseason start for San Diego making a string of big-time saves as the Reign repeatedly tested him en route to a 10-0 and 12-4 shot advantage to begin the contest. Ontario played a strong defensive game in front of netminder Peter Budaj, who was sharp in making 16 saves in the game.
Mersch scored his first goal of the night hammering a shot into the back of the net at 10:26, assisted by Schultz and defenseman Kevin Raine. Raine finished the evening with two assists.
At 14:37 of the same period, while on the power play, forward Nic Dowd got the puck down low and waited for LoVerde to dash in and handed him the feed from behind the left goal post to bury it past Hackett. With the assist, Dowd (2 goals, 3 assists) extends his point streak to five games. Mersch picked up the secondary assist on the LoVerde goal.
The Gulls eventually found their legs and the game turned into a tight defensive affair until the final period. Trailing 2-0, the Gulls began to turn the game’s momentum in their favor when forward Kalle Kossilla finally scored at 3:06 of the second stanza, redirecting forward Chris Mueller’s shot to slip it past Budaj. Minutes later, San Diego found the back of the net again, this time on a goal from forward Matt Bailey. Bailey knocked in a loose puck in front of the net and sneaked it past Budaj to tie the game. Momentum continued to shift dramatically as Ontario fired back-to-back shorthanded shots during a penalty kill, but Hackett held on to keep the Reign at bay. Though the Gulls controlled the pace in the second frame, forward Mike Amadio handed a nice feed to forward Joel Lowry who fired a shot from the left circle to put Ontario back on top at 14:37.
In the final period, Mersch’s second goal came at 9:11 when he tipped in Raine’s shot and popped it over Hackett to make it 4-2. Raine and forward Justin Auger grabbed the assists. With less than remaining, San Diego pulled Hackett for the extra attacker and capitalized on the advantage as defenseman Brandon Montour fired the puck wide and forward Corey Tropp was there to chip it in and pull them within one. However, the Reign sealed the victory with an empty-net shorthanded unassisted goal from Schultz with 33 seconds remaining in regulation.
“It’s going to be a physical, hard fought series,” commented Mersch. “They’re a good team over there. We’re both really good teams with good systems and we’re just going to have to take it game by game.”
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