The Gulls are back in the AHL playoffs and they have arguably the toughest road to a title of anyone in the league. San Diego is the 7th seed in the Pacific Division. They open with a best-of-three series in Ontario against the Reign, who have the AHL’s 3rd-best record.
Win that and they know they get a best-of-five against Stockton, who have the 2nd-best record in the league (the Chicago Wolves have the most points). So, on Monday … just two days before Game 1 … Gulls head coach Joel Bouchard did not go easy on his guys, putting them through a long, high-energy practice at The Rinks Poway Ice.
“We didn’t skate for a couple of days (after the regular season finale) so you want to get that grease out,” says Bouchard. “Tomorrow we’ll just go for a few touches then stay fresh for the first game, but, today we felt we needed to push to get ready for a good game.”
Since the Gulls joined the American Hockey League in 2015 they have had a heated rivalry with Ontario, the team located closest to San Diego. The fact these clubs are the top affiliates of the Ducks and Kings, who don’t like each other very much either, only adds to the intensity.
If you had to pick one aspect of this series that’s more important than anything else it’s the ability to control emotions. Ontario didn’t just have the best power play unit in the AHL this season. They set an all-time record for success with a man advantage. For the Gulls, avoiding short-handed situations is paramount.
“One bad penalty or one bad turnover, a mistake, it can cost you not jut the series but obviously in the playoffs it’s your season,” says Gulls forward Hunter Drew. “So, we’ve gotta look to be simple but also play into our strengths and I think we’ll be fine.”
The Reign were great playing up a man but not very good when down a skater. Ontario’s penalty kill is 5th-worst in the AHL, and that brings us back to controlling emotions. These clubs have met 14 times this season, and that kind of familiarity means the Gulls know what Reign buttons to push.
“It’s hard. Obviously, that’s the hardest part of not just hockey but any sport, trying to control your emotions but also get in their head a little bit,” says Drew, who was 2nd on the Gulls with six fights this year. “We know who their guys are who kind of get their screws loose a little sometimes, so, you just kind of get in their head, get physical with them, and I think for us that bodes well.”
While the Reign won nine of their meetings this year the Gulls are getting reinforcements at the right time. Drew, Trevor Carrick, Simon Benoit, and Buddy Robinson all came back to town after the Ducks season ended so San Diego arguably is at full strength for the first time since November.
Wednesday night is going to be a fun one.