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Gulls Round One Preview
By Thomas Harrington
While the Pacific Division had a postseason tournament last year, there hasn’t been a Calder Cup winner since the 2018-2019 season. The San Diego Gulls have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the fourth time as Anaheim’s primary AHL affiliate. They did play in the Pacific Division’s postseason tournament last year and almost assuredly would have qualified in the 2019-2020 season as well.
The Gulls enter the playoffs as the seventh and final seed in the Pacific Division. The AHL made the decision to expand the playoff format for this season, so all but the bottom two teams in every division qualify. San Diego will face off against Ontario in a best of three matchup in the first round, which starts on Wednesday. Game two is on Thursday, and if necessary, game three will be the following Monday. Colorado will face Henderson and Bakersfield will face Abbotsford in the other two Pacific Division matchups. As the winner of the division, Stockton does not need to play in the first round and has been given a bye into the next round.
In net, the Gulls will be led by Lukas Dostal with Olle Eriksson Ek backing him up. The Reign will likely turn to Matthew Villalta, who played in 46 games for this season. No other goalie played in more than 12 games for them, and they used six goaltenders throughout the season. Dostal struggled at times this season, but when he was on his game, he was one of the better goaltenders in the AHL. Villalta had a fantastic record of 28-10-7, but his 2.98 goals against average and .903 save percentage are not as good as Dostal’s 2.60 goals against average and .916 save percentage. San Diego has the edge in net, and that could be the difference in this series.
On the backend, San Diego will likely ice a veteran group consisting of some combination of Nikolas Brouillard, Trevor Carrick, Brogan Rafferty, Jacob Larsson, Brendan Guhle, Axel Andersson, Greg Pateryn, and Drew Helleson. Helleson obviously has the least experience of that group, but he’s played well since joining the Gulls. It was also announced that Simon Benoit has been assigned to the Gulls for their playoff run. After playing 53 NHL games this season, he could be a huge addition to San Diego’s blueline. The Reign will likely counter with a group consisting of some combination of Cameron Gaunce, Helge Grans, Frederic Allard, Thomas Hickey, Markus Phillips, Nelson Nogier, and Christian Wolanin.
I give the edge on defense to the Reign. They won’t have Jordan Spence, but they have eight other defensemen who recorded 10 or more points. Ontario used 20 different defensemen this year, so if one is hurt or their play falters, they have others they can bring in. Brouillard led San Diego with 13 goals and 39 points, while Carrick had 30 points and five others had 10 or more points. However, defense was one of the areas where the Gulls struggled this past season, getting caught for long stretches in their own end. The Gulls’ defense will need to play significantly better if they want to get by Ontario.
Offensively, the Gulls have a solid group of forwards, led by Lucas Elvenes, Alex Limoges, Hunter Drew, Jacob Perreault, Danny O’Regan, Brayden Tracey, Bryce Kindopp, Brent Gates, Jr., and Benoit-Olivier Groulx. They had one forward break the 40 point mark and another five who had more than 30 points. Ontario is countering with T.J. Tynan, Martin Frk, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Samuel Fagemo, Gabriel Vilardi, Tyler Madden, Vladimir Tkachev, Aidan Dudas, and Austin Wagner.
There’s no question, Ontario has the deeper offensive group. Tynan almost hit 100 points (he finished with 98), and they had another break the 70 point mark, plus two more with more than 40 points. They had a 40 goal scorer and two more who had more than 20 goals. The Gulls only had two players hit 40 points this season and one hit the 20 goal mark.
The Gulls and Reign faced off 12 times during the regular season. The Reign were victorious in nine of those games, and several weren’t particularly close, though one of those wins was in overtime. In their three victories, San Diego scored first and never looked back. If they want to upset their rivals, the Gulls will need to find a way to score first in this series. Twice, San Diego won by four goals, as they defeated Ontario 4-0 and 5-1, with both games taking place in March.
If not for the expanded playoff format, the Gulls would be watching the playoffs from home with the Ducks. However, this new playoff format is giving them a great opportunity. While the Reign are the clear favorites, the Gulls have shown that they can beat their rivals if they come out with their best effort. The good news is that they have gotten reinforcements like Benoit from Anaheim with their season ending. Also, much like when Anaheim and Los Angeles play, when the Gulls and Reign get together anything can happen and the standings often don’t mean much. Hopefully it will be a great series for San Diego, and it all starts on TODAY!
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May 2nd, 2022