Playoffs add exciting touch, exasperating ending to hockey season

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For hockey fans in the San Diego region, both inline and ice, it’s been a win-win situation in 2015-16.

The San Diego Gulls are preparing to face off their opening-round series in the Calder Cup playoffs Thursday in Texas as the American Hockey League team celebrates a superlative first season in San Diego. 

For hockey fans in the San Diego region, both inline and ice, it’s been a win-win situation in 2015-16.

The San Diego Gulls are preparing to face off their opening-round series in the Calder Cup playoffs Thursday in Texas as the American Hockey League team celebrates a superlative first season in San Diego. 

Meanwhile, the San Diego Tron Hosers Black team has advanced to compete in the American Inline Hockey League’s national championship tournament May 20-22 in Bethpage, N.Y. The team, based out of the Skate San Diego rink in El Cajon, will compete in the Minor Tier 2 playoffs.

The Hosers’ Elite team, which had high hopes of also competing for a national championship this season, saw its wheels come off in last weekend’s Pacific South/Southwest Division championship playoffs in Las Vegas. 

While the Gulls are flying high, the Hosers’ season ended in the most exasperating fashion.

The El Cajon-based squad had led the four-team division through the first half of the season and, after falling behind due to a man-power shortage during a tournament in March, appeared to rise to the occasion by finishing just a point out of first place in the division standings with an inspired performance in the final regular season tournament to face off April.  

Hosers’ manager Steve Baldwin had hoped his team, comprised of some of the top talent on the West Coast, would be a dominant force when finally skating at full strength. “If all my top guys show up, we have a very good chance of winning the division playoffs and then going to New York,” he said prior to departing for Nevada.

As it turned out, the Hosers’ planned journey to the nationals never made it past Las Vegas.

Of course, there were some extenuating circumstances.

“We really hate driving there and we drove on the day we had to play,” Baldwin explained. “So the team arrived right before the game begins and everyone has been in a car for the previous five hours. That’s not ideal.” 

The AIHL held division finals April 16-17 in its four geographic zones. The Las Vegas Aces hosted the Pacific South/Southwest Division Finals as the regular season champion. The Hosers finished in second place in the division standings, followed by the Arizona Outcasts in third place and the Arizona Ghostriders in fourth place.

The top-seeded Aces and fourth-seeded Ghostriders paired up in one semifinal best-of-three series while the second-seeded Hosers and third-seeded Outcasts paired up in the other semifinal series.

Had the Hosers managed to finish a point ahead of the Aces in the regular season standings, the division playoffs would have taken place in El Cajon, not Las Vegas – a much more user-friendly commute.

The Hosers had defeated the Outcasts four times during the season, including by a 10-2 score in the teams’ regular season finale April 3 in Las Vegas.

The Outcasts, with a reputation as one of the top teams on the West Coast, had conversely beaten the Hosers four times on the season despite finishing three points behind the San Diego team in the division standings.

Baldwin picks up where the regular season series ended:

“We looked asleep and lost the first game 2-1. The second game we came alive and we were ahead at the half 4-1.

In the second half, however, the Outcasts exploded with three goals and the game ended 4-4. It went into overtime and they scored a really fluky goal.”

Baldwin didn’t like to make excuses for his team, but did note he felt the officiating in the playoff games was not particularly kind to his squad.

“We thought the refereeing was biased,” the Hosers managed said. “We had seven penalties in two games and the Outcasts had one.  

“Our guys were getting hooked and tripped left and right and nothing was getting called on them. It was strange. Most of the goals scored upon us in both games happened while we were shorthanded. We felt that if the games were refereed in a more evenly way, we could have won both games.”

But they didn’t and thus the season ended much earlier than anticipated.

“Losing two games eliminated us from the playoffs and we went home,” Baldwin said succinctly.

The Outcasts kept their motor running and went on to win the division playoffs. The Arizona team will be representing the division at the national championship tournament.

The Hosers Elite team finished regular season play with a 14-8-2-0 record (wins, losses, overtime losses, shootout losses) to come up just short of the Aces (14-7-2-1) for the right to host the playoff tournament. Las Vegas finished with 31 points in the division standings to 30 for the Hosers.

Team leaders included La Mesa’s Stefan Demopoulos with 27 goals and 43 points and former West Hills High School star and Team USA selection David Baldwin with 15 goals and 34 points. Demopoulos recently completed his collegiate ice hockey career with the Providence College Friars (2011-15) where he tallied 16 goals and 39 points in 120 regular season games.

The Hosers received an injection from the legendary Chavira brothers – Itan and Juaquin, both longtime Team USA stalwarts – with 17 goals and 32 points between them, but the players missing from the roster told the major story for the team this season.

Johnny Noris, son of Hosers head coach Joe Noris, played in only 13 regular season games this season while also competing on the world surf tour. He had 14 goals and 18 points in the games he played.

Santee’s Charles Baldwin, perhaps the top sniper in the AIHL, returned to the Hosers line-up after playing professional ice hockey in the Czech Republic. In goals per game and points per game, Baldwin ranked at the top of the AIHL last season.

Clearly, the Hosers’ bugaboo this season was fielding a full squad. San Diego dressed a skeleton crew for the March 19-20 tournament in Las Vegas and paid the price with a 1-4-1 showing. “We had seven skaters, which is too few when you have six games total in a weekend,” the elder Baldwin explained.

 The Arizona Outcasts, who eventually won the right to make the trek to New York, finished 13-10-1-0 in regular season play. Their success story was that they peaked at just the right time of the season.

Going for gold

The Hosers Black team (12-12) received a bye to the Minor Tier 2 national finals.

West Hills High School alumnus Zach Peters finished the season as the team’s top point scorer with 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points. Former Hosers youth player Joel Sadenwasser ranked second on the team with 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points, followed by Hilltop High School alumnus George Godinez with 20 goals and five assists for 25 points.

Godinez led the Hosers Black team with 20 goals.

This is Godinez’s third year playing in the AIHL. He said he has enjoyed extending his playing career beyond high school by competing in the semi-pro league.

“It gives me more time to play hockey,” explained Godinez, who coached Hilltop High School’s entry in the CIF-Metro Conference roller hockey circuit this past season. “Once you age-out of youth hockey, you don’t really get too much of an opportunity to continue to play unless you play college or juniors in ice hockey. 

“In the AIHL, I get to play with my closest friends and be able to travel with the boys. It’s a good experience getting to play against guys from different states.

“It’s fun. It’s a men’s AA competition level – you get a bunch of guys who have played at the Gold and Platinum level on travel teams. It’s fast. It’s a lot of run and gun. It’s fun to score goals.

 “I’m excited for nationals.”

Hot on ice

The Gulls and their fans are excited about their season as well – and it’s not over yet. That the team earned a berth in the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs in its first season in town is a very notable achievement. In fact, as good as the first half of their inaugural season in San Diego was for the Gulls, the second half has been even better. 

The team posted a 39-23-4-2 record that was good enough for a second place finish in the seven-team Pacific Division – fourth overall in the 15-team Western Conference. The Gulls finished with 16 more wins than losses.. That’s a blockbuster showing considering the team, as the Norfolk Admirals last season, posted 12 more losses than wins. 

The Gulls have compiled several impressive streaks this season. The team is 31-0 when leading after two periods, is 18-2-0-1 when leading after the first period and has lost only once in regulation play after scoring the first goal (28-1-2-1).

The Gulls are also 20-1-4-2 in one-goal games – a significant statistic that should buoy the team in the upcoming playoffs.

The Gulls, the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks of the upper tier National Hockey League, closed the regular season on a high note after recording a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the regular season Pacific Division champion Ontario Reign last Saturday in front of 11,705 fans at the Valley View Casino Center. 

The Gulls trailed the Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate, by a score of 2-1 before scoring twice within a 29-second span in the dying minutes to pull out the electrifying win.

The finish – and the 20-minute delay due to a prolonged series of fisticuffs between the quickly emerging archrivals – rated extremely high for entertainment value.

The Reign, the defending Calder Cup champions as the Manchester Monarchs before the franchise’s move west, had not led a lead slip away in the third period all season. 

The Gulls’ success in their first AHL season has not only come on the ice but also at the box office and in the community. The team averaged 8,675 fans per game to finish second in the 30-team league. 

Last Friday’s game against Ontario, a 4-2 win for the Reign, attracted 11,264 fans.

The driving force behind the creation of the new Pacific Division (and the relocation of five teams to California) was the better facilitate travel for players called up from the AHL to the NHL.

The availability of quicker access to players has benefitted both the western NHL teams as well as the relocated AHL franchises. Over the course of the season, 14 players have played for both the Gulls and the Ducks.

On a personnel note, Gulls defenseman Brandon Montour earned accolades as a member of both the AHL’s All-Rookie Team and the league’s First All-Star Team. 

Gulls winger Nic Kerdiles was among 14 professional, amateur and high school athletes honored as Stars of the Month for March by the San Diego Hall of Champions.

Additionally, San Diego captain Joe Piskula was named the Gulls’ Man of the Year for his community service work by the league. Piskula helped organize Brain Cancer Awareness Night on April 2 at the arena. His former youth coach Dom Hilger and Hilger’s family made the trip from Piskula’s hometown in Wisconsin to attend the game. Hilger, who recently underwent surgery for brain cancer, helped drop the ceremonial puck.

While many believed the Gulls’ return to San Diego would be successful, many likely didn’t expect just how successful it would be, including the team’s players.

Veteran center Chris Mueller, who finished as the team’s scoring leader with 57 points to tie Montour, termed the team’s first season in San Diego “unbelievable” – and he’s certainly not alone in making that statement.

“I don’t know where to start,” he said, almost at a loss for words. “Just being able to live in San Diego, the facilities we have here, the way Anaheim treats us and then we come here and we play in front of 11,000 fans, how can you beat that? You look around the American Hockey League and you don’t get 4,000 fans most games and we’re putting in 11,000 on the weekends and 7,000 to 8,000 on the weekdays. It’s unbelievable. 

“They’re behind us and they’re a good crowd. They don’t just sit and watch us. They get behind us. It was a no-brainer to put a team here and I think they hit a home run. This team is going to be successful for a long time.”

“It’s been a riot,” Piskula added. “It’s been great. We’ve had our ups and downs, and (now) we’re making a run for the playoffs. It’s been a great ride. It’s been unbelievable.”

“This is our first year in San Diego and making the playoffs is huge,” commented defenseman Shea Theodore, who has received multiple call-ups to the NHL this season. “It’s been our goal from the start.”

Last Saturday’s game featured 62 minutes in penalties between the Gulls and Reign. The incident between the teams with 10:36 to play featured 36 minutes in penalties  — 24 to the Gulls and 17 alone to San Diego defenseman Stu Bickel (two minutes for instigating, five minutes for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct).

San Diego goaltender Matt Hackett even received two minutes for leaving the crease. He was stopped by a game official after crossing the red line in a bid to confront opposing goaltender Michael Houser.

The series of events livened up the proceedings for the fans of both teams – and the players appeared to feed off that energy. 

The result produced perhaps the most exciting finish to any Gulls home game this season.

The Gulls scored the game-tying goal on a power play with 5:05 to play and added the game-winning goal just 29 seconds later.

The victory was especially sweet for the Gulls, who finished the season series with an 8-4 edge in wins against the top team in the Western Conference. 

“Anytime we play Ontario, it’s going to be a high voltage game,” Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins assessed. “The two teams don’t love each other and the two organizations don’t love each other. We would expect nothing less than what was out there — a very close game and an entertaining game and a great one to end our regular season with. Our fans have been incredible and I thought they really inspired our team as the game went along.

“I think we have a lot to feel good about …This is the best time of the year; you don’t want to be heading home and getting your summer workouts together and dusting off your golf clubs. This is when the men play, and this is a great time for development as well.

 “We’re always a development team first. The best time for development for me is from winning and playing in the playoffs and our guys are going to get a taste of that.”

Despite finishing above the Stars in the division standings, the Gulls dropped five of six regular season meetings against the Texas team.

The first-round series goes quickly and leaves little margin for error: it’s a best-of-five format.

Eakins admitted the Stars will be facing a different Gulls team than the Texas bunch faced earlier in the season when the team was battling through injuries to key players.

“I think we’re a little deeper,” the San Diego bench boss explained. “We’re going to have some decisions to make with our defense. I think we’ll be bettered prepared for them.”

“Winning this game is a big motivator for the playoffs,” admitted Brian McGrattan, who scored the game-winning goal the regular season finale to earn first star of the game honors. “It’s going to be an exciting series (against the Stars). They’re a fast-skating team. We’ll have our hands full but I like our chances.”

The Gulls will play the first two games on the Stars’ home ice (April 21 and 23) before the series shifts back to San Diego for as many as three games (April 28 and 29 and May 2).

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