A year ago, Michael Mersch was the offensive catalyst for a Calder Cup champion.
On Thursday night, after a quiet first round, Mersch was back.
The second-year pro scored two goals and assisted on another as the Ontario Reign opened the Pacific Division Finals with a 5-3 win over the San Diego Gulls at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be Saturday night in San Diego (10:05 p.m. ET, AHL Live).
Mersch scored 13 goals and tied for the league lead with 22 points in 18 games last spring, helping Manchester capture the AHL title. He scored 24 goals in 52 games during the 2015-16 regular season with Ontario before being limited to two assists in the Reign’s first-round series vs. San Jose.
But the 23-year-old winger struck quickly in Game 1, cleaning up a rebound in front to give Ontario a 1-0 lead at the 10:26 mark of the first period.
The Reign made it 2-0 at 14:37, as Vincent LoVerde snuck in from the point and wristed home a shot off a feed from Nic Dowd for a power-play goal, the first marker of the postseason for the Ontario captain.
San Diego regrouped during the first intermission and would tie the score with two goals early in the second period.
Kalle Kossila redirected a pass from Chris Mueller at 3:06 to put the Gulls on the board, and Matt Bailey found a loose puck in the crease after Corey Tropp dug it out behind the net to make it 2-2 at 5:32.
Mersch then tallied his second goal of the night with 10:49 left in the third period, getting a piece of Kevin Raine’s shot and deflecting it over Hackett to make it 4-2.
The Gulls pulled back to within 4-3 with 2:23 remaining on a goal by Tropp, redirecting home a pass from Brandon Montour, and began a 6-on-4 power play with 1:07 to go with a chance to tie. But Jeff Schultz found the empty net from his own blue line with 32.3 seconds left, securing the win for Ontario.
Peter Budaj (4-1) made 16 saves in picking up the win as Ontario outshot San Diego by a 29-19 count, holding the Gulls to four shots on goal in the third period.
Hackett (1-1), getting his first playoff start after replacing an injured Anton Khudobin during Game 4 of the Gulls’ first-round series vs. Texas, made 24 saves.
Pacific Division Finals – Series “L” (best-of-7)
P1-Ontario Reign vs. P2-San Diego Gulls
Game 1 – Thu., May 5 – ONTARIO 5, San Diego 3
Game 2 – Sat., May 7 – Ontario at San Diego, 10:05
Game 3 – Sun., May 8 – San Diego at Ontario, 10:00
Game 4 – Fri., May 13 – Ontario at San Diego, 10:05
*Game 5 – Sat., May 14 – San Diego at Ontario, 10:00
*Game 6 – Mon., May 16 – Ontario at San Diego, 10:05
*Game 7 – Wed., May 18 – San Diego at Ontario, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern
— AHL (@TheAHL) May 6, 2016