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Photo: Jon Hayt

New year brings excitement for Gulls

by Steve Brown | AHL On The Beat

The 2018 calendar year is behind us and it’s a welcome site to embark on what 2019 has in store for the San Diego Gulls.

While 2018 is in the rearview mirror, San Diego had an incredible past year on and off the ice. America’s Finest City packed their home arena throughout the year and helped San Diego lead the AHL in attendance (9,305 avg.) during the 2017-18 season, setting new club marks for a third straight season in overall attendance (316,368). In leading the league in fans in seats, San Diego became the first team in 12 seasons to usurp the Hershey Bears atop the league’s attendance charts.

The fans continued with their strong support, opening the current campaign with 12,467 in attendance for the club’s first home game, the most in an AHL home opener this season. The Gulls also sold out their 11th game in club history on Nov. 9 with a packed 12,920 for the first night of Military Weekend.

The organization continues to develop NHL-ready player for the Anaheim Ducks, with 15 players currently having appeared in a game for both Anaheim and San Diego this season. Those players include Pontus Aberg, Joseph Blandisi, Sam Carrick, Max Comtois, Jake Dotchin, Kalle Kossila, Jacob Larsson, Isac Lundestrom, Josh Mahura, Luke Schenn, Sam Steel, Ben Street, Andrej Sustr, Troy Terry and Andy Welinski. Anaheim’s current roster to start the calendar year has 10 former Gulls making up its 23-man roster.

Players like Comtois, Lundestrom, Mahura, Steel and Terry have all made their NHL debuts the past year, while also spending time in the AHL to further develop and hone their respective games to become prominent NHL players for the Ducks long term.

The Gulls completed the 2018 calendar year with a 35-26-3-4 record (.566), including a 23-16-2-2 record on home ice (.581). The Gulls completed the month of December with a 6-4-0-2 record, and were tied in the third period in each of the four defeats, showing just how close to seven to 10 wins this team could have been if a few bounces went their way.

Looking back over a longer stretch, the Gulls own an all-time record of a 135-82-11-8, good for 289 points in 236 games and a .612 points percentage dating to 2015. With the 135 wins, Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins is tied with Kevin Dineen for the most wins by a head coach of an Anaheim Ducks primary affiliate.

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

 

As we turn the page to 2019, January sees the Gulls with six consecutive wins and points in 11 straight games (9-0-0-2) dating to Dec. 14, vaulting from last in the overall AHL standings to 13th overall and third in the Pacific Division. Stringing wins and points together has been a theme, as the club have put together wins in five straight at home, and have wins in four straight on the road and points in six straight contests on the away from home (4-0-0-2).

“We just figured out how we need to win, roll four lines and six defensemen and get some good goaltending, and things just start going right for us,” said Gulls captain Jaycob Megna. “We have a great group of guys. Everyone is out there fighting for each other. We’re a team and it’s really nice to see.”

During a stretch of 11 games where consistency has become a prominent facet of the team’s performance, the most consistent aspect has been the inconsistent lineup. Thirty-four players have appeared in a game for the Gulls over the last 11 games, including 20 different forwards, 11 defensemen and three goaltenders. Five of those players were on professional tryouts.

How did they get to this point? Toughening up, playing a more gritty style and learning the finer details of the game that make a bigger difference.

During the 11-game point streak, the Gulls have outscored their opponents by a 17-goal margin (46-29) but what truly stands out is the 15-goal margin in the third period, where San Diego has scored 23 goals in that span. The only blemishes have been shootout losses to Bakersfield and Ontario.

“We’re trying to get it all covered. We want to come out in games and score first. We want to also be a team that if we get behind, we can come from behind,” said Eakins. “Before we went out for the third, we went through it again. How we want to play in the third period with a lead and giving up only two shots against and getting some for, there’s no better way to defend a lead.”

The second half of the AHL campaign is quickly upon us the back end of the schedule is where San Diego has traditionally been one of the strongest teams in the AHL. In three previous seasons, the Gulls lead the Western Conference and rank second among AHL teams with a .667 points percentage, a 64-30-6-2 record in games on the second half of the schedule.

“We need to make sure every night we’re doing our job. We have found ways to win the last few games but we haven’t had our best and that’s a good sign,” added Megna. “We want to play our best every night so it’s just taking it one game at a time and realizing the challenge that’s ahead of us.”

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

 

January is a month where the club has had success in the past, posting a 22-11-1-1 record all-time in the month, but looking ahead it will provide a rather difficult start to the new year. The 11-game month pits eight road games and only three home games, the fewest contests on home ice in a single month all season. What helps is the strong foundation Eakins has built the past several weeks in turning around a rough start beset with organization injuries that have tested the depth of both clubs.

Despite the tough start in 2018-19, the Gulls’ 17-11-1-3 record is the best start in club history through 32 games.

“We’re real proud of where we’re at today. We still have a long way to go but I’m really encouraged by our team’s mindset lately,” said Eakins. “I’m trying to do my best to get some chemistry here but it’s been tough with the amount of injuries that we’ve been coming across.”

When February approaches it should be a month to look forward to. An all-time record of 25-6-0-1 in the year’s second month is best in the first three years of the organization, and March hasn’t disappointed either at 22-9-4-1.

Needless to say, there is an incredible amount of hockey to be played to know what truly lies ahead for this team. It’s a new year which brings new excitement for a team as thrilling to watch as the one in America’s Finest City. It’s a style of play that has become fast and physical, and the team has what Eakins has consistently labeled as a hardness to it that’s here to stay.

“The other thing that we’ve done, and this is a credit to our players, we’ve really tightened the screws up with our level of hardness and grittiness, and it’s something that this team has had to play with to have success,” added Eakins. “They’ve really embraced that and we’re not going to let our foot off the pedal. We talk about mindset on a daily basis and it’s amazing what you can achieve when you have your mind right.

“Every day you come to the rink you want to come better and improve.”

It’s going to be quite a ride with the Gulls the next three months … or maybe even six. Time will tell.