Gulls fly past Stockton and Milwaukee
MATTHEW ROBERSON | SPORTS EDITOR | @mroberson22
In their first season as part of the American Hockey League (AHL), the newly hatched San Diego Gulls have struggled to find consistent play.
As of Feb. 9, the team has compiled 21 wins and 18 losses, good for 8th in the Western Conference. Their mediocre record doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.
Not only is this the first year of the franchise, and the first taste of professional hockey for many of the players, but the team also features a very high percentage of young players.
As is typical with minor league sports, many of the Gulls’ top contributors are still shy of their 25th birthday.
From Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 the AHL held its annual All-Star Classic. This year’s festivities took place in Syracuse, NY and featured two of the youngest Gulls in the nest.
San Diego had two players, 20-year-old Nick Ritchie and 21-year-old Brandon Montour, participate in the All-Star activities.
Ritchie, who is the team’s youngest active player, spoke about the honor of being selected as one of the league’s best players at such a young age.
“That was a great experience,” Ritchie said. “It was something that I’ve wanted to do, [and I] got a chance to do it.”
Aside from Ritchie and Montour, the roster is littered with many other players who were born in the 1990s.
Defensive stalwart Shea Theodore is just 20 years old. 22-year-old winger Stefan Noesen has been one of the team’s most steady offensive players.
Mike Sgarbossa, who is all of 23 years old, is second on the team in goals scored.
While this is exciting for the team’s future as well as the youngsters’ NHL possibilities, the baby bird energy has not translated to the type of season that San Diego’s hockey fans were hoping for.
On Friday, Feb. 5 the Gulls welcomed their Pacific Division rival Stockton Heat to the Valley View Casino Center.
This was the team’s first game after the All-Star break, and represented a great chance for them to get back on track after a lackluster first half of the season.
They took the first step toward doing just that, as they controlled the game from start to finish and came away with a 4-2 victory.
From the opening faceoff, the signs were there that the Gulls were refreshed and energized following their mid season break.
The game started with a very frenetic pace, as both teams had ample scoring opportunities but struggled to get any good shots on goal.
Bryan Moore, a 21-year-old from North Carolina, opened the scoring for the Gulls with a breakaway goal off assists from teammates Andrew O’Brien and Kyle Bonis.
Winger Matt Berry slapped home a one-timer minutes later to double the Gulls’ lead.
The trio of Moore, O’Brien, and Bonis comprise the team’s fourth line, meaning that they are generally regarded as the least skilled offensive players.
The fourth line is typically brought in to provide a burst of energy and give the more offensive-oriented skaters a rest.
Any time the fourth line can put the puck in the net, it is an added bonus, as that unit is usually asked to play the least amount of minutes and bridge the gap until the top lines can return.
Essentially, the fourth line is equivalent to bench players in basketball. Getting scoring from that group is generally a recipe for success.
This was certainly the case for the Gulls on Friday night, as the opening goal from their fourth liners gave the team an early lead and a spark that would carry on throughout the night.
When Stockton center Derek Grant tallied his league-leading 22nd goal of the season during a Heat power play, he cut the Gulls’ lead to 2-1 at the end of the second period.
Grant’s goal not only got his team back into the game but also quieted the raucous crowd at Valley View Casino Center.
However, the tables turned and the third period belonged to the Gulls. Defenseman Shane O’Brien made the score 3-1 with a powerful slap shot from the point with just under 13 minutes left to play.
With the textbook goal, O’Brien was able to whiz the puck over the glove side shoulder of Heat goaltender Joni Ortio, and into the top shelf of the goal.
Stockton added one more goal to give them a breath of life down the stretch, but it was quickly erased by a Joseph Cramarossa goal which iced the game for San Diego.
The Gulls’ youth was on display on Friday night. Goal scorers Moore and Cramarossa weren’t the only twentysomethings to have a strong performance.
The pairing of Jaycob Megna, a 23-year-old from Illinois, and Montour played a very sound defensive game.
Theodore also was instrumental to the Gulls’ defense, and he chipped in with an assist on Berry’s first period goal.
Ritchie, the team’s baby-faced All-Star, was very physical and could be seen finishing his checks whenever he had the opportunity.
Ritchie entertained the idea of playing college hockey, but felt as though choosing a different route at a young age gave him the best chance for success.
“I grew up playing hockey,” Ritchie said. “Where I’m from in Canada, there’s two options: go play major junior or you can go to college and play hockey. But you got to wait a few years before you do that, so I chose to go major junior [at age 16].”
The major junior team he chose was the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. Peterborough, located roughly 80 miles northeast of Toronto, gave Ritchie a chance to get his name out there for the rest of the hockey world.
But when he turned 18 and weighed his options, heading off to play college hockey didn’t make much sense considering his chances of making the pros at such a young age.
“From there I came here [to the AHL] so I didn’t really have the opportunity to ever go to college.”
Despite not having the chance to get a college education, Ritchie has already attained a graduate-level understanding of hockey.
His top notch play this season earned him a short stint in the NHL, where he played 11 games for the Anaheim Ducks.
While his time there was short, Ritchie says he learned a lot from veterans, such as Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
“I learned from all the old guys that have been through the whole process of playing in the minors,” Ritchie said. “Now they’re stars in the NHL, so it was great to talk to them and play with them for a few games.”
Ritchie and the Gulls’ promising start to the second half continued on Saturday night. Behind two more goals from Bonis and the fourth line, the team soared past the Milwaukee Admirals to capture a 4-1 victory.
If Ritchie can continue to light up the minor leagues, he will surely cement himself as a permanent part of the Ducks’ roster.
Until then, he will look to carry the Gulls to a triumphant second half of the season. Their next home game is Feb. 10 at 7:05 p.m. against Bakersfield.
A 2-0 record coming out of the All-Star break is certainly the start they were hoping for.