Ontario Reign San Diego Gulls

An early third-period goal proves to be enough as the Ontario Reign edged the San Diego Gulls 4-2 on Friday from Toyota Arena.

In the season debut for top prospect Quinton Byfield, it was Brayden Burke who scored just over a minute into the third period to give the Ontario Reign a 3-2 lead, and they were able to hold on – then add a Tyler Madden empty netter – for a 4-2 win over the San Diego Gulls.

The win was Ontario’s third against their Pacific Division rivals in their three matchups in the early part of this season.

It was the Gulls who struck first as leading-scorer Jacob Perrault scored 3:11 into the game to put the visitors up 1-0.

The lead didn’t last long as just over a minute and a half later, Martin Frk evened things up for the Reign.

The teams would trade goals in the second period as well; Austin Wagner gave Ontario their first lead of the game just past the midway point of the middle frame, and Greg Pateryn tied things up with under two minutes to play in the second.

Matt Villalta wasn’t too busy in this one, making 15 saves in the win, while Lukas Dostal stopped 22 of 25 shots.

Here are three things that stood out in the win:

1. The return of Quinton Byfield

The long-awaited season debut for Byfield finally happened on Friday at Toyota Arena. The Newmarket, ON native started the game and played on a line flanked by Madden and Gabriel Vilardi.

Byfield spent time on the top-power play unit, playing down low in the 1-3-1 where Jaret Anderson-Dolan spent much of his time. I found it noteworthy that he was also one of the key players back on the power-play breakout. During a second-period power play near the midway point of the period, he picked up the puck almost at a stand-still on his own half-wall, exploded past the first penalty killer before working a give-and-go with Madden in the neutral zone for a very clean zone entry.

He was thrown into the fire in this game as he spent time on the penalty kill as well. He was a threat even a man-down as twice in the second period, he found himself skating downhill into the San Diego zone with a head of steam, getting himself into dangerous areas even on the kill.

There may be no real substitute for game action, and even if he wasn’t quite in tip-top “game shape,” Byfield reminded us why everyone is so excited about him. The examples above were just a couple of many where he flashed his strong skating stride and good speed through the neutral zone. The big centerman’s hands certainly didn’t seem to miss a beat. He made some nice plays with the puck as well, particularly in tight areas.

Though it was a quiet night on the scoresheet – he didn’t register a point or a shot on goal – it was a positive debut for Byfield. If this game was an indication, I wouldn’t expect his stint with the Ontario Reign to last long.

2. Burke – Tynan – Frk reunited

There’s been plenty of line shuffling of late for the Reign, with a number of players going up and down between the NHL and AHL. On Friday, they decided to reunite a line that had been very successful early in the season with Burke, T.J. Tynan, and Frk. They did not disappoint.

The trio combined for two goals and three assists, including Burke’s game-winner early in the third period. They were certainly efficient as they needed just four shots amongst the three to do that damage.

Frk has continued to produce this season for the Reign. Despite the calls for seemingly anyone but him to be called up along with the hype around players such as Byfield, Vilardi, and Vladimir Tkachev being down in Ontario, all Frk has done is put points on the board. His goal against San Diego was his 11th of the season and has him second in the AHL.

Per Sean O’Brien’s tableau, Frk is among the top (98th percentile) in point-shares per game. I have admittedly been hesitant about the idea of bringing him up to the NHL, but perhaps I shouldn’t be:

3. Perfect Penalty Kill

Coming into the game, the Ontario penalty kill was one of the worst in the league at just 74%. Against a Gulls power-play that entered Friday as the 10th-best in the league, the Reign killed all six of the power plays the Gulls had.

It wasn’t an overly emotional game like we’ve seen in the past from the two teams, but the Ontario Reign took all six of their penalties in the final two periods, including four in the second.

Aidan Dudas and Brett Sutter were particularly effective on the kill as well as Byfield, who was paired with Akil Thomas.

Though a couple of the Gulls’ power-plays were abbreviated, the Reign did have two full penalties to kill in the third. On the first, Villalta made one big save, sliding from his right to left to make a pad save. They also had a strong kill late in the period where they didn’t allow San Diego to get much set up in the zone and the one big chance the Gulls did have, Villalta stopped Danny O’Regan in the slot.

The two teams will meet again on Saturday in the back half of the home-and-home set for a 7 p.m. PT puck drop in San Diego.

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