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For Gulls, It’s a Start in Reverse : Hockey: IHL expansion team got off to a surprisingly successful beginning, which has kept management happy despite a recent slide.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rebirth of hockey in San Diego three months ago brought with it the usual pangs: It kicked and screamed and craved attention.

Opening night was Oct. 5, and the International Hockey League’s newest family member, the San Diego Gulls, was presented to a proud crowd of 9,046 at the Sports Arena, which witnessed a 4-3 Gulls’ victory over Salt Lake, one of the league’s better teams.

That was 43 games ago, two past the halfway mark of the season.

After an encouraging start, the Gulls have gone from second place to third in the IHL West, a skid that began in mid-December. After beating Milwaukee on Tuesday night, the Gulls (19-20-4) were one game under the .500 mark.

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As management and players see it, the tumble is discouraging, but not so much that they’re willing to forget and discount everything that’s been accomplished to this point.

“At the halfway point, we have to be happy,” said Don Waddell, general manager. “What we’re disappointed with is how we finished the (last 1 1/2 months). We were on a roll there, but we had a tough stretch. Everyone will have those, but it’s important to come out of that.”

Now, it’s just a question of when.

On Dec. 8, the Gulls were sporting a 15-11-3 record, sitting behind Peoria--no shame as the Rivermen were in the midst of breaking a professional hockey record for consecutive victories--and life was fine.

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The fall began Dec. 12 when the Gulls lost three in a row. Since then, the Gulls are 3-9-1, with five of those losses to Phoenix, a second-year franchise that finished last in the West last year.

“I break the season into quarters, that’s how I do it,” Waddell said, “and we’re right on target. We expected to start slow, then pick up. We’ve just done it the other way. This isn’t uncommon.”

Said Coach Mike O’Connell: “Everyone goes into these stretches. It just takes a couple of wins to end it.”

But the drought has been brutal. The Gulls have two four-game victory streaks to their credit, one in late October, the other in early November. But they’ve been unable to string together more than one victory since a brief three-game tear Nov. 22, 24, and 26.

Conversely, they’ve had two 0-4-1 streaks, the latest of which ended Friday when the Gulls defeated Salt Lake, 7-3, and tied their highest offensive production of the season. In that game, they Gulls were the antithesis of the team that two days earlier were defeated 6-2 by Phoenix.

“We can play well one night, then terrible the next,” said forward Darren Lowe, one of the 11 veterans who signed with the team early. “I don’t think anyone’s panicking right now, but we are starting to wonder what’s wrong.”

The defense, which has given up 47 goals in the past nine games, has been plagued by injuries. Peter Dineen has played only 17 games this season, Dave Korol, Dean Morton and Al Tuer have been out intermittently, and the Gulls have had at times as few as four defensemen to call upon.

And Derek Meyer, considered by some teammates as the best player on the team, was recalled by the Detroit Red Wings late last week, prompting Waddell to get two defensemen on loan temporarily.

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“We’ve lost a lot of defensemen,” Tuer said. “That hurts a lot. But (as a defense) we haven’t played as well as we could.”

Neither has the offense.

Waddell insisted that this is not a team dependent on one player to score the majority of goals, but it remains a fact that leading scorer Dennis Holland, with 18 goals and 22 assists in 32 games, has only three more goals than Brent Sapergia (15 goals, 12 assists in 26 games). Sapergia left the team Dec. 1 to play in Europe but is back in the United States and has expressed to some players that he would like to come back.

“I still feel that we’ve brought other players in who are better team players,” Waddell said. “Maybe we could have won a few games with him, but in the long run, we’re a better team. We don’t rely on anyone on this team. We’re pretty balanced. There’s not one guy we look to. Any night it can be anyone (contributing). I think that’s good.”

Granted, there are four players who have scored more than 10 goals, and seven have at least 10 assists, but other than Larry’s Floyd’s seventh on the IHL assist leader list--he has 30--the Gulls are absent from the individual goals and points categories. And they are tied with Milwaukee in the West, with 141 goals, for fewest goals scored.

Lowe and Floyd, two of the players the Gulls acquired primarily for scoring purposes, have fallen considerbly off their scoring paces of past seasons.

In 41 games--Lowe has played the most of any Gull--he has 11 goals and 23 assists, compared to his 31 goals and 35 assists in 67 games a year ago in Flint, Mich. Floyd has nine goals and 30 assists, far from the 39 goals and 40 assists he had last season in Phoenix.

“If you want to point fingers,” Lowe said, “point it at me. I don’t know why I haven’t been able to score. It’s just one of those things you go through. Sometimes you’re doing well, you’re scoring a lot, and then all of the sudden, you’re not.”

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The addition of Gord Walker, a former Canadian national team member, and 12-year NHL veteran Ron Duguay in early December, haven’t added much scoring punch to the Gulls, but Waddell said he looks beyond the scoring and checking when he adds someone to the roster.

“I’m looking for a spark,” he said. “That’s why I thought some of these players could come in and do just that.”

“We need something to shake us up,” Lowe said.

Said Tuer: “The veterans are doing their jobs, it’s just that they’re not doing it every game. We have to start bearing down every night.”

Phoenix General Manager Adam Keller said it was a surprise to see a first-year team get off to such a successful start, and that the current slump is no reason for alarm.

“They got off to that fast, fast start, but I think for an expansion team, they’ve done a remarkable job,” Keller said. “There’s not a team in the NHL or anywhere, that through the length of such a long season (the regular season ends April 7), doesn’t have a down side.”

Through 19 home games, the Gulls have averaged 5,588 fans, and Harry Cooper, co-owner of the team with Vin Ciruzzi, said he is relatively pleased with attendance.

“We’ve done well enough that we’re saying hockey is here to stay,” Cooper said. “We’re getting enough support, and we think that it will get better. We’re building on what we have, and what we have is good.”

GULLS’ CHANGES OPENING-NIGHT ROSTER (Oct. 5) Scott Brower, goaltender Mark Reimer, goaltender Paul Marshall, defenseman Darin Banister, defenseman Steve Dykstra, defenseman Peter Dineen, defenseman Al Tuer, defenseman Dave Korol, defenseman Mike Gober, left wing Charlie Simmer, left wing Robbie Nichols, right wing Taylor Hall, right wing Paul Kelly, right wing Brent Sapergia, right wing Larry Floyd, center Jim McGeough, center Carl Mokosak, left wing Rob Schena, defenseman Darren Lowe, right wing Bob Jones, left wing Mike Sullivan, center Jacques Mailhot, left wing

CURRENT ROSTER Scott Brower, goaltender Alain Chevrier, goaltender Darin Banister, defenseman Steve Dykstra, defenseman Peter Dineen, defenseman Al Tuer, defenseman Dave Korol, defenseman Dean Morton, defenseman Rod Dallman, left wing Clark Donatelli, left wing Ron Duguay, center Charlie Simmer, left wing Robbie Nichols, right wing Taylor Hall, right wing Dennis Holland, center Larry Floyd, center Gord Walker, right wing Darren Lowe, right wing Bob Jones, left wing Darcy Norton, center Mike Sullivan, center Steve Martinson, left wing


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