The Gulls, a team that has been almost unbeatable at home since December, needed a victory at the San Diego Sports Arena Monday to stay in a race with the Peoria Rivermen for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
But in front of 6,936 on Umbrella Night at the Sports Arena, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles rained on the Gulls' parade with a 5-3 victory.
A victory should have been no problem for the Gulls, who have won 22 of their past 28 home games. They Gulls trailed second-place Peoria by three points in the Western Division of the International Hockey League.
The Eagles probably took away that precious home-ice advantage for the next week's playoffs.
"We weren't in this game, mentally," Gull Coach Don Waddell said. "At this time of the year, the game's 90% mental. I sensed this today at practice. We looked a little flat. Hopefully, we'll rebound and win all the rest of our games at home."
The Gulls took a 1-0 lead early in the first period, then saw the fourth-place Eagles score three times within six minutes to break open the game and hand goalie Rick Knickle his third consecutive loss.
Peoria, with 99 points and four games left, is now in great position to finish ahead of the Gulls, who have 96 points.
It might not be a bad idea for Robbie Nichols, the Gulls' right wing who doubles as the team traveling secretary, to starting working on the finer points of an itinerary for Peoria.
"It's looking slim here," said Nichols, who capped the scoring with his 30th goal of the season. "They almost have to lose all four of their remaining games and we'll have to win all of ours. We've been a good team on the road in the past. If we one of the first two in Peoria, then we'll have home-ice advantage."
The Gulls have three games left to make up the three points. With a victory bringing two points, the prospects of the Rivermen making it a five-point margin by tonight are excellent. They play host to Indianapolis, last in the East and a loser of three in a row. Defending IHL champion Peoria has a three-game winning streak.
The Gulls resume Thursday at home against Kansas City, first in the West with 108 points. They get the Blades at home again Friday then close the season Saturday at Phoenix, playing their third game in three days.
The Gulls have played three games in three days six times this season and have never won three in a row. They lost all three on two occasions.
"We can't control what Peoria does; we just want to build the most momentum we can before the playoffs," Waddell said. "If that gives us second place, great."
The Gulls have had nothing but good fortune playing at the Sports Arena since December. Salt Lake, which lost, 6-1, two days earlier, faced some tall odds:
--The Gulls had won seven in a row at home.
--The Gulls' record at the Sports Arena was 22-3-3 since Dec. 6.
--The Gulls were averaging 5.11 goals in those games.
--They had a 30-8-3 record when scoring first. They scored first in this game.
--Starting goalie Knickle (27-13-4), the IHL victory leader, had a 9-0-2 record at home since Dec. 7.
Maybe it was time for the Gulls' good fortune to expire.
"We put ourselves in this position, and we'll just see if we have a good club here," Nichols said. "Let's see if we're able to rebound out of this. Kansas City will be a big test."
The Gulls looked poised to extend their run at home when Dmitri Kvartalnov, alone inside the right circle, cracked up and rifled in his IHL-leading 60th goal to make it 1-0 only 2:31 into game.
Knickle looked sharp, stopping Salt Lake's first nine shots, then appeared to lose his rhythm. And the Eagles began to have some fun, scoring on three of their next six attempts for three goals in a span of 5:38.
Seconds after the Gulls stopped Salt Lake on a two-man advantage and Knickle turned away three shots, Shawn Heaphy beat him one-on-one from in close to make it 1-1. Former Gull Dennis Holland scored from the slot, making a 360-degree spin before shooting to confuse Knickle, then Rich Chernomaz squared off and one-timed it from the right circle to make it 3-1, Eagles.
Darryl Olsen scored from the left circle to make it 4-1 on a Salt Lake power play 5:34 into the second period, then Bryan Deesley put in a rebound to make it 5-1 early in the third period. Darcy Norton finally scored for the Gulls into an empty net when Jason Muzzatti (seven victories against the Gulls) misjudged a rebound off the boards. Nichols' goal came with 33 seconds left.
"I thought I played all right," Knickle said. "But the third goal was the one that really bothered me the most. It went right between my arm and my pads."
Goalie Sean Burke (4-1, 2.00 goals-against average) wasn't in uniform Monday, sitting out the game with a mild case of the flu. . . . Some tentative playoff dates were announced for the Gulls-Peoria series, which begins sometime next week. If Peoria gets home-ice advantage, the Gulls will play their first two games on the road on two of the following dates: April 7, 8 and 10. Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will be Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, April 11, 13 and 14, at the Sports Arena. Should the Gulls earn home-ice advantage, the series will open April 9 at the Sports Arena with games being played every second day until decided. The series will be seven games.