The Tucson Roadrunners entered Saturday night’s regular season finale against San Diego with some control of who they would get to face in the opening round of the postseason.
A Tucson loss in regulation or overtime would ensure a rematch against San Diego; a regulation victory would give the winner of Stockton-San Jose the fourth and final division playoff spot.
If the Roadrunners had a preference of playing San Diego, they didn’t let it be known. Tucson beat the Gulls 6-3 and instead will face San Jose, who earned the last playoff spot with a win over Stockton.
“I’m proud of the guys tonight. They didn’t have to win a game, but they really wanted to win it,” Roadrunners head coach Mike Van Ryn said. “I think that’s great. You should want to win every game you go on the ice.”
The Roadrunners went with a lighter lineup Saturday, choosing to rest veteran defensemen Joel Hanley, Dakota Mermis, Carter Camper and Andrew Campbell, among others.
Lawson Crouse put Tucson ahead 1-0 on a score with 6:40 to go in the first period.
Tucson extended the lead to 2-0 when Michael Bunting scored with six seconds to go in the period. A late-period goal by Tye McGinn brought the score to 3-0.
San Diego broke through with a goal midway through the second period, then cut the lead to one on a score four-and-a-half minutes into the third period.
Tucson’s Trevor Cheek scored with 8:44 remaining to give the Roadrunners a 4-2 advantage, followed by a San Diego score two minutes later to bring the deficit back to one.
Zac Larraza scored with 3:22 remaining to give the Roadrunners a 5-3 lead. A last-minute empty-netter by Cheek clinched the win.
Roadrunners goalie Hunter Miska saved 25 of 28 shots.
“We sat out some bodies tonight and the guys who came in were difference-makers,” Van Ryn said.
San Jose, Tucson’s first-round opponent, was the only team to post a winning record against the Roadrunners in the regular season.
Tucson’s decision earlier in the week to begin the playoffs on the road will prove either a savvy move or one that backfires.
Tucson split its four games at San Jose during the regular season, including a 3-2 loss on March 25.
Tucson went 1-2-1 against San Jose at home.
The Barracuda are one of the hottest teams in the American Hockey League, having won their last six games of the regular season.
“They were long out of the playoff picture not too long ago and now they’re in, so we can’t take them too lightly,” Roadrunners forward Michael Bunting said. “They’re going to come strong and have the confidence like we have.”