The Tucson Roadrunners can check off another landmark in their historic 2017-18 season.
Mario Kempe scored the go-ahead goal with 3:10 remaining, and the Roadrunners clinched the American Hockey League’s Western Conference title with a 3-2 win over the San Diego Gulls on Friday night at Tucson Arena.
Kempe’s goal came on a well-placed assist by Kyle Capobianco, who found his teammate positioned inside the left faceoff circle.
“I love seeing my guys get rewarded,” Roadrunners coach Mike Van Ryn said. “They’ve worked so hard all year. They bought in. They believed in the message since day one, and they’ve taken the message to heart.”
Tucson will face San Diego one more time Saturday night to close out the regular season. The Roadrunners lead the series with a 6-3-2 record.
Dysin Mayo put the Roadrunners on the board 6ƒ minutes into the first period on assists by Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse.
Crouse extended his point streak to seven games with the assist.
San Diego tied the score on a goal by Nic Kerdiles with six minutes to go in the period.
Tucson took a 2-1 lead with two minutes left in the second period on a power play goal by Kempe, assisted by Joel Hanley and Lane Pederson.
With the two goals Friday, Kempe has 18 goals this season.
“Mario just works and works,” Van Ryn said. “We feel very fortunate to have him in our organization. He’s what we’re looking for. I’ve got to pull him off the ice sometimes to give him a rest.”
The Gulls tied things up with 13 seconds remaining in the second period on a goal from Kevin Roy.
Adin Hill started in goal for Tucson, saving 24 of 26 shots.
Hill was coming off a 36-save shutout performance at San Diego on Wednesday night.
“These last two games have been huge,” Hill said. “We’ve got to bounce back again tomorrow and do it again.”
San Diego needs to either win or force overtime Saturday to clinch the final playoff spot of the Pacific Division. A Tucson win in regulation would allow the winner of Stockton-San Jose to grab the last spot.
If the Gulls do earn the fourth and final playoff spot in the division, they will face Tucson in the first round, best-of-five playoff series.
“We’re just looking forward to playoffs,” Hill said. “Once that season starts, it doesn’t matter what you did here.”