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There’s a reason Conor Garland returned to the Tucson Roadrunners for the stretch run, and more than 5,000 fans at Tucson Arena saw that reason dramatically come to life Friday night. 

Already with a first-period goal under his belt in his second game in Tucson in more than four months, Garland drove toward down the left side boards as the clock ticked down in overtime. With barely three seconds left and Garland crushing in toward the net, the speedy forward slipped the puck at ice level past the opposing goaltender, walking the Roadrunners off to a 4-3 victory over the San Diego Gulls.

And with one regular season game left — a 7:05 p.m. start Saturday against the same frustrated Gulls — the win slides Tucson up in the standings, with the Roadrunners now officially one point up on the Colorado Eagles for the fourth and final playoff berth out of the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division. 

“That was a game I really got to enjoy,” said Garland, who finished with two goals and an assist, and now has four points in two games since his return to the Roadrunners following the conclusion of the Arizona Coyotes’ NHL schedule last week. “(This game) was a cool experience for me. Obviously I got to fulfill my dream in life and play in the NHL for a while. And I’ll hopefully be there for the remainder of my career. But to come back where it all started … it was like I never left the routine I had here.” 

Added Tucson head coach Jay Varady: “He has a passion for the game and it leaks out of him. … Anytime that guy’s sitting on your bench it creates a little energy for everybody else.” 

Garland’s game-winner wasn’t without controversy. The Gulls (35-24-5-3) clinched their own ticket to the Calder Cup playoffs midway through the game, by way of a 3-1 Colorado loss to the San Jose Barracuda. But San Diego is still playing for seeding, as a Roadrunners (34-25-5-3) win in regulation Saturday over San Diego would give the Tucson the three seed out of the Pacific, and drop the Gulls to fourth.

But Garland’s goal, at least as far as it looked in replays via AHLtv, the league’s digital streaming service — and according to the Gulls themselves — came only after the game’s final sequence saw the Roadrunners control the puck on the final faceoff for multiple seconds while the game clock apparently failed to start. 

“The referee saw it, and we timed it out. It’s just under five seconds that the clock didn’t move. (Tucson) scored with I think 3.8 left,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins said, adding that he did send an email to the league voicing his frustration. “Hey, we’re in the playoffs tonight. But if I’m the Colorado Eagles, I’m losing my mind with what went on here.” 

Garland said he wasn’t aware of anything off with the clock after the Roadrunners corralled the final faceoff deep in the San Diego zone to the left of Gulls’ goaltender Kevin Boyle. After the draw, the puck ended up on the stick of Garland, who pulled it out as far back as the Roadrunners' own defensive zone during the three-on-three skating scenario that occurs in overtime.

“I didn’t notice that. I don’t know what happened,” Garland said of the clock. “I picked the puck up and took a look at it. When I hit the far blue, it said about 10 seconds left. So I just tried to fly up there. I figured I’d get a shot on net, try to get a faceoff. But (Boyle) was leaning a little bit so I tried to just slide it under him.” 

The late-game heroics-slash-controversy notwithstanding, the Roadrunners recent penchant for scoring quickly carried over again. On an early first-period power play, a Lane Pederson snapper beat Boyle almost three minutes into the game for the 1-0 lead. While the Roadrunners have only been in Tucson three seasons, Pederson’s team-high 22nd of the year tied him for the second most by a Roadrunner in a single season in local history, trailing only Mike Sislo’s 23 last season and tied with Michael Bunting’s 22, also from a year ago. 

Pederson’s goal jump started a fast-paced opening 10 minutes, which saw San Diego’s Ben Street counter to tie it up less than two minutes later. Barely two minutes after that, Garland scored his first of the game. 

While San Diego would get two in the middle period — one each from Sam Steel and Sam Carrick — Michael Chaput would score in the second as well, sending the game into the third knotted at three apiece. It would stay that way until overtime. 

As it sits, Tucson has 76 points with one game remaining, with Colorado at 75. San Diego is at 78, meaning a regulation win for Tucson on Saturday would tie the two teams at 78 points. However, the Roadrunners would own the first tiebreaker — thus earning the third seed — by way of having more combined wins in regulation and overtime.

If it comes to it, Tucson would also own the tiebreaker over Colorado if the Eagles and Roadrunners are tied in the standings at either 76 or 77 points. That could happen should Tucson lose in regulation and Colorado lose in overtime or a shootout, or if the Roadrunners lose in overtime or a shootout and the Eagles win.

The Roadrunners guarantee their spot in the playoffs with any kind of win, or a loss in overtime or a shootout. But Tucson could still fall out of the playoffs altogether with a regulation loss and a Colorado win of any kind. 

Convoluted as it surely seems, to Garland it’s pretty simple. 

“Three periods,” Garland said of Saturday’s matchup with the Gulls, who Tucson is 5-1-1-0 against this season. “You come out on top, and you’re in the playoffs.”