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Reign one step closer to returning to Calder Cup Finals

 

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The Ontario Reign has taken another step toward reaching its ultimate goal of repeating as Calder Cup champions after defeating the San Diego Gulls four games to one to capture the Southern California rivals’ American Hockey League (AHL) Western Conference Pacific Division Finals playoff series.

The Reign improves to 7-2 through two rounds of divisional playoffs and will meet the Lake Erie Monsters, the Central Division playoff champion, in the Western Conference Finals.

The Western Conference Finals champion will meet the Eastern Conference Finals champion in the Calder Cup Finals.

Ontario head coach Mike Stothers called his team a “determined bunch” in its bid to repeat as Calder Cup champions.

“To win in the playoffs, you’ve got to have some talent, but you’ve also got to have some luck, and part of that luck is remaining healthy,” he told the media upon conclusion of the division finals. “It’s hard to stay healthy, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”

The Reign, which finished with the top points-percentage record in the Western Conference during regular season play, will hold the home ice advantage in the best-of-seven conference finals. The opening two games are scheduled May 21 and May 22 in Ontario before the series moves to Cleveland for the third and fourth games on May 24 and May 26. A possible fifth game would also be played on the Monsters’ home ice on May 28.

If needed, the Reign would host the final two games on May 31 and June 1.

The Toronto Marlies and Hershey Bears are battling one another in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bears got the jump on the Marlies with a 3-1 victory in Game 1 on May 20.

Toronto finished with the league’s best record this season.

Ontario won last year’s Calder Cup championship as the Manchester Monarchs prior to relocation of that franchise from New Hampshire to California by the NHL Los Angeles Kings, the Reign’s parent club. Despite a changeover in personnel commonplace in the minor leagues, the Reign has continued to win in its new home on the other side of the North American continent. In fact, the Reign finished with the AHL’s second best record among its 30 teams this season.

Players have set a goal of returning to the league’s championship series; Ontario now finds itself halfway to reaching its goal after winning its second playoff series.

“It’s about finding different ways each year,” Reign forward Michael Mersch explained. “Everybody’s contributed. We have a great locker room. But it’s two different years. You learn things from last year but overall, it’s two different teams.

“There were a lot of great guys on our team last year, everybody was a good guy, a great contributor. This year, it’s the same thing, but it’s two different years.”

Stothers said his team has drawn on its experience from last season as its strength even though the make-up of this year’s team and last year’s team are different.

“Last year’s team, we had more offense,” the Reign coach explained. “But there’s enough guys remaining from the organization that knew what it took to win, and the sacrifices you’ve got to make. You’ve got to believe in our system, and that’s throughout our whole organization. It starts with the coaching staff up top with the Kings, and we try to follow suit, and it helps when our guys get called up that they can step in and play. It’s very successful. But everybody has to do it.

“You need guys to step up in the playoffs each year; every player has shown something. The future looks bright for the Kings organization and its prospects.”

In other words, bring it on.

SoCal showdown

When one thinks of playoff hockey, one usually thinks of suffocating defenses, bone-crushing hits, great goaltending and timely game-winning goals, usually in overtime. The Pacific Division Finals between top-seeded Ontario and second-seeded San Diego had all of that in the teams’ best-of-seven series.

Though the Reign prevailed in five games in the division finals over the Gulls, all games were tightly played and hotly contested, with two games being decided in overtime and three games in the series decided by one goal.

Ontario won the series opener by a score of 5-3, aided by an empty net goal after the Gulls had pulled to within 4-3 on the scoreboard with 2:23 to play. San Diego pulled its goaltender after the Reign was whistled for a penalty with 1:07 left to go on a six-on-four attack. But the strategy backfired when Jeff Schultz scored short-handed into the empty net with 33 seconds to play.

Mersch, who played 17 games in 2015-16 with the Los Angeles Kings, Ontario’s NHL affiliate, racked up a big game in the series opener on May 5 with two goals and one assist after being held to just two assists in the Reign’s division semifinal series against San Jose.

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Reign captain Vincent Lo Verde scored a power-play goal and Joel Lowry added a go-ahead goal in the second period in Game 1. Ontario held the visiting Gulls to just four shots in each of the first and third periods and out-shot San Diego 29-16, with Reign netminder Peter Budaj making just 16 saves.

The Ontario-San Diego series featured an unusual 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format, with each team alternating home games. Game 2, played on the Gulls’ home ice on May 7, went to overtime, as did Game 4, which was played in San Diego on May 13. The Reign won both overtime contests after the Gulls had posted 1-0 leads through two periods.

San Diego, the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate, entered the division finals 34-0 when leading after two periods but ended the series 35-2 after surrendering two third-periods leads to their Southern California arch rivals en route to overtime losses. The Gulls also entered the division finals sporting a rather imposing 31-1-2-1 record when scoring the first goal in a game. But the Reign managed to overcome that as well.

Specifically, Ontario had to overcome the hot play of San Diego goaltender Matt Hackett, who was no stranger to reaching the Calder Cup Finals (with the Houston Aeros in 2010-11). Hackett started the division finals after an upper body injury to starting goaltender Anton Khudobin in Game 4 of the division semifinals.

Hackett made 42 saves in the Game 2 loss and added 29 more saves in a 3-0 shutout win over the Reign in Game 3 on May 8 to get the Gulls back in the series. He extended his shutout streak to 103:47 in Game 4. But as well as he played, Ontario posted crucial third-period rallies in both games played in San Diego to maintain momentum in the series.

Ontario’s 4-3 overtime win in Game 4 in front of 9,078 fans at the Valley View Casino Center pushed the Gulls to the brink of elimination with a 3-1 series deficit. However, San Diego continued to pushed the higher-seeded Reign to the final seconds in Game 5 before falling 2-1.

Budaj had not been called on to make too many critical saves in the previous four games in the series but came up with the save of the series to deny the Gulls a potential game-tying goal with 10 seconds to play in Game 5 with host Ontario holding a one-goal lead. Mersch then deflected the Gulls’ final shot as time expired following Budaj’s monstrous save.

Had the Gulls managed to push the game into overtime and somehow collect a victory in front of the 7,230 fans assembled at Citizens Business Bank Arena, the series would have shifted back south for Game 6.

“Not a team in the league defends better than Ontario,” Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins offered after his team’s Game 5 loss to end the series.

Budaj made 15 saves on 16 shots. Ontario limited San Diego to just two shots in the first period and held the Gulls scoreless on four power play opportunities.

Justin Auger scored the game-winner in OT in Game 2, while Mike Amadio celebrated his 20th birthday by scoring the OT winner in Game 4. Auger also scored what proved to be the game-winner in Game 5 on his 22nd birthday.

The Reign outshot the Gulls in every game in the division finals, piling up a decisive 165-115 advantage, though Ontario did not run away with the series offensively by scoring just two more goals than San Diego.

“San Diego’s a great team, they played a great game and we were lucky to come out on top (in the two overtime games),” Mersch said.

Stothers admitted the opening two games set the tone for the series. “Both games (were) very well-played,” he said. “The first game was decided in the last few seconds and the second game was decided in overtime. I think the first period (in Game 2) was terrific hockey by both teams.”

He told the media he thought the Gulls put up a “valiant effort” in the series.

“You have to tip your hat,” Stothers said. “They tried hard, it was a great series. Again, we played hard against each other all season long. I think it was 16 games going into this one, and (Game 5) was 17, two exhibition games, that’s 19. That’s 19 head-to-head match-ups, so when you pull it all together, it’s still pretty dead even. (They’re) a good team.

“Maybe we drew a little bit on the strength of our guys, the experience we went through last year. There was a definite resolve on our guys. We don’t like ’em, so it;s easy to get juiced up to want to beat them. But having said that, they feel the same way about us, so I can’t explain how it happened. I just know that it did happen. I’m happy, though.”

Monster mash

Stothers and every player interviewed on the subject agreed it will be exciting to take on Lake Erie in the conference finals as the teams did not play one another this season. That comes in sharp contrast to the Reign’s opening two playoff opponents – San Diego and San Jose. Ontario faced both of those Pacific Division rivals 12 times during the regular season.

Stothers said he welcomed the unknown aspect of the upcoming series against the Monsters, noting it will be interesting to play a “fresh” opponent. The Reign coach said neither team has an advantage, pointing out that Lake Erie knows little about the Reign as well.

With not much time to prepare for an unfamiliar opponent, other than reviewing video, Stothers said his team will just have to go out and play the game the way it knows how to play it.

Players said a victory in Game 1 will be most important, as adjustments can be made later in the series.

What’s trending

The Reign relied on defense in winning its opening two playoff series, while the Monsters were a bit more offensive in turning aside their opening two playoff challengers.

Both teams are 7-2 in post-season play but the comparison ends there. Lake Erie has scored 33 goals in those nine games compared to 24 goals for Ontario; the Reign has allowed 17 goals in nine games while the Monsters have allowed 26.

Lake Erie also holds the edge in penalty minutes with 125 compared to 86 for Ontario.

The Monsters have four players listed among the AHL’s top 20 playoff point-scorers: 18-year-old University of Michigan standout Zach Werenski (4 goals, 10 points), Josh Anderson (5 goals, 9 points), Alex Broadhurst (2 goals, 9 points) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (4 goals, 8 points).

Werenski, who is playing with the Monsters on an amateur tryout contract after signing a three-year entry-level contract with the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets that takes effect in 2016-17, ranks second among both league defensemen and rookies in playoff scoring. The Michigan native scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 6 of the Central Division Finals to propel the Monsters into the conference championship series.

The Reign has just one player listed among the league’s top 20 scorers: Nic Dowd (3 goals, 8 assists). Other top playoff scorers include Adrian Kempe (4 goals, 5 points) and Auger (3 goals, 5 points), Mersch (2 goals, 5 points) and Kevin Gravel (5 assists).

Defensively, it’s another story. Budaj, the AHL’s 2015-16 outstanding goaltender, ranks third in the playoffs with a 1.73 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. He is 7-2 between the pipes.

By contrast, Lake Erie netminder Joonus Korpisalo ranks 17th among the league’s postseason goaltending leaders with a 2.96 GAA and .898 save percentage. He is 6-2 in the playoffs.

Special teams proved to be key in the Pacific Division Finals for the Reign and Ontario will need to improve on its 3-for-27 power play conversion (11.1 percent efficiency) if it is to advance to the Calder Cup Finals. The Monsters are 10-for-35 on the power play (28.6 percent efficiency) with one short-handed goal in rising to the top in the Central Division playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Reign will need to play tough on defense. Ontario has killed 27 of 29 man-down situations (93.1 percent efficiency) thus far. Lake Erie has killed 33 of 40 power plays (82.5 percent efficiency) it has faced in the playoffs.

The Reign finished with the league’s top penalty-killing unit in the regular season while the Monsters ranked fifth.

“Sometimes it’s your power play, sometimes it’s your penalty kill,” Stothers noted in his postgame press conference about the added importance of special teams play in the playoffs. “You’ve got to have success with both, and I think our guys have done a great job all season long, so I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Both teams have played well at home and well on the road in the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs. The Reign is 4-1 at home and 3-1 on the road while the Monsters are 3-1 at home and 4-1 on the road.

Both teams are 2-0 in overtime in the playoffs.

The Reign is 35-1 when leading after two periods.

Protect the nest

The Gulls concluded nothing short of a phenomenal first season in the AHL after rebranding themselves from their former identity as the Norfolk Admirals. San Diego finished second to Ontario in the Pacific Division standings and proved to be among the hottest teams in the league during the second half of regular season play.

San Diego defeated the third-seeded Texas Stars three games to one to win the teams’ division semifinal series before taking on their Southern California arch-rival.

The Gulls and the Reign played a total of 19 games in 2015-16 – more than another other two teams in the league. The teams met twice in the preseason, then 12 times in the regular season and then five times in the playoffs. The Gulls won 11 of those 19 games, including both preseason contests and eight regular season meetings.

The series against the physically-imposing Reign eventually took its toll.

“In the regular season, we were able to execute,” Eakins explained after the end of the division finals. “With injuries and adversity (as the playoffs wore on), we didn’t have that extra gear.”

The San Diego coach said he was still proud of his team’s resolve to rally in the series: “Our guys were calm and cool on the bench. Like all season, we’ve been a resilient group. The group is strong, and they weren’t rattled by being down two-nothing (in the series).”

Eakins said the ability to focus on the next game at hand is the most important aspect in any playoff series.

“You’ve got to keep moving,” he explained. “I’m not going to lie; any time you lose a game in the playoffs, it’s hard to take. But whether you win or lose, you’ve got to move on quickly, and especially back-to-back.”

Veteran Chris Mueller led San Diego in playoff scoring with four goals and 11 points in nine games, followed by Nick Ritchie with five goals and eight points, Stefan Noesen with two goals and seven points, Shea Theodore with two goals and five points, Mike Sgarbossa with one goal and five points and Brandon Montour with five assists.

Montour, who led AHL rookies in power play points during the regular season, did not score a goal in the postseason.

Ritchie, who played 33 games with the Anaheim Ducks this season, scored goals in each of the opening three games against Texas and registered points in eight of the Gulls’ nine post-season games.

Hackett appeared in six playoff games, including all five games in the division finals. He finished postseason play with a 2.27 GAA, 0.925 save percentage and somewhat deciving 2-4 record.

During brutal back-to-back scheduling that featured Game 2 and Game 3 being played 24 hours apart in the teams’ respective home rinks, Hackett stopped 71 of 73 shots for a 0.973 save percentage. He received a standing ovation from fans when taking the ice for Game 4 when the series returned to San Diego later in the week.

Eakins said his team’s biggest challenge was to get to the Ontario net, citing the Reign’s “extremely good job” of boxing out and keeping his team away from it.

“Ontario’s (defense) really (tightens) up,” the San Diego bench boss explained. “I think they’re the best defensive team in the league, and that’s not by accident.”

The Gulls fought hard for their lone win in the series, which came on foreign ice. Kallie Kossila, one of several young players on amateur tryout contracts, scored the team’s first goal, Ritchie later added a power play goal in the third period and Jaycob Megna put the finishing touch on the victory with an empty net goal.

“We needed that game, and the boys did a great job competing and battling,” explained Hackett, who appeared in 22 regular season games with a 10-7-1 record, 3.03 GAA and .895 save percentage. “In the playoffs, if you’re all competing and pulling the same rope, you’re going to have results. The guys played great, and the shutout was a bonus.”

Another bonus for the Gulls was the play of the players on amateur tryout contracts. Following the the team’s playoff run, the parent Ducks signed 19-year old Swedish defenseman Jacob Larsson, Anaheim’s first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, to a three-year entry-level contract.

In summary, the division finals could have taken a much different turn had the Gulls been able to add insurance goals in both games in which they had third-period leads, but which the Reign eventually won in overtime.

New kid on the block

The NHL Arizona Coyotes announced on May 18 they had finalized the purchase of their AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., and will move the club to Tucson in time for the 2016-17 season. The as-yet-unnamed team will play in the Pacific Division alongside the division’s resident five California teams and add a new rivalry to the mix along with that between the Pacific Division’s two Texas teams.

The Coyotes had planned to be a part of the inaugural Pacific Division alignment in 2015-16.

“We are absolutely thrilled to relocate our AHL team to Tucson,” Coyotes President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc explained. “The Coyotes were part of the initial discussion to form a Pacific Division in the AHL but we were unable to secure a franchise prior to last season. We are extremely excited and proud to bring AHL hockey to a first-class city like Tucson. This further proves that the Coyotes ownership group is committed to Arizona and to growing the Coyotes brand and the great game of hockey in our state.”

The NHL club cites increased player availability and visibility to expand its brand in the state as two major benefits of having its AHL affiliate located a two-hour drive away.

Coyotes’ GM John Chayka said the NHL team owning and operating its own AHL franchise will be a “game-changer for our organization.”

“Having our top prospects so close to the Valley will allow us to more closely monitor our players and have a greater role in their development,” he said, “Playing in the AHL’s Pacific Division will provide our prospects with an exceptional environment for growth. This is an ideal situation for us.”

The Tucson City Council approved a 10-year lease agreement between the Coyotes and the Tucson Convention Center (TCC) on May 17, upon which the Coyotes launched a “name-the-team” contest. The contest will close May 31.

The relocated AHL team will start play in October 2016 at the TCC, which will undergo additional upgrades to make it suitable for AHL hockey. The arena currently seats 6,700.

The AHL will be the highest level of hockey ever to play in the Tucson market. The city is currently home to the University of Arizona’s ice hockey program. Tucson has also hosted several minor pro teams in the past.

The Tucson Rustlers played one season in the Pacific Hockey League during the 1978-79 season while the Tucson Gila Monsters played parts of two seasons in the West Coast Hockey League in 1997-99. In both iterations, the Tucson clubs had a robust intrastate rivalry with teams based in Phoenix (the Roadrunners in the PHL and the Mustangs in the WCHL).

The Tucson Mavericks also played in the Central Hockey League in 1975-76 while the Tucson Icemen played in the Southwest Hockey League in 1976-77.

Coyotes’ executive of hockey operations/head coach Dave Tippett called the relocation of the team’s AHL affiliate to Tucson a “positive situation” for the Coyotes.

“We want to move this organization ahead and in that respect, other Pacific Division teams were all ahead of us,” Tippett said. “Now we’ll be on the same playing field. To have our top prospects so close where we can keep track of them and watch their games every night, it’s a huge benefit that we didn’t have before.”

Tucson residents are also excited about the new pro club coming to town. “The Coyotes are a good match for the TCC arena,” City of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said. “I know I join many Tucsonans in looking forward to their first home game.”

— Photos & Story/Phillip Brents