There’s a time for switch-flipping late in hockey’s regular season as teams, like the Reign, inch closer to securing a postseason berth.
Brett Sutter feels like Ontario’s group has already hit the collective on-button.
“I think it’s shifted,” the veteran forward said earlier this week. “I think for sure details gotta be hammered out in our game. Playoff-hockey style. Tighter, tighter checking, tighter defensively. All these teams we play down the stretch they’re playoff teams or teams fighting to get in the playoffs so they’re going to have the hammer down and they’re going to be a good test for us right through to playoffs. And they’re probably going to be a team we’re going to play in the first or second round.”
Sutter went on to elaborate when he thought the flip switched. It was after Ontario traveled to Charlotte on March 17 and 18 and came back with just one point, an overtime loss, and were outscored on the weekend a total of 8-5. They responded with back-to-back wins over San Antonio last weekend at home, their first consecutive wins since mid-February.
“I’d say after that Charlotte weekend we realized we needed to be better,” he said. “We went there and we didn’t get a win and that wasn’t good enough for us. From the coaching staff to the players I think there was just a conscious effort to know that we had to make a good push down the stretch here. Everyone else is winning in the division so we needed the wins too to keep our spot. I think we’re there now.”
During the recent sweep of San Antonio there were some tense moments, particularly the in second period of Saturday’s game where a total of 16 PIMs were doled out and Rampage goalie Spencer Martin got involved in physical play. At one juncture Martin pointed at Jack Campbell during a media timeout as the two skated by one another. Though Campbell called that move “interesting,” the overall heat displayed in the period was welcomed.
“I think it’s great,” said Campbell, who leads the AHL in wins with 28. “We’ve got playoffs hopefully coming up here and playoff-type games the rest of the way. You’re going to get that in the playoffs and down the stretch here.”
They’re facing playoff-like games starting this Friday and Saturday in Bakersfield. Both teams have eight games left on their plate and Ontario sits third in the Pacific with a .630 winning percentage. The Condors, who have won four of their last five, are in the fourth and final spot at .561. With the Reign’s magic number at seven to clinch a playoff berth, each win gets them a step closer. The rest of the way could be even tougher. Their final six games the Reign face San Diego four times and the Reign are also prime to face the No. 2 Gulls in the first round.
But for the immediate future, there’s one hurdle to hop: A win in Bakersfield, something the Reign have yet to accomplish this season.
“We’ve got a heck of a challenge coming up this weekend,” head coach Mike Stothers said earlier this week. “Bakersfield’s playing extremely well and they have for quite some time. And it’s back-to-back games in their rink. It’s kind of been a homer series. They’re trying to catch us and we’re trying to stay ahead of them. It’s big games. Ideally would you like to have all your guys healthy and ready to go? We don’t. So, you don’t use it as an excuse, you just go into it. They probably have some guys banged up too. Maybe they got some guys waiting to get back in the lineup. Hey, it’s what hockey’s all about. If you can’t handle it in the regular season you’re not going to be able to handle it in the playoffs. So, couple big games. See how we do. I’m anxious for it.”