The Reign’s season is on the line tonight in Game 4 against San Diego at 7 p.m. PT. A healthy group took part in the morning skate from Center Ice arena in Ontario (CBBA is in clean-up mode after hosting Disney on Ice). All eyes are on tonight’s game as it’s the only one on the AHL slate.
–By virtue of back-to-back losses in Games 2 and 3, the Reign have put themselves in a must-win scenario in this first-round best-of-5 with the Gulls. Head coach Mike Stothers likes where his team’s collective head is at, but believes there’s another gear to reach.
“I think we need to improve on everything: our starts, our execution. It still hasn’t been good enough,” Stothers said. “I still don’t think we’ve played as good a game as we can possibly play. So, you know what, outside of maybe Game 1 where I thought we played pretty well and we got a huge performance from [Adrian] Kempe and [Jonny] Brodzinski, last couple certainly have not been the Reign’s best. You give yourself a good chance if you play your best. So, that’s what we’re aiming for here today. The guys know it and it’s been a good couple of days. Judging from this morning’s skate, they seem ready to go. ”
This will be Kings’ AHL affiliate third elimination games in three seasons dating back to the Calder Cup run in Manchester’s final season. Ontario’s only do-or-die game last postseason was in Game 4 in the eventual sweep by Lake Erie. There are a few players left from the championship run, including forward Sean Backman, who seems at ease with the team’s mindset right now.
“Honestly I think it’s great. The locker room’s light,” said Backman, who assisted on the Reign’s only goal in Game 3. “Guys have smiles on their faces and that’s the way it should be. It’s a do-or-die game for us but we don’t want guys going out there squeezing the sticks, being nervous or whatever it may be. I think the mood right now is great in the room.”
“Big games, this is what you play the sport for,” Backman added. “It’s for the feelings like this. The atmosphere’s gonna be great in our building tonight and the intensity of the game’s gonna be high. This is why you play all those regular season games all year, for game’s like this tonight.”
While the overall mood seems appropriate, the pace of morning skate was also ramped up compared to usually practice days. Rightly so, as the Reign have everything to play for tonight.
“I don’t think any any of our guys have played to their full potential,” said Brodzinski, who had two goals in the Reign’s Game 1 win. “I think our guys haven’t really been there yet and mentally right now I think everyone’s extremely focused coming into this game tonight.”
That’s been the story of the Reign’s season, really, underachieving by their standards whether it be due to the early goaltending carousel, to injuries and call-ups to key players. That’s mirrored this series. “It should have been from the very start, we kind of let two games slip here, and tonight we’re just gonna take it like this could be our last game,” Brodzinski said of the team’s do-or-die mentality. “Every shift matters.”
Now (mostly) healthy, their roster gives them the opportunity to play to their potential, but now’s a matter of actually doing it, and for a full sixty minutes against San Diego, a team that’s scored three of its five goals in the last two games in the opening period.
“I like the group’s mindset,” Stothers said. “It hasn’t been a problem the last few days of practice either, it’s been fine. We’re just approaching it as another game. We’ve had situations where we’ve dealt with some things and I think we’ve always dealt with it in a positive manner. You know what, we’ve got a hockey game tonight. There’s a lot of teams that are not playing tonight. That’s an advantage right there.”
–Forward Philippe Maillet will not play as he’s up for the BLG U Sports Male Athlete of the Year Award and he traveled to be at tonight’s ceremony in Calgary in person.
“It’s quite an honor for somebody to get a major award like that,” Stothers said. “For me to say, no you can’t go, that’s not right. He asked about the possibility, by all means, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. … You’re not going to deny a kid of maybe the greatest accomplishment of achievement of his life.”
Maillet has played in all three games in this series, registering two shots on goal.
There were no traditional line rushes, so more about tonight’s alignment will be known during warmups. It should be noted though that center Andrew Crescenzi (undisclosed injury) did not skate with the group but came on later to do skating work with assistant Chris Hajt. With Maillet out, expect Joel Lowry to get back in the lineup.
–Jack Campbell was first off the ice (no surprise there) and will start his fourth consecutive playoff game. He’s 2-1-0 in the series with a .929 save percentage and 2.03 goals against average and has lost back-to-back games, which is something he allowed to happen just twice in the regular season. He’s expected to go up against Jhonas Enroth, who the Reign have been able to score just one goal in each of the last two games against.
“Enroth’s played well, but I don’t think you can accuse him of highway robbery,” Stothers said. “It’s one of those things where he’s going to save the ones he can see or if we don’t in front of him or we don’t get a second opportunity. That’s where we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better at getting traffic in front of him and being ready for that second opportunity if there is one. Like much of their team, [he’s] been very good, but I don’t think Enroth has been guilty of thievery. We haven’t put that kind of pressure on him. That’s on us. We need to put the pressure on him.”
Backman said it’s going to come down to executing, something the Reign could not do when outshooting the Gulls 30-14 in the final two periods of Friday’s Game 3.
“I think when we do get those opportunities, they need to go in, and that’s the difference,” he said. “That’s the difference in playoff hockey is capitalizing on those little chances that guys are getting. If there happens to be those Grade As tonight, they have to go in in order for us to go in.”
–The Gulls are expected to be without key forwards Ondrej Kase and Nic Kerdiles as they were recalled by the Ducks on Sunday morning. Neither played in the Ducks’ Game 3 win later in the day in Edmonton. Both factored in on the Gulls’ game-winner in Game 3 with Kerdiles scoring off a primary assist from Kase.
“Well, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see them in the warmup, that means nothing. … It doesn’t much matter,” Stothers said. “It’s more about what we’ve got to do. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. In order to win a championship you’ve got to beat the best. So, I want to go up against their best lineup. I don’t want to hear, ‘oh, we were missing so and so.’ We don’t use that excuse. Just go out and play. It doesn’t matter who they have in the lineup, we’ve got to be better than we have been. Until we do that, we’ve got ourselves in a little bit of a pickle, but, hey, somebody had to win Game 3, otherwise we’d still be playing to determine who won Game 3.”