It’s an obvious source of frustration for head coach Mike Stothers.
As the Reign close in towards a playoff berth one of the last thing he wants to be dealing with is discipline issues in late March.
“Just the poorest decisions on penalties that we’re still seeing at the end of the year. It’s amazing,” he said after last Friday’s win over San Antonio, a game in which the Reign were shorthanded seven times.
Ontario’s discipline is a fickle thing that seems to vary from game to game, but has been tumbling as of late. In their last five games the Reign have been shorthanded seven times twice, five once, three once and went one full game without a minor. In that span that’s 22 times shorthanded to 10 power plays. AHL-wide, they’re in the middle of the pack, taking close to 4.5 minors a game.
“I think we’ve gone through spurts where we’ve gotten away from it and we’ve had to dial it back in. And then we’ve gotten back into it, and you know what, you thought you sent a message by sitting out [Kurtis] MacDermid for taking too many minors,” Stothers said, referring to an early season notice to the now-injured defenseman.
But for Stothers it’s not always the amount or the times shorthanded but the quality of penalties combined with the timing they come in the game. Those seem to be hurting Ontario most, the circumstances in which their 3-2 victory on Friday saw the Rampage only score on the man advantage.
“I talk to them all. You can talk to [the leadership group] but it’s a team thing,” Stothers said. “It’s everybody. One game, the 3-2 game against San Antonio, we had defenseman, defenseman, defenseman, defenseman, take penalties. And in that game, we killed off, we took one immediately thereafter. Killed that one off, took one immediately thereafter. So sometimes it’s not the penalty itself, it’s when you take them.
“And those ones were in the second period. Again, long change, hard to get off the ice. Get trapped in your own end and again your bench is short and you’re playing the same guys. Some of them kill penalties, some of them get power play time. Something’s going to suffer. You’re either eventually going to get scored on on your PK, which we did or your power play guys have nothing left in the tank. Then you have guys like [T.J.] Hensick and [Mike] Amadio, who aren’t exactly going out and killing penalties for us. So why would you want two of your top scorers … sitting on the bench that long, waiting for an opportunity? Makes no sense. Makes no sense whatsoever. Again, it’s slashing, slashing, slashing. It’s the stupidest penalty in the whole world. What’s that prove? You’re a tough guy case you slashed him? Please. Hooking? Move your feet. Move your feet you might draw a couple penalties.”
During shorthanded times right now with key killers like Justin Auger and MacDermid out of the lineup due to injuries, skating 5-on-5 is more important than ever. The other concern is the postseason, where the Reign will likely be facing top power play teams in San Diego, which works in the top 10 in the league, hovering just over 20 percent at 20.6. There’s one thing the coach and the players can agree upon as a simple fix to the compounding problem.
“I think it’s just more of a focus on moving your feet,” said forward Brett Sutter. “It’s not only we’re taking a lot of penalties, we’re also not drawing as many penalties. I think we’re almost doubled-up on power plays to penalty kills right now. I think [Stothers is] just trying to hammer the point down, get it in our heads.
“Like I said, just make sure we’re moving our feet, outwork and making sure they’re the ones taking the penalties and not us.”
That’s true. The Reign need their power play on the ice, too. And once leading goal scorer Jonny Brodzinski, Adrian Kempe and Paul LaDue inevitably return to Ontario for the the postseason, that will provide another spark to an already very good Ontario power play (third in the AHL at 23.8 percent).
“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Stothers said while recalling the math between times shorthanded and times on the man advantage in recent games. “You’re not going to win, you might not even make it through the regular season and that’s not going to get you anywhere in the playoffs. So, why are we taking so many and why are we drawing so few?”
This Friday and Saturday the Reign (32-18-10-0, .617 winning percentage) play at Bakersfield (30-24-5-1, .550) against a team they haven’t defeated on the road yet this season, a team that’s directly below them in the standings. The high-stakes weekend will be another test of their discipline and a chance to turn it back around.
“I think we’ll be better,” Sutter said. “I think everyone’s making a conscious effort to realize we’ve been taking too many and I think we’ll be fine.”
AUGER / TROTMAN UPDATES
More was learned about the conditions both forward Justin Auger and defenseman Zach Trotman on Tuesday. Both players are out with upper-body injuries and have been skating, although limited this week, in red no-contact colors.
Via a hockey operations source, the team expects Auger to be back the last weekend of the regular season, which would be a home and home against San Diego on April 14 and 15.
The team is hopeful that Trotman, who Stothers said on Monday was being considered a write off to even return this season, may be able to return for the postseason.