There’s no surprise element. The Reign know they need a better start in Friday’s pivotal Game 3 to gain an edge in this tied first-round best-of-5 with San Diego.
Ontario took Game 1 of the first-round series in a thrilling 3-2 fashion last Friday in San Diego on Jonny Brodzinski’s goal with just 11.7 seconds remaining. That effort was followed the next day with the Reign surrendering two goals to Nick Sorensen in the first five minutes and operating over tilted ice for much of the opening frame. San Diego held on to win 2-1.
“The start obviously on Saturday was frustrating for us,” said veteran T.J. Hensick, who has a goal in the series. “You feel good about yourselves getting a win on the road there. For whatever reason, we’ve talked about it. We’ve had bad starts at home. If you look at that game, I thought we played pretty well after that first 10-12 minutes of the first and maybe arguably outplayed them there the last 40 minutes of the game but when you put yourself in a hole like that in a playoff hockey game against a good team like San Diego it’s tough to come back on.
“You can look at it any way you want. We’re one-one, it’s an even series, or you can look at it as we should probably be up two-nothing. It’s been a tight series, they could be up two-nothing, too.”
Prior to Saturday’s loss the Reign had allowed two consecutive first period goals just twice all season: Dec. 9 against Tuscon in 16:16 and Dec. 14 against Stockton in 8:51. Sorensen’s two — a power play goal from the slot and a finish of a 2-on-1 — within the first 4:54, just 31 seconds of one another to boot, were the quickest.
“It’s a mindset more than anything for us right now,” Hensick said regarding the start. “It’s a mental mindset. We’ve got to make sure on Friday night, however you do it. It doesn’t matter to me, it probably doesn’t matter to Stuttsy, but you’ve got to find a way to make sure you’re the hungrier guy when the puck drops on Friday.”
San Diego’s 70 first-period goals in the regular season were second only to Stockton (77) of teams that played the 68-game schedule. In this series and in their last four meetings before that, the team that’s scored first has won. The work to replicate a better start began in Monday’s full squad practice, where head coach Mike Stothers blew plays dead when he was not satisfied and reinforced quick decision-making.
“Every drill you try to encourage them to do things quicker, faster. Pace, quicker, faster,” Stothers said. “Practice is different because even if you’re working on a 3-on-2 down low, they slow things up because it’s practice. It’s not the same. So you try to build an environment in game-like situations and you can’t let off on that. It’s a hard thing to do. That’s what our focus was: quicker, stronger, faster. Quicker, stronger, faster. Whether it’s moving the puck, whether it’s skating, whether it’s attacking a defenseman on a 3-on-2 or getting your middle drive or whatever you’re looking for, quicker, stronger faster.”
Scoring will help, too. Stothers jumbled his lines up toward the end of Game 2, putting back together again his former top line of Michael Mersch-Hensick-Teddy Purcell. That put rookie Philippe Maillet on a line centered by Adrian Kempe with Jonny Brodzinski, who had two goals in Game 1, on the right side. Stothers may entertain to keep things that way as he was pleased with the third-period efforts in the Game 2 defeat.
“The way I look at it if me, Teddy and Henner score and Brodz, Kempe and Phil score a goal, chances are we’re probably going to win the game,” Mersch said. “If those two lines score a goal, probably going to get one one other way too. We both score a goal, both our lines, then we’re going to win. If we don’t, we’re not going to have success like we did Saturday night.”
That kind of keep-everyone-accountable approach will be necessary for the Reign to continue their undefeated playoff streak (3-0-0) at Valley View Casino Center on Friday.
“I just think we have some unfinished business in the fact that we won a big game in their rink and gave it right back to them in our rink,” Stothers said. “It’s a five-game series so you really can’t afford to give anybody any games. Now, how did we give them the game? We started a little slow. I think they came out with more energy and more pop to their game early on and they deserved the goals that they got. We had to play from behind and play catch-up and we fell a goal short.
“I think the focus has to be that we need to play with some urgency right from the start.”