WHO: Ontario Reign (0-0) vs. Colorado Eagles (0-0)
WHAT: 2023 CALDER CUP PLAYOFFS – Round 1, Game 1
WHEN: Wednesday, April 19 @ 6:05 PM Pacific
WHERE: Budweiser Events Center – Loveland, CO
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV – AUDIO – Mixlr – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign
TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Reign open a best-of-3 Calder Cup Playoffs series with the Colorado Eagles in the first round of the Pacific Division postseason Wednesday night at the Budweiser Events Center.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The two teams were dead even during the regular season, splitting eight matchups 4-4. Each club won twice on the other’s home ice, with the Reign splitting a pair of two-game series in Loveland on Nov. 3-5 and Jan. 17-18 while Colorado fell short at Toyota Arena on Dec. 2 and Jan. 31 but earned back-to-back wins in the most recent matchups on Mar. 31 and April 2. Ontario’s captain TJ Tynan led his team’s offense in the series against his former team with 14 points, a goal and 13 assists. Jordan Spence also scored more than a point per game in the eight matchups, posting nine points on two goals and seven assists. Lias Andersson had a team-high seven goals along with an assist against the Eagles during the regular season. In net, Cal Petersen went 2-2-0 in four appearances with a 2.57 goals-against average and a 0.907 save percentage.
REIGN VITALS: Ontario flew east to the Rocky Mountains on Monday afternoon after a practice day in El Segundo, giving everyone a full day on Tuesday to acclimate to the climate and altitude with another skate at the Budweiser Events Center. Now as the group turns the page, they’ll have their hands full with a tough Colorado team that has ended the Reign’s season each of the past two years.
As he has been since his reassignment in December, Petersen will be the most important member of the Ontario roster and the key to moving past the Eagles. Beginning with a win over the Eagles in his first AHL appearance of the season on Dec. 2, the goaltender played in 40 of the Reign’s final 55 games and totaled a career-high 2395 minutes in the crease. It’s expected that Ontario will continue to rely heavily on the netminder in their first-round series, which could consist of three games in a span of just four days.
From watching Tuesday’s practice in Northern Colorado, the Reign appear to be close to full health, with forward Samuel Helenius skating in a full contact jersey while Jacob Doty, who has been out with an injury since Nov. 10, was on the ice in a red no-contact practice sweater.
Ontario mixed some things up with its lineup in the final series of the regular season last weekend against Henderson but have seemingly reverted to a familiar formation in the top-6 with TJ Tynan centering Lias Andersson and Tyler Madden and Alex Turcotte in the middle with Alan Quine and Samuel Fagemo on the wings. Defensively, the club has had multiple practices with a split of the often-paired Spence and Tobias Bjornfot, with Spence skating alongside Tobie Bisson and Bjornfot matched with Jacob Moverare. Other options on the back end will include Cameron Gaunce, who has played on both the left and ride side of the blueline, right-handed Helge Grans, rookie Cole Krygier and Kim Nousiainen. We’ll see if the team’s coaching staff shakes anything up as they attempt to match up with Colorado.
EAGLES VITALS: Colorado advanced past Henderson and Ontario in last spring’s Calder Cup Playoffs before falling to the Stockton Heat, the eventual Pacific Division Champion, in four games.
This season has been a different beast for the Eagles, a team that has been constructed around offense in the past but is more focused on the defensive side of the game this season. Colorado had the third-lowest goals-against per game in the league during the regular season, allowing an average of just 2.6. Offensively, however, the Eagles ranked 26th out of 32 teams by scoring 2.92 times per contest. It was enough for them to finish third in the Pacific Division for the second straight season, but a far cry from the 3.58 average they had during 2021-22.
For reference, here’s how the Eagles lined up in their final regular season game against the San Diego Gulls on Saturday night –
— x – Colorado Eagles (@ColoradoEagles) April 16, 2023
During the regular season, the Eagles were led on the offensive end by Charles Hudon who finished the campaign with 29 goals and 54 points, ranking first on the team in both categories. Hudon’s 17 power play goals were the most of any AHL skater this season. Longtime NHLer Alex Galchenyuk also made an offensive impact with Colorado during the regular season, scoring 42 points in just 42 games on 16 goals and 26 assists. Forward Callahan Burke was third on the club in scoring with 39 points which consisted of 16 goals and 23 helpers. Defender Keaton Middleton led the team’s blueliners with 23 points on three goals and 20 assists while appearing in all 72 games. In goal, Justus Annunen played 41 games in net for the Eagles and earned a record of 22-10-8 along with a GAA of 2.55 and a 0.916 save percentage.
Hudon, Galchenyuk, Sampo Ranta and Jean-Luc Foudy each posted six points against Ontario in the eight contests between the teams this season. Hudon had a club-high four goals in the series, while Foudy and Middleton each had four assists. Defenders Nate Clurman and Mitchell Vande Sompel both made a big impact in the matchups, each earning a team-best plus-4 rating against the Reign.
Welcome To The Postseason
While there are still 15 players remaining who were part of Ontario’s playoff roster a year ago, there are also some important additions to the roster who haven’t played meaningful minutes in the postseason.
The team’s rock in the crease, Cal Petersen, is very comfortable in the AHL with 156 regular season appearances, but he’s only seen action in four career Calder Cup Playoff contests and those came five years ago in 2018. Petersen kept the Reign within striking distance during the team’s first-round series with the Texas Stars that season, but each Ontario loss was of the one-goal variety. The netminder, who was in his rookie professional season, allowed just 11 goals combined in the four-game series and posted a goals-against average of 2.38 and a 0.915 save percentage. But that’s the only meaningful playoff experience Petersen has in his pro career.
Others, like Lias Andersson and Jacob Moverare, were on the LA Kings roster a year ago when the team lost to the Edmonton Oilers in seven games. But neither saw any on-ice action in the series. In fact, for both of the Sweden natives, the only professional postseason experience they have under their belt came during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season when the Reign lost to Colorado in a one-game playoff contest.
“I’m super excited,” Moverare said of the opportunity that he has this season to play meaningful minutes of playoff hockey. “There were a couple of guys that I’ve talked about it with. It’s been a long time since a couple of us played playoffs. You play hockey to win and playoffs is the most important part of the season if you want to win, so I’m really excited and I know the whole team is really excited as well.”
While Andersson, Moverare and even Tobias Bjornfot will be getting their first taste of a North American playoff series, the Reign aren’t without some experienced veterans on the roster. The most veteran example is Nate Thompson, who has appeared in 123 total postseason contests during his pro career with 86 coming at the NHL level and another 37 in the Calder Cup Playoffs with the Providence Bruins.
But Thompson, who was part of the LA Kings team that qualified for the playoffs in 2018, has only appeared in two of the past five postseasons since and is aware that it’s an opportunity you can’t take for granted.
“It has been a couple years,” Thompson said after the Reign’s practice on Tuesday in Colorado. “I think last was when I was with Winnipeg in the playoffs there during COVID so I told all the guys, it doesn’t matter what league you’re in, the playoffs is the best time of the year. It’s the time when guys can shine and you can make a name for yourself. The regular season is over, nobody remembers the regular season now. It’s all crunch time and this is it. I think the biggest thing is just guys enjoying themselves, having fun and realizing that you never know, we can go on a long run.”
Blueline At Full Strength
At times during the regular season the Reign had to make do without one or both of their defensive minute leaders in Bjornfot and Spence, but both have returned to the AHL roster at the start of the postseason.
That depth should be a big factor in Ontario’s plans for advancing past Colorado this week. Although the two young defenders were paired with each other for much of the regular season, it seems that the Reign are prepared to open the postseason with a different formation.
Regardless of how they’re used, having both on the roster, along with the larger size of Bisson, Moverare and Krygier fills out an exciting group of defenders.
“It’s really nice,” Moverare said of having some of the strongest depth they’ve had all season. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can log a lot of minutes and play really good hockey. So I think it’s a confidence boost for the whole team that we know we have a strong back end.”
The man who is charged with managing the back end, assistant coach Chris Hajt, is very familiar with each skater’s strengths, having been around the group for multiple seasons. Hajt also played a big role on the coaching staff last season and has vivid memories of the postseason series against Colorado last May.
“We’ve had different combos during the year and call-ups, injuries, all that stuff, that’s just part of the American Hockey League,” said Hajt. “Right now we have eight bodies that have played good minutes for us. We’re looking forward to having the group and obviously, it’s the playoffs so everyone will be ready to go and excited to play.”
Hajt has looked at all of the stats and numbers, but there are other things that also come into play when setting his lineup on the blue line.
“You look at different things as far as who’s played well with each other and guys that have played in the past. You have conversations with players to see their comfort level and whatnot and obviously different guys, you can just use Cameron Gaunce as an example, has been on his off side most of the year. When you’re making your pairs, that’s definitely entering into your equation.”
Gauce’s versatility, playing on both the left and right side, has allowed Ontario to use him as a mentor for multiple young players on the roster. It seems that whenever a defender joins the group, whether it was Spence, Grans and Nousiainen last season or now Krygier this year, Gaunce has been there as a sounding board and a safety net.
“Cole Krygier has come in and played very well for us,” Hajt continued. “He’s been on the left side and you don’t want to introduce him to the right side right now. Things like that go into our decisions and you go forward from there based on that as well.”
A Familiar Foe
Standing in Ontario’s way this week is an Eagles team that they’ve become very familiar with. The two teams saw each other multiple times near the end of the 2021-22 regular season before facing off in the second round of the playoffs. This year, with many holdovers from that series, the clubs played each other eight times.
In talking with multiple members of the Reign team over the past few days, the consistent theme brought up when discussing Colorado is their work ethic and consistent compete level. The Eagles showed that three weeks ago when they came to Ontario and defeated the Reign twice on Mar. 31 and April 2.
“I know they work really hard and they’re really good in transition,” Moverare said. “We really have to watch our puck management and try to match them in work ethic because I know they’re going to come out hard and we are ready for it, but we’ve got to be ready for it once the puck drops as well.”
Thompson, the most veteran member of Ontario’s roster echoed Moverare’s thoughts when discussing Colorado’s style of play.
“This team works hard,” Thompson said. “They don’t give you a whole lot. They’re on top of you the whole game. They’re well coached and we have to bring our best. We have to play our game and play that playoff hockey style and at the same time, have some fun. This is the best time of year.”
The head-to-head numbers from the regular season are impressively even. Ontario totaled 25 goals in the eight games against the Eagles and surrendered 24. On special teams, the Reign were 8-for-39 on the power play in the series for a rate of 20.5% and Colorado went 6-for-29, a conversion rate of 20.6%.
“It’s even,” Hajt said. “Even strength goals and special teams, all that stuff. We’ve got to come in and play our game and make sure that we are good without the puck against a real good team that competes and has good speed and have a good real good forward group. Their back end is really good as well, and goaltenders have been solid. We’ve got to make sure that we’re playing our game and making sure we start on time in a really good atmosphere.”
Most would probably agree that the playoffs aren’t a time to try new things, rather it’s important to reinforce staying within the game you’re comfortable playing. Against a team like Colorado that’s very secure in its identity, the Reign will try and play their game to the best of their ability.
“Throughout the season, I think sometimes we were inconsistent, trying to do too much with guys trying to make too many plays,” Thompson said. “We do have the guys that can make the plays. I think it’s just a matter of the timing of it. In the playoffs you’re going to see a lot more guys just playing that simple style of hockey which is playoff hockey. There’s not going to be a whole lot of room out there to make plays. There’s going to be a lot of a lot of physicality. For us, if we play our game and play the right way, when we do that, we’re pretty good hockey team.”
Josh Schaefer and I have a full preview of this week’s playoff series in the latest episode of The Reign Check Podcast. We went through each of the team’s position groups and sat down with Colorado play-by-play voice Kevin McGlue to get insight into the Eagles team he’s seen all season.
The series gets underway tonight at 6:05 p.m. PST! Josh Schaefer and I will be on the call for all the action with streaming video on AHLTV and live audio on the team’s Mixlr channel. Our full coverage continues here on LAKI with postgame thoughts later on tonight!