WHO: Ontario Reign (0-1) vs. Colorado Eagles (1-0)
WHAT: 2023 CALDER CUP PLAYOFFS – Round 1, Game 2
WHEN: Friday, April 21 @ 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 continue their first round best-of-3 Calder Cup Playoffs series with the Colorado Eagles with Game 2 on Friday night at the Budweiser Events Center. Ontario needs a win to push the series to a deciding Game 3 on Saturday evening.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: After a dead even regular season series, the Reign and Eagles needed overtime to decide a winner in Game 1 of their postseason series Wednesday. For the entirety of the 66-minute game, neither team had a lead of more than a single goal. That picked up from where they left off during the regular season, when each team won four of the eight-game series that included splits in both home arenas.
Reign captain TJ Tynan had 14 points against his former team during the regular season series on a goal and 13 assists and picked up a helper in Game 1 on Wednesday when he set up Tyrell Goulbourne for Ontario’s second goal. Jordan Spence and Lias Andersson, who were also effective on the offensive end during the regular season series with nine and eight points respectively, were held off the scoresheet in the playoff opener.
REIGN VITALS: There’s no other way around it, the Reign have their backs against the wall going into tonight’s matchup. With the current AHL postseason format consisting of a short, three-game opening round, the loser of the first contest is forced into a tough position. But if Ontario can keep from looking ahead and focus on winning a single game, its fortunes can change quickly.
A year ago when the league introduced this opening round format for the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs, none of the seven teams that lost the first game came back to win the next two. Only one club, the Hershey Bears, pushed the series to a Game 3, but they fell in overtime in the deciding matchup to Wilkes- Barre/Scranton. The other six matchups consisted of two-game sweeps, including Ontario’s series win over San Diego.
Despite the loss in Game 1, Reign head coach Marco Sturm seemed generally happy with how his team played in the contest. Ontario clearly dictated the pace of play and were able to play the style of game they wanted. It just didn’t result in a win.
“We played a very very good hockey game,” Sturm said after Wednesday’s 3-2 loss. I’m proud of the guys, how they handled everything and showed up in a tough building against a good team. We had our chances and unfortunately didn’t get the bounces like they did but hey, that’s hockey.”
With that in mind, it’s hard to see the team changing their lineup much going into Game 2, barring any injuries sustained in the opener. For reference, here’s the look that the Reign went with on Wednesday –
Andersson – Tynan – Madden
Quine – Turcotte – Fagemo
Dudas – Thompson –Chromiak
Lee – Schnarr – Goulbourne
Bisson – Spence
Moverare – Bjornfot
Krygier – Gaunce
Other options up front for the team to insert for Game 2 include Taylor Ward, who played 71 regular season games but hasn’t scored since Feb. 20, a span of 22 games, Samuel Helenius, who has been out with an injury since Mar. 22 but has been practicing with the team in a full contact jersey this week and Ture Linden, who turned pro a few weeks ago after his collegiate season at Penn State ended on a tryout deal and made his debut with Ontario in a loss to Henderson during Saturday’s regular season finale.
On the back end, options for a change include Helge Grans and Kim Nousiainen, both of whom played considerably in the regular season, suiting up for 59 and 37 games, respectively. Neither would be considered an offensive upgrade, with each scoring just two goals during the 2022-23 campaign, but Grans does have AHL postseason experience, as he suited up for all five of Ontario’s playoff contests a year ago.
EAGLES VITALS: The Eagles have to feel good about their result Wednesday night, but the way Ontario played, specifically the Reign’s territorial edge when their bottom-six forwards were on the ice could be concerning for Greg Cronin and company.
The Eagles have a lot of young players in their lineup who have earned their roles during the regular season, but it’s a group with varying playoff experience. Spencer Smallman and Josh Jacobs, two skaters from the Chicago Wolves’ Calder Cup Championship roster last spring will continue to be important in the locker room. Their experience and leadership, combined with goaltender Justus Annunen’s confident netminding have Colorado poised to advance if they earn a win in one of the two remaining contests in the series.
For reference, here’s how the Eagles lined up in their Game 1 win on Wednesday –
— x – Colorado Eagles (@ColoradoEagles) April 20, 2023
Charles Hudon, who led Colorado during the regular season with 54 points, came up big again in its playoff opener with a game-tying goal in the second period off a deflection in the slot. Hudon led the AHL with 17 power play goals this year, but the Eagles didn’t need anything more on special teams, finishing the night 1-for-1 on the power play on a goal by Cedric Pare while also killing off all four Ontario power plays.
Colorado was without Jean-Luc Foudy, one of its better offensive players who scored an overtime game-winning goal in Game 2 of last year’s playoff series between the Reign and Eagles at the Budweiser Events Center but is currently sidelined with an injury. In his absence, Gustav Rydahl delivered the knockout punch in Game 1 with an unassisted goal 6:08 into overtime. Rydahl, a rookie who came to Colorado in a trade deadline deal with the New York Rangers organization, had nine goals during the regular season. The deciding strike came on his only shot on goal of the game.
Nate’s in the Know
The Reign were excited to get forward Nate Thompson back in the lineup late in the regular season, knowing that he could provide a boost when games became more physical in the playoffs. That thinking proved to be correct, as Thompson not only scored the team’s first goal of the postseason, but also helped defensively down the middle of the ice while centering a line that included Aidan Dudas and Martin Chromiak.
Dating back to 2005 when he first turned pro with the Providence Bruins and made his AHL debut in the Calder Cup Playoffs after playing juniors in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Thompson has appeared in 124 total postseason games with seven different teams at the AHL and NHL levels combined.
“He just brings so much to our team,” Sturm said of Thompson’s play after he logged lots of minutes in Game 1. “In the locker room, on faceoffs and on the penalty kill. There are so many things. Even on the bench, he calms things down. Don’t forget, we’re one of the youngest teams in this league, even with an older guy like Thommer, so that shows you those kids need to learn a lot. I’m very happy that he’s back again from his injury and I’m not surprised he had a good day.”
One of those kids Sturm was talking about could be Andre Lee, who has been one of Ontario’s most consistent players down the stretch with the way he’s embraced his role. Lee made his playoff debut Wednesday, forming a fourth line with Nate Schnarr and Tyrell Goulbourne, who were each part of deep postseason runs last year. Their performance was up there with any other line the Reign had and it was a noticeable advantage.
Lee said that he looks up to Thompson as someone who is leading the right way.
“He’s a role model,” Lee said Wednesday. “He takes care of me and also a lot of other young guys and the whole team basically. He’s a leader and to see him also score that goal, he talked about it before the game, getting to the dirty areas and that’s exactly what he did.”
The most important part of Thompson’s game as the Reign attempt to get back in the series may be his penalty killing. Ontario only gave Colorado one chance on the man-advantage in Game 1, but if more opportunities come up either Friday or Saturday, you can bet Thompson will be one of the first players over the boards for the Reign as a trusted veteran killer who will be aggressive while maintaining the correct positioning.
Keying in on Special Teams
Speaking of special teams, that’s one of the only areas Ontario fell short in Game 1, and it cost them.
That will have to change moving forward, as it’s one of the ways the team was able to win games all season. The Reign ranked as one of the top teams in the AHL on both sides of special teams with a 22.2% power play conversion rate that finished seventh-best among the league’s 32 teams and were successful 84.4% of the time on the penalty kill which was second behind only the Calgary Wranglers who led the league at 85.1%.
Wednesday night’s game had the Eagles scoring on their lone power play opportunity to tie the game early in the third, but Colorado also held Ontario to an 0-for-4 mark on their man-advantage that included chances in all three periods.
“Our drive to want to score was a little bit missing,” Sturm said postgame. “We were a little bit too casual with the breakouts and entries. We had some shot opportunities, but we never really felt good about it. That’s something we have to get better at because, all season long, I think we’ve won hockey games because of special teams. If we don’t [get better] it’s going to be hard for us.”
The good thing for the Reign is that they have the right players on the roster to succeed in these areas. The power play starts and ends with TJ Tynan, who led the AHL in points on the man-advantage for the second straight season with 40. Ontario scored 63 power play goals during the regular season, which means Tynan had a direct hand in setting up 63% of those tallies. He was no doubt on the ice for even more of those goals and there’s no one else you’d rather have in the driver’s seat when you need a power play goal.
Andersson and Samuel Fagemo are the go-to shooters for the Reign in those opportunities. Andersson scored 15 times on the power play which made him one of the league leaders in that category, while Fagemo had 13 man-advantage goals. Tyler Madden (8) and Chromiak (5) are other options for Ontario as well.
The best way to keep your opponent from scoring on the power play is to stay out of the penalty box, which the Reign largely did in Game 1. That will be a key to keeping the series going Friday, when they’ll be dealing with another hostile crowd in Loveland that’s hungry to advance in another postseason round.
Assistant coach Chris Hajt has been the leader of Ontario’s penalty killing effort for multiple seasons during his tenure with the team and feels that his group is prepared for any situation they’re forced to play in.
“Our discipline has been good where we haven’t taken too many penalties,” Hajt said. “When you get up to four or more penalties in a game, it makes it really hard on your team and we haven’t had too many nights where we’ve done that. It’s a team effort when we’ve been in those situations and recognizing opportunities to pressure versus not and just being really smart in what we do and how we play. You have one less guy and you’re trying to outwork the powerplay and this year they bought into that and obviously we need it to continue.”
At this point in the season, it doesn’t seem like Hajt is expecting anything new from the Eagles on their man-advantage unit. It’s more about executing when they have those opportunities and keeping them away from the net.
“Our job as coaches is to prepare them for what they might see and what our opponent has been doing recently,” Hajt said. “Overall, you have a good vibe on a team and you play them eight times and we also played them a ton last year so we have a good idea of who they are and vice versa.
Trial By Fire
Most of Ontario’s lineup that was used in Game 1 had previous experience in the Calder Cup Playoffs, but there are a few like Lee, who made their debuts Wednesday night. Defender Cole Krygier, who joined the roster last month after finishing his collegiate career at Michigan State, was another who logged minutes in his first pro postseason contest alongside veteran Cameron Gaunce.
For the most part, Krygier looked comfortable and contributed to the scoring with an assist on Thompson’s second period goal. The rookie later said after the team’s off day Thursday that he tried to keep his game simple and rely on what he knows.
“It was a cool experience, obviously it was a good crowd and the building was high-energy,” Krygier explained. “I think I just tried to keep things super simple, be really defensive and then take short shifts. The elevation was obviously quite a bit of a change.”
Krygier started on a pair with Gaunce when he joined the roster and has been extremely complementary of what his partner has been able to do for him in the limited time he’s been with the team. The Michigan native echoed that praise again after he played beside Gaunce in his first AHL postseason action.
“He’s been unreal for me,” Krygier said. “The way he talks to me and the things that he’s telling me, it just makes it so much easier out there and obviously he’s been in a lot of playoff games too so he was kind of just big on relaxing, just knowing what we’re doing, focusing and nothing really changes just have more intensity.”
He’s already been in this type of situation this season with the Spartans, as Krygier was part of a roster that fell in a winner-take-all game that ended their season in the Big-10 Conference Tournament. Krygier is hoping that recent experience serves him well in a game like tonight’s.
“In the playoffs, obviously there’s only one team that wins it all at the end of the year so someone’s going to lose every time. I think I’m just focusing on trying to get the win and not looking too much into the losses.”
Game 1 Rapid Recap
Josh Schaefer and I went through the Game 1 result for the Reign and looked ahead to Friday’s contest on a Rapid Recap edition of The Reign Check Podcast.
It’s do-or-die tonight for Ontario in Game 2. We’ll have the call of all the action beginning at 5:55 p.m. PST on AHLTV and OntarioReign.com/radio and postgame comments and reaction here on LAKI later on tonight!