Reign Preview 4/24 – Clean Slate + Solving “Soupy”, Condors Concerns, Reign Check Preview


WHO: Bakersfield Condors (0-0) @ Ontario Reign (0-0)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 1, Game 1
WHEN: Wednesday, April 24 @ 7:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: Toyota Arena – Ontario, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV / KVVB-TV 33.1 – AUDIO – Reign Broadcast Network – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign

The Reign begin the 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs Wednesday night, opening a best-of-3 series with the Bakersfield Condors in the first round of the Pacific Division postseason at Toyota Arena.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Ontario won five of the eight matchups against Bakersfield during the regular-season series, posting a record of 5-3-0. The lone meeting of the series to go past regulation was the most recent, with the Reign earning a 4-3 victory on an overtime goal by Martin Chromiak one week ago. Ontario’s scoring has been evenly distributed in the series, with Tyler Madden (2-4-6), Akil Thomas (3-3-6) and Brandt Clarke (1-5-6) each recording six points, while Charles Hudon (3-2-5) and TJ Tynan (2-3-5) have both earned five points.

REIGN VITALS: Ontario completed its regular season in Colorado on Sunday afternoon and immediately flew back to Southern California to begin preparation for Bakersfield. After a day off the ice with a video meeting on Monday, the Reign held a full team practice Tuesday at Toyota Sports Performance Center. Wednesday consists of an optional morning skate in El Segundo and a quick drive east to Toyota Arena.

Goaltender Erik Portillo is expected to be the team’s starter tonight and in each of the team’s playoff games for the foreseeable future. With Aaron Dell on recall with the Kings in Edmonton, Ontario will turn to Portillo who finished his first professional season with a 2.50 goals-against average, a 0.918 save percentage in 39 appearances and an overall record of 24-11-3.

As far as the rest of the roster goes, the Reign appear to be close to full health, with forward Charles Hudon making his return to the lineup on Sunday in Colorado. The only member of the group that remains out of action leading into the playoffs is rookie defender Luke Rowe, who has been unavailable since late March.

Ontario mixed up its lineup for the final game of the regular season in Colorado on Sunday after claiming a 7-3 victory in the series opener the day prior. Reign head coach Marco Sturm elected to give a rest day to three forwards who helped lead the team to their last win, keeping Samuel Fagemo, Madden and Tynan out of the lineup in Game 72. Madden and Tynan had played in all 71 of Ontario’s other games and deserved the chance to get extra rest leading into what the team hopes is a long playoff run.

There will be some tough decisions for Sturm and his staff when it comes to the lineup up front. With Hudon back in the mix, it should be interesting to see whether he’ll continue to be used on the wing with Thomas, or if he slots in alongside Tynan or Alex Turcotte. The same goes for Turcotte, who has been flexed between center and wing at the NHL level but has mostly lined up in the middle for Sturm with the Reign. Jacob Doty, Hayden Hodgson, Nikita Pavlychev, and Francesco Pinelli have all been dependable options in the bottom-6 down the stretch, but there likely won’t be enough room in the lineup for each of them to dress on Wednesday. There is no shortage of options as Ontario attempts to match up with Bakersfield.

CONDORS VITALS: Bakersfield has qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs in four consecutive seasons and is looking to get past round one for the second time in the last three years. In 2022, the Condors used home ice to eliminate Abbotsford with back-to-back one-goal wins before falling to Stockton in the Pacific Division Semifinals. Abbotsford got first-round revenge the following year in 2023, sweeping Bakersfield on their home ice in British Columbia to end the Condors’ postseason hopes.

It’s safe to expect Jack Campbell will get the Game 1 start in net for Bakersfield. Since being loaned to the Condors in November, the NHL veteran has appeared in 33 games between the pipes, going 18-13-1 with a 2.63 goals-against and a 0.918 save percentage. Bakersfield’s other option is Olivier Rodrigue, who has also been counted on in 37 games this season and has a 2.73 GAA and a 0.916 save percentage.

For reference, here’s how the Condors lined up in their final regular season game against the Henderson Silver Knights on Saturday night –

During the regular season, the Condors were led by Seth Griffith on the offensive end for the third straight year, who finished the campaign with 63 points in 68 games which ranked as the eighth-highest point total in the AHL. Lane Pederson has also stepped up to be a major contributor offensively this season with 52 points in 66 games on 22 goals and 30 helpers, while Raphael Lavoie had a team-high 28 goals and was third on the club with 50 points. Defenseman Philip Broberg led Bakersfield in scoring from the blue line with 38 points in 49 games on five goals and 33 assists. Broberg’s status for Game 1 is unknown. He was with the Condors earlier in the week but was recalled to Edmonton on Monday afternoon before the Oilers series opener against the Kings. If available, Broberg represents a threat at both ends of the ice, assisting on six of Bakersfield’s goals against the Reign this season while closing the AHL regular season on a five-game point streak.

Notes –
Clean Slate
It’s certainly a cliché in any sport for teams to discuss the idea of “wiping the slate” and starting over when postseason play begins. Other than where you’re seeded in the bracket for matchup purposes, nothing else from the regular season comes into play when the playoffs get underway.

The unfortunate part of playing in the Pacific Division, the largest group of teams in the AHL, is that while seven of the 10 teams qualify for the opening round, all but one team is subjected to a short, opening round best-of-3 series. While it certainly is a clean slate for the six clubs competing this week, the margin of error is extremely small. Lose the opening game, and you’re immediately on the brink of elimination, 60 minutes away from the entire season being cut short. The Reign know the feeling all too well from last year when they arrived in Colorado with high hopes only to lose Game 1 to the Eagles 3-2 in overtime. Despite a valiant effort in Game 2, Ontario wasn’t able to complete a third period comeback and the team’s playoff hopes were dashed during a three-day span in Northern Colorado.

13 players remain from that team’s playoff roster, but only eight of them dressed in that series. The coaching staff is largely still intact from a year ago, with the only changes from last season being the additions of Adam Brown to oversee the goaltenders and Nate Thompson, who was playing an important role on the ice a year ago with goals in both of Ontario’s playoff games, joining as a Skills Coach.

Sturm remembers well what the end of last season was like and knows that this year is going to be different because this time his team has the opportunity to both start the series and potentially end it, at home.

“Just thinking about last year and going into Colorado, those fans, they pushed the team,” Sturm said. “Especially in Game 2, they were loud, they were excited, and it helped them. Forget about the traveling and all that kind of stuff, I think we just feel more comfortable at home and it should be fun to be there.”

Another difference between Sturm’s first year behind the bench and the current season is the way the Reign played down the stretch. Last year, from Feb. 26 onward, a span of 21 games, Ontario managed just 11 points with a record of 4-14-3.

Compare that to the current campaign and it’s a complete turnaround. From Feb. 23 onward, a span of 24 games, the Reign picked up 39 points with a record of 19-4-0-1 that included two lengthy winning streaks of seven and eight games apiece.

When you’re coming in hot like that, even though it’s a clean slate, there’s a different confidence around the team that feels more genuine and the group is ready to build off its recent performances.

“Yes, we did a lot of good things down the stretch,” Sturm said. “I’m very proud of my group. They were committed to doing all those things we were talking about, and they got rewarded for it. But now the new season begins and hopefully we can translate it to the playoffs as well.”

One of the Reign’s leaders, forward Jacob Doty, who spoke after the team’s meeting on Monday, also emphasized the importance of having home ice in the short series.

“Home ice for us in the first round is huge,” Doty said. “Obviously we have to go to Bako for Game 2, but that doesn’t intimidate us at all and I think we’ll be just fine. It’s a short series, but we’re not too worried about it.”

Solving “Soupy”
As mentioned above, Campbell, who formerly manned Ontario’s net during parts of three seasons from 2016-18, is expected to garner most, if not all the minutes in Bakersfield’s crease during the series. A veteran presence for the Condors, Campbell has 235 regular season AHL appearances and 13 games in the Calder Cup Playoffs to his name, as well as 176 regular season NHL contests and 18 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

This year, despite a slow start at the NHL level with Edmonton, Campbell has played well against the Reign since joining Bakersfield, earning three victories from four outings vs. Ontario (3-0-1) while turning out 112 of the 122 shots he faced for a 0.918 save percentage.

Sturm, who was an assistant coach with the Kings when Campbell arrived in the NHL during 2018-19 and impressed with a 2.30 goals-against average and 0.928 save percentage in 31 games, knows the netminder well and agreed that finding a way to beat him will be hard, but not impossible.

“Soupy is a great human being and also a good goalie and we’re just going to have to make sure we make it hard on him,” Sturm said. “If you look at the games he gets scored on, you might not beat him with a clean shot, so you’ve got to make it tough on him. That’s something we’ve got to get better at, especially against him.”

When looking at how the teams match up, the presence of Campbell for Bakersfield gives them a potential advantage over Ontario, who is without a veteran goaltender on its roster.

Countering that, at the other end of the ice from Campbell, Portillo will be getting his first chance to make a playoff run at the pro level. Wednesday’s game will be the Sweden native’s first postseason contest of any kind since he represented the University of Michigan in the Frozen Four last spring. 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 five days.

“We’re very confident in Ports,” Sturm said. “He took advantage of the situation with Rittich getting called up and he did very well. We’re very confident that he will have a good playoff run.”

Sturm showed that confidence down the stretch when he turned to Portillo for three straight games and four of five in 10 days to close the regular season. The rookie won three of those games, with the lone defeat coming in Colorado on the final game of the schedule.

Condors Concerns
Standing in Ontario’s way this week is a Condors team that they’ve become very familiar with. Although there were eight total matchups this season, the two squads have met up plenty as of late, recently facing each other four times since March 16.

“This is a good team on paper,” Sturm said of Bakersfield. “They play us hard all the time. I do think it’s good for both teams actually that we just played each other a few times, that means probably not too much is going to change. We definitely looked at the games, especially the ones we played recently, and try to find the pros and cons.”

Special teams were a big factor in the regular season series, as the Condors found a way to score nine times on the power play in their four games at Toyota Arena. It was by far the best power play performance for a visiting team in Ontario this season, with no other team scoring more than four times.

However, things were completely reversed during the games in Bakersfield, with the Reign only giving the Condors seven chances on the man-advantage at Mechanics Bank Arena and managing to kill all of them off. Not surprisingly, Ontario’s record was better on the road, winning three of the four in Kern County, as opposed to two of the four in the Inland Empire.

Overall, the Condors finished the regular season with a 20.6% success rate on the power play, which was the best mark in the team’s history. That was the fifth-best percentage in the league this season.

“They’re a big transition team with a lot of speed,” Sturm said. “They like to gamble a little bit and they like to play on offense so that’s where their wins are coming from. We have to find a way to shut them down that way and also play our way. That’s going to be a big thing for us and obviously staying out of the box against their really good power play as well.”

When discussing Bakersfield’s strengths, Doty also remarked on the success of their offense, which finished the regular season averaging 3.1 goals per game.

“I just think they’re a very offensively minded team,” Doty said. “They like to lull you into a track meet almost, so we just have to make the right decisions with the puck, the right decisions defensively, and I think we’re in a good spot if we can do those things.”

In general, the head-to-head numbers from the regular season skew in Bakersfield’s direction, but as noted above, the Reign still found ways to win games. Ontario totaled 23 goals in the eight contests against the Condors and surrendered 28. The Reign went 7-for-30 on the power play in the series for a more-than-adequate rate of 23.3%, while Bakersfield went 9-for-25, a conversion rate of 36%.

“We did win a lot of close games and I feel like when we were in our rut and not playing well, we were losing by three and four goals,” Doty said. “I think we have confidence in those tight games and obviously in the playoffs you can have a lot of tight games. I just think we’ve been playing the right way for a long time. The game is the same just a little more amplified and I think we’re ready to roll.”

Audio Preview!
Josh Schaefer and I have a full preview of this week’s playoff series in the latest full episode of The Reign Check Podcast. The edition also includes the unveiling of the ballot we submitted for this year’s AHL end-of-season awards.

The series gets underway tonight at 7! Schaefer and I have the call of all the action with streaming video on AHLTV and live audio on the Reign Broadcast Network. If you reside in the High Desert, the game will air live on KVVB-TV 33.1. Our full coverage continues here on LAKI with a full postgame recap later on tonight!

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