Reign Preview 5/1 – Ward Does it All + Herculean Hicketts, Finding Ways to Win, Reign Check Preview

WHO: Abbotsford Canucks (2-1) @ Ontario Reign (2-0)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 2, Game 1
WHEN: Wednesday, May 1 @ 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 continue their 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs run Wednesday night at Toyota Arena, opening a best-of-5 series with the Abbotsford Canucks in the Pacific Division Semifinals.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Ontario won four of the eight matchups against Abbotsford during the regular-season series, posting a record of 4-3-0-1. The lone meeting of the series to go past regulation resulted in a 2-1 shootout loss for the Reign on Feb. 21. Martin Chromiak (2-3=5) and Hayden Hodgson (1-4=5) led Ontario in scoring during the regular season series with five points apiece. Both Samuel Fagemo and Francesco Pinelli each scored three times and totaled four points against Abbotsford, as did Tyler Madden (2-2=4) and Charles Hudon (1-3=4).

REIGN VITALS: After coming from behind to defeat Bakersfield on Saturday night and sweep their opening round series, the Reign had an off day Sunday while they awaited the result of Abbotsford and Colorado’s Game 3. The team then held on-ice practices on Monday and Tuesday at Toyota Sports Performance Center and will have an optional morning skate in preparation for Wednesday’s Game 1 against the Canucks.

Goaltender Erik Portillo is expected to start his third consecutive postseason game tonight for Ontario. The rookie netminder stopped 53 of the 55 shots he faced from Bakersfield in the Reign’s first round series, finishing with a 1.00 goals-against average in consecutive wins along with a 0.964 save percentage. Prior to the playoffs, Portillo ended his first professional season with a 2.50 goals-against average and a 0.918 save percentage in 39 appearances and amassed an overall record of 24-11-3.

This week’s practices have not included any lineup formation changes from what Marco Sturm went with during both games against the Condors last week. That group is shown below for reference –

Turcotte – Tynan – Fagemo
Hudon – Thomas – Madden
Lee – Helenius – Ward
Hodgson – Pavlychev – Doty
Francis – Pinelli – Chromiak

Hicketts – Clarke
Connauton – Santini
Nousiainen – Wylie

Portillo / Bednard

While there could be alterations as the Reign prepare to matchup against Abbotsford, it doesn’t seem likely that much will change in both the personnel chosen and the way they’ll line up. After all, they just produced back-to-back wins and allowed just a single goal in each of the contests.

Should Ontario choose to insert either or both of Martin Chromiak and Francesco Pinelli, they’ll have the assurance that both played in all eight of the team’s regular season contests against the Canucks and accounted for five of the group’s 20 total goals for.

CANUCKS VITALS: Abbotsford has qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs in all three of its seasons in the Pacific Division since re-joining the AHL for the 2021-22 campaign. The Canucks faced Bakersfield in the opening round for two consecutive years, falling short in 2022 before advancing in 2023. After their first-ever series win last year, Abbotsford lost a four-game series to the Calgary Wranglers in the Pacific Division Semifinals. Two of those games were ended in overtime, while all four contests were decided by one goal.

At present, only one of the two goaltenders on Abbotsford’s roster has any previous AHL experience. With their parent club Vancouver battling Nashville in a first-round series, both Thatcher Demko and Casey DeSmith have battled injuries, necessitating call-ups for both of Abbotsford’s regular netminders in Arturs Silovs and Nikita Tolopilo. In their absence, the AHL team has turned to Zach Sawchenko, who played in just six regular season games for the Canucks this season. Sawchenko does have 79 career AHL games to his name over the past five seasons with Abbotsford, Chicago and San Jose. He started all three games in Colorado, his first career Calder Cup Playoff appearances, and posted a 2.50 goals-against average and a 0.925 save percentage.

For reference, here’s how the Canucks lined up in Game 3 of their first round series against the Eagles on Sunday afternoon –

During the regular season, the Canucks were led by forward Linus Karlsson who recorded 60 points in 60 games on 23 goals and 27 assists. Forward Arshdeep Bains also had a breakout campaign, scoring 55 points on 16 goals and 39 assists while earning his first-career call-up to Vancouver and making his NHL debut. Sheldon Dries had the highest goal total on the team with 29 tallies on the year, including a team-leading five goals and nine points and a plus-3 rating in six games against the Reign this season. Defenseman Jett Woo was their highest scoring blueliner with 31 points on seven goals and 24 helpers, while former Ontario defender Christian Wolanin earned 29 points in 42 games.

Notes –
Ward Does It All
Taylor Ward had a noticeable impact in both of Ontario’s wins over Bakersfield last week, a key reason they were able to take care of business and advance.

This is Ward’s third season with an opportunity in the Calder Cup Playoffs, but he’s grown significantly since last season when he a healthy scratch in the Reign’s first game in Colorado. Ward was inserted for Game 2, a desperation elimination game, but he wasn’t playing the type of role he is now and couldn’t get the team over the hump as they bowed out with a quick defeat.

Now, with a defined role that has included important minutes alongside other impact players, he’s making important plays all over the ice on a nightly basis, from helping set up offense to being a relied-on defender against other teams’ offensive lines, blocking shots on the penalty kill and even someone who brings physicality with a big hit.

Ward had the primary assist on Ontario’s first goal of the playoffs last Wednesday night, corralling a long stretch pass up the boards by Brandt Clarke on the right wing in the offensive zone. He had a step on the defender guarding him and sent a centering pass to linemate Andre Lee, who got off a quick shot that flew past goaltender Jack Campbell and into the net. The play gave the Reign a lead early in the second period and they never looked back, scoring three more times in the frame and four more goals in the game to earn a win in the first game of a short best-of-3 series.

Three nights later, Ward was in the middle of another big play on the team’s first goal. This time, Ontario had surrendered a power play goal to the Condors in the first period and entered the middle frame down by one. It hadn’t been a good start to the game for the Reign, who fell behind and weren’t able to assert the dominance they had shown in the series opener against a desperate Bakersfield team on the brink of elimination.

2:42 into the second, off a faceoff win in the offensive zone, Ward made himself available in the slot and one-timed a perfectly executed pass by Brandt Clarke into the net before netminder Olivier Rodrigue could get into position for a shot. The goal tied the game and also relaxed everyone on the Ontario bench.

“They lined their defense up in that back corner basically every defensive zone faceoff,” said Joe Hicketts after the game, who made a pass to Clarke off the draw and watched the play develop. “We tried to two-on-one the forward coming out from the middle. Credit to Clarke, he made a great play getting that to Ward open on the backside there and when you can slide it in like that, it definitely relieved some stress. I think we were gripping the stick a little tight in the second.”

Plays like that have been part of Ward’s game for most of the second half of the regular season. While offense isn’t always the most important part of his game, he did raise his scoring totals from nine goals and 26 points last year to 11 tallies and 32 points in the same number of games during 2023-24. The most drastic difference has been in his plus-minus rating, which went from -20 last season to a team-leading +23 this year. And he’s continued that into the postseason, albeit in a small sample size, with a plus-4 mark after the first round which saw him finish +2 from each game.

“He was a horse,” Sturm said of Ward after Saturday’s Game 2. “Not just today, but the other night too. He took his role really well. I really like his line, especially tonight, because I put them out a lot against their big boys. They shut them down pretty good and that’s why I put him out at the end.”

Herculean Hicketts
Hicketts is another player who was on the scoresheet for the Reign in both games against Bakersfield but also impacts the game in all three zones.

A reliable defender who makes breakouts look easy from his own end, Hicketts facilitates offense by making seemingly simple plays that help set up his teammates. He’s also someone who can be relied on when a play breaks down, always helping to scramble back and break up a rush against by an opponent.

Those types of defensive plays were on full display Saturday night in Bakersfield when Hicketts made multiple diving efforts to either block a pass or a shot and deny the Condors chances in the Ontario end. That was in addition to helping set up Ward’s goal to tie the game in the second period.

“He was outstanding,” Sturm said of Hicketts after the elimination victory. “There were a couple times when Clarke got caught and he ended up with a two-on-one and he pretty much killed it all. He’s a big time player and he’s been through it, and you can tell. I always like when [the players] faces are red because that means they worked. I told Hicks that today he was one of them.”

Always quick to deflect praise, Hicketts said that even though he might have been red in the face, he wasn’t tired. The blueliner missed close to four months of the regular season with an injury sustained in Ontario’s fifth game of the year.

“I feel fine,” said Hicketts. “I’m well-rested after my half-season absence. You want to get out there and help your team and I thought everyone contributed. In a playoff series like this, sometimes the bench gets short, but I thought everyone did a good job when they were on the ice of making a contribution and making sure that we played the way that we wanted.”

He was also one of the offensive stars for the Reign in Game 1 last week, scoring a shorthanded goal to put an exclamation point on a decisive middle frame in the victory.

“I even told him, I didn’t know he can shoot,” Sturm said with a laugh when referring to his first playoff goal since the 2017 postseason and just his second in 32 career playoff games. “He’s been a big factor both on and off the ice and he plays a lot of minutes. He’s a grinder, he plays hurt most of the nights.”

After returning from his early season injury in mid-February, Hicketts was a big reason why the team improved down the stretch, ripping off two lengthy win streaks of eight and seven games. In the 25 regular season games he played in after returning that began with a lopsided 8-1 win in Tucson on Feb. 16, the Reign had a record of 18-5-0-2 with Hicketts in the lineup. Add in last week’s two playoff wins, and the team has a points percentage of 0.777 with him on the back end over the past two and a half months.

Finding Ways To Win
While some of the team’s victories down the stretch have been lopsided, like the one in Tucson or a few against San Jose, a club that missed the playoffs, the majority have been close games where a few plays or an extra effort late in the contest can make all the difference.

Sturm has mentioned many times over the past few weeks that he’s noticed his team is doing what it takes to come out ahead, they’ve shown how badly they wanted home ice in the playoffs and went out and earned it.

Saturday’s Game 2 was another example of a night when the Reign were not even the better team in the first period, but kept themselves within striking distance, tied it in the second and then dominated the third to come out ahead.

“When you start winning those kinds of games, automatically your confidence gets up,” Sturm said. “We had some winning stretches at home and I thought that was important. We carried it over on the road too and all of a sudden we feel good about it.”

Saturday was the first time in the playoffs where Ontario didn’t have its best for all 60 minutes but they still did enough to come out ahead.

“It was a playoff game so I wasn’t really sure, but I was trying to settle the guys down a little bit and focus on our play like they’ve done all year long,” Sturm said. “I think the first two or three minutes of the third we all knew, ‘Okay, we got this’. And it carried on until the last second.”

Hicketts’ echoed his coach’s words and said that he hoped the group learned a lesson about having better starts in games where they’re looking to close out an opponent’s season.

“I think we had some moments where we hopefully learned a couple lessons,” Hicketts said. “The last game of a series when you’re trying to close a team out is the toughest one to win. That’s something we’ve got to learn. If we want to go far, we’re going to have to learn to do that a couple more times.”

Knowing how to win those close games is also something that one of the team’s leaders, Jacob Doty, mentioned as a strength of the group last week leading into the postseason.

“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.”

Audio Preview!
Josh Schaefer and I have a full preview of the second-round series and the matchup with Abbotsford in the latest episode of The Reign Check Podcast.

All the action gets underway tonight at 7! Schaefer and I have the call with streaming video on AHLTV and audio on the Reign App. 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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