Reign Preview 5/5 – Saving Their Best + Bottom-6 Finishers, Preparing To Win

WHO: Abbotsford Canucks (2-2) @ Ontario Reign (3-0)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 2, Game 2
WHEN: Sunday, May 5 @ 3:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: Toyota Arena – Ontario, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV / KCAL, Ch. 9 – AUDIO – Reign Broadcast Network – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign

The Ontario Reign and Abbotsford Canucks are set to battle in Game 2 of the Pacific Division Semifinals Sunday afternoon at Toyota Arena. The Reign have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-5 series. Sunday’s game is the final contest of the series that will be played in Ontario, with the series shifting to British Columbia for Game 3 on Wednesday.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: After winning the final two meetings of the regular season series and earning points from three straight in Ontario, the Reign continued their recent success against the Canucks in Game 1 on Wednesday, earning a 3-1 victory in Game 1.

TJ Tynan opened the scoring at 12:05 of the second period and Ontario never looked back, adding an insurance goal from Alex Turcotte at 4:55 of the third and a final strike by Nikita Pavlychev at 11:29.

Ontario took a total of four of the eight earlier matchups against Abbotsford this year, posting a record of 4-3-0-1.

REIGN VITALS: The Reign had a full team off day on Thursday after securing Game 1 Wednesday night and got back to practice on Friday morning. Saturday was another practice day for the group, with the coaching staff leading them through preparation and adjustments leading into Game 2. There will be no morning skate on Sunday before the 3 p.m. contest at Toyota Arena.

Goaltender Erik Portillo is expected to start his fourth consecutive postseason game today for Ontario. He continued his excellence from the first round into Game 1 of round two, allowing just a single goal for the third straight game while stopping 23 shots. His 1.00 goals-against average in the postseason leads all AHL goaltenders and is accompanied by a 0.962 save percentage. Portillo has built off a solid first professional regular season when he had a 2.50 goals-against average and a 0.918 save percentage in 39 appearances and an overall record of 24-11-3.

The Reign have lined up the same way for all three of their playoff games so far, all of which have been wins. Marco Sturm has continued to keep the same formational look for his team at practice over the last two days. A refresher on the alignment below –

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

Hicketts – Clarke
Connauton – Santini
Nousiainen – Wylie

Portillo / Dell / Bednard

Goaltender Aaron Dell re-joined the Reign group for practice on Friday following the Kings loss to Edmonton Wednesday night. While Dell gives Ontario valuable veteran experience and a solid option, if need be, it’s clearly Portillo’s net right now. The prospect is earning valuable time in his first professional postseason that will serve him well in his career moving forward.

CANUCKS VITALS: Abbotsford is looking at Sunday’s game as close to a must-win, for a loss would push them to the brink of elimination. Even with the knowledge that the series will end on their home ice, the Canucks will be looking to generate more offense against Ontario in Game 2.

Forward Max Sasson scored Abbotsford’s lone goal in Game 1, converting on a quick release from in between the circles in the offensive zone. The unassisted goal added to his success against Ontario this year, which saw him total three goals and four points and a plus-3 rating in six games.

It doesn’t seem that any help is on the way for the Canucks at the goaltending position, where they continue to have Zach Sawchenko and Jonathan Lemieux as options in the crease. With their parent team Vancouver eliminating Nashville and moving on to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, both Arturs Silovs, who recorded a shutout for Vancouver in Game 6, and Nikita Tolopilo remain up with the big club.

As a result, Sawchenko, who played in just six regular season games this season, has earned all the minutes in net for Abbotsford in their first four postseason contests. After helping to defeat Colorado and dropping Game 1 in Ontario, Sawchenko has a 2.66 goals-against average and a 0.914 save percentage in his first four Calder Cup Playoff appearances. Sawchenko had 79 career AHL games to his name coming into the postseason, playing for Abbotsford, Chicago and San Jose over the past five campaigns.

For reference, here’s how the Canucks lined up in Game 1 against Ontario on Wednesday night –

Arshdeep Bains and Tristen Nielson are Abbotsford’s playoff scoring leaders through four games, each posting four points. Bains has registered two goals and two assists, while all four of Nielson’s points have come via assists. Sheldon Dries, who scored five times against the Reign during the regular season, has three points on a goal and two assists, while Sasson also has the same totals. The team’s regular season scoring leader, Linus Karlsson, who finished with 60 points in 60 games, has two goals this postseason, as does captain Chase Wouters, with both of his tallies ending up as game-winners during the first round against Colorado.

Notes –
Saving Their Best
Three games into this year’s postseason, it’s been clear that Ontario’s gotten better as their games have gone on. In each, the Reign have produced a winning result without scoring a goal in the first period.

In Game 1 of the first round against Bakersfield, Ontario rode a four-goal outburst to a lopsided win after a scoreless first. Three days later, the Reign got behind in the first by allowing a power play goal but tied things up in the second and added two late strikes in the third to eliminate the Condors.

Then Wednesday night in the series opener against Abbotsford, Ontario was outshot 8-4 in the first but the game remained scoreless until midway through the second when Tynan broke deadlock. Turcotte and Pavlychev added on with insurance in the third, another big key to the team’s winning recipe.

Despite not having the scoring touch in the first for the third straight game on Wednesday, Turcotte, who spoke postgame, said he felt the team was executing their game plan the way they hoped to at the start of the series.

“I think we had a pretty good start,” Turcotte said. “We were really intense out there and playing really physical, so I think we were ready to go. Obviously, you want to get one right away but it took a little bit. I think we played really hard, really physical and fast and got on them right away to let them know it’s going to be a tough series.”

Turcotte added that he feels the way they’re playing, with physicality, has led to success later on in games because of the wear and tear the play style is putting on their opponent.

“I think you want to score as fast as possible, but we’re having good starts and putting the other team in a tough position, and I think it wears them down. It would be great to score right away in the first, but I think we’ve been pretty consistent and that’s why we’re getting success in the second and third.”

The results are there for the Reign, who have outscored teams a combined 6-0 in the second and 5-2 in the third.

Marco Sturm echoed Turcotte’s assessment Wednesday night and once again mentioned his team’s aggressive physical play as a key to the Game 1 win.

“We probably took one or two too many penalties but overall, we played physical and that’s exactly what we wanted,” Sturm said. “Some teams can handle it, some teams can’t, and we feel like this [opponent] struggles with it. That showed again today.”

As good as the Reign have been in the second period during the playoffs, Sturm felt that the third, which saw them close out the game with an insurance goal and a decisive response to an Abbotsford strike, was their most impressive period.

“Yes, it was a big goal in the second, but I really liked our third,” Sturm said. “Not sitting back, but pushing back. Even when they scored against us, we pushed back again. That’s something that’s going to make a coach very happy.”

Ontario will look to take the momentum they had from that third period into the first on Sunday and try to get ahead early on, something they haven’t done yet in these playoffs.

Bottom-6 Finishers
Setting the tone with the physicality Turcotte spoke of has been key for the Reign’s bottom-6, which has remained unchanged during their first three postseason games.

Comprised of Andre Lee, Samuel Helenius and Taylor Ward on the third line and Hayden Hodgson, Nikita Pavlychev and Jacob Doty making up the fourth line, the two trios have a bit of everything, but what stands out the most is their size on the ice.

Ward and Hodgson are the two shortest players among the six, and they each measure 6-foot-2. All the attackers have stepped up their aggressiveness and as a result, they’ve combined to score three goals.

“We’ve been clicking pretty well so far,” Ward said of his line’s recent play. “I think that we’ve been very effective out there as a unit and I’m happy with how things are going.”

As for the fourth line, after Pavlychev scored in the third on Wednesday, Turcotte mentioned how well the fourth line has been playing and highlighted what he felt has made them effective.

“That whole fourth line has been great,” Turcotte said. “They’ve created a lot of energy. You’ve got Dotes and Hodge playing super heavy and putting the other team on their heels. They’re really intimidating to play against and they’re making a lot of smart plays too. Pav’s also really smart, great on faceoffs, really good defensively and good on the penalty kill, so they’re all playing great and they’re giving us a huge boost.”

The offense is great, but as Turcotte noted the defensive side of the game has been just as important for their success. So far, every one of the six forwards has an even or better rating during the postseason, allowing limited chances to opponents in their own zone.

Now the challenge will be continuing to produce those types of results as the grind of the playoffs continues. Turcotte feels that will continue if they can continue playing this physical style of hockey.

“Obviously no one wants to get run over,” said Turcotte. “It’s pretty scary and intimidating, but I think it puts them on their heels. They kind of throw pucks away, not just this team, any team. When you’ve got someone coming at you 100 miles per hour, you’re going to be a little worried and you’ve got to get rid of the puck. I think that’s been great for us and allowing us to get a lot of offense off the forecheck.”

Preparing To Win
The Reign and Canucks have had three days off since Game 1 on Wednesday, giving each a longer amount of time to prepare for Sunday. In comparison, Abbotsford only had two days off in between rounds one and two after defeating Colorado. They traveled to the Inland Empire on Monday, practiced Tuesday and jumped right into the series.

For Sturm, he said that even though his team has had more time during the spread-out nature of the first few games, they aren’t changing things up.

“What I’ve learned as a coach is that players like the same routines. They don’t like changes,” Sturm commented in response to a postgame question about their preparation for Abbotsford. “We approached this round and this team exactly how we handled Bakersfield in the first round. So that means all the meetings, that was pretty much the same. We tried to keep it as close as possible so there was no mix-up. Even practice was very similar.”

At this time of the year, the group knows the system in place, it’s just about doing everything you can to execute in that system and adjust based on your opponent’s strengths.

Part of the preparation is also making sure players get enough rest to aid their recovery. The longer time off at the start of the series has allowed Sturm and his staff to prioritize that for some of the players who tend to play heavier ice times.

“A lot of guys have played a lot of minutes,” Sturm said. “For them, it will be good to take a day off, we need it. Our focus is coming back to practice and showing exactly the same mindset and the focus we’ve had for the last two months. I don’t expect anything less.”

Ward, who has been a key to many areas the Reign have done well in so far, has been impressed with what he’s seeing from his teammates on non-gamedays when they convene in El Segundo.

“I think the hardest part of the playoffs is just holding some consistency,” Ward said after practice on Friday. “Every day we’ve come into the rink and the guys have a good attitude. We’re having fun and that helps, then when we get on the ice it’s work time.”

In being around the group over the past few weeks as they’ve had early postseason success, there’s been an elevated sense of focus and a dedication to making sure they continue to perform at a high level in games.

“We’re working on stuff in the video sessions and on the ice, and we’re all very focused and concentrated,” Ward said. “I think it’s just our mindset every day we come to the rink. We enjoy being there, but we also want to stay as long as we can so we’re putting in the work.”

The Reign and Canucks drop the puck for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. inside Toyota Arena. Josh Schaefer and I will have the call live on KCAL-TV Channel 9, with streaming video on AHLTV and audio on the Reign App!

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