Reign Preview 5/8 – Portillo Passing Tests, Defensive Shutdowns Take Sacrifice

WHO: Ontario Reign (4-0) @ Abbotsford Canucks (2-3)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 2, Game 3
WHEN: Wednesday, May 8 @ 7:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: Abbotsford Centre – Abbotsford, BC
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV – AUDIO – Reign Broadcast Network – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign

Game 3 of the Pacific Division Semifinals between the Ontario Reign and Abbotsford Canucks is set to begin north of the border at 7 p.m. Wednesday night in British Columbia at the Abbotsford Centre. The Reign have a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series after wins at Toyota Arena last week by scores of 3-1 and 4-0 and can eliminate Abbotsford with a third victory later this evening.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Ontario placed the Canucks’ backs against the wall Sunday afternoon, holding Abbotsford off the board to record its first shutout of the postseason. Erik Portillo stopped all 29 shots that came his way and was boosted by four different Reign goal scorers, including Akil Thomas, Charles Hudon, Andre Lee and Tyler Madden.

Brandt Clarke also had the first multi-point game of his playoff career, as the rookie pitched in with a pair of assists.

Ontario finished 1-for-2 on the power play, while also holding Abbotsford to a 0-for-3 mark on the man-advantage. The Reign’s penalty kill is a perfect 5-for-5 in the series thus far through two contests.

REIGN VITALS: The Reign had a day off the ice on Monday after their second straight win to open a 2-0 lead in the series. After a flight north to British Columbia that evening, the team returned to practice on Tuesday with the full group on the ice at the Abbotsford Centre. It was a lighter skate for some, with others opting for more drills after the main group dispersed. Wednesday’s morning skate is expected to be optional for the playing group prior to puck drop later tonight.

We can once again expect goaltender Erik Portillo to get the nod in between the pipes for Ontario, his fifth consecutive postseason contest. In his 240 minutes of playoff action, the netminder has allowed just three goals while stopping 105 of 108 shots. Portillo’s 0.75 goals-against average in the playoffs leads all AHL goaltenders and is accompanied by a 0.972 save percentage. The Goteborg, Sweden native 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 four of their playoff games so far, all of which have been wins. A refresher on that alignment below –

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

Hicketts – Clarke
Connauton – Santini
Nousiainen – Wylie

Portillo / Dell / Ingham

While Portillo continues to be the No. 1 option in net, the other netminders behind him look a bit different this week, with Aaron Dell re-joining the roster after the Kings were eliminated last week and Jacob Ingham joining the group on Tuesday in Abbotsford following a Greenville Swamp Rabbits first-round playoff elimination. Both goaltenders behind Portillo bring solid attributes to the position, but Marco Sturm has made it clear that he is sticking with the rookie for the time being. There’s no arguing with that decision, especially with the numbers he’s posted.

CANUCKS VITALS: Wednesday night’s game is a must-win for Abbotsford, who will throw everything they have at Ontario to keep their season alive. The Canucks are preparing for their first home game of the 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs after playing all three games of the first round on the road in Colorado and the first two contests of the second round in the Inland Empire.

Goaltender Zach Sawchenko has continued to be the go-to option in the crease, starting his fifth game of the postseason on Sunday. If he gets the nod once again on Wednesday, he’ll equal the amount of games he played for Abbotsford in the regular season (6). He came up with the stops needed to defeat Colorado in the opening round, but his efforts haven’t been enough during the first two games of this second round series in Ontario.

Sawchenko has a 2.74 goals-against average and a 0.908 save percentage in his first five Calder Cup Playoff appearances, and has 79 career AHL regular season games to his name in his career, playing for Abbotsford, Chicago and San Jose over the past five campaigns.

Abbotsford shuffled its lines a bit on Sunday, but only made one change to its personnel, with Ty Glover being inserted on the fourth line in place of rookie Cooper Walker. The lone goal they’ve scored in the series came in the third period of Game 1 when forward Max Sasson struck with an unassisted tally to get the Canucks on the board in a late comeback attempt that was unsuccessful.

It will be interesting to see if head coach Jeremy Colliton makes any other changes to the lineup ahead of Wednesday’s potential elimination game with an eye for more offense.

For reference, here’s how the Canucks lined up in Game 2 against Ontario on Sunday –

Arshdeep Bains and Tristen Nielson are Abbotsford’s playoff scoring leaders through five 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 –
Portillo Passing Tests
After four games of the Reign’s postseason run, there’s no question that Erik Portillo has found a way to elevate his game at the most important time of the year. For a Kings organization that acquired him at last year’s trade deadline, Portillo was a highly regarded prospect, but someone that had yet to prove himself at the professional level.

Talent evaluators had seen what he was capable of in the short, single-game elimination format the NCAA uses, but that doesn’t always translate once you get to the grind that comes with making it to the next level.

Portillo remained confident throughout his first regular season, but he was not truly given the full confidence to be the No. 1 goalie on the roster by Ontario’s coaching staff until later in the year.

“I’m not going to lie, we were all hoping he was going to play the same way he did in the regular season, but the playoffs is always a different animal,” said Marco Sturm after Portillo’s shutout performance in Game 2 on Sunday afternoon. “And he came even stronger, that’s why he got the game puck again today. He was the best player, he kept us in the game early on, and he made some outstanding saves.”

Portillo’s teammates have also noticed that he’s taken that next step, showcasing what he can do in the postseason. Another of the club’s rookies, Brandt Clarke, mentioned that he wondered how the goaltender might do with multiple consecutive starts. Even though Ontario’s schedule has been more spread out than your traditional hockey format where you might see teams play every other day or every two days, Portillo has taken everything in stride.

“He’s actually gotten better,” Clarke said. “These guys don’t know how to beat him right now so it’s pretty remarkable and we’re lucky to have him.”

Another of the team’s right-shot defenders, Steven Santini, echoed Clarke’s thoughts in giving his backstop credit for the Reign’s unblemished beginning to the postseason.

“He looks good,” said Santini. “For a young guy, he’s composed. “He’s playing his game, he’s having fun and it’s fun to see his development throughout the year. He’s only going to continue to get better as well.”

The next step for the netminder, which begins Wednesday, is continuing that play at the Abbotsford Centre. It’s one of the rare buildings where Portillo had a few rough nights during the regular season, going 1-2-0 in three starts, including the second half of a back-to-back where Sturm decided to make a change in net midway through the game 27 minutes in.

But in the long run of the season, that game is a distant memory for Portillo who has worked hard at his craft, and that shows in his recent results.

Defensive Shutdowns Take Sacrifice
Along with Portillo’s shutout performance in Game 2, Ontario’s commitment to its defensive play, which showcased multiple timely shot blocks, was evident at Toyota Arena on Sunday night.

Sturm and Santini stopped short of saying that was part of the team’s game plan going into contests, but both mentioned that shot blocking and sacrificing your body for the greater good of the team is something that comes with playing good defensive hockey in the playoffs.

“They know the little things are very important,” Sturm said of his group. “That’s playoff hockey. We got a little taste of it last year which was not good enough.”

The coach, who frequently draws on the memories from his long NHL career when discussing the experiences his current players are going through, referenced how important playoff games were to his development.

“In playoffs, the players learn so much from those games, it’s unbelievable,” Sturm said. “It happened to me, and I think it happens in this room too. You learn how to play the game the right way in those kinds of games without making mistakes because those cost you.”

Regarding Santini, one of the team’s leaders throughout the season, Sturm sees him as an example of a player who has flipped the switch and is playing that playoff style he’s looking to see out of his guys.

“Stevey is playing really strong. I think he’s taken it to another level in the playoffs.”

The blueliner said that he isn’t doing anything differently now that the playoffs are here, that he approaches every game the same way no matter what month of the year it happens to fall in.

“I think my style of play is probably more tailored for playoff hockey, not preseason hockey, not January hockey,” Santini said after the team’s practice in Abbotsford on Tuesday. “Just the way I play, with the commitment to defense and those details, it’s a little tighter right now, there’s less time and space, so for me being a defensive minded player, I think it’s just more of my style of play.

A deep run through the AHL playoffs is something Santini has experience with. Two years ago, he was a member of the Springfield Thunderbirds when they won the Eastern Conference and advanced to the Calder Cup Finals, eventually falling short to the Chicago Wolves.

When asked if this year’s Reign team had any similarities to that Springfield group, Santini mentioned that there is multiple reasons Ontario’s having success right now, with an eye toward success in the later rounds of the postseason.

“I would say we’re similar in the sense that we have a lot of guys that know their roles,” Santini said. “I’m more of a defensive minded player and I know that, and we have players that contribute offensively and they’re doing a good job with that.”

As someone who has that type of deep run under his belt and in the back of his mind, Santini is seeing others who may not have the same pro hockey playoff experience rise to the occasion and play in a way that might have them ready to continue on further.

“We’re kind of built to win now. We’re not a super old team in terms of veteran numbers on the league’s veteran count, but you have guys that have been around for three, four years, like Taylor Ward, Tyler Madden and Akil Thomas. Those are big players that don’t count towards the veteran count, but they’re also a big part of our team so when you have a lot of guys like that you’re kind of built to win now in my opinion.”

Santini sees those guys and the rest of the team as a group that has dedicated themselves to doing what it takes to win each night.

“It’s not something we need to talk about, but every play matters right now,” Santini said. “All the details matter, whether it’s your stick detail, being on the defensive side of a guy, or managing the puck, all those things add up. I don’t think that’s a secret and I think all 20 of us have really committed to that in the games we’ve played.”

Wednesday’s Game 3 begins at 7 p.m. inside the Abbotsford Centre! Josh Schaefer and I will call all the action live, with streaming video on AHLTV and audio on the Reign App.

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