“They don’t like us, we don’t like them” – Previewing the Ontario Reign’s Round 3 series against CV

A Cali Classic, if you will.

The Battle for the 10 is what the Ontario Reign are calling it, as two teams separated by the 10 Freeway square off in a playoff series for the first time. The distance between Toyota Arena in Ontario and Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert is just over 80 miles, travel time naturally dependent on when you make the drive. That drive is spent almost entirely on the 10 Freeway. Guess the name makes some sense.

Battles of California in the postseason are always great for growing the game here in Southern California. The Reign have faced San Diego twice in postseason play, though just once in a best-of-five scenario. The Kings and Ducks have met just once, in a seven-game thriller back in 2014, a stamp on the rivalry from the Kings perspective.

For the present iteration, however, there’s never been a meeting, because there’s not much of a history. That doesn’t mean there isn’t bad blood, though, as Ontario Head Coach Marco Sturm put it bluntly.

“I know they don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Sturm said. “I know we always give them a hard time, so with that kind of attitude, we’re going to go into Game 1 and again .

An AHL schedule is much more centric within the division than the NHL schedule is. Teams play each other significantly more regularly than NHL teams do, without mandated cross-conference games and sometimes even without cross-division games within the conference.

Coachella Valley entered the AHL just last season and skated to within a single goal of hoisting the Calder Cup in their first season of play. As the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s now second-newest market, the Seattle Kraken, the Firebirds are constructed differently than most teams, relying heavily on established veteran players, with the organization’s first class of drafted prospects just now reaching AHL status.

For Ontario, there’s a healthy mix, with an intersection of drafted prospects and AHL stars, perhaps known as the Samuel Fagemo diagonal. Ontario has veterans like T.J. Tynan, Charles Hudon and Joe Hicketts contributing on a nightly basis, but there’s also Fagemo, a second-round pick of the Kings who finished second in the AHL this season with 43 goals. There’s Alex Turcotte and Akil Thomas, who both play prominent, top-six roles for the Reign. Brandt Clarke logs important minutes on the backend, while draft picks like Andre Lee and Samuel Helenius are producing in depth roles.

“I think each line has been contributing greatly to our team,” forward Alex Turcotte. “For example, the last game [against Abbotsford], each line got a goal almost there, the fourth line was playing really physical and keeping them on the heels. It’s a lot of fun when we can score with any line out there and I think it definitely relieves a lot of pressure off some. You just worry about playing a team game and someone’s going to step up.”

That’s perhaps the beauty of this Ontario team.

Contributions throughout the lineup and they’ll certainly be needed in this series, facing a Coachella Valley club that had nine different players score 15-or-more goals during the regular season.

“I think we have a bunch of guys on our team who kind of take the wheel, I think that’s what’s special about our group,” forward and assistant captain Akil Thomas added. “I think we’ve had a lot of contribution from our third and fourth lines, points wise and whatnot. I think we don’t have a go to guy, we have a bunch of guys who get the job done and step up in key moments, some guys here, some guys there. I think that’s what makes our team well balanced.”

That depth has come in a variety of different ways.

For guys like Turcotte and Thomas, they’ve come through the system together, playing with each other along the way in the AHL, while getting their respective cups of coffee this season in the NHL. That’s a special thing for those guys and they’re excited to be getting that experience on an extended playoff run.

Thomas – We were in the gym today, talking about our time in Berlin together actually before our pro career started. It’s pretty cool to just think about those days and obviously be in the position we’re in right now. Things are going well so it’s been fun.

Turcotte – It’s a lot of fun, we’re all really tight, so to play together for all these years now and find some success in the playoffs, it’s been a lot of fun and we want to keep going and hopefully win this thing.

For players like that, this experience matters. For this team, this experience matters.

Often times, we view Ontario only as a development mechanism. It is, of course, the primary function of the American Hockey League, to develop future NHL players. Everyone involved understands that, but when you get into postseason play, that can’t be the sole motivator or the only objective. It’s also about winning.

Because, when you get on a playoff run, these games matter to the players. They matter to the coaches. They matter to the fans. There’s a trophy to be won and rings on the line. For those who are a part of it, these games matter. Even from the perspective of development, players who have gone on to become NHL stars have pointed back to their AHL experience, especially those who have won a championship, as being important.

For any number of those reasons, and perhaps more, these are important games for those involved.

“At any level, I think any league, it doesn’t matter where you are, where you’re at, I think as soon as you make it that far you want to win at all,” Sturm said. “For me personally, I’ve won different stuff, not a Stanley Cup but it helps you grow as as a player and helps you grow as a person. Those are those moments, I keep telling those guys, they have to take advantage of it because you never know when there’s another chance like that. So, let’s do it right now, let’s get it done right now. Let’s put everything on the line and give everything you have every night because you just never know.”

Now, the notion of winning is still a ways down the road.

The Reign are currently in Round 3, the Pacific Division Finals, but unlike the NHL, the AHL has five rounds not four. Ontario has actually yet to lose in the postseason, sweeping Round 1 by a 2-0 margin against Bakersfield and Round 2 by a 3-0 margin over Abbotsford. Round 3 is also a best-of-five series, before best-of-seven sets begin in Round 4.

Still, you can start to feel it a bit.

The Kings, along with the Lakers and Clippers, lost in the first round of the playoffs and there’s not a ton going on in terms of important games in this area. While Ontario is 60 miles inland, it’s a team competing for a championship, playing meaningful games along the way. There’s something to be said for that.

To get to where they want to get to, players like Turcotte and Thomas, under the guidance of Sturm and the Ontario coaching staff understand that they have to play as a team to get to where they need to get to. It’s how they found a ton of success down the stretch in the regular season, cementing home ice in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s how they found success in series wins over Bakersfield and Abbotsford and how they aim to find success against Coachella Valley, beginning tomorrow night.

“I think we’ve gotten tighter in the last two months for sure, even down the stretch of the regular season, we wanted to win all those games to get a higher seed,” Thomas said. “I think we’ve been playing playoff hockey for a while now and I think as a team, we’re much closer now than we were at the beginning of the year.”

Turcotte echoed similar thoughts. As did Sturm.

For the bench boss, he’s simply trying to put a skilled collection of players, that buys into the message and buys into each other, in the best place to find success.

“We took it to another level, we’re playing a little bit of a different style, I would say, being more heavy, stronger and way more tight defensively and we don’t have a problem winning 1-0 hockey games,” Sturm added. “It’s tricky with a lot of skill guys during the season, they all want to score, but I think they realize now what it takes to win playoff games. That’s been our mentality the last few weeks.”

All kicks off for the Reign tomorrow, Wednesday May 15 in Coachella Valley.

Series Schedule
Game 1 – Ontario @ Coachella Valley, May 15 @ 7 PM – Acrisure Arena – Palm Desert, CA
Game 2 – Ontario @ Coachella Valley, May 17 @ 7 PM – Acrisure Arena – Palm Desert, CA
Game 3 – Ontario vs Coachella Valley, May 19 @ 7 PM – Toyota Arena – Ontario, CA
*Game 4 – Ontario vs Coachella Valley, May 24 @ 7 PM – Toyota Arena – Ontario, CA
*Game 5 – Ontario @ Coachella Valley, May 27 @ 3 PM – Acrisure Arena – Palm Desert, CA

Tickets for Game 3 and Game 4 are available. All games are broadcast on AHLTV. Will have full coverage here for Round 3, and hopefully beyond, as the Reign look to continue their playoff journey.

Rules for Blog Commenting

  • No profanity, slurs or other offensive language. Replacing letters with symbols does not turn expletives into non-expletives.
  • Personal attacks against other blog commenters, and/or blatant attempts to antagonize other comments, are not tolerated. Respectful disagreement is encouraged. Posts that continually express the same singular opinion will be deleted.
  • Comments that incite political, religious or similar debates will be deleted.
  • Please do not discuss, or post links to websites that illegally stream NHL games.
  • Posting under multiple user names is not allowed. Do not type in all caps. All violations are subject to comment deletion and/or banning of commenters, per the discretion of the blog administrator.

Repeated violations of the blog rules will result in site bans, commensurate with the nature and number of offenses.

Please flag any comments that violate the site rules for moderation. For immediate problems regarding problematic posts, please email zdooley@lakings.com.