Reign Preview 5/15 – A Rivalry Is Born + Finding Success Away From Home, Series Opening Podcast

WHO: Ontario Reign (5-0) @ Coachella Valley Firebirds (3-1)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 3, Game 1
WHEN: Wednesday, May 15 @ 7:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: Acrisure Arena – Palm Desert, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV – AUDIO – Reign Broadcast Network – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign

The Ontario Reign begin Round 3 of the Calder Cup Playoffs Wednesday night, opening a best-of-5 series with Game 1 against the Coachella Valley Firebirds in the Pacific Division Finals at Acrisure Arena.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Ontario won four of the eight matchups against Coachella Valley during the regular-season series, posting a record of 4-3-0-1. TJ Tynan led the Reign in scoring against the Firebirds during the regular season, posting 10 points on a goal and nine assists in the eight previous meetings. Samuel Fagemo had a team-high five goals as well as an assist for six points in six contests.

REIGN VITALS: It was a second straight series-clinching game that featured a come-from-behind performance for Ontario when they were last in game action a week ago in Abbotsford, defeating the Canucks 4-3 to earn a sweep in the Pacific Division Semifinals.

In between then and now, the Reign traveled back from British Columbia on Thursday and took another day off the ice Friday while they awaited the result of Game 4 between Coachella Valley and Calgary. The team then held on-ice practices on Saturday and Sunday at Toyota Sports Performance Center before a full-group video session on Monday. They were back on the ice Tuesday morning before departing for Palm Desert, where an optional morning skate is expected ahead of Game 1 at Acrisure Arena.

There isn’t any change expected in goal for tonight’s game, with Erik Portillo continuing to lead the way for Ontario between the pipes. After starting all five of the team’s postseason contests during the 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs, Portillo is the league’s leader in goals-against average (1.20), save percentage (0.956) and wins (5). The Goteborg, Sweden native has built off a solid rookie regular season when he had an overall record of 24-11-3 in 39 appearances along with a 2.50 goals-against average and a 0.918 save percentage.

The Reign’s lineup of skaters hasn’t seen any deviation during the postseason. Marco Sturm, who went with his gut-instinct formation for Game 1 against Bakersfield, has stuck with the exact same look for all five of the team’s playoff contests 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

Hicketts – Clarke
Connauton – Santini
Nousiainen – Wylie


Other options to check in, whether that be up front, on the back end, or in net, include forwards Martin Chromiak, Francesco Pinelli and Quinn Olson, defensemen Cole Krygier and Jack Millar, as well as goaltenders Aaron Dell and Jacob Ingham.

Olson became the second member of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits playoff roster that was eliminated from the ECHL postseason to join the Reign Tuesday after Jacob Ingham was added to the roster last week in Abbotsford. After making his pro debut with the Reign in the team’s regular season home finale on Apr. 12, Olson signed an ATO with Greenville and competed in six playoff games, scoring four points on two goals and two assists. While he is still behind both Chromiak and Pinelli on the team’s depth chart, Olson offers another depth option for Ontario in a bottom-6 role.

FIREBIRDS VITALS: Coachella Valley has qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of its first two seasons in the AHL and has been a legitimate contender for the league title both years. The Firebirds finished second in the division in their inaugural season during 2022-23 and advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, coming just short of winning it all with a loss to Hershey in overtime of Game 7 last spring. Before the loss to the Eastern Conference Champion Bears, Coachella Valley had series wins over Tucson, Colorado, Calgary and Milwaukee.

In 2023-24 the Firebirds replicated their 103-point regular season and this time it earned the team first place in the Pacific Division and a first-round postseason bye. CV then ended Calgary’s season for the second straight year, defeating the Wranglers in four games in the Division Semifinal round.

Goaltender Chris Driedger, who earned a 31-save shutout to clinch the series for the Firebirds in Game 4 last week, has been the backbone of the team all season, going 24-7-7 in 39 regular season appearances before appearing in all four of the club’s postseason contests thus far. Driedger had a 2.26 goals-against average and a 0.917 save percentage along with four shutouts for Coachella Valley during the regular season.

Forward Kole Lind, who had 62 points in the Firebirds’ first year, improved to 65 points in 69 games this season to lead the team in scoring. While the dangerous forward had 30 goals a year ago, he found the back of the net 17 times during 2023-24 but posted 48 assists. Lind also led CV with eight points against the Reign while playing in all eight regular season clashes to score four goals and four assists. Team captain Max McCormick was the club’s top goal scorer with 32 tallies in 68 games and finished with 60 points. He also had success against Ontario, netting two goals and three assists for five points while appearing in six games of the series. Forward Cameron Hughes has also had a big year for the Firebirds with 57 points in 69 games on 25 goals and 32 assists.

Through four playoff games, McCormick and forward Devin Shore are each leading the team with four points on three goals and one assist. Shore, who finished the regular season with 25 points in 39 games, finished the series by scoring in three straight games.

On defense, Cale Fleury and Ryker Evans have both been threats from the blue line, with Fleury earning 36 points on seven goals and 29 assists in 65 games during the regular season while Evans earned a call-up to Seattle after 15 points in 25 games on the heels of a 44-point campaign during his rookie year in 2022-23. Both blueliners have accounted for three points in the postseason thus far on a goal and two assists.

Notes –
A Rivalry Is Born
Following Coachella Valley’s win over Calgary in Game 4 of their series on Friday, Firebirds’ head coach Dan Bylsma had the following to say about Ontario, his team’s next opponent.

“Rivalries usually don’t start until you face a team in the playoffs. So, I guess this one can start now.”

Marco Sturm also didn’t shy away from speaking about the matchup at his media availability after the Reign’s practice Tuesday before departing for the desert.

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

Maybe the rivalry isn’t officially starting until Wednesday night, but these teams already know each other pretty well and have been competing at a high level for the last two years.

After 16 regular season matchups in the first two seasons of competition, Ontario has come away with a 7-7-1-1 record which gives the Firebirds a slight advantage in the series, with nine wins for Coachella Valley. Many of the matchups have been tight, with three going to overtime and five battles decided by just one goal during 2022-23. This year another three have gone past regulation and four were decided by a goal.

Ontario was 3-4-1-0 against Coachella in year one, followed by a 4-3-0-1 mark this season, with four games coming before the calendar flipped to 2024 and another four down the stretch leading into the postseason.

It’s pretty clear that these two teams know each other well already.

“We’ve had some good battles against them,” Sturm said. “So far, we’ve played them really good. Last season and this season have been pretty similar I think we ended up with a good record against them and there’s no other team who had that.”

To back that up, no Pacific Division team had a record of over .500 against the Firebirds in 2022-23, with only Bakersfield and Calgary managing to get four wins against Coachella Valley.

This year, Colorado had the most success of any club against the Firebirds, going 3-1-0 as the only club that had more wins than losses against the league’s newest franchise. Other than Ontario, only Bakersfield and Tucson finished with four wins against CV.

“Every time we played there, or they play at our rink, there’s fans for both teams,” said Alex Turcotte on Tuesday. “It’s a little bit of a rivalry I guess we’ve built up so it’ll be a lot of fun. We had a lot of competitive games against them. They’re pretty chippy, too, so I’m sure it’ll be the same this round.”

As for the challenges of the Firebirds roster, Sturm mentioned that they are one of the deeper teams he’s seen and that will challenge the way that his team plays.

“They’re just better,” Sturm said. “Look at the lineup, from their first line to the fourth line and the defense, there’s not much weakness on that team. Not really system-wise, but definitely depth-wise and roster-wise, they’re definitely ahead of anyone else.”

We’ll see just how far ahead they might be on the Reign this week, with the Firebirds hosting Games 1 and 2 before the series shifts to the Inland Empire on Sunday for Game 3.

Finding Success Away From Home
Starting from the beginning of their 2023-24 regular season schedule right through to the final matchups on their slate, Ontario has proven that it can win games away from home.

The Reign started the year with four straight road victories after dropping its first two contests to begin the year at Toyota Arena. They then won five of their next seven away from home and had a 10-4-1 mark on the road through the first three months of the campaign.

That success didn’t falter during the second half either, when the club totaled a 13-8 road record from January through April. Their 23-12-1 combined mark, which earned them 47 standings points, was the third-best road record in the league (0.653).

So far things have continued to go their way while away from the IE in the playoffs, with Ontario going 2-0 on the road in the first two rounds. Both of their wins were the clinching victory to advance in their opponents’ building.

“I think we’re pretty comfortable on the road,” said Akil Thomas on Tuesday. “We’ve been pretty good on the road all year, so I think for us to kind of go into another building and try to just mentally beat the other team up and take the energy away from their building is what we like to do and I think we’re excited to go to Coachella.”

When it comes to games inside Acrisure Arena, the Reign recorded back-to-back shutouts there in their first two contests this year on Oct. 25 and Nov. 21 before picking up an overtime win on a goal by Martin Chromiak on Dec. 2. Their most recent appearance in the desert was also their only loss, a 3-1 defeat in the final battle of the season against the Firebirds on April 10.

Both of Ontario’s playoff road games have seen the team close out their opponent, but they also got off to a slow start in each, which required digging themselves out of early holes after surrendering the first goal. In Abbotsford last week, the Reign were behind 2-0 after the first before turning the game around with three rapid-fire tallies in a span of 1:21 during the middle period.

“Those kinds of tight games help you moving forward,” Sturm said. In Bakersfield and Abbotsford, those last games, I hope we learned from those kind of games and periods and slow starts. Both games we started kind of slow but then we found our game. But we can’t have that.”

Each team has had time to rest and reset leading into the series, with Ontario getting a week in between games and the Firebirds having four days since they moved past Calgary on Friday. Coachella Valley also had a long layoff between the regular season and the playoffs, with 11 days passing between a Game 72 shootout loss to San Diego and their postseason opener in Calgary on May 3.

“I think as we’ll be ready,” Sturm said. It’s going to be a little different. It’s not a game we have to win to win the series, but we feel comfortable going on the road and stealing a game.”

Audio Preview!
Josh Schaefer and I have a full preview of the upcoming series and the matchup against Coachella Valley in the latest full-length episode of the Reign Check Podcast, available below.

Wednesday’s Game 1 gets underway from the desert at 7 p.m. inside Acrisure Arena! Schaefer and I have the call with streaming video on AHLTV and live audio on the Reign App.

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