Reign Game 2 Preview 5/17 – Every Shift Matters + Bottom-6 Does The Trick

WHO: Ontario Reign (5-1) @ Coachella Valley Firebirds (4-1)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 3, Game 2
WHEN: Friday, May 17 @ 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 continue play in the AHL’s Pacific Division Finals series Friday night with Game 2 against the Coachella Valley Firebirds in Palm Desert at Acrisure Arena. The Firebirds have a 1-0 lead in the best-of-5 series. After Friday’s contest, the series will shift to Ontario for Game 3 on Sunday night.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Despite being held to just 15 shots on net, the lowest total in their short franchise history, Coachella Valley managed to earn a 3-2 win over the Reign in Game 1 on Wednesday on goals by captain Max McCormick, Devin Shore and Jimmy Schuldt.

Andre Lee scored for the fourth time during the postseason for Ontario in a losing effort, while Samuel Fagemo added a power play strike in the opening minute of the third period. Fagemo’s goal made it a one-goal game and the Reign outshot the Firebirds 13-4 the rest of the way but fell short of finding an equalizer.

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 during that series, posting 10 points on a goal and nine assists while Fagemo had a team-high five goals.

REIGN VITALS: During the day between games 1 and 2 on Thursday, Ontario held a team workout at their hotel and an on-ice practice for members of the roster who didn’t dress in Wednesday night’s matchup. Everyone else will have the opportunity to be back on the Acrisure Arena ice for a skate this morning.

Game 1 was the first AHL playoff loss for Erik Portillo, who has started each of the Reign’s six postseason contests thus far in 2024. Portillo saw a lower number of shots thrown his way, but the first two that got past him were deflected on their way in and a third was sent through a screen. One loss won’t be enough for Ontario to make a change in the crease – there’s a very high likelihood that the young netminder will be back in goal for Game 2. Portillo is still second in the league’s playoff goals-against average (1.51) and save percentage (0.940) behind Cleveland’s Jet Greaves who earned a shutout for the Monsters in their Game 1 win on Thursday.

Wednesday was the first time this postseason that Ontario made a change to its lineup, but it was out of necessity as defenseman Kevin Connauton was unavailable due to injury. Cole Krygier stepped in for his first action since late in the regular season on April 17, forming a third pair alongside Wyatte Wylie. The rookie performed well and also saw multiple shifts with Steven Santini late in the third period while the Reign were looking for a goal to tie things up. A look at that Game 1 alignment for Marco Sturm’s squad is below –

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

Hicketts – Clarke
Nousiainen – Santini
Krygier – Wylie


Although Connauton was unable to suit up on Wednesday, the defender was on the ice each of the last three days, which indicates that he’s not far away from being able to return. We’ll have to wait until warmups tonight to see if he’ll check back in. If Connauton is available, Sturm will have to decide whether he’d like to keep Krygier in the lineup or go back to the same way the defense aligned for his team’s previous five playoff wins.

There’s also another option on the left side of the back end, as Angus Booth was reassigned to Ontario’s roster on Thursday by the LA Kings after the 20-year-old’s junior season with Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL came to an end. Booth helped his team, who acquired him in a January trade, to the league championship series, but they fell short of the title. Now he’ll have the opportunity to join the Reign and could step on the ice for his professional debut in the Calder Cup Playoffs if called upon. More on Booth and his outlook here, from Zach Dooley yesterday afternoon.

If Ontario decides to make a change up front after its Game 1 defeat, other options to check in include Martin Chromiak, Quinn Olson and Francesco Pinelli.

FIREBIRDS VITALS: While Coachella Valley did enough to earn themselves a winning result from Game 1, it was hardly a convincing performance. Regardless, they’ll take the victory and move forward to Friday’s contest, which has them in position to put the Reign on the ropes with another win.

McCormick, who led the Firebirds with 32 goals during the regular season, scored his fourth of the postseason to get Coachella Valley’s offense going late in the first. McCormick is used to finding the back of the net against the Reign. The team’s captain lit the lamp twice against Ontario during this year’s eight-game head-to-head series and scored an additional seven goals in the 2022-23 series that included a hat trick performance at Toyota Arena last January.

Shore picked up the team’s second goal, finding the back of the net for his fourth straight playoff game. The attacker finished the regular season with 25 points in 39 games.

Goaltender Chris Driedger, who earned a 31-save shutout to clinch the series for the Firebirds in Game 4 last week, continued to serve as the team’s backbone in Game 1, making 29 saves. While winning four of his five playoff starts, Driedger has a postseason goals-against average of 2.35 and a 0.923 save percentage. During the regular season, the netminder went 24-7-7 in 39 appearances with a 2.26 goals-against average and a 0.917 save percentage along with four shutouts.

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

Max McCormack – Andrew Poturalski – Kole Lind
Cameron Hughes – Shane Wright – Ryan Winterton
Marian Studenic – Devin Shore – John Hayden
Jacob Melanson – Logan Morrison – Jani Nyman

Gustav Oloffson – Cale Fleury
Ryker Evans – Connor Carrick
Jimmy Schuldt – Ville Ottavainen

Chris Driedger

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.

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.

Notes –
Every Shift Matters
At this time of the year, especially in a matchup with the top team in the division from the regular season, one bad shift can be the difference between winning and losing. For Ontario on Wednesday, it was two consecutive shifts that ultimately doomed them, allowing Coachella Valley to score twice in a span of just 1:02 late in the first period.

After the game came to an end, that topic was the theme of Marco Sturm’s postgame media availability, with multiple references to the fact that a few mishaps can unravel a lot of good things during the span of a 60-minute game.

“It was just two or three mistakes,” said Sturm. “Overall, I thought we played a solid game but at playoff time some of the guys need to realize that every shift is important. On those kinds of shifts, if you’re going to make mistakes, if you’re not ready, especially off the faceoff right away, then it’s going to end up in your net.”

Andre Lee’s early goal put the Reign in front in the first, but they were never able to overcome that short segment before the end of the first. Not only were there multiple chances to clear their own zone that were squandered, but after the Firebirds had tied the game, the home team won the ensuing center ice faceoff and went right back to work in Ontario’s end, eventually producing the second tally on a deflection by Shore off an initial shot from Carrick on the right point.

Coachella Valley’s looks were limited in the final 40 minutes, combining for only seven shots on goal in the last two periods. But they committed to ‘battening down the hatches’, a phrase used by their head coach Dan Bylsma after the game when discussing his team’s defensive play late. While the AHL doesn’t officially track blocked shots in the box score, Bylsma mentioned he thought his team got in front of eight or nine Reign opportunities in the closing minutes of the game.

“We’re playing probably one of the best teams in the league in their building,” Sturm said. “They ended up with 15 shots or something, that was pretty good. It’s a little frustrating because we played good enough.”

Part of that frustration for Sturm also may have been that during both of those Firebirds goals, he had his best personnel on the ice. McCormick’s tying tally came during a shift for the team’s top forwards Alex Turcotte and Samuel Fagemo, along with the defensive pair of Kim Nousiainen and Steven Santini, while Shore’s was against the second line which includes Charles Hudon, Akil Thomas and Tyler Madden, and top defensive pairing Joe Hicketts and Brandt Clarke.

“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to focus on your job,” said Sturm. “Why did we have trouble in those two minutes? Because we were trying to do someone else’s job. You’ve got to stay calm in those kinds of moments, especially our veterans who were on the ice. We started to scramble a little bit and that minute or two cost us the hockey game. Those are the times in the game that we have to realize are important.”

When asked if he might consider any changes to the game plan leading into tonight, Sturm admitted he might do some tinkering, but didn’t think anything drastic would be necessary.

“There’s no reason to panic,” Sturm replied. “We played a good game. Yes, we have to tweak a few things, and we’ll go from there.”

Bottom-6 Does The Trick
Throughout Ontario’s playoff run, the team’s third and fourth lines have seemingly been strong during each night’s game. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons the Reign got off to its 5-0 start in the postseason, as they’ve been able to grind down opponents by getting consistent play from all four lines, whether they’re producing goals on the scoresheet or just cycling the puck in the offensive zone, not allowing others to break out and generate chances at the other end of the ice.

That didn’t change on Wednesday; both bottom-6 units were driving play for the Reign.

Lee’s opening goal was a result of relentless work by Taylor Ward, who worked to win two battles in Coachella Valley’s zone with his physicality and eventually found Lee open on the left circle for a wrist shot that beat Chris Driedger.

While watching the game and commenting live on the broadcast, we mentioned the success of that trio multiple times, which also included their center, Samuel Helenius. It was evident they caused problems for Coachella Valley.

“That whole line was our best line tonight,” Sturm said after the game. “Why? Because they kept it simple. They were ready. They played behind the defense, they forechecked, and they crashed the net. There were not too many times where they were kept in the D-zone. It was definitely one of the better games I’ve seen from that line.”

Sturm has made those types of comments throughout the playoffs, and the solid two-way play from those individuals has added up. Ward is a plus-6 from the team’s six postseason games, scoring a point per night with two goals and four helpers, while Lee and Helenius each have a +4 rating.

“We know what to expect from each other,” Lee said after Game 1. “I think that goes for our whole team. I feel like the whole team’s chemistry is really good right now. We do it for each other. Our line has found a good chemistry, and we just try to play our roles and help the team as much as we can.”

Ontario also got good offensive looks from its fourth line of Hayden Hodgson, Nikita Pavlychev and Jacob Doty. They helped create more room on the ice for their teammates with constant physical play and, just as the third line did, got to work in the offensive zone, making the Firebirds continue to go back in deep and break the puck out.

That simplicity is not generally the style of play the Reign have in their top-6 and for good reason. Those first two lines consist of some of the best, most talented players in the AHL, players that have gotten looks at the NHL level because of their skill and capabilities. But during 5-on-5 play Wednesday, they couldn’t generate as many high-end chances as Ontario needs to be successful in this series.

Yes, the team relies on the ability to roll all four lines and be deep up front, but especially against a dynamic offensive team like the Firebirds, who finished at the top of the league’s rankings with 3.50 goals per game during the regular season, Ontario needs to match their skill with the play of its best forwards.

“The third and fourth line I thought were a little bit better than our first and second lines,” Sturm said. “That can’t happen. We needed a little bit more out of them to get us the result we want.”

The opportunity is there for the Reign to even up the series before they return home to Toyota Arena, where they’ve become comfortable and had success. To do that, they’ll need the type of play they got from those top forwards in the first two rounds, as well as the depth of their third and fourth lines that showed well in Game 1.

The Reign and Firebirds drop the puck for Game 2 on Friday night at 7 p.m. inside Acrisure Arena. Josh Schaefer and I will have the call with streaming video on AHLTV and live audio on the Reign App. Check back here later tonight on LAKI for a full recap including postgame reaction ahead of Game 3 which will take place Sunday in Ontario.

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