Reign Game 3 Preview 5/19 – Homeward Bound + Checking For Chances at a Comeback

WHO: Coachella Valley Firebirds (5-1) vs. Ontario Reign (5-2)
WHAT: 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs – Round 3, Game 3
WHEN: Sunday, May 19 @ 7:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: Toyota Arena – Ontario, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: AHLTV – AUDIO – Reign Broadcast Network – TWITTER: @ShafReign & @ontarioreign

With their backs pushed against the wall, the Ontario Reign will aim to begin the climb out of a 2-0 series hole in Game 3 of the AHL’s Pacific Division Finals Sunday night against the Coachella Valley Firebirds. The Reign are returning home to Toyota Arena after playing a pair of games in Palm Desert to open the best-of-5 series at Acrisure Arena.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: The Firebirds earned a more decisive win Friday in Game 2, a 5-3 decision, than they did in Game 1 on Wednesday which ended in a 3-2 score and consisted of a lopsided shot total that favored Ontario.

Coachella Valley defender Cale Fleury scored twice in the second game of the series, netting his second goal of the playoffs at 11:15 of the first before finding the back of the net with less than a second remaining on a five-minute power play at 8:15 of the third. Other Firebirds goals came from John Hayden, Jani Nyman, and Shane Wright, while goaltender Chris Driedger stopped 32 shots to earn the win.

Ontario got on the board with an own goal by Coachella Valley that was credited to defenseman Kevin Connauton early in the second and received power play goals in the third from Hayden Hodgson and TJ Tynan that kept them within reach but weren’t enough to get back within striking distance. After outshooting the Firebirds 31-15 in Game 1, the Reign had a 35-28 edge in shots on goal during Game 2.

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: After traveling home on Friday night following Game 2 in the desert, the Reign held an optional practice on Saturday morning, which was mostly made up of players who weren’t in the lineup for Game 2. A full team morning skate is expected this morning at Toyota Sports Performance Center ahead of tonight’s 7 p.m. game.

A late start on a Sunday night is uncommon in Ontario, but necessary due to a building conflict with a graduation being held at Toyota Arena earlier in the day.

The Reign also received some unwelcome news Saturday evening when the AHL announced a two-game suspension for forward Hayden Hodgson as a result of his third period hit on Shane Wright. Hodgson was assessed a major penalty for interference on the play, as well as a game misconduct which ended his night. Hodgson will miss Game 3 on Sunday, as well as a potential Game 4 on Friday.

Oddly, the hit came just 15 seconds after Hodgson scored his first career Calder Cup Playoff goal. Wright, the target of the hit, left the game and did not return. His status leading into Game 3 is still in question.

Hodgson’s absence from the lineup will require Marco Sturm to make a change to his forward lines for the first time this postseason ahead of Ontario’s eighth playoff contest. There has previously been only a single alteration to the Reign’s formation which came in Game 1 on Wednesday when Cole Krygier played in place of Kevin Connauton, who was unavailable due to injury. Connauton returned to his spot on the left side of a pairing with Steven Santini on Friday, sending Krygier back to the sidelines. A refresher on how the Reign have looked in all but one of their playoff games is below –

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

Hicketts – Clarke
Connauton – Santini
Nousiainen – Wylie


Options to replace Hodgson up front include Martin Chromiak, Quinn Olson and Francesco Pinelli. When Sturm was asked about his decision to scratch both Chromiak and Pinelli at the beginning of the playoffs, two players who were staples for the Reign during the regular season, he said it was a tough call, but also mentioned he had a feeling that the team would need them at some point during the postseason. That time is tonight, with the Reign needing a win to keep their season alive.

It’s not known whether Sturm will opt to bring both into the fold at the same time, but it seems certain that at least one of the two will check into the lineup. Chromiak is the more experienced professional, playing in 125 contests for Ontario over the past two regular seasons where he totaled 60 points on an even 30 goals and 30 assists. He’s also had extraordinary success against the Firebirds, scoring five points on three goals and two assists during 2023-24 after putting up six points on five goals and an assist in eight games last season against Coachella as a rookie, which included his first career professional hat trick. Chromiak appeared in each of the Reign’s playoff games a year ago in Colorado, recording an assist in the short series.

Pinelli, a former second-round pick of the Kings in 2021, got in 67 regular season games during his rookie year and totaled 20 points on 13 goals and seven assists. After a slow start, Pinelli came on down the stretch and started to have more success at both ends of the ice. That was a big reason why Ontario’s team play strengthened in the second half of the season.

Quinn Olson is the other option up front for the Reign. He’s only played a single AHL game in his career, an appearance for Ontario last month against San Diego. But he did recently suit up for six games with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the Kelly Cup Playoffs and played well, posting two goals and two assists. He also has playoff experience during his collegiate career with a team at the University of Minnesota-Duluth that has achieved excellent success at the NCAA level. Olson was in the lineup for each of the Bulldogs playoff wins during the school’s run to an NCHC Frozen Faceoff title and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022 and also played in the Frozen Four the year prior during a loss to UMass in 2021.

On the blue line, the Reign must decide whether they want to bring Cole Krygier back after he gave them a lift in Game 1. If he returns, it would most likely be in place of Kim Nousiainen or Wyatte Wylie, who have played third-pairing minutes in each of the team’s first seven postseason games. Options further down the depth chart include Jack Millar, who hasn’t played a game since his pro debut last month in Colorado, and Angus Booth, who joined the roster on Thursday after his QMJHL season came to an end earlier in the week.

FIREBIRDS VITALS: Coachella Valley took an early lead in Game 2, scoring on its first shot of the game when John Hayden beat Portillo just 1:57 into the opening period. That set the tone right away and the Firebirds had the lead for the remainder of the night, finishing with the highest offensive output Ontario has allowed in the playoffs.

After coming up empty on two power play chances in Game 1, Coachella Valley converted twice on the man-advantage in the second game of the series. Both goals came with less than two seconds remaining in the Reign penalties when Ontario looked as if they’d be able to kill them off. While they did allow a pair of power play goals themselves, both came in the third, and each was when they had a three-goal lead in the game.

None of Coachella Valley’s goal scorers from Game 1 found the back of the net in the second contest of the series, instead getting contributions from four other skaters. In their six playoff games this postseason, the Firebirds have had 12 different goal scorers contribute offensively.

For the second straight game, goaltender Chris Driedger outperformed Erik Portillo and was a focal point of his team’s success. Driedger made multiple stops on Ontario’s leading goal scorer Samuel Fagemo during the team’s penalty kill and also stopped point-blank rush chances by Alex Turcotte and TJ Tynan in the third period when the Reign were attempting a desperate comeback. Driedger has won five of his six playoff starts and maintained his stellar numbers. He has a goals-against average of 2.45 and a 0.921 save percentage during postseason play.

Coachella Valley head coach Dan Bylsma went with the same lineup formation on Friday in Game 2 that he used Wednesday in Game 1, shown below for reference –

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

The Firebirds have their first opportunity to close out the series tonight in large part because they’ve gotten ahead during the first period of both previous games. Although Ontario scored first in Game 1, Coachella Valley answered back and took the lead before the end of the first period on Wednesday night. That 10-minute span in the first was the only time they’ve trailed at any point during the series and they’ve played well when they’ve had the lead in each contest.

After playing 26 games last spring and making it all the way to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals, the Firebirds know there’s still a long road ahead of them in the postseason. But a win tonight would allow them to advance quickly by playing the minimum amount of games against a physical Ontario team, and that will certainly have them motivated coming into this evening’s tilt.

Notes –
Homeward Bound
Even though Acrisure Arena represents the shortest distance the Reign need to travel to play a road game, the old adage rings true. There truly is no place like home.

Ontario received great support from their home fans in both of the games to begin the series in Coachella Valley, with many folks on the concourse proudly donning black gear with either Reign or Kings logos in the desert. But unfortunately, they weren’t able to take advantage of the short ride on the freeway, falling behind, and are now pushed to the brink as they prepare for Game 3.

When speaking with Kevin Connauton moments after his team’s loss on Friday, the first words out of his mouth when asked about the contest showed what Toyota Arena has come to represent for the group.

“We’re happy to go home,” said Connauton. “We can lean on that; we’ve been playing well at home. It’s frustrating, but we’ve still got a chance here and a lot of belief in the locker room. We’ve got a hungry group and we’re ready for next game.”

A look at Ontario’s recent record inside Toyota Arena and it makes sense why Connauton and the rest of the team are excited to step back on home ice. The Reign finished the regular season with wins in 12 of their last 13 contests inside the building, with the only loss coming to the Firebirds in a shootout on March 15 that contained a game-tying goal by TJ Tynan in the final two minutes to force extra time. Ontario outscored its opponents by a combined 20 goals during that stretch, which began in late February.

That might not have always been the case, as earlier in the season the team was struggling in Ontario. They finished with 19 wins and 44 points from 36 home contests, but before the hot stretch that began in late February, the Reign had gone winless in seven straight at Toyota Arena over a span of a month.

But eventually, the team came out of that funk and their recent memory has many winning experiences. The hot stretch to close out the regular season at home continued into the playoffs, with three of their first four postseason wins coming in front of the friendly confines.

Overall, the Reign have won each of the playoff games they’ve contested at Toyota Arena during their run, outscoring Bakersfield and Abbotsford a combined 12-2 in 180 minutes of action.

“It’s always comfortable playing here,” said Erik Portillo after his first playoff win over Bakersfield. “We feel good in this building now and we’re always excited to play here.”

Now they’ll be looking to take the energy they’ll get from a home crowd into Sunday’s game, which requires a win to keep the season alive.

Checking For a Chance at a Comeback
Getting behind early in Game 2 sparked a desperation on the Reign bench; a feeling that it was already getting late despite it still being early in the series. In a best-of-5 situation, you certainly don’t want to lose the first two.

That feeling may have pushed the team away from the game they wanted to play against the Firebirds and forced them into a different style that posed a higher amount of risk than they’d like to play with. When you’re down in the game and the series, it’s not easy to sit back and wait for the game to come to you, playing the defensive style Ontario has used to create success. Instead, the urgency they needed to try and mount a comeback, resulted in more offense at both ends of the ice.

“I think in the past, all the games we’ve won is by playing good defense,” Sturm said when referencing the way the game played out on Friday. “We just got carried away a little bit.”

Kevin Connauton, who returned to Ontario’s lineup for Game 2 after watching the series opener from the stands on Wednesday while out with an injury, said that even though he’d rather be on the ice, it was helpful to watch the first contest play out from above.

“I think the margin for error is extremely small in the playoffs, so you’ve got to be engaged every shift you go out there,” Connauton said. “We kind of know what to expect when we play them. It’s nothing we didn’t expect or didn’t pre-scout, it’s just up to us on the ice to get the job done.”

To play the type of defense Sturm knows his team will need to get back in the series, they’ll need Connauton, a veteran of over 700 games in his professional career, which dates back to 2010 and has included 30 games in the Calder Cup Playoffs and another eight at the NHL level.

He’s also saying the right things to his teammates as a veteran leader in the locker room.

“Whether you lose by a goal or you lose 7-0, the next game is a new game and a new opportunity, so I think that’s going to be our mindset,” Connauton said. “It’s a clean slate. The series isn’t over. We’ve got a bit of a hill to climb but I don’t think we’re worried about it. We’ve been close, but close isn’t good enough right now. We’ve got to be prepared and ready to go.”

Sturm will also attempt to use his previous experience and knowledge of the playoffs to try and keep his team on track. Just a few months before Connauton began his AHL career, Sturm was on the losing end of one of the most famous comebacks in NHL playoff history when the Philadelphia Flyers overcame a 3-0 series deficit to defeat Sturm’s Boston Bruins. Even after the Flyers won three straight to force a deciding Game 7, Philadelphia allowed three goals in the first period to Boston and managed to win the final game by scoring the last four.

Making the memories of the series loss even worse for Sturm was the fact that he suffered what ended up being a season-ending knee injury 41 seconds into the first period of Game 1. For him, coming back from 2-0 down might not seem as hard as it feels for some of the younger players on his bench right now.

“I think that’s maybe why I was so relaxed today, because I’ve been in that situation a lot of times,” Sturm said on Friday. “I was telling them after the game, that’s my experience. It’s obviously a big game for us at home. We have absolutely nothing to lose. We’re going to go out and we’re going to give everything we can. As soon as you get that one win, the game is on again and the pressure is on them again. It changes very quickly.”

The confidence Sturm has was also echoed by Connauton, one of his most senior players.

“We know we can do it,” Connauton said. “We’ve matched up well against them all year. Over the last two games, we’ve had some really good moments as a team. There’s a few things we need to clean up and take advantage of some of the opportunities we have. Nothing else matters but winning on Sunday.”

The Reign look to keep their season alive in Game 3 tonight, which begins at 7 p.m. inside Toyota Arena! If you’re not able to make it out to the game, you can tune in to all the action with streaming video on AHLTV and live audio on the Reign App, provided by Josh Schaefer and me.

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