This past holiday week, the Reign played three matches, all against divisional rivals in the pacific, and won two out of the three battles on the ice to project themselves into sixth place. For the Reign, this position puts them in the second to last spot in the pacific division and 28th in the AHL.
No, sixth place doesn’t quite scream, “we’re on the way up”, but inevitably, the Reign are making strides in the pacific division standings – even if it’s only a spot away from where they were the week prior.
For the next seven games, the Reign are slated to face off against teams with a higher divisional ranking than Ontario, and with arguably their toughest series of competitors on the horizon. Last week’s match-ups provided some semblance of security for the upcoming match-ups, as well as some integral points of emphasis to analyze for the weeks to follow.
Last Wednesday night, Ontario played against the San Diego Gulls (AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks) for the first time during the regular season away from home.
The Reign won by a narrow margin of 4-3, with a game winning goal coming from the offensively gifted blueliner – Sean Walker, scoring late in the third period.
With a day of rest in their system, Ontario took to the ice at Citizens Business Bank Arena in their first game against the Bakersfield Condors (AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers) this season.
For only the third time in 2018-19, Ontario opened the scoring and forced the visiting Condors to come from behind, a feeling the Reign could certainly sympathize with, but were likely unenvious of.
Bakersfield equalized on an even-strength, tic-tac-goal that right winger – Connor Hebig, sent in past Reign netminder – Michael Leighton, in the second period, which gave way to three successive Bakersfield goals in the third.
In a small flash of brilliance, first-year Reign forward – Brad Morrison, danced through center ice to grab a consolation goal in the final seconds of regulation. Morrison’s slick wrister, however, was not enough to taper the lead which the Condors had amassed in the final period; the Reign trotted off home ice with the sting of a 4-2 score line looming over a dismal Black Friday.
On Sunday, Ontario geared up for their final home appearance of the weekend and settled in for what would eventually be a dream-like, underdog, come-from-behind, barn-burning, game of the season.
In an eerily similar fashion to the string of overtime performances Ontario had earlier in the season, the Tucson Roadrunners (AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes) lead the scoring, 3-2, going into the third.
The Roadrunners came off to a quick and lethal start at the beginning of the game’s final period, scoring three consecutive goals to all but seal their win, 6-2.
In an unprecedented act of mental fortitude, tremendous will, and team-wide skill, however, Ontario overcame the odds, scoring four straight goals to take the game into overtime where none other than captain, veteran, and centerman – Brett Sutter, scored his second goal of the night to seal the win in overtime, 7-6.
“You don’t like giving up goals and having a slow start,” Sutter said in an interview following the game, “But if you keep fighting, you give yourself a chance every night and that’s what we did.”
Major Moves and Fresh Faces
With 20 points (8-12=20) in 14 games for Ontario, rookie Reign forward – Sheldon Rempal’s profound ability to play at a level all his own, has coerced the Kings to bring him back in the fold in LA. For the second time this season, the top AHL rookie has made a splash big enough to get the attention of the right people for a move up to his parent club.
When Rempal was last recalled to the Kings, over a month ago, the 5-foot 10-inch, right winger played in his first four NHL games with the club but failed to collect any points over the course of them.
Since Rempal’s short trip in LA, the coaching situation has changed and Reign alumni – Matt Luff and Austin Wagner, have had recent success under Kings interim head coach – Willie Desjardins.
In his short tenure as head coach of the Kings, Desjardins has been the object of vehement scrutiny and impartial praise by shaking up LA’s starting lines. His penchant for turning rookies, like Luff and Wagner, into mainstays in LA, however, made bode well for Rempal who has once again been given an opportunity to prove himself in the big leagues.
On the other hand, last time Rempal left Ontario, the Reign suffered enormously – losing all three match-ups and struggling to find winning form in the turbulence of the sudden dismissal of Ontario’s leading scorer.
This time, however, the Reign will be getting to test drive LA’s highly touted prospect and 2017 first round draft pick –Gabe Vilardi, in return. News of Vilardi’s move to Ontario broke on Tuesday of this week, when LA’s front office cleared the 19-year old, former OHL (Ontario Hockey League) player to get his first taste of regular season play under the King’s organization on a conditioning loan to Ontario.
Vilardi shined in the OHL, collecting 189 total points (82-107=189) across three seasons with two teams (2015-17 Windsor Spitfires; 2017-18 Kingston Frontenacs), before signing an ELC with the Kings on March 1st, 2018.
Heralded by many as the Kings top prospect and a shoe in for a spot on the 2018-19 roster, Vilardi was set back by a nagging back issue, which sidelined him for a portion of his final season in the OHL and forced him into an extended rehab stint with the Kings this past summer. Until recently, Vilardi’s time on the ice was virtually non-existent, vying for time in a physical therapy room, rather than time spent over the boards.
Although Vilardi’s time will be limited to, “no more than 14 consecutive days,” per section 13.8 of the NHL’s CBA. His scoring prowess, profound puck play, and above average hockey IQ, will be a refreshing addition to a Reign roster that has seen its top players cycled through to LA in recent months.
Reign goaltender – Peter Budaj, is making his way back to Ontario this week, as well as news of Kings franchise goaltender – Johnathan Quick, being reactivated from IR, has changed the landscape of the goaltending hierarchy in LA.
For the foreseeable future, Reign alumni – Cal Petersen, will likely support Quick until Kings backup goaltender – Jack Campbell, recovers from a knee injury he gleaned earlier this season.
With Budaj’s position all but solidified in Ontario for the time being, Leighton’s position on the roster hangs in the balance.
Although Budaj (1-2-0) has a slightly less admirable record in comparison to Leighton (1-1-0), Budaj’s future on the Reign roster is contractually cemented for the remainder of the year. Leighton’s stalwart veteran presence in net is no longer a cost the Reign need to incur with the return of Budaj to Ontario – which, in turn, makes the case for Leighton’s continued aid less viable in conjunction with the impending return of Petersen and the continued support of Reign netminder – Charles Williams.
Old Man, Look at my Line
With Rempal out of the picture for the time being, both Sutter and veteran forward – Matt Moulson, took the lead in points for Ontario, tied at 16 (5-11=16) a piece.
Down one spot from the veteran duo, Walker (6-7=13) leads all Ontario defensemen in goals, and for that matter, is the third on the team in points, while rounding out the Reign’s top five, veteran defenseman – Matt Roy (3-8=11) and 21-year old Morrison (5-5=10) come in at fourth and fifth in point totals for the Reign with 11 and 10 respectively.
At a glance, the Reign’s top five do not seem altogether out of the ordinary, but upon closer inspection, it is rather troubling that Morrison, who has only recently cracked the top five in large part due to a surge in points last week, is the only surviving rookie at the top of Ontario’s roster.
If the Reign have any hope of succeeding in the absence of their top scorers, it is imperative that rookies like forward – Mikey Eyssimont, who collected one point in three games last week (0-1=1), make strides to improve their game and share the burden of scoring with the handful of veterans (two of which are defensemen) at the top.
Equally important is the idea that scoring become a team effort and not a collaboration of the team’s top two lines. With this in mind, perhaps the most comforting statistic to come from last week’s match-ups was that two Reign players scored their first goals on the season and illuminated the possibility that scoring need not always rest on the shoulders of the few players atop the roster.
First year pro – Rymsha, and rough and tumble veteran left winger – Bokindji Imama, both scored against Tucson last week for the first time this season. For Boko, the moment was particularly special – his first professional goal coming on the night of his 50th AHL cap.
Post game interview with Boko:
Strong team-wide performances, like last week’s, need to become commonplace for Ontario as they look to take on a tough stretch of opponents in the coming weeks. With Bakersfield away from home on Thursday morning, the Reign have to tap into the same resilience and group-scoring effort that made them heroes of Ontario against Tucson on Sunday afternoon. Just a point shy of overtaking the Condors, Ontario’s play will mean the difference between forward momentum in the standings, or a pattern of inconsistency that will force the Reign to regress once more.
As Reign head coach – Mike Sothers, put it, “We know we’ve still got a ways to go to be where we want to be at the end of the year, but we’re making some strides and it just feels good. Damn it feels good right now.”