Veteran Reign defenseman – Kurtis MacDermid, sprawls out in front of the net to keep Tucson right winger – Jens Looke, from becoming a dangerous option in front of the netVeteran Reign defenseman – Kurtis MacDermid, begrudgingly pushed the skate trailing behind his lead leg as he trudged over the boards for his final shift of the night. A half-hearted nudge of blade and ice was just enough to send MacDermid to a familiar location outside of the faceoff circle, which he knew intimately, given the myriad of times he had been positioned there throughout a lengthy career with the Ontario Reign.
This time however, the 6-foot 5-inch blueliner was reduced in size by several inches as his head sunk into his chest, searching for solace from the devastating game that had just been played out before him and his teammates.
The Reign had lost six straight games after falling to the formidable Tucson Roadrunners (AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes) at home and had given up the most goals in a single game since the club’s conscription into the AHL in 2015.
Once again, Ontario was slow to start. The Reign got the wind knocked right out of their sails before public announcer, Dave Joseph, could finish rousing the crowd for the night’s main event and before thirty seconds could roll by, Tucson was on the board.
The Roadrunners would force Ontario’s hand by netting two more goals in quick succession before starting Reign keeper – Cal Petersen, got pulled for Ontario’s secondary netminder – Peter Budaj.
Regin blueliner – Alex Linutniemi, attempted to salvage the first period by snapping a low wrister, stick side on Tucson goaltender – Adin Hill, to open scoring for the Reign. However, minutes before the first period drew to a close, unhurried Roadrunner right winger – Hudson Fasching, hesitated on an eventual slapshot, which sailed over the glove of a screened Budaj to end the period with a score of 4-1 in favor of Tucson.
The second period began and ended to much the same effect as the first, but what happened in-between seemed to matter slightly less for attending Reign fans as they witnessed Ontario winger and former NHL first round draft pick– Emerson Etem, score his first goal of the season with a mixture of poise and hand-eye coordination that would make a baseball player blush.
Emeron’s circuslike goal preceded Reign forward – Matt Luff’s, third goal of the season, but both net-bulging Reign attempts were not enough to close the gap on Tucson’s second period scoring.
The horn signaling the end of the second period rang out and the scoreboard illuminated a score of 7-3 in favor of Tucson as fans emptied their seats to pursue intermission rituals and head for the doors.
Luff began the third period by scoring the Reign’s first shorthanded goal of the season after a hard-to-handle pass from Lintuniemi exposed half of the net for a backdoor shelf that nearly bobbled past the 21-year old forward.
Returning from injury, veteran AHL winger –Zack Mitchell, made an immediate impact on the ice by giving Ontario some semblance of hope for a late comeback and connecting on the only powerplay opportunity of the night.
In an unfortunate chain of events, however, the Reign gave up a late goal that deflected off a stick and up and over Budaj, to give Tucson Center –Matteo Gennaro a hat-trick that completely dissolved any aspirations of Ontario making a late game stand for overtime. The final score was nearly audible as the scoreboard’s seven morphed to an eight over-head and the Reign gifted Tucson their highest scoring game in franchise history.
The “Not-So” Bright Side
“You fall behind and you try to play catchup and it’s a slippery slope that you don’t come up,” Head coach Stothers said as sullen hockey figures meandered towards the exits around him at game’s end.
Slow starts have become a glaring issue for this Ontario team, which continually force the Reign to ‘play catchup’ against opponents.
Not only do the Reign trail overall against opposing teams in the first and second period by a difference of 10 goals and 6 goals respectively, but the Reign are particularly susceptible to scoring and immediately getting scored on in minutes, if not seconds, after Ontario finds the back of the net.
Slow starts, however, cannot be the sole account for Ontario’s miserable commencement to the season. While an accumulation of slower game starts has overtaken a large portion of discussion concerning Ontario’s poor 2018-19 form, sluggish startups simply embody underlying issues that exist as more central problems the Reign need to address.
“It’s got to be mental,” Stothers said after being asked whether the slow starts are a physical or mental problem.
Of course, coach Stothers was not wrong in his assessment. Mental fortitude seems to have plagued this team for quite some time now.
A large part of this Ontario team’s inability to pull away from games with clear wins, or retain game leads, likely stems from issues outside of this Reign team’s physical prowess or roster strength.
Ontario has the personnel to create favorable outcomes on a consistent basis. Teeming with talent across the roster, several AHL veterans, former NHL stars, and promising young pipeline players –this team has a recipe for success written into the logbooks every night they take the ice.
A lack of mental toughness, on the other hand, can take a great team on paper turn and render them useless.
As evidenced by the discipline issues I discussed last week with penalties and the obvious issue of slow starts, Ontario will not be able to get out in front of this losing streak if they cannot first get over the mental issues that are seriously affecting their on-ice performance.
Rempal’s Lackluster Return
Ontario winger and former NHL callup – Sheldon Rempal, made his homecoming appearance tonight and was slotted in the top line, but if his return had not already been dwarfed by the score line, one might hardly have noticed his presence on the ice in the first place.
Rempal was forced to trade in the bright lights and big crowds of Staples Center earlier this week as Ontario’s NHL affiliate, the LA Kings, decided it would be best for him to move back down based on cap issues, or more likely, the return of LA Kings winger – Dustin Brown, from LTIR.
The 23-year old offensive producer failed to make any consequential contributions to the box score against Tucson and halted his two points per game average that made his cup of coffee in LA so hard to swallow.
It is safe to imagine Rempal will land somewhere closer to form as the season progresses. With an offensive skill set to match NHL wingers, the confidence of a callup under his belt, and a proven ability to facilitate and score – it has never been a question of “if” for Rempal, but when?
Ontario is on the verge of losing seven successive matchups (would be longest losing streak in Reign’s AHL tenure) and face the Calder Cup’s runner up in their next match, the Texas Stars.
Although it may seem foolish to expect a player who is readjusting to a team and league he played in just weeks before to step right back into his paramount production, at this low point of the season, the team needs Rempal to create quality goal scoring opportunities and notch a few himself. Not only does the team need Rempal to prove himself, but Rempal himself might feel the need to prove his worth and continue to make a name for himself in a league that is meant to refine talented NHL prospects much like the young Ontario starlet, Rempal.
The Reign are making another two game homestand at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Friday they will be playing against Calder Cup’s runner up, Texas Stars, and Saturday, they will be facing the San Diego Gulls for the second time this season.
The Reign have a vast amount of work to do before heading into the weekend. Integrating new players into the lineup and pursuing their second and third wins of the season are at the forefront of the list, but if the reign cannot overcome their own mental lapses or shortcomings, they will be well on the path of another loss and in desperate need to get themselves to shore on a quickly sinking boat.