ONTARIO, CA — As their parent teams finalize a series in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the American Hockey League affiliates of the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks begin their best-of-five game series on Friday afternoon in San Jose.
At season‘s beginning, the Pacific Division was a new standard for the AHL. Now it gets one of California‘s top rivalries between two of the premier California organizations, as the Ontario Reign and San Jose Barracuda will keep the organizational on-ice rivalry fresh as they square off for a best-of-five game set in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs pitting Southern California vs. Northern California, just like the Kings and Sharks.
“It‘s definitely ironic for two organizations to have the American Hockey League and National Hockey League teams facing each other in the playoffs,” said Reign goaltender Peter Budaj. “It‘s a pretty big accomplishment for both organizations to have such good depth, especially for both teams to have American Hockey League teams in the playoffs. It‘s pretty exciting. Hopefully we do our best, and hopefully the Kings come back and do some damage too.”
The Kings trail the Sharks in their best-of-seven series, 3-1, with Game 5 scheduled tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
In its 80th season, the Calder Cup Trophy has only been raised by the same franchise in back-to-back years eight times. The Reign, who won the Calder Cup as the Manchester Monarchs last June, are looking to become the ninth group to win the trophy in consecutive years, and just the third in the past 30 years, and will have the help of twelve returning players from last campaign‘s run.
Ontario‘s current roster brings 451 games of professional playoff experience with it, which plays much larger than San Jose‘s combined 154 games. This is helped by Ontario‘s seventh straight appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs (the previous six as the Monarchs), and only San Jose‘s second trip in the past six years (as the Worchester Sharks). Coming off a first-round elimination, the Barracuda will return just eight players from last season‘s playoff roster.
“Experience is huge,” exclaimed Reign captain and defenseman, Vincent LoVerde. “You‘ve seen a lot of it, been through a lot of it. A lot of these guys have been together with [Reign head coach Mike] Stothers now, so we know what he expects and what we need to do out there in order to be successful.”
“Obviously, it helps that we have guys that have been there before,” said forward Nic Dowd. “Not only here, but in the NHL levels in the playoffs too. I think it‘s good to have older guys that have been there and sometimes with the younger guys it almost helps that they haven‘t been there, and don‘t know what they‘re getting into and they just jump right in and go.”
Four of the players on the current Reign roster have past experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, none are as important as defenseman Jeff Schultz, who not only lifted the Calder Cup over his head last year, but the coveted Stanley Cup as well with the Kings in 2014.
“We do have some guys who have some valuable experience in a winning environment that is going to help the younger guys,” Stothers said. “We‘ve got guys who have never played in any playoffs, we‘ve got some guys that have played a lot. We‘ve got a few guys who‘ve had the ultimate success, Schultz winning the cup with the Kings is a pretty valuable guy to have in your room—Stanley Cup Champion.
The primary netminder for the Reign throughout the season will look to carry a career year with him into the post-season. Budaj posted numbers the AHL had not seen in over half a century. The 14th-year pro led the league in goals-against average (1.75), save percentage (.932) and shutouts (nine), becoming the third goaltender to do so since 1984. Budaj was also named as the winner of the the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as “…the goaltender adjudged to be the best at his position, as voted by league coaches, media and players.”
Budaj also won the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for his league leading goals-against average, with a minimum of 25 games played. All that comes on top of his 42 wins in net, which had also not been seen in the AHL in more than 50 years.
Between twelve regular season matchups between the Reign and Barracuda, Budaj is no stranger to the San Jose offense. However, he has no fear of any reports they may have based on past games against him.
“Everybody has a scouting report on everybody so it doesn‘t matter,” said Budaj. “Every game is different, you can‘t think about doing something extra. I know it‘s a cliché, but everybody that plays the game knows to focus on the process and not focus on the outcome of the process because that‘s gonna put you out of the zone.”
With the help of Budaj in net, the Reign defense led the league by a large margin with the sixth-lowest goals allowed average in AHL history at 2.0294. Defense wins championships, especially when going against the 11th ranked offense in the league, and San Jose, which scored 2.91 goals per game, has a slight edge on Ontario, which averaged 2.82.
“Any time you‘re going to the playoffs, you‘d like everyone to step up their game,” LoVerde said. “We take pride as a defensive core in keeping pucks out of the net, and helping [Budaj]—doing everything we can to help the team. It‘s definitely something we take pride in and we want to focus on come playoff time.”
It nearly goes without saying, but to maintain a strong defense,a team must have the ability to kill penalties. The matchup of a penalty-kill and power play can make or break a playoff series, and if the regular season is any indication, this could make for a fantastic series.
As reported earlier, Ontario was dominant defensively, and their penalty-kill was no different, with an 88.7 percent rating. The battle becomes easier, as San Jose only converted 15.4% of their power plays, ranked 24th in the league.
“Special teams is gonna be huge,” chimed Dowd. “You see that in a lot of rounds of the playoffs and at the next level, too. Special teams will be big—the penalty-kill. If we can stick to what we‘ve been doing all season, we should be OK.”
On the flip side, the Reign were only slightly better on the power play, converting 16 percent of their chances with the man advantage. Along with that, the Barracuda ranked 19th in the league at killing penalties at 82.4%, which gives a slight edge to the Kings‘ affiliate in finding the back of the net with the extra man on the ice.”
“Power play is huge,” said forward, Michael Mersch. “You look at some of the Stanley Cup games and teams are winning games on special teams. For us, personally, our record is extremely good when we‘ve scored on the power play. If we can get those types of goals, and if our penalty-kill stays the same way, you know you‘re gonna have success.”
Mersch scored one-sixth of the Reign‘s power play goals, with his front-of-the-net style of play. Known for driving to the net, grit, and the ability to score near the net, the 23-year-old Kings‘ prospect still plans to be around the net to collect rebounds or retrieve pucks and finish plays near the crease.
“Those are types of goals you have to score in the playoffs,” he said. “Around the net, gritty goals…it should be the same as if you‘re on the power play or five-on-five—gotta retrieve pucks and get pucks to the net. You keep it simple and get pucks to the net, recover them and do the same thing over again. You‘re bound to get opportunities.”
Despite all the statistical advantages, the Reign aren‘t taking this series lightly, noting that San Jose has both depth and talent to match up and make it a challenging series in the first round.
“Every player has a really good skill to be able to play in the AHL and be in the playoffs,” said Budaj. “San Jose has a few of those guys, but we definitely know their top lines are really strong. They‘re very deep in their lineup. Their third and fourth line can still make plays and they have some good shooters there. In the playoffs, it‘s the third and fourth lines that win hockey games.”
“They‘re a good team,” Mersch said. “They‘re a well-coached team. They have good structure. It‘s a long series, it‘s not seven, but a five-game series, you just want to stay on top the whole series. Just taking care of business early and often.”
“It‘s part of their whole system,” said Stothers. “They do have a good back end, and by that I mean their defensemen are good, but they‘re kinda like us. They get everybody involved, and they expect everybody to be strong in their own end…they‘ve played us well, they‘re not afraid to block shots, they‘re real good at getting in the shooting lanes, they‘re real good at face-offs. [When] they‘ve got the puck, [it] kinda sounds like you‘re talking about the same team. You talk about us, you‘re talking about a strong goaltender, it‘s gonna be a good matchup.”
Like the Reign, the Barracuda are solid in goal, with Aaron Dell sporting the third-best goals-against-average in the Western Conference at 2.42 and fourth-best save percentage in the league at .922—he has been a burden for the Reign offense throughout the course of the season.
“A lot of their success is Dell, he‘s really good,” Stothers noted. “He got off to a tough start this year and his numbers aren‘t really reflective of what he was capable of, and then man, he found his groove. You look at the final numbers for him, he came a long way from where he started, it was incredible, the improvement. You could see the improvement and results the team was getting itself. I don‘t think you can overstate how good Dell is.”
The series will begin with a two-game set on Friday, April 22, in San Jose, and then its back to Ontario and Citizens Business Bank Arena for Game 3, and if necessary, Games 4 and 5. Though it isn‘t a convenience for the Ontario players, it‘s something they know helps with the travel and doesn‘t take them out of their comfort zone.
“Unfortunately, you wish it could be the other way around, but every team is going to face adversity,” said Dowd. “It‘s nice from a mental standpoint to be at home, practicing and taking your pre-game ritual at home, but it‘s good to be around the team. Provides a lack of distraction to be on the road and allows you to do what you need to do. We‘ll be OK.”
Citizens Business Bank Arena played host to 34 home games for the Reign during the regular season, averaging 8,570 fans per night, which ranked fourth across the league. When the team returns home on Thursday, April 28, for Game 3, Stothers hopes the fans blow the roof off with playoff spirit.
“The noise, man, I hope this place is just rockin‘,” he exclaimed. “It‘s pretty good in the regular season, and I can only imagine it‘s going to be better during the playoffs.”
The Reign will travel north without newly assigned Kings‘ prospects, Michael Amadio (third round pick, 2014), and Spencer Watson (seventh round pick, 2014). The 19-year-old forwards will not make their professional debuts on the road with the Reign, but were guaranteed they are important to the team as a whole.
“In an ideal world, it‘d be great to bring everybody, but the logistics are there‘s only so many seats on a bus, the hotels, it becomes quite an expense,” Stothers noted. “We know that now that it‘s San Jose, if we need to get somebody in a pinch, we can get them from Ontario to San Jose pretty quick. But you know what? I had a good meeting with all of those guys yesterday and explained the situation and how valuable and important they are to us.”
Game 1 against the Barracuda will mark the beginning of the current AHL champs march towards defending their title, an accomplishment the team set out for prior to the first puck drop of the season.
“It‘s something we wanted to accomplish before the season started,” said Budaj. “It was our goal to get to the playoffs and go as far as we can. We made the first step, and now the second step is starting, so we have to be ready. We haven‘t won anything yet. Our goal is to play until June and get the win.”
Short series are always challenging because there‘s little room for mistakes. San Jose has plenty of depth, particularly up the middle, but are very young at nearly every position away from center. Youth can lead to mistakes, and the Reign are far from youthful. The Reign defense is near record-breaking with Budaj actually breaking records. Defense, goaltending and experience will win this series for the Reign, but it won‘t come easy. Dell will be the difference maker for San Jose, but he isn‘t likely to be enough.
Prediction: Ontario in four games or less.
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign goaltender Peter Budaj. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.</em
Follow Taylor Blake Ward on Twitter at @TaylorBlakeWard.
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