LOS ANGELES — When the Ontario Reign open the American Hockey League’s Western Conference Finals tonight at Citizens Business Bank Arena (8:00 PM PDT), they will do so against a virtually unknown opponent.
Indeed, the Reign have not played the Lake Erie Monsters (AHL affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets) this season. As such, at least in terms of actual on-ice experience, the two teams know nothing about each other.
But there’s always video, scouting and good’ol phone calls.
“It’s good and bad,” Reign head coach Mike Stothers said about not having faced the Monsters when he spoke with the media on May 17 on video provided by the team. “They don’t have a book on us, either. That’s where you rely on your video and scouting—those resources, plus we always reach out to coaches who have played them a lot of times. I’m sure they’re doing the same. We’ve all got buddies in the league, so you hit those guys up.”
“We did that going into the end of the regular season, preparing for what could’ve been three opponents,” Stothers told the media after practice on May 18. “Then, as you’re playing the first round, you’ve got to do your homework, making sure you’re ready if you’re fortunate enough to get to the next round, so obviously, you’re [looking at] those two teams, and while we were playing San Diego, we were looking and hoping that we were going to face the winner of Grand Rapids and Lake Erie.”
“We’ve been watching every game [and] we’ve been breaking it down,” Stothers added. “We’ll tinker with a few things and work on what we need to do.”
Numbers-wise, the two teams are comparable, in terms of goals scored and goals allowed. But Lake Erie’s power play during the playoffs has been off the charts.
“It’s a good team,” Stothers noted. “We haven’t seen them in the regular season, but looking at their stats, I think our numbers were pretty similar in goals for and goals against. I guess the biggest difference has been between their power play during the regular season and their power play percentage in the playoffs, which is 28 or 29 [percent], which is really high.”
“We’re going to look at [their power play],” left wing (and Los Angeles Kings prospect) Michael Mersch told the media after practice on May 18. “I think it’s what? 29 percent? We’re just going to have to look at what they do, but it’s more about us and what we have to do, as a penalty-kill unit. It starts with not taking as many penalties.”
Lake Erie’s speed could be factor in the series.
“They look like they can skate,” Stothers noted. “They can get up the ice in a hurry. Their transition game is real good, so anything that’s turned over can be a problem. [Zach] Werenski, the defenseman, he gets up the ice, and brings a new dynamic to the back end, and I think they’ve got two really good goalies. They mostly went with [Joonas] Korpisalo, but [Anton] Forsberg comes in the last game and gets the job done.”
“Through the use of video, we’ve seen how they like to breakout—that’s what makes it tough, because they’ve got a number of different looks for their breakouts,” Stothers added. “In the [attacking] zone, there’s a lot of movement. The defensemen like to switch, at the top. I think they try to confuse you that way.”
Werenski was the Blue Jackets’ first round pick (eighth overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft. Korpisalo was selected by the Blue Jackets in the third round (62nd overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and Forsberg was seventh round pick (188th overall) by Columbus in 2011.
Despite the uncertainty that comes with not having faced their opponent this season, the Reign aren’t concerned, not after having faced the same situation last season during the 2015 Calder Cup Final.
“It’s pretty interesting,” center Nic Dowd, also a Kings prospect, said after practice on May 18. “Last year, we played Utica. It’s a little strange, going into an arena against a team you haven’t played before, especially within your conference. I don’t think it poses any challenges that both teams can’t overcome, but obviously, will be really important.”
“We watched a little today,” Dowd added. “They’re a very talented team to be where they were during the year, and then, to get to this point. Good goaltending, good defensemen, so it’ll be a challenge.”
“With each playoff series comes its own problems and issues that you have to overcome. With the previous one, we played that team so many times, walking into games, you knew what to expect, and they knew what to expect from us, too. This time, [Stothers] said it best. You can watch as much video as you want. But it’s not about what they do. It’s about what we do.”
That’s exactly the mantra the Reign are operating under.
“When you watch these teams, there’s always going to be some subtle differences,” said Stothers. “But the game is the way it is, so I think if we play our game the way we can play it, I think that’s important to us.”
“I don’t want to have to think too much about what the opposition is doing,” added Stothers. “Let’s be aware of what their tendencies are. [We’ll look at] their face-off plays, their power play, their penalty-kill, of course. [But] the game is what it is. Nobody can re-invent the game, so we’ll look at some of those things and draw up a game plan. [Over] the next few days, we’ll work on our game, and what we want to accomplish.”
“We’ve had some good successes here, as a team, and actually, moving out here on the West Coast, we’ve played some new teams in the beginning of the year,” Mersch noted. “We’re just going to play our game, focus on what we have to do, and go from there.”
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign center Nic Dowd. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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