Power play is weapon of choice for Reign

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Jared Shafran | AHL On The Beat

There are many reasons why the Ontario Reign are a better team this season than they were during the 2020-21 campaign. But the most obvious improvement to the team has been its power play.

A unit that ranked third-to-last in the American Hockey League last season at 14.4 percent has skyrocketed to #1 one after its first 37 games, scoring a league-leading 42 goals for a success rate of 27.6 percent.

Throughout the season, the man-advantage has consistently been a weapon for the Reign, starting off hot with goals in each of the team’s first 10 games and has most recently produced in bunches, finding the back of the net multiple times in six of their last 13 contests.

Early on, forward Martin Frk was the clear go-to option for a one-time strike, but as the season has continued, Ontario has spread the wealth to others like forwards Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Gabriel Vilardi, who have become consistent producers on the team’s top unit.

“It’s a huge momentum thing that if teams take penalties then we’re a legit threat,” said Reign assistant coach Chris Hajt. “To their credit, those guys have really bought in. They’re playing well as a group and there’s more than one player out there that’s making a difference.”

When preparing to face Ontario, an opponent likely starts by watching Frk, whose 10 man-advantage goals are tied for the league lead and make up half of his season total (20). The Pelhrimov, Czech Republic, native had three power-play tallies in his first seven games and has been consistently effective on the unit all year, including a Jan. 22 win over Tucson which saw him find the back of the net twice on the man-advantage en route to his first AHL hat trick.

“It’s always fun when you’re winning and we’re sure winning a lot this year,” said Frk. “You want to be on the winning teams, it just makes everything better and the feel in the room with the coaches, the staff, everyone who is around us is feeling much better so that’s great.”

While Frk has been the one finishing plays, his goals almost always go through T.J. Tynan, who is primarily responsible for zone entries before putting the puck in Frk’s wheelhouse for a one-timer. Eight of Frk’s 10 power-play strikes have come with an assist from Tynan, who leads the AHL with 23 man-advantage helpers. His total is five higher than the next closest skater, Tucson’s Matias Maccelli (18).

“He’s an intense player; every shift he’s one of the hardest working guys on the ice,” Hajt said of Tynan. “He wants to win. He has a drive to win, a drive to make plays and score. Watching him and being around him every day, he’s a terrific player and drives our team.”

Tynan has earned a point on 57 percent of Ontario’s power-play goals this season. In 31 outings at the AHL level, Tynan has totaled 48 points, which makes him the league’s leader in points per game (1.55).

“He makes my job easy,” Frk said. “The only thing I need to do is put the puck in. It’s a big treat. He’s been in this league for so long, he knows how to play this game and he’s a great teammate and great player.”

But it’s not just Frk who has racked up the power-play goals for the Reign this season. Recently, Anderson-Dolan has been the team’s hottest player on the man-advantage, scoring six power-play goals in his last 10 games to match Frk’s league-leading total.

Anderson-Dolan has had the finishing touch in tight, scoring off deflections and second-chance opportunities. As the main forward down low, he’s been integral in retrieving loose pucks and winning battles to maintain possession.

“Ultimately puck retrievals are very important when you get an opportunity to shoot and create some momentum going to the net,” Hajt said. “We want to be able to recover and get those second, third, fourth opportunities and it seems like lately we’ve been getting a lot of those where it’s not just the first chance or the first shot that’s going in, it’s the second, third and fourth chance because we’ve retrieved the puck and that’s work ethic, that’s maintaining poise with the puck under pressure.”

When an opponent attempts to take away the pass to Frk or has defenders in place to block his shot, that has left Anderson-Dolan open as another option near the net. If the puck does make its way to Frk and his attempt generates a rebound, that’s when the puck retrievals come into play.

“It’s just everyone being dangerous,” said Anderson-Dolan. “We have so many weapons on both units doing a great job moving the puck well. When you’ve got Frk over on that one side taking slapshots it’s a recipe for success, so we’ve just got to keep it going.”

When the Reign started off the season with success on the power play, defender Sean Durzi was a key factor, contributing as the quarterback of the unit from high in the zone on the point. But by mid-November, injuries to multiple defenders on the Los Angeles Kings blue line left the Reign’s affiliate in need of reinforcements and Durzi was called into action with the big club. He was so effective during his opportunity that’s he’s become a mainstay in the Kings’ lineup, leaving a hole to be filled in Ontario.

Ontario is averaging a league-high 4.08 goals per game this season.

That role has gone to 20-year-old rookie Jordan Spence, who has not only filled in admirably, but consistently flourished, recently recording a 13-game point streak which is tied for the longest run in the AHL this season. He posted 18 points during that time, all but two of which were assists, and is now the third-highest scoring defender in the league with 28 total points on the season.

“It’s impressive for a young man coming into this league,” Hajt said of Spence’s success. “He’s definitely taken huge strides and improved his craft every day. He’s very aware of the details that are needed and he’s just getting better and better.”

Spence’s 26 helpers this season are first among all AHL defenders and fifth-most overall in the league. As for the power play, Spence’s 16 man-advantage assists are also fifth in the AHL.

“I’m really happy for Durzi being up with the Kings, he’s doing a great job,” Frk said. “But now Spence got the opportunity and he’s done well with it. I think he was a little bit nervous, especially with me and T.J. on the flanks, we like to sometimes say a lot of words to him so it’s hard for him to maybe pick it up but he’s doing really good. He’s almost a point per game and as a defender in the AHL. Not too many guys can do that so I’m really happy for him.

“He needs to continue whatever he’s doing and make sure he dishes me the puck so I can keep scoring,” Frk finished with a smirk.

Spence mentioned that another focus for the unit has been their tempo and keeping their speed up is making them even harder to defend.

“It’s a 5-on-4 for a reason, we should have control on that play,” Spence said. “On the breakout, if we do a good job and Tynes is such a great player, he breaks it in and sets the play up. We just want to be a fast-tempo team on the power play and I think we’ve been doing pretty well so far so we just want to keep that momentum going.”

The first unit’s success has led the way, but Ontario’s second unit is no slouch either. With scoring threats like forwards Samuel Fagemo, Tyler Madden and Alex Turcotte, opposing penalty killers have to be alert no matter who jumps over the boards on either group.

“I think the first unit just has so many threats out there.” Turcotte said after a recent win over Grand Rapids where he scored his first power-play tally of the season. “I think when they’re doing well, we want to do well too and pick it up and stay with them. But they set the tone and it was a lot of fun.”

The highlight on Turcotte’s goal was the pass Madden made to get him the puck. Turcotte was open near the left circle and Madden, who was on the far side in the high slot, faked a shot before sliding the puck to his left.

“I think it was just really good passing to give me a great look,” Turcotte said. “I thought for sure Madden was shooting, so he really sold it well. It was an amazing pass. I was yelling for it and I knew he heard me. It obviously would’ve been a grade-A shot too, so if he scored it would’ve been great as well, but he’s just a really smart player. A lot of us aren’t the biggest, so we have to use our brains and our skills sometimes. I was kind of expecting it and he made a great play.”

As Turcotte said, it’s fun to score goals, and that hard-working positive energy has been contagious for the Reign power play all season.

“They enjoy being together out there,” Hajt said. “That opportunity to play an offensive role, having talented players that enjoy doing it but they’re also working. Other teams’ penalty killers are going to try and out work you because they have less players, but our power play works really hard. Good on them and I hope they keep it up.”