Reign, Eagles familiar foes heading into series

Photo: Rob Trubia

📝 by Patrick Williams

Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin is quite familiar with Ontario Reign star forward T.J. Tynan.

They are about to become much more familiar with each other starting tonight.

Earlier this week, Tynan became just the fifth player ever to win the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player in back-to-back seasons after putting up 98 points in 62 games, including the third-most assists in a season (84) in AHL history. His average of 1.58 points per game was the highest for any skater over a full AHL season in the last 15 years, and he helped to headline a top-ranked power play that converted at a league-record 27.5 percent (72-for-262).

Last season, Tynan won the MVP award playing for Cronin and the Eagles when he registered 35 points in a shortened 27-game campaign. Now Colorado has to find a way ― somehow ― to contain Tynan and the AHL’s top-ranked offense (3.81 goals per game) in the teams’ best-of-five Pacific Division semifinal series that opens tonight at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.

Cronin knows as well as anybody what makes Tynan so dangerous with and without the puck.

“His IQ is so high that he sees everybody on the ice,” Cronin outlined. “If you’re watching from [the stands], he sees what you see.”

Cronin has coached at the NHL, AHL, and NCAA levels as well as with USA Hockey in a career dating to 1987 and possesses a passionate hockey mind. Without much prompting, he can break down a player’s game to the smallest degree.

“It’s not the points,” Cronin stressed. “It’s his competitiveness. He’s one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached.

“When you have a guy like him who practices every repetition like it’s a Stanley Cup playoff game, there’s no better role model for the team to follow. And your practice habits follow you into the game. He plays with the same intensity every time he’s on the ice. His lack of size [5-9, 165] and his lack of length are marginalized because he’s always looking to outcompete people.”

Already a high-end player when he came to the Eagles in 2019, Tynan believes that his time with Cronin improved his game further.

“I could go on for hours about Greg Cronin,” Tynan told in April. “I learned a tremendous amount. He’s such a great person, and he’s such a great teacher. It was a pleasure to be around him and learn so much. He’s a guy that tries to make everyone better each day, and that’s exactly what you want as a player.”

Now it is Chris Hajt and the Reign who are seeing what Tynan can do up-close. Tynan’s overtime goal in Game 2 of a best-of-three first-round series sent Ontario past the archrival San Diego Gulls and into this series with Colorado.

“He’s a very intense player,” Hajt said of Tynan, emphasizing the forward’s play across all three zones. “Night in, night out, he is your hardest worker who plays a 200-foot game. He’s always tracking the puck coming back to our zone and then leading the rush. He does everything for us on both sides of the puck.

“He’s a super-intense player and wants to be the best player on the ice every night. He makes plays, he makes things happen out there, [and] can see the second, third, and fourth options away from the puck.”

This Ontario roster carries considerable playoff experience among its veterans. Top scorers Tynan (with the Lake Erie Monsters in 2016) and Martin Frk (with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017) have their names on a Calder Cup. So do ultra-reliable defenseman Cameron Gaunce (with the Texas Stars in 2014) and injured goaltender Garret Sparks (with the Toronto Marlies in 2018).

And now there is an opportunity for the packed Los Angeles prospect pipeline to have its young talent live a long run through the Calder Cup Playoffs as well. Hajt, who assumed interim head coaching duties with fellow assistant Craig Johnson when John Wroblewski took a personal leave from the team on Dec. 8, believes that playing a desperate, hungry rival like San Diego could be a benefit as the Reign hope to make this a long spring. The Gulls did not go quietly against an Ontario team that had finished third overall in the AHL with a 41-18-5-4 record (.669).

“We definitely learned how hard it is to close a team out,” Hajt said of fending off San Diego. “That was definitely a lesson that we talked about, playing against a team that was desperate to keep their season alive.”

Ontario also saw Colorado five times in April, more than enough opportunity to know what awaits for Games 1 and 2.

“Good five-on-five team, good team speed, plays very hard,” Hajt assessed the Eagles. “Well-coached, goaltending… they have a very good team [with] a lot of different weapons.

“[It is] going to be a really good match-up. Two really good teams that can score [and] can also defend, so it’s going to be an exciting series.”