Reign eyeing revenge in series with Eagles

Photo: Rob Trubia

📝 by Jared Shafran | AHL On The Beat

It took the completion of all 82 games on the Los Angeles Kings’ schedule to determine their opening-round opponent in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The same was true for the team’s AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, who needed each of the league’s 72 games to decide their first-round matchup.

And just like with the Kings, Ontario drew a rematch with the team that ended its season a year ago.

The Reign are going up against the Colorado Eagles in a best-of-three series in Loveland, Colo. Game 2 is set for Friday night after the Eagles’ 3-2 overtime victory in the series opener on Wednesday.

If a Game 3 is necessary it will be played Saturday evening.

The Reign are the sixth seed in the Pacific Division with a record of 34-31-5-1 and 74 points in the standings. Colorado finished third with a record of 40-22-7-3 and 90 points.

The series is the third year in a row that the two teams have met during postseason play. Colorado moved past Ontario three games to none last spring in the 2022 Pacific Division semifinals, and also prevailed by a 5-4 score in a winner-take-all game during the Pacific Division’s postseason on May 18, 2021.

During the 2022-23 regular season the Reign had a record of 4-4-0 against the Eagles, with the teams meeting four times in both team’s cities.

For some, like defenseman Cameron Gaunce who has had his season ended by Colorado each of the past two years, this series is about getting revenge for the past.

“That’s how we’re looking at it,” Gaunce said before Game 1. “Not many times in life do you get second chances, and this is a perfect opportunity for us to right the wrongs of the past, get rid of some old demons we have. We know how good of a team they are, we know how hard they play and we know how hard that arena is to play in. It’s a challenge. Character is revealed through adversity, and this is a great opportunity for us to reveal the type of character we have.”

But others, like head coach Marco Sturm who is in his first AHL season behind the bench, are focused on wiping the slate clean and starting fresh.

“For me it’s a fresh start and for a lot of other guys too,” Sturm said Saturday after the Reign’s regular-season finale in Henderson. “It’s a different team now. Yes, there’s still a few guys from last year but it’s a new season. We know they’re a really good hockey team and a tough building to play in, but we also won a few games there too. We’re not going to try to hide there, we’ll try to play our best game and then see what happens.”

Forward Aidan Dudas, who was in the lineup for all 72 of Ontario’s regular season games during his third pro season, can see it both ways. On one hand, he had the same experience as Gaunce, with each of his last two campaigns ending at the hands of the Eagles. But on the other, he emphasized that everyone has a clean slate this week and none of the past results really matter.

“The initial reaction for sure leads us back to last year and obviously we didn’t play the way we wanted,” Dudas admitted. “But everyone’s got a fresh start going in. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played 72 games or you’ve played 30. It doesn’t matter if you had 100 points or five because everybody’s got zero going into playoffs. You have to have that mindset going in.”

Gaunce also brought up the idea of a fresh start, joking that for the first time all season he now has the same amount of goals as Lias Andersson, who led the team with 31 during the regular season.

So maybe last season’s results, when the rosters were very different on both sides, don’t really matter a whole lot. But one can’t help but go back and look at the eight games the two teams split this season.

Ontario got off to a hot start in Colorado this season, shutting the Eagles out 2-0 on Nov. 3 with 31 saves from Matt Villalta. That result marked the first time a visiting opponent had shut out Colorado in Loveland since the Reign and Cal Petersen did it almost three calendar years prior on Nov. 6, 2019.

The Eagles promptly responded in full force the following night against Pheonix Copley, earning a split of the series with a 7-3 win.

Colorado made its first trip to Toyota Arena when the calendar flipped to December, just in time for Petersen’s first AHL start after clearing waivers and being assigned to Ontario. The netminder stopped 27 shots, including 13 in the third period to lead the Reign to a 3-1 victory.

The Reign’s second series at the Budweiser Events Center this season came in January and featured another split, beginning with a 7-3 victory in the opener that was highlighted by six unanswered goals before falling 5-2 to the Eagles the following night.

Most recently, Colorado played a pair of games in Ontario on March 29 and April 2. While the Eagles won both by scores of 4-2 and 2-1, each were even after 40 minutes and could have gone either way.

“We just played them and I think everyone remembered that we were the better team in both games,” said Sturm. “Unfortunately we lost really tight games, but we were in those games. It wasn’t a blowout or anything. It’s going to take everyone. How we start is going to be really important too, and we need everyone in this locker room to continue to be the best they can.”

Although both of those games happened two weeks ago, Gaunce also recalled the outcomes vividly.

“I thought we played very well,” he said. “We were structured, and we had our opportunities. We played more on the inside and we frustrated them at times. They just did a better job converting on opportunities than we did and in a series, you just want to give yourself the best chance.”

The Reign practiced on Tuesday in Loveland, attempting to acclimate to the altitude before Game 1.

“We’re not talking about what’s happened prior,” Gaunce said. “It’s all, ‘This is what the task at hand is and let’s focus on this.’

“In the playoffs, the best teams are the ones that don’t care about how they win as long as they win. When you start that playoff run, that’s a key focus and you need to make sure everyone’s understanding of that.”

Sturm, whose job is to balance success on the ice and the development of the Kings’ young prospects, said that the postseason is an opportunity for his young players to take the next step in multiple areas.

“We’re going to go to Colorado to win a series,” Sturm said. “Everyone should be very excited. Playing in the playoffs is a big deal; you grow as a player and as a person every time you play in them.”