Weekend notebook: Firebirds-Reign rivalry heating up

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Patrick Williams

The fourth enactment of the emerging Coachella Valley-Ontario rivalry is set for tonight when the teams meet at Toyota Arena in Ontario in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).

All three previous match-ups between the clubs, separated by just 80 miles of Interstate 10 in southern California, have been one-goal games, including a shootout win by the Reign on Jan. 8 and an overtime victory by the Firebirds in their most recent get-together on Jan. 21. Coachella Valley captain Max McCormick, who scored the OT goal, leads all scorers in the season series with seven points (4g, 3a).

Tonight is also the first of three meetings in six days between the teams. They have a holiday matinee on tap for Monday in Palm Desert before returning to Ontario to face off on Wednesday night.

The Reign, fifth in the Pacific Division, are 11-4-2-0 in their last 17 contests and have put some distance between themselves and the back of the pack, opening up a nine-point cushion on sixth-place Tucson.

The Firebirds, meanwhile, continue to pursue league-leading Calgary, sitting three points behind the Wranglers but holding five games in hand. At 31-7-4-1 (.779), Coachella Valley is on a pace to challenge the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers (.775) for the best record in league history.


🏒 Three more AHL names have joined the list of players making their NHL debut this season, bringing the total to 53.

Belleville’s Kevin Mandolese put on a show with the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night with a 46-save performance in a 3-2 shootout victory over the New York Islanders. The 22-year-old Mandolese, a sixth-round pick by Ottawa in the 2018 NHL Draft, joined goaltender Mads Sogaard on recall from the B-Sens.

On Wednesday, Arturs Silovs was in net for the Vancouver Canucks in a 6-4 loss to the visiting New York Rangers. Silovs, 21, has been a workhorse for Abbotsford this season, ranking second in the AHL in minutes played (2,011) and victories (21). The Canucks’ sixth-round selection in the 2019 NHL Draft owns a 2.48 goals-against average, a .906 save percentage and three shutouts in 35 AHL appearances this season.

Forward Cole Guttman of Rockford rounded out the group, playing 12:09 for the Chicago Blackhawks in their 5-2 loss to Toronto on Wednesday. The 23-year-old rookie out of the University of Denver has had a strong start with the IceHogs, churning out 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 39 games.

🏒 The Henderson Silver Knights have acquired significant offensive help with the addition of power forward Gemel Smith on loan from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The ninth-year pro had put up 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 35 games for Syracuse this season, and immediately becomes the leading scorer on the roster for the Silver Knights, who rank 31st in the 32-team AHL averaging just 2.54 goals per game. With the 6-foot, 210-pound Smith now in the lineup, Henderson has added a veteran who employs a heavy forechecking game and can dominate in tight traffic.

Smith’s arrival comes at a crucial time for the Silver Knights, who are seven points out of a playoff spot in the Pacific Division as they look to halt a five-game winless streak (0-3-0-2) with a visit to Tucson this weekend.

🏒 Two hot clubs meet tonight in Providence when the division-leading Bruins welcome the Springfield Thunderbirds to Rhode Island’s capital.

Springfield owns a team-record nine-game winning streak, outscoring its opponents 39-15 during that run. Providence, meanwhile, has won five in a row and is 8-1-2-0 in its last 11.

This is the teams’ first meeting since Dec. 3; they will face off again in Providence on Sunday afternoon. The Bruins are 4-0-0-1 in the season series to date.

🏒 The Charlotte Checkers went into the All-Star break fresh off a perfect five-game road swing through New York.

Now a strong weekend against Hershey would ensure a successful six-game homestand for the Checkers, who split a pair of games with Toronto last weekend before posting back-to-back wins over Lehigh Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday.

With the Bears coming to town for games Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Checkers have moved to within striking distance of the Atlantic Division lead. They are up to 60 points now, putting them seven points behind division-leading Providence and six back of second-place Hershey.

The schedule ahead puts Charlotte back on the road for a six-game trip, beginning next Friday in Providence.

🏒 The Hershey Bears had their fair share of challenges lately.

On their way to Utica for last Friday’s game with the Comets, the team bus broke down. The team waited, had some lunch, and eventually made it to town — where they were shut out, 3-0.

And already this week, the Bears have lost forward Joe Snively and captain Dylan McIlrath to recalls by the parent Washington Capitals. Snively recorded a goal and an assist in the Caps’ 3-2 loss to Carolina on Tuesday, earning second-star honors. McIlrath made his Washington debut against Florida on Thursday, his first NHL action since December 2019.

🏒 A crucial weekend lies ahead for Belleville as the Laval Rocket come to town for a rare three-game visit.

Last in the North Division and six points behind Rochester for the closest available playoff spot, the Senators began their week with a 4-2 victory over Syracuse on Wednesday, David Bell’s first win as interim head coach. Antoine Bibeau posted 34 saves in the game.

Now the fourth-place Rocket head to CAA Arena for games tonight, Saturday night and Monday afternoon. Belleville has gone 6-2-0-0 against Laval this season, including 2-1-0-0 at home.

🏒 The Grand Rapids Griffins are also facing standings pressure.

The Griffins are 7-3-1-1 in their last 12 games, but still sit nine points out a playoff position in the Central Division. Simon Edvinsson had a goal and three assists in a 5-4 win against visiting Rockford on Wednesday; now the team hosts Cleveland tonight before a crucial two-game trip to Manitoba on Sunday and Monday.

Alex Nedeljkovic, a former AHL All-Star and Calder Cup champion, has stabilized the Griffins’ goaltending picture since his arrival from the Detroit Red Wings earlier this season. He made 38 stops in Wednesday’s game and has started nine of the team’s 12 games during their current run as they try to avoid missing the postseason for a second consecutive spring after qualifying seven years in a row from 2013 to 2019.

🏒 Rather suddenly, the Texas Stars have company for the Central Division lead.

The Milwaukee Admirals have rolled off five straight wins to move into a first-place tie with the Stars at 61 points, heading into a two-game showdown between the teams at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena this weekend.

The Admirals’ last four wins have come in extra time, including three straight via shootout. Head coach Karl Taylor has leaned toward standout goaltending prospect Yaroslav Askarov lately, giving him five of the past six starts. And Askarov has responded with a 1.34 GAA and a .959 save percentage in that stretch, as well as a remarkable 27-for-29 performance over the three shootouts.

🏒 Coming off a 4-2 win at Calgary on Wednesday, Abbotsford makes a quick stop at home this weekend with games against San Jose on Saturday evening and Monday afternoon.

Then it’s back on the road for five straight, visiting Colorado, Ontario and Henderson. It will wrap up a six-week stretch during which the Canucks will have played 12 of 16 away from home.

Jeremy Colliton’s Canucks are 15-5-1-2 (.717) on Abbotsford Centre ice this season, the second-best home record in the AHL. Beginning Mar. 7, they will play 11 of their final 16 games of the season at home.


🗣️ “Every game can’t be a Picasso.”

— Hershey head coach Todd Nelson after the Bears pulled out a 2-1 win last Saturday against Hartford despite being outshot 34-20.