With the Pacific secure, the Ontario Reign skated tonight to keep their chokehold on the Western Conference. Looking up, the Bakersfield Condors strived to keep their flagging postseason prospects aflight.
About halfway into the first, the Condors circled in on a Reign squad which had surrendered 115 shots in its last three games: Matt Ford swooped up an errant Jonny Brodzinski to Brett Sutter breakout, which led to Ford alone + with the puck + in front of Peter Budaj. But Mr. Budaj rebuffed Bakersfield's leading scorer's accusation.
A couple minutes later, defenseman Caleb Jones, Seth's 18-year-old brother, fed a soft spot in the slot that Zach Boychuk skated into for a backhand off the netminder's right pad. Anton Slepyshev followed up with another backhand at the crease, but Budaj!
A desperate Bako racked up seven even strength chances in the opening frame to the Reign's four. But it wasn't until just two ticks left on the clock when real damage was done, as Brad Hunt sliced a power play volley through a Justin Auger-Derek Forbort forest, by the besieged Budaj.
With premier two-way pivot Nic Dowd and heavily-used defenders Kevin Gravel & Vincent LoVerde still missing, was the vaunted Ontario defense reeling into the postseason? "There’s some areas that we need to improve upon," Coach Mike Stothers intimated. "It’s managing the puck...there’s some defensive zone faceoffs you lose, there’s some assignments that we know we should have, and we’re a little bit late getting to that coverage."
Dowd's fill-in had his own response about halfway into the middle frame. After Brodzinski pickpocketed an exiting Ford, Derek Forbort fired away. "Kind of hit...the feet, lucky bounce," admitted the screening Sutter, who outbattled Jones for the loose change. "Merschy did a good job clearing some space for me." It was the revitalized centerman's fifth in 15 post-Deadline games, after just four in 57 with the Iowa Wild.
A tilted first had balanced itself out in the second, as both teams enjoyed a fair exchange of opportunities. With about four minutes to go, it was Sutter's breakout which would miss Brodzinski, and from the corner, Boychuk found a sneaky Slepyshev for an in-tight bid. Shortly thereafter, Joel Lowry made a power move by Philip McRae to Bakersfield's doorstep. But Budaj and counterpart Ty Rimmer kept things spinning at one apiece after 40.
Slowly but surely though, the Reign began to rule the night. And seven minutes into the final frame, Lowry-Kris Newbury-Auger completely took over, as Newbury batted an offensive zone faceoff to his left wing, who centered to a wide-open Auger at the crease. Between Joel Laleggia and Kyle Platzer, some Condor abandoned his post.
"It was a great play by Lowry, a lot of patience shown by him," noted Auger. "He didn’t just try to throw it right away, he made that defenseman bite."
A couple shifts later, the Cornell grad took advantage of the visitors once again, as a relentless Adrian Kempe-Andrew Crescenzi-Sean Backman forecheck culminated in a fresh Lowry corralling the puck for a turn-around bad angle backbreaker. The fast-improving winger shared, "That was one of the things we harped in the pregame, in video this morning was trying to get pucks to the net."
Unlike a couple nights ago with a lead in Stockton, when they gave up 23 shots and eight unanswered ES chances in the third period, Ontario proceeded to bottle up Bakersfield. This defensive commitment was beautifully exemplified by newcomers Sam Herr and Matt Schmalz staying on a swift Hunt shooting through the slot:
Stothers gave this scouting report on Herr, who's on an ATO, "He kind of has a quiet game. It’s not like he does anything flashy or anything.
"He seems to be aware in all zones. So in the short report card that we have on him as a coaching staff, he’s been impressive."
In all, it was the most "Reign-like" effort I've seen in a few games from the normally stifling defensive group; before the Condors pulled Rimmer, they had only proffered a pair of ES chances in the period. This, from a team clawing for a postseason berth.
Lowry may have finally buried that bird, shoveling an empty netter after Auger and Newbury's dogged puck pursuit. It capped a career night for the AHL rook.
That said, Stothers wasn't enthralled by every aspect of the 24-year-old's three-point performance. "Chose not to shoot a puck in the second period, chose to pass it back into the middle of the ice, ends up going the other way. So I very gently mentioned to him that if he wants to remain in the lineup, he should shoot the puck."
Gentle reminders aside, this victory emphatically sealed Ontario's regular season at the Vault, where they finished with a sparkling .706 home points percentage. They close out on the road with a re-match in Bakersfield at 7 PM, followed by a back-to-back in San Diego next weekend.