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Ontario Reign VS Lake Erie Monsters, Series Preview: Key Storylines

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How good is Zach Werenski...and how do you stop him? Brett Sutter, Mike Stothers & Jackets Cannon help answer those questions + Chris Hajt familiarizes us with Lake Erie's breakout

Joshua Lavallee

Snapshot

The Ontario Reign effectively ripped the wings off the San Diego Gulls in just five games. While three one-goal and two overtime victories suggest otherwise, Ontario dominated with a 56% even strength Corsi and 63.3% ES scoring chances edge for the series. Peter Budaj (1.73 GAA, .918 Save %) continues to provide foundational play as the Reign seem to be peaking at the right time.

The same could be said for the Lake Erie Monsters, as they've won 19 of their last 25 regular season/postseason contests. 18-year-old blueliner Zach Werenski (4-6-10 in nine playoff games) has emerged as a true star this spring, while Lake Erie's power play has been roaring at a league-leading 28.6% postseason success rate.

Ontario Lake Erie
Points % .684 (1st, Western) .638 (3rd, Western)
Goals For 2.82/gm (15th, AHL) 2.78/gm (21st)
Goals Against 2.03/gm (1st) 2.47/gm (3rd)
PP% 16.0 (20th) 17.6 (17th)
PK% 88.7 (1st) 85.7 (5th)
PIMs 16.2/gm (25th) 15.3 (19th)
Est.FC% 55.57 (2nd) 52.97 (5th)
SF% 55.36 (1st) 53.37 (3rd)

Est.FC% and SF% from Prospect Stats. Est.FC% means Estimated Fenwick close percentage; SF% is Shots for percentage. Reign/Gulls Corsi tracked by Jason Hernandez.

Key Storylines

Monsters in the Mist

Much has been made about the lack of familiarity between the Western Conference Finals opponents. But the Reign coaching staff has been doing their homework.

Head Coach Mike Stothers, to Ontario Reign Insider: We’ve seen how they like to break out. That’s what makes it tough because they’ve had a number of different looks for their breakouts.

Assistant Coach Chris Hajt: Sometimes they have the weakside winger slash across.

Here's another set play that they've tried multiple times: Werenski head-mans the puck, and the speedy blueliner beats his checker up the ice to complete the give-and-go. This sequence works mostly because of the 18-year-old's jets.

Besides Werenski, the Monsters back-end wouldn't be considered explosive, but they get the most out of their chances.

Stothers, to Ontario Reign Insider: In-zone there’s a lot of movement. The D like to switch at the top and I think they try to confuse you that way.

This all speaks to a team that plays a very structured, well-coached game.

Scott Tennant, from Jackets Cannon: It starts with the coaching staff of Jared Bednar, Nolan Pratt and Toby Petersen.

The Monsters have one the AHL’s youngest rosters, and I think the coaches saw early on that the way to harness the considerable talent of so many kids who had little or no pro hockey experience was to channel it within a system that allows everyone to shine while still sublimating individual statistical goals to the greater goal of team success.

The Monsters don’t have anyone among the league leaders in most offensive categories, though I would suggest they have players who have the talent to put up bigger numbers (i.e. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Daniel Zaar, Sonny Milano, etc.) Out of necessity, given their youth, they play a highly team-oriented game.

Even with a head coaching change in Columbus, Bednar and company's work was strong enough to stay their course.

Tennant: I think Coach Bednar and staff were already doing things the right way, and Torts recognized that immediately. There have been some small tactical changes, but really, the structure has been essentially the same.

Finally, does Lake Erie resemble any familiar AHL Pacific teams?

Hajt: A little bit of Stockton in them. Some good speed up front. They have some skill like San Diego does up front. On the background, they can really control the puck and make plays.

Defenseman Kevin Raine: Very fast group of forwards.

Tennant: [Lake Erie's] biggest strength...is speed and puck skills. Columbus has drafted a lot of fast kids who have the basic skills down pat.

Who Is Werenski?

After just one goal in seven regular season games, late-season addition Werenski has blossomed this postseason.

Tennant: He’s a special kind of player, and while he still has a lot to learn (especially in the defensive zone), it’s obvious he WANTS to learn and get better, and that his natural talent is out of this world.

Speaking of this talent, the 2015 lottery pick's skating is absolutely breathtaking. Watch him cut off Andreas Athanasiou, perhaps the NHL's fastest skater, to a loose puck. (HT @THWMark for bringing this to my attention.)

It sometimes seems like he's everywhere. See where he scores this OT game-winner, which sent the Monsters to the Conference Finals:

Stothers: He jumps out at you every time you watch him on video. As a matter of fact, we had some video this morning and I called him Larry Robinson.

He’s a big, lanky guy and he carries the puck and he’s up the ice.

All that said, Ontario did a good job handling Brandon Montour, San Diego's smooth-skating defender who led his team in scoring this season. They limited that rookie sensation to only 10 shots in five postseason games, whereas the Texas Stars ceded 19 shots to him in just four contests.

Center Brett Sutter: [Montour and Werenski] both want the puck. They'll distribute and jump in the holes and they'll want it right back. Those are the kind of guys you want to be hard on, take their time and space away, make it a long night on them.

I think San Diego's [Montour and Shea Theodore] were a little more shot-first. I think [Werenski] likes distributing a lot.

Ontario's PK VS Lake Erie's PP

Will the Monsters' power play hot streak last?

Tennant: The Monsters are doing that thing everyone talks about in the postseason: "Peaking at the right time." The power play is just a benefit of something that’s happening all over the ice for them: They’re playing their best hockey in April and May.

I will say, though, the puck movement on the PP these last several weeks is light years better than it was earlier in the year...a lot of times it seemed they were doing it simply because they felt like they were supposed to. There was no end goal in mind, necessarily. Now they move the puck with purpose.

It's worth noting again that Lake Erie did not feature Werenski on the man advantage earlier this year.

But it also should be mentioned that the Monsters feasted on a below-average Rockford IceHogs penalty kill in the first roundthey scored five power play markers in just 11 tries against the league's 18th-ranked PK.

Ontario confronted another scorching-hot power play recently: San Diego had just blown away Texas with five PP goals in two games to close out that series. The Reign responded by snuffing out 18 of 20 opposing opportunities. And this man advantage unit came in with a richer pedigree than Lake Erie's: The Gulls ranked third in the league this season, while the Monsters were a middling 17th.

While there's some randomness in special teams, Ontario's league-best PK is genuinely good, perhaps great.

Will the Real Korpisalo Please Stand Up?

Anton Forsberg spelled Joonas Korpisalo brilliantly to send Lake Erie past Grand Rapids, but the Finn has started every postseason game. So while Bednar is being coy about who gets the Game One Bat Signal, I think it's safe to suppose that Korpisalo gets the call.

Sutter: He likes to handle the puck. He likes to get out of the net, so you have to be smart with the forecheck.

Tennant: Korps is an interesting story. Last season he was clearly behind Anton Forsberg on the organizational depth chart, even after Forsberg got hurt. But it didn’t take him long this year to vault past Forsberg and, some would argue, even past Curtis McElhinney. He spent a lot of time in Columbus this season and played well.

He was rock solid in the first six games of the playoffs, but then I think he got a little tired, both mentally and physically. He needs to learn how to keep his game at the highest level for long periods of time if he’s going to stick in the NHL, so I think you’re going to see the "good" Korpisalo again this series.

Forsberg does present a trustworthy alternative, as he started the majority of Lake Erie's regular season contests this year.

Experience VS Youth

As Tennant mentioned, Lake Erie is one of the AHL's youngest squads.

Tennant: Their biggest weakness is youth and the fact that some of these guys simply don’t know how to react in certain situations because they haven’t been in those situations before. They’re learning fast, but the pressure is mounting, so it will be interesting to see how they respond.

Keep in mind that their best player this postseason is 18.

This youth might account for the Monsters' extreme home/road splits: They enjoyed a Western Conference-best .724 points % at home, coupled with an average .553 on the road. On the other hand, the Reign registered .706/.662.

In further contrast, Ontario returns 14 players from last season's Calder Cup-winning machine.

Tennant: I would also suggest that leadership [up top is a] strength that may offset the weakness of youth. The team captain, Ryan Craig, is adored by the guys in the dressing room. Some would say "worshipped." He’s the right guy at the right time to lead this group.

The Monster Under the Bed

Of course, we've pumped Werenski's tires and touched on the speed and skill of other prominent prospects like Bjorkstrand, Zaar, and Milano. But there's one big name that we haven't spotlighted: 2013 first-rounder Kerby Rychel, who has scored just two points this postseason.

Warren's son is Tennant's breakout candidate this series:

Tennant: If [Rychel] learns to control his emotions and channel his energy, you’ll quickly see why Columbus drafted him.

There’s a certain camp of Blue Jackets/Monsters fans who will tell you that Rychel is entitled and spoiled, that he wants out of the organization, and that therefore his heart hasn’t been in it.

There’s another camp that will tell you there’s no truth to that at all, and that Rychel is simply trying way, way too hard to live up to his draft status.

I used to be in the first group. Now I’m in the second. Whatever Rychel’s faults in the past, he has clearly bought into the team philosophy on this playoff run.

Jewels from the Crown VS Jackets Cannon

Jewels from the Crown: I don't think the Monsters are ready for a team like the Reign. Ontario's efficiency, PK, and experience will ultimately frustrate Werenski and company. Lake Erie's breakout and transition game will test Ontario, but I'm going with the defending champs in six.

Jackets Cannon: Ontario will be the best team Lake Erie has faced in these playoffs, no doubt. I don’t think the Monsters have seen the type of defense and goaltending they’re likely to come up against in this series. They’ve definitely shown themselves to have the intangible "it" factor that wins playoff games, but it’s hard to beat talent and experience. I’m saying Reign in 6 games.

Thanks for the insight, Scott! Read Scott Tennant's Ontario/Lake Erie preview over at Jackets CannonRobyn talks about the Reign's underrated forwards, while I reveal how the Monsters can beat the defending champs.