The Ontario Reign are the hottest team in the American Hockey League and it shows. Winners of nine of their last 10, the Los Angeles Kings’ farm team has found a new gear and are solidly in a playoff spot, thanks to huge victories over the Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) and the Colorado Eagles (Colorado Avalanche) this weekend.
Fun fact: with their win on Sunday, it was a banner weekend for the Kings organization in which both of their teams defeated teams in Colorado’s organization in two days. Woohoo random, fun facts!
This game versus the Eagles was an interesting one right from puck drop. Despite being divisional opponents, it almost felt like the two teams were feeling each other out early on. Four minutes in, Ontario got an early power play when Dan Renouf was called for tripping. The Reign had a few good looks, but Eagles’ goalie Adam Werner was up to the task.
Not long after the first penalty expired, Erik Condra was guilty of tripping. But whereas the first power play looked dangerous, the second one was more scattered and a little scrambley, which allowed Logan O’Connor to slip behind the Reign’s defense and score a shorthanded goal, burying his own rebound.
But this is a Reign team that doesn’t quit. Head coach Mike Stothers always stresses preparation is part of being a professional. And part of being a professional is also never packing it in and calling it quits when things get a little bit difficult. With that mindset, Ontario went to work. Mikey Anderson, Paul LaDue, and Matt Luff all had great shots following that shorthanded goal, though none scored.
With about five minutes to go in the first period, Bokon Imama was whistled for charging. It was a rough two minutes with Ontario ceding six shots on goal (all of which Kevin Poulin somehow managed to turn aside even with a couple of chaotic moments), but they came away unscathed. Three seconds after they killed Imama’s penalty, Lance Bouma was whistled for slashing and back to work the Reign went.
This time, however, things ended much more favorably. They allowed only one shot on goal and Luff scored a beauty of a shorthanded goal. Right in front of Poulin, the Eagles had numbers but LaDue made a skilled play to break it up and spring Luff for a breakaway. Sighting down Werner with Vilardi flanking him on the other side of the 2-on-1, Luff picked his spot for a fantastic water bottle popping goal.
The period ended eight seconds later, the score knotted at one.
In the middle frame, Ontario came out buzzing early but couldn’t get past Werner. Mikey Eyssimont broke the rules and was assessed a slashing penalty. The kill started off well enough and Jaret Anderson-Dolan even managed to get a shorthanded shot attempt off. However, Jacob MacDonald scored to retake Colorado’s lead.
But then started the Mikey(s) Show. Just two and a half minutes later, Anderson scored to tie the game again and the crowd went absolutely wild. The former Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog scored on a bit of a strange, rising slapshot from the blue line, beating Werner clean.
Post game, Anderson admitted that while it was fun to score, it’s not something he routinely looks to do, as he tries to be more of a strong defenseman in his own zone first and let the offense come second.
As for what he saw on the goal? “Honestly, the puck just kind of popped out there, it was on edge a little bit so I was just trying to make sure I bear down with it,” he said. “I saw saw a little wind in the net and wasn’t much traffic there do I tried to just put it upstairs, kind of make him [Werner] handle it a little bit and got a little curve on it I think where it was hard for him to track and then ended up going in.”
Anderson’s goal seemed to be the catalyst to spark this Reign team to victory, despite ceding their hard earned lead. Nearly three minutes after the tying goal (again), Giovanni Fiore, playing in his fifth game with the Reign on a Professional Tryout, gave Ontario their first lead of the evening. Fiore found a quiet spot between Colorado’s defenders and Eyssimont hit him with a nice pass as the Quebec native streaked to the front of the net.
Ontario put an additional three shots on goal before the end of the period and allowed only one despite taking two penalties (Blaine Byron was whistled for holding the stick and at the 17 minute mark, Carl Grundström served a too many men penalty).
In the third period, the first five minutes felt like it would end up being one of those games, where, despite their best efforts, the Reign could not seem to find an insurance goal. That dreaded feeling only intensified when MacDonald tied the game for Colorado. It was such a frustrating moment. Ontario had so many shots and shot attempts, yet, the game was tied—again! And this after they’d worked so hard to gain the lead!
Maybe that frustrating feeling only made Eyssimont even stronger than he’d been all game long. He’d already been excellent—now it was time for Beast Mode. He scored the eventual game winner about seven minutes after MacDonald tied the game. Hot off the bench, Eyssimont jumped on a loose puck and then followed up his own rebound to put the puck home.
This time, Ontario didn’t give back their lead. In fact, Grundström and Bouma both joined the goal scoring, giving the Reign a final tally of six goals to the Eagles’ three.
With a goal and three assists, Eyssimont was the clear First Star of the evening. But, Luff and Grundström both turned in strong performances as well, generating five shots and scoring one goal each.
The most exciting part of Grundström’s goal was Eyssimont on the forecheck. He beat the Eagles defender in a foot race, used his backside to protect the puck, and found his Swedish teammate sneaking in behind Colorado’s defense, who caught everyone, including Werner, puck watching in the corner.
Eyssimont, by the way, also assisted on Bouma’s goal, which came with just about three minutes left in the game. If Colorado’s coach had been considering pulling his netminder for six-on-five, this goal probably changed his mind.
Speaking after the game, Stothers acknowledged Eyssimont’s lovely pass (which was terrific), but said he was “more excited about the forecheck and how he used his body to separate the man from the puck and allow himself to make the next play.” For Stothers, it was a big step forward and it’s the type of play he and the coaching staff are always looking for. “That’s the type of things you look for as a coach just to see, you know, how we’re playing and right now, you know what, it’s good.”
For his part, Eyssimont attributes part of the success of his career-high four-point night to linemate Gabriel Vilardi (two assists, zero SOG). “I think me and Gabe probably just found some chemistry. We’re able to start making those little area passes that he likes to do and so just after a little bit of grind time in the o-zone, we just started to find each other and everything just kind of started to click.”
Eyssimont, in typical hockey player fashion, also humbly deflected the spotlight from himself saying, “as long as we get the win, points are nice, but if we play the right way, that’s what’s important.”
As for what’s clicking right now that wasn’t necessarily there at the beginning of the year, the Littleton, CO native says, “Everyone’s just buying in, where everyone’s playing the role that they need to play and everyone’s playing a system that Coach Stothers has put in place for us and that allows us to play fast and that allows to, you know, make pretty plays as well.”
The amazing fans inside Toyota Arena were insanely loud and somehow, they seemed to get louder with each goal the home team scored. It was an intense game with a playoff feel as both teams battled it out for a critical two points. And the audience every deliciously dramatic morsel with great fervor.
Luff’s shorthanded goal received a great response; Anderson’s goal just a little bit louder, Fiore’s goal was thunderous and by the time Bouma scored, the roar was nearly deafening. One can only imagine what the building would be like should the Reign make the playoffs.
Ontario back in action on Friday, February 21st to take on the Colorado Eagles (again) and then the San Jose Barracuda on Sunday, February 23rd. Ontario is currently holding down a playoff spot, but with the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks) breathing down their necks and holding four games in hand, they’ll need to continue their excellent play down the stretch. Of the 18 games remaining on the schedule, nine are against teams that currently sit outside of the playoff picture (as of Sunday night). There are seven weeks remaining in the Kings’ schedule and eight remaining in the Reign’s, plus the NHL trade deadline is in seven days on Monday, February 24th at noon Pacific Time. So much can happen in that time frame, it’ll be really interesting to see what events follow over the next two months.