J.P. Hoornstra, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
For the Reign to even qualify for the Kelly Cup playoffs, they will have to beat a Las Vegas Wranglers squad that has beaten them in eight of 11 games this season.
Then would come the hard part.
The ECHL has adopted a best-of-five first-round playoff format this season, with the stipulation that all five games must be completed within eight days from the end of the regular season. That wouldn't be so much of a problem in most years, when teams can narrow their potential first-round destination to a handful of cities.
But in the crazy National Conference, where seven teams are in the running for six playoff berths - and predicting their order of finish amounts to a crapshoot - making playoff plans becomes harder than just making the playoffs.
What's the worst-case scenario?
"Say us or Las Vegas - regardless of who it is - if that last game on Saturday night is determining someone's fate," head coach Karl Taylor said, "that team could have to fly to Alaska Sunday morning and play Monday-Tuesday."
Justin Kemp, the Reign's vice president of business operations, already has prepared for such a scenario.
"If we clinch on Saturday and are playing (the Alaska Aces), I'm ready to pull the trigger," Kemp said. "I've never done something where I'm cutting it that close."
Kemp has spent the past week planning for 12 playoff scenarios involving six possible first-round opponents, depending on if the Reign started each series at home or on the road. A series against a Pacific Division opponent (Stockton, Bakersfield or Las Vegas) represents a manageable bus trip, and Kemp said there would be minimal hassle flying into and out of West Valley City, Utah, or Victoria, British Columbia.
A voyage to Alaska, however, would be a logistical nightmare.
Even when booked in advance, Anchorage already is the most expensive commercial plane ticket from Ontario - about $18,000 for the entire team, Kemp said. To purchase plane tickets the day before a flight could cost roughly twice that amount.
What's more, a sportsman show is scheduled for April 8-11 at Sullivan Arena and the Alaska Aces' home rink also is booked for April 5-7 as move-in dates for vendors. The only available first-round date at Sullivan is April 12 - the last possible day for a potential Game 5 - and the rest of the Aces' home games will be played 43 miles up the road in Wasilla, Alaska.
Because of their arena issues, the Aces would host their first two playoff games in Wasilla regardless of their playoff seed.
"Our only day off would be a travel day and there's no time to practice," Kemp said.
So how did the league get into this mess in the first place?
Playoff formats change routinely because of teams entering and exiting the ECHL on an annual basis. Since the Reign began play in 2008-09, the National Conference has lost the Fresno Falcons and Phoenix Roadrunners and gained no new teams.
When the league's Board of Governors revised the National Conference playoff format prior to the 2009-10 season, an emphasis was placed on not allowing the eight remaining teams to automatically make the playoffs.
"If the 72 games don't mean anything why not go cheap, go with a minimum number of players? You're going to have teams cruising for six months because they can," Kemp said.
But to make that accommodation, the league had to scrap interdivisional play for the first playoff round. That means playoff-eligible teams could anticipate six possible opponents instead of just three.
"In prep last year, I could really be ready early and do a lot of stuff prior to knowing who you're going to play," Taylor said. "Forget about the hockey side, it's all those other things - flights, travel, booking meals. The playoff roster goes in Monday. How can you play a game when the playoff roster isn't even made? You can be releasing players and playing a game on the same day."
Part of the logistical problem was tough to predict. Only the Idaho Steelheads have clinched a playoff berth while the other seven National Conference teams are separated by a mere five points. Kemp and Taylor said they've never seen the playoffs decided so late in any league.
And while such parity makes for an exciting final week for fans, it's causing plenty of headaches for coaches and executives.
It also gives the league's board of governors something new to consider when they start to plan for the 2011 playoffs.
"It's going to make the meetings this summer very interesting," Kemp said, "because it's always a constant struggle."