By Lindsay Czarnecki
Reign Insider / @ReignInsider
They’re wearing different jerseys on a different coast.
But one thing remains the same as the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate looks to defend its Calder Cup title.
Playoff hockey time is the best time of the year.
“I remember it being the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” said right wing Sean Backman, the team’s leading scorer. “Every game it was just having that feeling before the game, knowing that we’re going to win hockey games because of how hard we worked and how talented we were. It was a lot of fun playing those games and I’m sure a lot of guys would say the same thing from that team last year.”
The ride that Backman speaks of is that of a year ago, the run that the Manchester Monarchs put together as they won the Calder Cup, the first for the Kings’ top minor league team. Many pieces from that championship team remain: Players like Backman, like captain Vincent LoVerde, Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Jeff Schultz and top forwards Nic Dowd and Michael Mersch.
“They’re huge. They’re what steers the ship,” head coach Mike Stothers said of his veteran leadership. “They’re the guys you lean on. We’ve got a wealth of experience now with how well they’ve done in the past and then last year. Just how hard it is [to win]. It’s hard. So, it’s good to have guys like that.
“It’s always good to have people who have won before. The more people you can have around you that have won something at any level is huge. Those guys are going to be a big part of us as they have been all year.”
The road to a repeat starts with a first round series against San Jose, a team that squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. By contrast, the Reign boasted a 44-19-4-1 record, the best in the Western Conference. Game 1 of their best-of-5 series is on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at San Jose’s SAP Center.
“Obviously it helps that we have guys who have been there before,” said Dowd, who had 14 goals and 34 assists in the regular season. “Not only here, but in the NHL levels in the playoffs, too. I think it’s good to have older guys, guys that have been there and sometimes with the younger guys, too, it almost helps them that they haven’t been there and they don’t know what they’re getting into yet and they just jump right into it and go. I think we have a good mix.”
Head-to-head records are a thing of the past once the playoff page turns if you ask Stothers.
The Reign’s regular season record against San Jose shows a lopsided mark of 9-3-0-0. Seven of those 12 contests were one-goal games, so the margin of difference is slim.
“I think it’s part of their whole system,” Stothers said of the Barracuda’s defensive play. “They do have a good back end, by that I mean their defensemen are good, but they’re kind of like us. They get everybody involved and they expect everybody to be strong in their own end.”
He’s right. Both teams have skated into the playoffs without one heavily-relied upon star – no player in the top 15 in AHL scoring. San Jose and Ontario are more known for their goaltending and overall play.
The Barracuda’s Ryan Carpenter leads the way with 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) and goalie Aaron Dell has caught the attention of Stothers.
“I think a lot of their success is Dell. He’s really good,” Stothers said. “He got off to a tough start this year and his numbers weren’t really reflective of what he was capable of and then, man, he found his groove. You look at the final numbers for him, he came a long way from where he started. That was incredible, the improvement. And then you can see the improvement and the results that the team was getting itself. I don’t think you can overstate how good Dell is.”
Dell did give up an average of less than two goals in February and March, which helped San Jose get back in the playoff picture, but that stat ballooned to 3.35 in April.
On the other end Dell will have to go up against none other than Peter Budaj, who topped every important goaltending stat in the AHL including an eye-popping 1.75 goals against. The veteran was so formidable against San Jose that coach Roy Sommer once told Yahoo! Sports, “we couldn’t beat that Budaj, man,” while on Sommer was on his quest to break the AHL wins record earlier this season.
Budaj, on a turnaround season of a lifetime where he went from zero wins a year ago with St. John’s to 42 with the Reign, is far and away the team’s MVP.
From the goalies and out, though, the matchup is similar in Stothers’ opinion.
“They’re a very disciplined team. … They played us well,” Stothers said. “They’re not afraid to block shots. They’re real good at getting in the shooting lanes. They’re good on faceoffs, they’ve got the puck.
“Kind of sounds like you’re talking about the same team, right? Talking about us you’re talking about the same things, strong goaltender. So, it’s going to be a good matchup, a real good matchup.”
Last year Adrian Kempe provided black ace production in the Calder Cup playoffs. The highly capable, young, first-round pick by the Kings, joined Manchester late in the season and broke through for 8 goals in the postseason run.
Stothers believes he has two difference-makers already in his back pocket, ready spring – forwards Justin Auger and Jonny Brodzinski.
“I’m looking for a guy like Augs to have the playoff of his life,” Stothers said. “Brodz, the way he’s playing right now, I just think he’s going to get even better in the playoffs.
“There’s always guys you think are going to step up,” the second-year coach said. “Last year Dowder’s playoffs was huge. He grew by leaps and bounds just by the playoffs alone. It’s good for them. Big Mike [Mersch] was a dominant force last year in the playoffs, got hurt, came back, played. Kempe had a good playoff last year. [I’m] hoping playoffs get him to where he was last year in the playoffs.”
Both Brodzinski and Auger were fifth-round picks by the Kings in the 2013 draft and both bring completely different games to the table.
Auger, a burly 6-foot-7 winger who finished the regular season one goal shy of 20, provides soft hands to go with his overwhelming size. He was a part of the team’s Calder Cup run last season but wasn’t heavily relied upon. This year more results are expected.
Brodzinski had 15 goals in his first pro season and his presence kicked up late where he had six goals and four assists in the final 16 games. He’s a pure shooter that Stothers has gotten higher on as the season has gone on.
“Watching him shoot a puck is a thing of beauty. It’s just unbelievable. I could watch him all day, just shoot the puck,” Stothers said. “It’s unbelievable how he can get it away. He’s so smart on the ice, does a lot of good things. He could be a big bonus for us.”
No doubt Brodzinski is eager for his postseason debut and the chance to make his mark.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “It’s something that I dreamed about when I was younger.”
THE ROAD FIRST TRAVELED
Unique to the AHL, despite having home-ice advantage, the top-seeded Reign will start their first round best-of-5 series with San Jose on the road.
“To me it doesn’t make a difference,” Mersch said. “As a team we just play. We just play hockey no matter where it’s at. Nothing changes for us we just go about our business and win.”
The benefit for the league is travel costs are cut on high-mileage trips and each team is guaranteed a home game.
The flip side of that is after Games 1 and 2 are completed this weekend, the Reign will return home and have that home-ice advantage all week long before playing Thursday and potentially Friday and Sunday, if the series goes that long. The Reign are confident either way.
“I think it’s nice from a mental standpoint to be at home and practicing at home and taking your pregame ritual at home, doing all that type of stuff,” Dowd said. “It’s good to be around the team and provides a lack of distraction being on the road. Just allows you to focus on what you need to do. I think we’ll be OK.”