AHL Series Preview: #2 Ontario Reign vs #3 Colorado Eagles
After a two-game sweep in the Pacific Division quarterfinals of the AHL Calder Cup playoffs against San Diego, the Ontario Reign face a tough challenge as they take on the Colorado Eagles. The first two games of the best-of-five series will take place in Colorado, while games three, four and five (if necessary) will be played at Toyota Arena.
Head to Head
The Eagles had control of the season series in their six meetings, going 3-2-0-1 against the Reign. Colorado also outscored Ontario 29-18, heavily weighted by the 8-1 thumping they gave the Reign on April Fools’ Day.
Both teams swept their first-round series, and they scored ten goals apiece.
Home ice advantage will probably serve the Reign well in this series, as they lost just 11 games on home ice during the regular season. By comparison, the Eagles hold an 18-10-3-3 record on the road during the season.
With the best powerplay in the AHL, the Reign continues to prove that their bread and butter is on the man advantage as we move into the second round of the playoffs. They scored three power play goals against San Diego on nine attempts (33.3%). This was well above their record-setting regular season percentage of 27.5%. Though it’s a small sample, it is a positive trend nonetheless.
On the other hand, Colorado’s power play stayed with their trends, which was just below league-average in the regular season. They boasted a 19.2% effectiveness on the power play throughout the 2021-22 season, good for 18th in the league. In their series against Henderson, they held a 20% power play efficiency.
The penalty kill has been the thorn in the side of Ontario all season. Their 27th-ranked 76.7% was something that made many analysts concerned as the playoffs loomed. In their two games against San Diego, the Reign allowed just one goal on nine Gulls’ power plays (88.9%). If the Reign can continue this strong penalty killing, their status as a special teams powerhouse may not be in doubt.
Colorado has a similar problem to Ontario. They ranked behind the Reign, finishing 28th in the regular season at 76.5%. They let in 62 power play goals during the regular season; the Reign did the same. Interestingly, they have had a similar turnaround in the playoffs to the Reign, killing off all 11 of Henderson’s power plays. However, as dangerous as the Reign is on the man advantage, the Eagles cannot afford to give Ontario that many power-play opportunities per game.
After being awarded the AHL MVP for the second straight season, T.J. Tynan will play a significant role in this series. The former Colorado Eagle picked up two points in the opening round, including the overtime winner in game two to clinch the series against the Gulls.
After the first round, Akil Thomas, Martin Frk, and Vladimir Tkachev led the Reign with nine total points (three each).
Thomas had a long road to making an impact on this stacked Reign roster, but he ended the regular season strong and continued that in round one. He played brilliantly against San Diego, leading the charge with three goals in the series.
Tkachev and Frk both played well, with Tkachev scoring a power play goal against San Diego.
Another player to keep an eye on is Nelson Nogier. Acquired at the trade deadline from Manitoba, Nogier managed 10 points with a -11 rating in 38 games with the Reign. However, he wants to make a statement in the playoffs. The 25-year-old defenseman fired 13 shots in the two games against San Diego and was a +4 in the series. If Nogier can get some puck luck, he could be a real difference-maker in the outcome of the series.
The man who led Colorado in scoring in the first round was Roland McKeown, who Reign fans may remember was drafted by Los Angeles in 2014. McKeown has more points in the opening round series against Henderson than he did last year in 10 games with the Charlotte Checkers. The Eagles’ offense scored ten goals in the two-game series against the Silver Knights, with McKeown having a hand in four of them. Martin Kaut and Kiefer Sherwood each had three points in round one. Sherwood led the Eagles in goals (35) and points (75) during the regular season.
Other players of note for Colorado are Dylan Sikura, who tallied six goals and ten points during the regular season against the Reign, including a hat trick on April 23rd, and Jordan Gross, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman.
Between the Pipes
Matt Villalta is the presumed starter for Ontario headed into the Pacific Division semifinals. He carries a 2.94 GAA and a .889 save percentage these playoffs. The Kingston, ON native, finished the regular season with a save percentage of .903. Against Colorado this season, he allowed 18 goals in four games. Ontario’s blue line will need to tighten up, and they need better goaltending to win this series.
While Villalta had the majority of the starts throughout the season, Ontario used several goaltenders in the 2021-22 campaign. The most interesting being David Hrenak. The young rookie got two starts carrying a 1-1-0 record with a .951 save percentage, including a shutout. If necessary, it may give Hrenak some good experience if the Reign needs to change things up in goal.
Colorado’s workhorse this season was Justus Annunen, who got into 48 games and has a 24-13-6 record. His .893 save percentage during the regular season could be the undoing of the Eagles against the Reign. While he holds an impressive .933 through the two playoff games against Henderson, they are not the Ontario Reign. He will be tested more against Ontario and will need to be focused on his positional play this series. The Reign can take advantage of bad turnovers and sloppy defense, so his awareness of the play will be critical.
More than anything else, this will be a series defined by special teams and goaltending. This season, the Eagles held the high-scoring Reign to three goals or less in half of their meetings. If Colorado is successful again at keeping Ontario off the scoresheet, it will be a tough series for the Reign: Colorado in five games.
Game 1 is Wednesday in Colorado at 6:05 pm PT.