When Mark Hardy joined the Ontario Reign as an assistant coach in September 2011, it was a classic case of nobody knowing exactly what to expect – including Hardy himself.
A veteran of 900 NHL games on defense for the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, and another 10 years behind the bench as an assistant coach in LA and Chicago, how would Hardy adapt to a different level of professional hockey?
The answer would require words like perfectly, fantastic and exceeded all expectations.
Ontario, the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, are coming off consecutive Pacific Division titles under Hardy and head coach Jason Chrisite.
But, currently, they’re involved in the most important test - playoff action.
Last season, the Reign were eliminated in a series-deciding Game 5 blowout on home ice by the Idaho Steelheads.
Now, after sweeping Utah in the first round of this year’s post-season tournament, the Reign are looking for revenge for 2012′s early exit. And Game 1 vs. the Steelheads wasn’t what they had hoped for, ending with a 3-2 loss in overtime.
However, as they prepare for Game 3 in Idaho on Wednesday, the series is tied 1-1 after they evened things up with a decisive 5-0 destruction of the Steelheads on Saturday night.
Perhaps just as important as the offensive outburst though was the defensive approach they put forth.
“That’s what creates the offense for us,” explained Hardy. “I think if you look at our numbers during the year when we did score those big scoring games against teams with five goals or more it was because we were solid defensively and that’s something that we had to buy into. Jason really pushed for it pre-game. We’re a good team when we’re good in our own end. Because if you’re good in your own end you spend less time in it and you’re going the other way and consequently you spend more time in their end.”
One of the key contributors from the blueline of late has been 18-year old Kings prospect Nick Ebert. Drafted with LA’s last pick at the 2012 NHL Draft (211th overall), he’s been beyond impressive since joining the team with only four games remaining in the regular season.
“He’s just played very well for us,” Hardy began to gush a little. “I kept hearing about how poor he was in his own end…(but) I like the way he’s played since he came here. He’s had one bad game and that’s amazing for a young kid like him coming in and playing against men. I think he’s just going to get better and better. If he keeps playing the way he did (in Game 2), with that confidence and moving the puck and skating and getting back hard for pucks, I think there’s a huge upside for him.”
For his part, Ebert credits a simple approach by the Reign for their success in Game 2.
“We went back to basics and were chipping pucks in, playing hard, battling, and pounding the net with pucks.” he said. “We were very good at clearing pucks out and just getting it back into the other zone.”
Ebert was also quick to compliment his goaltender, fellow Kings prospect JF Berube.
“When you have a goalie like JF, how hot he is right now and how good he is as a player, it’s a pretty good combination,” he remarked. “He really deserved (the shutout on Saturday), he earned it.”
Berube, who also spent time with the Manchester Monarchs this season, was asked to carry the load by Christie coming into the playoffs and his numbers so far are nothing short of spectacular. Through the first six games played, he’s posted a 5-0-1 record, allowed only nine goals total for a 1.43 goals against average and .939 save percentage.
“What else can I say about Berubes right now, he’s making those saves,” Christie noted. “The best penalty killer is your goaltender. He’s able to stop the puck there and when we do have a breakdown he’s able to gobble it up.”
Like all Kings prospects, MayorsManor has tracked Berube’s progress closely since he was first drafted by the Kings in 2009. We’ve never seen him look more comfortable or confident in the crease.
“I’m just prepared,” Berube said. “I approach every playoff game like a regular game and try to give my team a chance to win every night. Just being consistent, that’s my only focus.”
It’s working, including stopping all 19 shots he saw on Saturday.
“The guys knew they had to do better and they brought their ‘A’ game. That was the huge difference from Game 1 – just little things that we were doing better, working hard, making little plays, and communicating better. Communication is such a little thing, but it has such a big impact on the game and we did it well. That cut off shots and we spent less time in our zone. So, it was good to see guys responding well.”
Their work is far from over though, that’s the theme every player and coach continues to bring up as the series shifts to Idaho for the next three games (the ECHL is using a 2-3-2 schedule, with Ontario hosting games one, two, six and seven).
“That’s a good team over there and we’re going to have to battle,” said Hardy.
From one end of the bench to the other, they’re all singing a similar tune.
“It’s going to be a tough grind,” Christie stated.
The Reign are half way to being half way. With three more wins over the Steelheads, they’ll reach the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. That would also give them two playoff series’ wins out of the four needed to lift the Kelly Cup.
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