They’ve also won the regular season Pacific Division title three of the last five years, only to experience first round exits from the 2009 and 2012 playoffs.
While it would be easy to say, ‘Hopefully the third time’s the charm,’ there’s much more at stake this year.
Their first playoff run wasn’t expected. They were an expansion team in ’09 and were just happy to be there. Although they came close to making it again in both 2010 and 11, they didn’t.
Then, just before the start of the 2011-12 season, they brought in new head coach Jason Christie and assistant coach Mark Hardy. With just a few weeks to go before opening night, Christie re-tooled the roster and did a magnificent job of guiding the team to their second division title. Deservedly, he was named the All-ECHL 2nd Team Coach.
Which brings us to today.
Christie and Hardy are no longer playing with house money. Although the ECHL is a feeder league, resulting in lots of turnover from year to year, their squad still features most of the key pieces from last year – including goaltender JF Berube, plus forwards Derek Couture, Kyle Kraemer and CJ Stretch (last season’s three leading point producers).
Enter Kings’ prospect Nick Ebert.
“He’s an offensive guy, he likes to create opportunities,” Christie said about his newest weapon, assigned to Ontario just a week ago. “The puck kind of stays with him a little bit. He has a wide stance there, protects it really well. Any time we have offensive positioning he can jump in, even if it’s offside ‘D’ jumping up into the rush. He has a good shot too. We haven’t had that really offensive guy back there, and he adds a lot to that.”
Even so, Christie says he’s also trying to manage the nuisances of working an 18-year old kid into the line-up at such a crucial time of year.
“When (Ron Hextall) called here, we were just short, and it kind of worked out. Some guys get a couple months to kind of grow into taking this role, he’s had a quick week here. That’s going to be it for him. At the end of the day it will just make him a better player though. It gives him that opportunity to kind of see what it’s like.”
So far, so good, according to the coach.
“He’s on a high, he’s coming out of juniors and he’s playing pro. So it’s a high. He’s going to live off that. He’s gonna have a down time, and that’s when you kind of have to grab the reins and rope him in a little bit.”
When that moment is coming, nobody quite knows just yet. Ebert’s been getting stronger each game and Christie has been more impressed with each passing day. Yet, he still wants Ebert to be thinking defense first right now.
“We want him to be consistent. We want to make sure he’s doing all the right plays and be strong defensively, because that’ll help more on the defensive side. He does have that knack though, he has a good shot, makes the nice plays there. If he feels like he’s always chasing; you feel like you’re always a step behind. I want to make sure that he’s solid defensively first.”
When asked about his first few games of pro action Ebert repeatedly used the word ‘excited.’ And he also explained how he handles guys back in the OHL chirping him about being the last player picked, 211th overall, at the 2012 NHL Draft.
“At the end of the day, I still got drafted, a lot of guys can’t say that,” said the New Jersey native. “So, I’m just going to keep using that as motivation going forward. I’m still drafted. It doesn’t matter where you go. You just have to make the most of it.”
For the past three years he’s been under the watchful eye of Windsor Spitfires’ GM (and former King) Warren Rychel. But, now he’s getting some mentoring from another former LA player.
“Even though I’ve only been here for about a week, I’ve learned so much from him already,” Ebert said of Hardy. “It’s pretty amazing, the stuff that he knows, and it’s a real honor to have him as a coach. He’s one of the best coaches that I’ve seen and played for… The knowledge the guy has. I mean, he’s played in the NHL, he’s coached in the NHL. So whenever he says something I’m gonna listen, obviously.”
For his part, Hardy says he just wants to let the kid play.
“I want him out there as much as possible,” said the former Kings’ player and assistant coach. “He’s certainly looked better every game he’s been here. He’s a good skater, uses his body, is responsible in his own end – and that’s important. Plus, he sees the ice well and has a quick shot. He’s been doing it all.”
As the Reign prepare to meet the Utah Grizzlies in a best-of-seven series starting tonight, young Ebert isn’t sure what to expect.
“I’m just going to take as much advice from the coaches and the players as possible,” he said. “The most important thing is just going out there and seeing them play in the first period. Getting the feel.”
For Berube, he’s been using the last few days to clear his head.
“(I’ve tried to) just zone out,” he shared. “It’s good to do something else, just (stay) home and relax, and just try to do something to keep my head out of what’s coming…try and eat well (too), drink a lot of fluids, and be ready. No pizza.”
Game one should be interesting, if for no other reason than the fact the Reign clinched a playoff spot two months ago. So, what does the coaching staff need to do to get the locker room ‘up’ once again?
“Self-motivation is the number one thing,” Christie said. “We have to be ready to go. I think the guys who were here last year have a little bit of an empty pit from playing so well and then getting knocked out by Idaho.”
Like we stated up above, expectations are higher this year.
“I don’t think it’s now or never,” Christie said. “But, you never know what could happen. It’s so important. Each and every day is so important. It’s playoffs man, it’s live or die! You have to be ready to go.”
They’ll get the first two games at home, tonight and tomorrow.
That’s more than enough time to show if they’re ready to take the next step or not.
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