Ontario Reign Prepare for Western Conference Finals against Lake Erie

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Photo By: Klaus Burkhart

Going into the Western Conference Finals against the Lake Erie Monsters, the Ontario Reign are heading into the unknown when it comes to their next opponent.  With the AHL’s schedule reduced to 68 games for the Pacific Division teams and the lack of playing teams from the Central Division, these two teams have not faced each other this season.  Since we haven’t seen Lake Erie this season let’s dive into their team.

Lake Erie finished second in the Central Division after the regular season with a pretty impressive 43-22-6-5 record.  There are a lot of young exciting players to watch on the Monsters including a couple of first round draft picks who have plenty of offensive power.  Sonny Milano is a first round pick in the 2014 Draft, 16th overall, who is known for his slick hands and skills with the puck.

Yes, that’s a very young Sonny Milano showing off his skills on YouTube, those slick moves got him a pair of skates from Bauer.

Rookie forward Oliver Bjokstrand is a smooth skating Danish forward, who after putting up a whopping 118 points in his final junior season with the Portland Winterhawks last season, has eight points in nine playoff games.  He’ll be a constant threat to the Reign defense with his speed and skill.  Kerby Rychel is another high touted first round pick that packs an offensive punch.  If the name sounds familiar, Kerby is the son of former Los Angeles King, Warren Rychel, who packed a powerful punch himself, it was just on someone’s face.  Between those three forwards and other Lake Erie forwards, Ontario’s defense will have to be ready to pick up the tempo as the Monsters are a fast skating team that is averaging 3.6 goals in the playoffs.  Lake Erie has scored three goals in all but two of their nine playoff games.  It’s their speed that is a concern for Head Coach Mike Stothers going forth in this series.

“They can skate, it looks like their forwards can get up the ice in a hurry,” said Stothers.  “Their transition game is real good, so anything that’s turned over can be a problem.”

Now if the Reign have to keep a close eye on anyone on Lake Erie’s blue line it’s Zach Werenski.  Werenski who was drafted eighth overall in the 2015 Draft has jumped straight into the lineup after his collegiate season ended with the Michigan Wolverines and immediately made an impact.  In the playoffs Werenski is currently leading the Monsters in points, including scoring the game winning goal in Game 6 against the Grand Rapids Griffins to make it to the Western Conference Finals.   Another key has been the consistency of Werenski, as has scored points in seven of the nine playoff games for the Monsters recording 10 points in those games, including three games with multiple point efforts.

“Werenski, defenseman, we’ve already talked about him,” said Stothers mentioning what he’s told his team. “He gets up the ice, he brings a new dynamic to the back end.”

In goal the Monsters have two solid options with Finnish goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and Swede Anton Forsberg.  “They’ve got two really good goalies,” said Stothers. “They mostly went with Korpisalo, but Forsberg comes in the last game and gets the job done.”  Both goalies have NHL experience with the Blue Jackets and are a solid tandem that could both be used in a moments notice.  In the clinching Game 6 against Grand Rapids, Korpisalo started the game and after allowing three goals was pulled in favor of Forsberg who closed out the game and ended the series.  While Korpisalo has been the work horse in the playoffs the Monsters could go with Forsberg if needed.

With neither of the two teams playing this season, Ontario is relying on video to scout their opponent, especially the power play which is connecting at a ridiculous 28.6%.  The Reign do have the best penalty killing unit so far this playoffs at 93.1% allowing only two goals, both to San Diego, while being shorthanded 29 times through the first two rounds.

One of the better surprises for the Reign has been the emergence of Michael Amadio.   When his OHL season in North Bay ended, Amadio made the jump to the AHL and has made a huge impact on the scoring department and in balancing out the offense.  Amadio has four points in his seven games, and has moved up from fourth line minutes to playing on the second line minutes with Justin Auger and Sean Backman during the last couple of games against San Diego.  With Jonny Brodzinski’s injury keeping him out of the lineup, Amadio stepping in has allowed Coach Stothers to keep the lines rolling throughout the playoffs.

If there was a player that the Reign are expecting to break through is forward Sean Backman.  So far in the playoffs Backman has just two assists, but in true Backman fashion, he’s still leading the Reign in shots during the playoffs.  If the pucks start finding the back of the net for Backman, the Reign will be even more dangerous.

“He’s in on every play, he’s getting shots,” Stothers said. “You got to be careful how you approach it, you want to help the individual out, but you don’t want to put so much pressure on them because you already know they’re doing it themselves.”

For Ontario to advance to the Calder Cup Final for the second year in a row, they have a couple of things that need to happen.  First, Petr Budaj has to continue to be the MVP of the team.  Without Budaj it would be interesting to see where this Reign team would be in the standings.  If he has another stellar round in him they could get by the high powered Monsters offense.  Second, they need to find scoring from veteran players like Backman and Kris Newbury who have largely been held off the score sheet in the first two rounds.  Third, the Reign need to win the special teams battle, especially the penalty killing.  If the penalty killing goes south for any period of time, Ontario could go south could go with it.

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