CV Firebirds vs. Ontario Reign Playoff Preview

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Written by Judd Spicer

Fresh off a dominating, 3-0 victory over the Calgary Wranglers in a deciding Game 4 of the Pacific Division’s Semifinal, the Firebirds turn the Calder Cup Playoff page from a proven rival to a proximity foe.

On tap for the CV in its defense of the Pac Division Finals championship: The I-10 adversary Ontario Reign. And yet, while the teams’ respective Acrisure and Toyota Arenas are a mere 80-miles apart, the seemingly natural geographic rivalry between the franchises hasn’t truly taken hold amid the ‘Birds’ brief and brilliant history.

Until now.

As CV head coach Dan Bylsma said of the Reign series following the Firebirds’ wrap-up of the Wranglers: “Rivalries usually don’t start until you face a team in the playoffs. So, I guess this one can start now.”

The lack of clash can namely be attributed to the Firebirds’ manning the wheels of the Reign train across the two seasons’ past; after going 5-1-0-2 vs. Ontario in 2022-23, CV authored a 4-3-1 mark versus the Reign this year.

With the SoCal squads now set to meet for just the second time since March 15, the series 2-2-1/home-away-home, best-of-five format plays out as follows (*as necessary):

  • Wednesday, May 15, Ontario at CV (7:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Friday, May 17, Ontario at CV (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Sunday, May 19, CV at Ontario (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Friday, May 24, CV at Ontario* (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Sunday, May 26, Ontario at CV* (3:00 p.m. Pac)

SoCal Chill

While the ‘Birds’ much-discussed 11-day layoff into the postseason no doubt evidenced some initial corrosion in the early-goings against Calgary, the Reign have effectively, if not quietly, steamrolled their segue from regular season’s end into playoff domination.

After going 8-2 in their its final 10 games to close out the campaign and earn the Pac’s No. 3 seed (one point behind Tucson), Ontario has authored a spotless 5-0 mark through the first two rounds of the playoffs, with respective sweeps of sixth-seeded Bakersfield (2-0 series win) and No.5 seed, Abbotsford (3-0).

Making such swift work of its opponents is worthy of correlation to the ‘Birds’ own timeworn Rest vs. Rust discussion. Since May 5, Ontario has played but one game, their series clincher vs. the Canucks on May 8.

With CV showing continued graduation of form, performance and scoring acumen throughout the series with the Wranglers, the Firebirds undoubtedly head into the Pac Finals trending back toward the excellence which defined their 2024 calendar year.

Ontario? While their fine play of late can’t be denied, one may wonder what playing just one game across a 10-day stretch of playoff hockey will do to their own winning vibes.

Buckle Up for Balance

Just as the Firebirds excelled in most macro seasonal metrics (most goals scored in the Western Conference; fewest goals allowed in the West) the Reign weren’t far behind.

With 231 netters on the season (5th in the West) and 198 scores allowed (4th), Ontario found even further purchase with a Power Play until which charted 2nd- best in the entire league (21.8%, a mere fraction behind the Texas Stars’ AHL-topping 21.9%).  And while that man-advantage mark has taken a dramatic dip for the Reign in the playoffs (just three PP goals on 23 chances), their Special Teams have no doubt found balance with a Penalty Kill unit which squashed 88.2% of opponents’ inverse advantages in the postseason. 

Said squash has played in concert with the Reign allowing a mere six total goals (see below) through their five playoff games to-date. 

Offensively, Ontario brings to the Pac Finals a familiar lineup of heft and muscle which the Firebirds experienced with Calgary; however, the Reign complement as much with far more scoring talent than the ‘Birds faced in the Wranglers.

Sporting eight scorers who reached the 30-point threshold on the season, the Reign were led this year by 66 points from playmaking forward T.J. Tynan (including a league-leading 57 assists) and 62 points from Second Team All-AHLer Samuel Fagemo, whose 43 goals (2nd in the AHL) were tallied in just 50 games. Well-traveled Charles Hudon — whom the ‘Birds faced amply last season while the forward was with Colorado — is fresh off the fifth 50-point season of his AHL career (excluding a 49-point campaign in 2016-17) and Akil Thomas paired a 46-point season in an Ontario sweater with three goals scored in seven games for the squad’s parent club L.A. Kings.

On the Reign blue line, Brandt Clarke, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, doubled-up on AHL honors this season, being named to the league All Rookie Team while concurrently being awarded Second Team All-AHL honors. Clarke’s 46 points in 50 Reign games were matched with six points in 16 games with the Kings this year.

Net Naïve?

After sharing crease time with net veterans David Rittich and Aaron Dell across much of the season’s early going, 23-year-old, 6-foot-6 rookie Erik Portillo has taken full rein of the Reign’s goalkeeping duties.

After authoring a 24-11-3-2 mark in the regular season – highlighted by a seven-game, late season win steak between March 22 – April 17 — Portillo has discovered an extra gear come the postseason. In Ontario’s five postseason games, the Swede has gone 5-0 with 1.20 Goals Against average and .956 Save Percentage – a trio of marks which all lead qualified Calder Cup Playoff goalies.

That the youngster was stellar vs. Bakersfield comes as mild surprise, considering the Condors were just 7th in the West in scoring this season. That he did as much against Abbotsford, however, is worthy of further note, as the Canucks charted as the sixth (tied) highest-scoring team in the AHL this year.

Of his 39 regular season starts, two came against the Firebirds this season, including a 4-3 Ontario overtime win in Palm Desert on December 2, and 4-2 ‘Birds’ victory in Ontario on January 20. Cumulatively, Portillo faced 57 shots in the two games and surrendered six goals (.895 Save Percentage).

Perhaps the series’ biggest question: Can Portillo keep a hot hand vs. Coachella Valley?

Let’s put it this way . . . .

Analysis and Prediction

 . . . there’s zero chance that the young netminder will see either his GGA or Save Percentage lessen in these Pac Finals.

Across the AHL’s regular season, CV led the league with 252 goals before subsequently scoring 15 times (one empty-netter included) in the four playoff games against the best goalie in the league.  As evidenced by double-digit goal campaigns from nine players in the regular season and magnified by from goals from 10 different players in the Calgary series, there is simply no team in the league sporting the same scoring depth as the Firebirds.

Coupled with a trio of goals each from veterans Max McCormick and Devin Shore in the semifinal, the ‘Birds enjoyed seeing the ascending presence of their youth movement in the series’ later stages, with scores from Jacob Melanson and Shane Wright.

Between the pipes, lingering questions about Chris Driedger’s playoff readiness (having never before started an AHL postseason game) appeared answered in full after the veteran’s stellar, 31-save shutout in Game 4. And, buoyed by NHL-ready Ryker Evans, CV’s Penalty Kill crew has seemingly experienced its nadir, after having allowed three-and-a-half (technically, three) man-advantage goals to Calgary in Game 3.

Fan travel along the I-10 will have some about say about which arena roars loudest, but, in the end, this now-confirmed rivalry will don wings in lieu of crowns.Prediction: Firebirds in four.