Color Me Kisker: What I Learned in Round 1

Saturday, 04.26.14 / 12:42 AM
By admin

I’m a very superstitious person. I carried the same routine through each of the first four games of the playoffs and it worked all four times.

I have a tally to see what suit has the best luck and if I’m wearing a combo that isn’t working I’d have ditched it.

I had to keep telling myself, just as the team did, it’s a Game 1 mentality last night. Never once did I want to talk about the sweep, and even at the watch party with the staff wanting to use a broom instead of a hockey stick for a game, as soon as I caught wind of it, I did my best to nix that (which happened) due to the fact we didn’t sweep anything…not yet at least.

There was a singular Reign fan who after every Thunder win would come on our Facebook, and much like Maple Leafs fans when they lose in Buffalo, proceed to talk a bit of trash after their team lost. I wanted to respond to the fan but I thought better because, we haven’t won anything yet. Playoffs are about four games, not one.

What if by responding to that fan the Reign suddenly win? I’d have felt responsible. So I stay status quo. Every game day post the same thing to Facebook and Twitter, “And I wonder…still I wonder…Who’ll #StopTheReign”, and every game day I wore the same playoff undershirt (washed of course) and used the same pen to keep track in the booth.

Every game day I’d close my eyes and sing the national anthem while rocking back and forth. I’d give a fist bump to my partner to start the game off, and throughout the series try to stay on the good side of the hockey gods by eating some humble pie. Sure the 5-3 and 5-2 wins are great but there were ways the Thunder could improve and by mentioning those I almost felt like they were tokens to those hockey gods as if to say, “we appreciate what you did for us during the game, and on our side these are things we must work on in order to win the next game.”

No, my superstition isn’t one of the things I learned in the first round of the playoffs, as I knew I was going to carry them into the postseason, but I did learn an awful lot about the two teams that battled for Pacific Division supremacy, your Stockton Thunder, and the Ontario Reign.

The most important thing I learned was how the playoffs are truly a different game. When I worked for the Tampa Bay Lightning we didn’t make the playoffs and I never got an actual taste of what the playoff atmosphere is and how much the guys have to respond and adjust their games.

Well after spending my first four games in the postseason I can assure you that it is a tough time of season. Guys bodies are hurting, they are tired, yet they put their body on the line for one another shift in and shift out.

The games were far more physical than the previous 16 games between the teams and to me the biggest difference maker for the Thunder was that they were the tougher team.

Garet Hunt certainly led the charge when it came to playing physical, hitting everyone in his path and making sure that each Ontario player paid for playing the puck on the boards and paid for crossing into the Thunder zone.

One of the biggest positives was on the back line with the defense playing tough and stalwart defense in front of Brian Foster.

Tough to know which pairing is the top defensive unit when all are playing so I’ll just call them 1A, 1B, and 1C right now.

Defensive line 1A featuring Ryan Constant and Sean Escobedo were tough as nails and proved to be a tough defensive challenge on the Reign forwards. Constant is one of the best at playing physical (see exhibit A here) and he does so pretty responsibly. Of course he’s afforded the opportunity to venture deep in the offensive zone because his d-partner, Escobedo is such a great defender.

We don’t keep blocked shots stats in the ECHL but I would’ve loved to see how many “Scooby” picked up in the four game series. Number five did an amazing job playing physical on the boards, keeping shooters to the outside and standing in front of his goaltender blocking everything he could.

The partnership between linemates on 1B, Lee Baldwin and Marc Cantin, is certainly blossoming with this being, pound for pound, the best shut-down pair on the squad. Baldwin is so solid and simple when it comes to his defensive play that it just looks effortless when he’s out there.

He isn’t going to dazzle you with his speed or stick, but he is so aware of his surroundings defensively and has excellent instincts when handling the puck. You see Coach Kromm utilize him in key situations and you see a lot of trust given to Baldwin that he can help kill off the tougher situations that the Thunder find themselves in.

Cantin has also come as advertised as every single time I’ve chatted with someone about him the first sentence they say is “oh he’s got a real mean streak”, which is so funny to me because Cantin is a super nice guy off the ice, on it though he is a ferocious competitor who won’t stop until you are off the puck and off your game.

Tyler Gron led the way in terms of production against the Thunder as he had 8 goals and 3 assists in 10 games played against the Thunder with Idaho, San Francisco, and Ontario. Cantin I think deserves most of the credit for taking Gron out of the series early on with hit after hit that frustrated the rattled winger.

At the end of Game 2 I saw Gron go up to Cantin (after he had just demolished Everett Sheen in a fight a period earlier) and take a few whacks at him, and I could swear from the booth I could see Cantin just smile at the diminutive winger as if to say, “you really don’t want a piece of me”.

Last but not least 1C of Scott Langdon and Andrey Pedan/Landon Oslanski has really risen to the challenge and played as they were advertised.

Starting with the rock of the 1C pairing is Langdon who is awesome. Simply put, this guy is just like Cantin that they are fierce competitors and I for one am glad he’s on the good side of the force now!

Langdon exhibits his leadership on and off the ice and just like Hunt, he’s extremely vocal and just like Baldwin has incredible instincts and awareness defensively. I could probably count on one hand the amount of turnovers he had in the four game series, which is why I believe he was brought to Stockton in the first place to bring some confidence to what was the third d-pairing.

Pedan continued to show me why the kid was drafted in the third round by the New York Islanders but a slash to his hand by Gron had derailed his momentum. It was a silly slash behind the play and away from the referee that absolutely would have been penalized if it was caught. The Russian is currently being evaluated to see to the extent of the damage done and we’ll all hope that it’s something that can go away come the end of this month.

Of course injuries happen and the depth of the blueline was tested early in the playoff run with Oslanski really stepping up and playing the way I know he’s capable of. Maybe it was being a bit tired but toward the end of the season, Oslanski seemed to turn the puck over more often than the beginning of the year. His scoring dipped and his instincts on when and when not to pinch into the play were sometimes a bit off.

However he really responded well when Coach tapped him to replace Pedan in Game 3. Oslanski played tough and physical as he always does but did so without taking penalties, without putting himself out of position, and by finding the right play instead of panicking with the puck.

That’s what the playoffs can make you do, rise to the occasion and right now, Landon has really stepped up his game and was a formidable force in Games 3 and 4. If he could regain his scoring touch he had at the beginning of the season, he could press for even more playing time as the playoff run continues.

Of course the defense will make mistakes as the games go on but you ask your goaltender to make all the stops he’s supposed to make and a few he had no business making.

Like this one (Photo by David Sheehan):

Foster was an animal in this series, stopping 109 of 116 shots finishing the series with a 1.75 goals-against-average and a .940 save-percentage. He did what goalies have to do, stop every shot you are supposed to stop and a few you had no business stopping. He helped keep the Thunder in Game 3 when he stopped 41 of 43 and during Game 4 when offense was at a premium, he came up big when he needed to in order to give his team an opportunity to win the game, which they of course eventually did.

The other thing I learned was how awesome the Bridgeport line is. I’m referring to the three that played together when all of them were up with our AHL affiliate, the Sound Tigers, in Joey Martin, Andrew Clark, and Jeremy Langlois.

I wasn’t sure we were ever going to see a hat trick this season after 72 games came and went but Langlois got the first one during Game 2 and then Martin did the improbable in Game 3 when he scored the empty netter and then the third past the goaltender J.P. Anderson to get the Thunder’s second hat trick in back-to-back fashion.

The three combined for 9 of the Thunder’s 15 goals and 22 of the 26 points scored in the sweep.

Langlois missed last night’s game with a bump that Coach Kromm wanted to play safe. I think that was a wise choice because it will give a guy who will be a key part of the team if they should be able to reach the Kelly Cup Final, and it opened the door for others to step up; namely Matt Bergland, Adam Brace and James Henry, who got increased playing time with the injuries to Langlois and the Thunder’s Alan Quine.

Brace picked up an assist on the series clinching goal carrying his four-game point streak over from the regular season and making it five straight with points. His speed was on display and created some problems for the Ontario Reign and a few awkward moments when the winger was applying speedy pressure on goaltender Jussi Olkinuora and the Reign defense.

Bergland and Henry are similar players in that they finish their checks, play a solid two-way game, and are just tenacious when it comes to pursuing puck carriers. Bergland finished the series with 3 assists and I think single handedly created two of those goals out of chasing down a player, taking the puck from him, and finding the right player.

I felt bad for Henry because we just voted him as the team’s Rookie of the Year and yet he wasn’t able to get in a game up until last night. He was used sparingly but once our captain was sent to the showers early, he was thrust into action in everything that he normally does, play solid two-way, kill penalties, and play his strong physical game.

It only took 24 seconds into that final period against Ontario for Henry to get the game tied up on a play again, started by Bergland out of effort, and finished with a well-placed wrister past Olkinuora.

The difference maker in the series may be that top line for the Thunder but the series’ unsung hero has to be the center for the third line, Riley Wetmore.

Wetmore was a joy to watch and exhibits his leadership abilities on and off the ice which is what you like to see from a guy who was a former captain at UMass-Lowell and a could be future captain.

This guy was a MONSTER when it came to the two way game finishing the series with a goal and a +4 rating. He is so strong on the puck and I firmly believe that he and Quine are the two strongest carriers of the puck.

Sure Wetmore doesn’t have the same kinds of moves that a guy like Ryan Hayes gives you but Wetmore and Quine use their bodies so effectively to stave off stick checks and to power their way around would-be defenders.

Of course a blog entry about the first round isn’t complete until I mention the Hunt who….I learned nothing about. You know why? Because he’s done this all season long!

Hunt is fearless…and when he’s motivated he’s even tougher than he is normally. Combine he and Langdon on the same team and there is so much intensity just with those two guys. After every game I’d look for Garet and give him a fist bump. He’d flash that smile after every win and we’d move on.

I knew he was proud of his boys, and he was happy to finally get back in the goal column in a building that I love to see him score in! The fans just love him in Ontario and when he scored that textbook deflection goal (take notes kids that play hockey) and that celly…and those boos…I got goosebumps. I think I was more excited than Hunt in the booth as I did my own fist pound/dance in the booth.

Surely we were all excited by the sweep but one thing we all had to learn was patience. It’s a long hockey season and to see what happened to the Thunder in that 3 win month of March. If we remained patient we all would have known that this team was going to get reinforcements from Bridgeport that would make our team stronger.

Patience was also key in Game 4 when it looked like the Ontario Reign were going to force a Game 5. They had the 1-0 lead and then had a chance to strike on that 5 minute power play and yet when our penalty kill needed to come up big, they did.

Even I was guilty of a lack of patience because I thought to myself that if the Thunder are able to hold the Reign to one goal in that power play, that would’ve been a success. Instead, the Thunder held them to three shots and kept them off the scoreboard which resulted in the boost of momentum and the guys regaining their swagger just in time for the third period.

Henry struck first to tie the game and as I kept saying throughout the game, watch Nick Tremblay. Watch Tremblay. WATCH TREMBLAY!!!

Why did I think this? Watching him play throughout the game I thought he was moving quick, playing physical, and had a few shots on target that led me to believe that he was really ready to go.

The thing is when he’s playing on the third line and he’s splitting time with Bergland, he’s playing a different role and isn’t able to really get in the game like he can. Credit Coach Kromm because I think he recognized that his team needed a bit of a shake up with the missing players from the lineup in that third.

So he put these together:

Martin – Clark – Hayes
Tremblay – Trivino – Brace
Henry – Wetmore – Bergland

This proved to be the great move because I think Coach recognized that Tremblay started playing with some confidence toward the end of the second and with a couple mismatch shifts with Corey Trivino, seemed to move the puck really well and gave that line a nice dynamic.

So in essence he replaced Langlois with Hayes, the player closest to his skill set who has a heck of a chemistry with Clark, moved Tremblay who was playing a defensive role to a scoring role on the second unit, and put Henry on a line of hard working, blue collar guys.

Looks like that all worked out because 24 seconds into the third Henry scored and then to prove our hunches correct Tremblay scored what proved to be the game winner and series clincher. If Coach didn’t have the patience with his lineup maybe he over thinks matchups, maybe he puts the wrong combination out there. Instead you think with a level head, think of who has chemistry with who, who’s skills benefit other players, what each individual can bring to the line, and then go with it. Game 4 was brought to you by the word “Patience”.

The Reign did exhibit a patient game plan in Game 4 which surprised me as I thought they would really throw their active defense into the mix right away in hopes to break through the Stockton defense. While they did activate, they didn’t do so to the extent I thought but I did learn a few things from that team this season that I think are good lessons.

Too many affiliations is a bad thing. When they absorbed the San Jose and Worcester Sharks players I think it was the final nail in their playoff coffin (important that they weren’t officially affiliated but they basically were along with their current affiliations with Los Angeles and Winnipeg).

Why you ask? Because none of those players they got on the forward end were better than Kyle Kraemer. The trade that sent him to Colorado will prove to haunt Jason Christie as he didn’t get any offensive player from the Sharks that was better than him.

In my mind the only player that made a big difference from the Sharks affiliation was Kyle Bigos and whatever happened him in the end of Game 1 must’ve really hurt him as we didn’t see him again. That was a tough loss for the Reign as I do think Bigos is a good defenseman.

Players leaving for Europe can certainly hurt too and Mario Lamoureux’s departure from the team was a tough pill to swallow for the Reign despite a similar situation happening to us with Nathan Deck leaving. Lamoureux opened up things for Matt White in the end but certainly the Reign were a more dangerous team with Lamoureux in the lineup.

In the end though the Reign in my opinion were a good team that relied on their defense for their offense. If you could take Maxim Kitsyn (who really impressed me this season), Tyler Gron and Rocco Carzo out of the game, you were going to beat them. The trio finished their series with 1 goal (Kitsyn) no assists and -5.

The big two defenseman in Matt Register and Jake Newton had a combined 2 goals and 1 assist but were -7 in the series.

The Reign really missed Dan DaSilva who played just 14 games with the Reign before being signed in the AHL to a PTO and never return. He had 7 goals and 19 assists including 2 goals and 2 assists in 2 games against the Thunder.

You know who the Reign really missed though? Michael Hutchinson, my personal vote for goalie of the year. We saw him 6 times this season and beat him once. Another call up to the AHL (actually made it to the NHL despite not playing) who never returned. Instead Ontario was forced to go with J.P. Anderson who only beat the Thunder once this year and Jussi Olkinuora who went .500 against the Thunder…both having a sub .900 save-percentage against Stockton this season.

So we tip our caps to the Ontario Reign for a fun and entertaining 20 games and we move on to Bako. In this four game series we learned a lot about both teams but want to know what the most important thing I learned was?

Don’t count out the #7 seed. These guys are good.