Gameday Preview: Texas Stars v. Ontario Reign

Texas Stars
9-6-0-1, 19 pts
#4 Pacific Division
v.Ontario Reign
9-2-2-0, 20 pts
#1 Pacific Division
November 21st at 7:00 PM
Cedar Park Center, Cedar Park, TX

One of the great things about having a community of writers covering the AHL is getting to pick their brains about their teams. It's what they know best. Robyn Pennington writes about the Reign at Jewels From The Crown, the LA Kings SB Nation site. The Reign are one of the five new California teams this year, but they just won the Calder Cup last season in Manchester. Tonight's matchup will be a contest between the two most recent Cup winners.

Last night the Reign came out hot against the Rampage, going up 3-0 early. San Antonio clawed back to 3-3 but lost in overtime. Ontario moved into first place in the Pacific with the win.

HDH: What is this team's identity right now? Who should we be looking out for?

RP: The Reign are quite similar to their parent club in that they like to be a hard hitting, tough team to play against and the addition of a guy like Paul Bissonnette kind of falls in line with that identity. Coach Stothers really believes in this team's skating ability (and they actually have some pretty good skaters) and he's always saying that that's when the team is doing well - when they're skating.

Like the Kings, they're also a strong possession team and love to play keep away with the puck. (According to Josh Weissbock, Ontario leads the league in est. Fenwick close% with 56.769%, nearly two full percentage points ahead of the second place Albany Devils). They really pride themselves on limiting shots against and creating scoring chances for.

As for who to watch out for, Michael Mersch is always dangerous. He's pretty much NHL ready, but remains in the AHL until there's a roster spot for him. He also leads the league in shots on goal with 60, but somehow only has 6 goals. Rookie Jonny Brodzinski has been doing just about everything right, though he has yet to score a goal. He's incredibly snakebitten right now and could break out anytime soon.

HDH: Can you do any compare/contrast this team to the Cup winning team in Manchester? What are the major changes?

RP: Actually, for an AHL team, there hasn't really been a huge turnover from last year to this year. They lost their leading scorers in Jordan Weal (graduated to the Kings) and Brian O'Neill (traded to New Jersey), as well as defensive center Nick Shore (also graduated) and backstop J.F. Berube (claimed on waivers by the Islanders), but they retained most of the other moving pieces that were key in the Calder Cup run.

One person who got hot in the playoffs was the Kings' 2014 first round pick Adrian Kempe. He spent most of the year in Sweden on a bad team that barely avoided relegation. Eventually, the Kings decided to take advantage of the European loophole and bring him over as an 18-year-old, something they hadn't really been intending to do earlier in the season.

The Reign still do have Patrik Bartosak, who was solid in relief after Berube had gotten hurt last year, but he had a lingering thumb injury that worsened in the preseason and has caused him to miss the beginning of the season so far. The intention was to get him into a game during this Texas road trip but he has been suspended following domestic violence charges.

HDH: Can you talk a bit about the season that Peter Budaj is having and how that's impacting this team?

RP: Budaj is off to a fantastic start this season and is really enjoying a bounce back season from last year when he was mostly unfortunate not to get any wins with St. John's Ice Caps. The nice thing about this story is that it's really not all the team defense in front of him. On Nov. 7, Budaj stopped all 38 shots in a lopsided, penalty and fight filled affair in Stockton (a game with which Stothers was not pleased with his team's effort). He's smart with his rebound control and recovers well. He has four shutouts and league leading 1.28 GAA and 0.947 sv%.

Given that Berube was claimed and Bartosak was out with an injury, he's really been a steadying force for some of the younger guys and rookies. He's been especially important since Ontario lacks some of the firepower that they possessed a year ago.

HDH: Sean Backman played for the Texas Stars many seasons ago. Since then he's gone on to win a Cup and becoming a big scoring threat. Due to him playing in the East, we haven't seen him since he left. What's his game evolved into since we left him last?

Backman has become a very good winger and is enjoying career highs. Here's what Sheng Peng (fellow JFTC writer and also covering the Reign this season) said this back on the 10th:
Already sporting nine assists in 10 games, Sean Backman has truly been an unsung hero for an Ontario squad that looked like they would miss Jordan Weal and Brian O'Neill. He's a bit of a late bloomer at 29; as recently as a couple seasons ago, he wasn't even averaging half a point for Manchester. While his current point-a-game pace seems unlikely to continue, his production has certainly been trending upward, from 26 points in 2013-14 to 44 last year. Set-ups like this (featuring some commendable work from Valentin Zykov too!) have become the norm.

HDH: What has the callup situation been like with Ontario being so close to LA?

RP: With the Kings enjoying a run of good health, there hasn't really been much of a need to recall/send anyone down. The Kings were able to take advantage of Derek Forbort's waiver exempt status and sent him back for a brief conditioning stint earlier in the season after he missed some time while recovering from the flu. He played in two home games, then returned to LA while the Reign hit the road. When Forbort was under the weather, Jamie McBain was a surprise call-up and he flew from LA to San Jose in one afternoon and even played in that game, something not feasible before, unless the Kings were in the east.

Stars injury/call up report:
Elie (day-to-day upper body)
Hulak (upper body)

Twitter: @ontarioreign
Coverage: Reign coverage via Jewels from the Crown