(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
The Stockton Thunder made the most of their opportunities over the weekend and put together an offensive wrecking ball, rocking the first two Kelly Cup Quarterfinal playoff games against the higher seeded Ontario Reign. Game 1 went 3-1 in the Thunder’s favor and for Game 2, the trend continued with Stockton winning 5-3 over the Reign. Both teams are aggressively physical and it was clear right from the gate that penalties would factor into the series. Ontario boasts high skill talent in forwards Matt White, Maxim Kitsyn and Gaspar Kopitar. The blueline is held down by Matt Register ,Jake Newton, Cody Sol. Captain Derek Couture is an agitator and a playmaker especially in the slot area. The Reign found it difficult to find the space to create offense and once in the zone, Thunder goaltending shut the door on quality scoring chances. Stockton has patched their holes they were showing late in the regular season, both on the back end and driving pucks to the net.
The Underrated Goaltending Talent of Brian Foster
Thunder goaltender Brian Foster has been a consistent performer for Stockton all season long. His consistency in net may be difficult to see over the regular season since goaltending duties were equally split with Bridgeport prospect Parker Milner but his confidence and stability have improved as the season progressed. Foster has turned up his game a notch for the playoffs and is keeping his team in the game, remaining calm and collected, despite some nail-biting scrambles in front of the net as the Reign turned up the heat in the first two quarterfinal games.
During game 1, the Reign drove the net on a 2 on 1 shorthanded opportunity, a perfect scoring chance to get them back in the game. Foster stuffed the attempt by Reign forward Gaspar Kopitar, killing any potential for a rebound and Ontario to get a goal. Thunder Head Coach remarked on Foster’s performance post-game.
“He made a couple saves throughout the game that were out of this world. We needed him to step up (for the playoffs) and he did just that.”
The Constant Hip-Check
Ryan Constant holds down the blueline for the Thunder, a proven leader in the playoff push. His absence was noticeable the last half of the season, as he recovered from a blocked shot he received in February during a three game series against the Colorado Eagles. His return marked a stabilization in the defensive zone for Stockton and a sincere step-up in physical play. Constant uses his body wherever he can. What he lacks in physical size, he masterfully makes up for in physics: the hip-check. Constant’s board blasting hits were in full force for game two.
“Every game, Constant is going to lay a hit,” said Thunder Coach Kromm about Constant’s physical play. “Obviously, the other team has to keep their head up when he is on the ice.”
Reign Everett Sheen, missed the memo on watching out for Ryan Constant. He took the brunt of Constant’s hits, and at one point, Sheen went head over heels into his own bench as Constant’s hip made contact.
Constant is not only a defensive powerhouse, he is a key component in the Thunder power play unit. While he recovered from his injury, Stockton’s special team prowess took a hit. His work on the power play unit helped net forward Jeremy Langlois’ hat trick in the third period of game 2 to give the Thunder a commanding 5 goal lead.
The Bridgeport Beauty Line
A gift arrived for the Thunder at the end of the regular season in the form of Andrew Clark, Joey Martin and Jeremy Langlois. Clark and Martin began the season with Stockton and dominated the scoresheet, earning a call up to AHL affiliate Bridgeport. Langlois, an Islanders prospect and paired up with Clark and Martin, is offensive gold.
“He plays really intense all over the ice. “He has a good stick, he’s smart and he makes good plays getting pucks out which is important too, he’s not just an offensive guy. He can play hard in his own end as well.” Coach Kromm said of Langlois’ hockey sense.
The three worked their magic with the Sound Tigers and have continued their strong play with Stockton. Langlois said,”We definitely have great chemistry, the three of us…we all have different little facets that we bring to the line and all three of us are pretty offensive and we can put the puck in the net. I think that will be big for us moving forward.”
Their line has made a serious impact, indeed. Three goals over the first two games of the series were driven by their line.
After game 2, Martin talked of his line chemistry with Clark and Langlois. “They are two really skilled guys ,they can make plays so in the offensive zone we are able to create a lot of offense, but we also take pride in our d-zone. They are just smart hockey players and we’ve played a few games now and we know each other’s tendencies.”
They also made a major contribution to the power play when matched up with forward Ryan Hayes, with Langlois capitalizing on two power play opportunities during game 2 with Hayes in tow, and Hayes driving the net in game 1 with Langlois and Martin tallying assists.
The RH (Ryan Hayes) Factor
Ryan Hayes does things with the puck that other players dream of. When he is around the net, every angle is an opportunity and he finds creative ways to beat the goaltender. He knows when to give the pass on a rush and create time to make the right play. A shoulder injury sidelined him for most of the season, but it only fueled his fire to get back on the ice and score goals.
The playoffs have added an extra edge to his game, a physical edge you generally don’t see from such an offensively skilled guy during the regular season. In both games, Hayes played the body, finished his checks and racked up more penalty minutes than he had all season long. Hayes said that he’s been waiting all year for this (the playoffs) and he wanted to get the same result that he had last year.
“I think I was just pretty jacked up….so if I don’t get any points, I might as well start hitting guys and get more aggressive.”
After game 1 Head Coach Kromm commented on what Hayes brought to the table. “He played with a huge amount of intensity tonight and battled hard all over, he was finishing checks battling to get pucks out. He was strong on the puck all over the ice, created some opportunities and scored a huge goal in the third, he really played a playoff type game. He was a man possessed tonight.”
Looking ahead: Two games in Ontario
The Thunder, by a stroke of scheduling luck (Thank Disney on Ice) were able to play the first two games on home ice, despite being the lower seed. Now up 2 games in the series, they head to Ontario ice, where the crowd plays a big role in the home team’s dominance. Thunder forward Joey Martin put it best on the Reign’s response to being down two games: “It’s going to be a battle, for sure. They are a really good team, they are well coached and they are not just going to roll over. It’s big that we were able to get two wins at home but it’s going to be difficult in their barn.”
Head Coach Kromm wants his team to keep the momentum they built in the first two games and knows it’s crucial to get the win on Tuesday night.
“We’ve had success in their building.We have to play the way we’ve done at home and just keep our game consistent. We want to make sure we keep getting pucks in deep and working around their net which has been very successful for us.”
The Reign will look to right the ship on Tuesday night and find a way to beat the Thunder defense and shut down both the top line of Clark, Langlois and Martin and kill Stockton’s power play opportunities. Taking fewer penalties may be a tall order, especially given the bad blood that exists between the two teams. However, Ontario has lost one of its main PIM leaders, forward Jeremy Yablonski was suspended by the league after some particularly rough play in game 2 involving Thunder dman Andrey Pedan and Scott Langdon. He will miss the rest of the series.
Games 3 and 4 between the Stockton Thunder and the Ontario Reign will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Citizen’s Business Bank Arena. If necessary, Game 5 will return to Stockton Arena on Saturday April 26th.