J.P. Hoornstra, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/The Sun
Since the Reign are going to Las Vegas, let's begin with a little oddsmaking.
Assume for the moment the Reign get no help in their pursuit of a National Conference playoff berth by virtue of teams above them in the standings losing. Twenty potential outcomes exist for their three-game, regular season-ending series against the Las Vegas Wranglers - 15 of which result in the Reign missing the playoffs.
"You can sit there and worry about it, or you can think the law of averages will start going your way," head coach Karl Taylor said. "We're going to go with the law of averages, and believe that we're going to get some bounces and some luck out there, and make sure we create it on our own."
Shortly before leaving for Las Vegas on Wednesday, a relaxed mood in the Reign locker room reflected their coach's optimism. And for good reason; the team is 12-4-0-3 since falling a season-low seven games below .500 on Feb. 14. In their most recent series against the Wranglers, the Reign took all three games to a shootout and won twice.
Only on paper is this a last-place team with its season hanging in the balance.
"It's just a mind-set, I think, for us more so than anything," captain Jon Francisco said. "We're in the right place right now. We've found ways to learn how to win to put ourselves in position for this weekend.
"We're obviously doing something right."
The sobering reality is this: Lose just one game in regulation and the eighth-place Reign probably will be the only National Conference team left out of the playoffs. The margin of error for the Wranglers, currently sitting in seventh place, is slightly wider, but in most cases Las Vegas needs to pick up three of a possible six points to clinch a playoff spot.
The season series between the teams has been closer than Las Vegas' 8-0-1-2 head-to-head record would indicate. Ten of the 11 games have been decided by two goals or less and five were decided after regulation.
Identifying the key for the Reign is not easy.
Las Vegas often has drawn penalties against the Reign to its advantage. But in only four of the 11 games did the team that drew the most penalties win.
"We've allowed that to affect us at times, so we just need to play our game and do the things we do well, really focus on ourselves," Taylor said.
Left wing Jon Rheault has been the Reign's most productive scorer against the Wranglers with four goals and eight points in five head-to-head meetings.
Rheault was loaned to the American Hockey League on Monday and played two games with the Abbotsford (British Columbia) Heat. He scored a goal in a 2-1 Heat win on Tuesday and did not practice with the Reign on Wednesday, but Taylor expects Rheault will be in uniform today.
Along with rookies C.J. Stretch and Jordan Nolan, both of whom signed amateur tryout contracts over the weekend, the coach should have a large stable of forwards to choose from. Also, the returns of Dan Knapp and Luis Tremblay have given the team seven defensemen in practice; the Reign played with five defensemen the past two games.
Taylor said Wednesday he had not decided on tonight's starting goaltender. Curtis Darling has stopped 42of 44 shots since replacing Mike Zacharias midway through Friday's game against the Alaska Aces, looking no worse for the wear incurred by a league-leading 57 appearances.
For Las Vegas, enforcer Chris Frank will miss the game while serving a one-game suspension for pulling an opponent's hair in the Wranglers' 6-5 loss Sunday in Stockton.
Other than that, the Wranglers should be at full strength with the return of forward Ned Lukacevic from the AHL on Sunday.
The left wing has 25 goals and 62 points in 60 games while center Adam Miller leads the Wranglers with 32 goals and 84 points in 69 games.
Las Vegas is 1-4-0-1 in its last six games. Since sweeping the Bakersfield Condors three weeks ago, the Wranglers have won only twice.
That hardly takes the shine off their eight wins in 11 games against the Reign, however.
"On paper they may have the edge on us," Francisco said. "If we played the game on paper they'd probably beat us and we'd be out of the playoffs. But that's why you play the game right now."