The Ontario Reign got into the win column with a 2-1 victory over Colorado on Wednesday with a big performance from goalie Matthew Villalta.
It’s been a slow start to the season, but on Wednesday night, the Ontario Reign earned their first victory of the season, edging the Colorado Eagles by a 2-1 count. En route to the victory, netminder Matt Villalta was solid, making 28 saves for his first win in the 2021 season.
Following the victory, Villalta spoke with the media. The netminder spoke about his relationship with his defensemen and whether there’s been any difficulty in remembering the pairings as they’ve been changing frequently early on.
“I don’t think so. I have a pretty good relationship with the boys on the team,” Villalta said. “The goalies and the D, we all have our set plays and our keywords that we like to use on the ice. I just try to help them out as much as I can, just be talking to them all the time whether it’s a man on or they need help with a reverse or an over and just calling out the calls for the plays. But yeah, the boys are really close in the room. It’s a real tight-knit family, and we all get along really well, so they make it pretty easy for me.”
The former Soo Greyhound elaborated, speaking of the camaraderie on and off the ice, especially with so many rookies on the roster.
“One of our goals as a team from the start of the year, even at training camp, was just to become a family as fast as possible,” Villalta noted. “The young guys have been fantastic. They put in the work in practice, they put in the work away from the rink and they have a lot of respect from a lot of the older guys and everyone on the team. So, they’re doing a heck of a job. They’re doing all the right things they need to do and it’s paying off on the ice.”
Arguably the most crucial of relationships Villalta has right now is with netminder Jean-Francois Berube.
Already familiar with the Kings organization, Berube was a late addition to the Ontario Reign, hoping that his veteran experience will help the youngster’s transition to the pros.
According to Villalta, it’s been so far, so good.
“Berubs, he’s been awesome,” beamed the 21-year-old. “He’s a great goalie partner and he’s a hell of a guy, too. He’s an awesome guy to have on the team, obviously, with his veteran presence that he brings to the locker room and he’s been around. So, he knows the league and he knows what it takes, so I just try to watch him in practice and see what he does and how he manages himself. We have some good conversations about some goalie talk, as well, about different plays and what happened and how we can adjust and fix a little bit.
“He’s a guy that, when I go to the bench for TV timeouts, we chat about a few plays here and there and I just ask him what he sees and he gives me his answer. So, we’ve developed a great relationship and I think it’s a healthy one. We compete in practice against each other but we’ve got that healthy relationship you need in a goalie tandem. So, he’s been awesome.”
As for their victory on Wednesday, the Ontario Reign may have been backstopped Villalta in goal but had some noteworthy help up front. Arthur Kaliyev scored his first AHL goal, assisted by Quinton Byfield, while Rasmus Kupari notched two helpers, giving him five assists in his last three games.
While Villalta was solid, though, he and his teammates were on their heels late when the Eagles were desperate to tie the game. The Eagles had tied it, so they thought, as what would have been the equalizer was waved off, paving the way for the Reign win.
“I think they had a net play,” Villalta began, describing the no-goal. “They were trying to drive the net low and I think they were just trying to get pucks on net there […] and they were doing everything they could to, obviously, put the puck in the net. But yeah, it happened real quick, guys all coming to the net and– I guess it was a high-stick or something, something like that — and fortunately for me and the boys, they waved it off no-goal. So, that was definitely nice.”
With their win on Wednesday, the Ontario Reign improve to 1-4-1 on the season. That may not be impressive on paper, but it is imperative to keep in mind how young and inexperienced this roster is. That, of course, will change with each passing game. Until then, the Reign have quite a bit to feel good about, and that includes Matt Villalta, who is certainly having a good time at finding his way as a pro.