The LA Kings have seen some outstanding performances from their goaltenders as of late. Whether it was Jonathan Quick’s sound play to defeat Toronto Monday night or Cal Petersen’s dazzling performance in Montreal on Tuesday, both of which included a total of 33 saves, goaltending has been a key part of the team’s current six game win streak. In each of the six victories, whichever netminder resided in the crease hasn’t surrendered more than two goals.
The same can be said of the two backstops for the Ontario Reign in Matt Villalta and Garret Sparks. Ontario is off to its best start in team history at 9-0-1 with offensive contributions coming from all over the lineup, but the Reign haven’t been a dominant team each night. In some instances, yes, they’ve outworked their opponent, grinding them down with speed and aggressive play. But more recently teams have found a way to put pressure on them in their own end, making it hard on the last line of defense.
Take this past week, for example, a span of five days that included three wins over separate opponents, all in a different city. Wednesday night in Henderson, the Silver Knights attacked Ontario right out of the gate, putting up 16 shots on goal in the first 20 minutes and forcing the Reign to play on their heels. But despite giving up a goal 1:24 into the first, Villalta stuck with his game and held Ontario within striking distance, stopping the next 24 shots he saw before allowing a late second period marker. By that time, the Reign had put three in Henderson’s net to take the lead and Villalta posted a perfect third period to seal up a win.
Villalta had to be even better on Saturday in Bakersfield as the Reign allowed a season-high 40 shots to the Condors, including 17 in the opening period. Amazingly, the Kingston, Ont. native went the first 42 minutes without a puck finding its way past him, turning aside 32 shots in the process. When Bakersfield finally found a way to score, Ontario had already built a 5-0 advantage.
Most recently on Sunday at Toyota Arena, Sparks had to withstand 15 shots in the first 20 minutes from Colorado, but again the Eagles were already down by two once they solved the veteran netminder. Ontario added another pair of goals in the second and never trailed on its way to an eighth consecutive win.
The two Reign goaltenders are an inseparable duo on and off the ice, forming what they call the “Goaltending Union” along with their Development Coach, Matt Millar.
Speaking the week prior after an overtime win in Abbotsford that also featured excellent play from Sparks, Reign Head Coach John Wroblewski remarked on the closeness of his two netminders.
“I’m really happy with the way that our goaltending tandem sticks together as a unit and how they feed off each other. [Sparks] and Matty are really good friends and they’ve got a lot of respect for each other and hopefully they can keep this going.”
Millar credits the success in games to the work ethic that he’s seen during the team’s practices.
“It’s a pleasure to work with those two guys,” Millar said. “They come to the rink every day with great energy, they’re excited to be there, and they want to learn and get better. That makes it really easy for me as a coach to come in and have some ideas. To have two guys that are willing to collaborate with you and have a voice on what direction they may want to go with a drill or something they might want to work on with their game makes it really fun for me.”
While Villalta is the younger of the two at 22 years of age, he’s garnered more of the playing time early on and posted outstanding results with a perfect 6-0-0 record to lead the AHL in wins. There’s still a long way to go and he’s not even a full month into the 2021-22 season, but Villalta’s current 2.16 goals-against average is well below the number he finished with in each of his first two professional campaigns.
The difference, according to Millar, is that Villalta has found a comfort level with his game and has been able to control how he plays in different situations.
“He’s super athletic and competitive, but there’s times to use that and there’s also times to use the structure that our goaltending staff has been layering into his game,” said Millar. “I think he’s done a better job making the distinction between when to make a save routine, simple and easy and when he needs to break out of that structure to compete, be athletic and play without the structure. What you see is him keeping things a lot simpler and cleaner, less busy. Then when things get a little dynamic and there’s a deflection, a tip, a rebound, he’s able to use his instincts and athleticism to make big saves when we need it.”
Despite his improved play, Villalta is focused on staying grounded and keeping a level head. Even after his most recent win in Bakersfield where he carried the team with key stops, he wasn’t satisfied and pointed to the latter stages of the game as an area he felt he could’ve been better.
“I’m staying in the moment,” Villalta said. “I’m not thinking about the future, you can’t control the future and you can’t control the past. It’s just worrying about the next shot, taking it one shot at a time. I kind of got ahead of myself as the game went on in the third period. I had an opportunity for a shutout which is always nice, but I had to bring myself back to the moment and just worry about stopping the next one.”
In each of his three pro seasons, Villalta has benefitted from a more experienced goalie partner on the Reign roster to help guide him along the way. First, it was Cal Petersen, then J-F Berube, and now Sparks, who is in his ninth year and has over 250 games of experience to lean on. Millar said that Villalta was a little quieter in the past, taking things in as he started out. But now with a higher comfort level and more experience, his dialogue with Sparks is much more of a back and forth.
“I think their relationship together is invaluable,” Millar said. “They spend a lot of time together, they talk about a lot of situations and I’m lucky enough to be a part of those conversations. If we don’t like a few of the reps in a practice, we’re able to have a line of communication and change things. That starts with Sparksy’s maturity and professionalism to speak up and have a voice, and I think that’s rubbing off on Matt too. When he sees something, he has the confidence to say something, and I don’t know if a lot of guys have that but Matt is starting to grow and that’s a direct result from their relationship.”
With the organization setting a high standard for their goaltenders, Millar knows it’s part of his job to hold both Villalta and Sparks accountable. That’s something he did two weeks ago when he spoke up after he noticed a drop off in their practice leading up to the team’s weekend trip to Abbotsford.
“We had a day of practice that wasn’t great and rather than let us just brush it off, Matty was like no, you two have to be better and we love that,” said Sparks after a 34-save performance that led to an overtime victory over Abbotsford that week. “We didn’t love it in the moment but now we love it. We understood what he was saying, and we demand a lot of ourselves but at the end of the day it’s all about having fun and I think that mantra has taken us to heights that we probably haven’t been at in a while in pro hockey. It’s awesome just to see guys enjoying themselves and have things be clicking right now.”
The willingness of Sparks, who has a career AHL goals-against average of 2.28 in 166 appearances, to take direction from the organization’s goaltending coaches while working to improve his game excites Millar.
“Sparksy makes his own decisions and has a very strong personality which is great, but I think this year he’s been open to a lot of different adjustments in his game,” Millar said. “It’s a perfect time in his career for us to work together towards how he wants to play consistently. I’m fortunate to have someone like him that isn’t afraid to speak up and bring his perspective into it because it generates a healthy conversation.”
Millar also said it’s gratifying to see the recommendations he’s making get put into Sparks’ game.
“I’ve learned things from Sparksy that I wouldn’t have been able to if he just did what I said and went in the net and followed the rules,” said Millar. “He’s a guy that knows the rules and can bend them a little bit at times to get what he needs done. It’s such an unbelievable relationship to have someone that allows you to make suggestions and actually goes and works on them.”
That style of coaching and leadership Millar uses starts with Kings Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford, who heads up the team’s goalie department. Millar explained that Ranford doesn’t teach the same style he played with, but instead has studied the position throughout his coaching career and approaches things with a different knowledge base from when he was playing. While Villalta and Sparks are different goaltenders than Quick and Petersen, the philosophy to always be improving no matter what level you’re playing at is the same.
“The ability to have these conversations and be open to learning and trying new things comes from the top down and that rubs off on a lot of us,” Millar said. “Garret starts to see some things work in goalie practice and he’s open enough to say ‘Okay, I see these changes working, I understand why we’re making them, I understand how to do these things consistently’. Then naturally they become part of his game. My job is to create that environment and then hold the guys accountable. We all agree that these are some good changes, these are some things that allow these guys to play their best hockey, so let’s keep it going, let’s keep that at the core of what we’re doing.”
The Kings and the Reign are two separate teams, playing in different leagues, but they see themselves as one goaltending department and that group is achieving success at both levels to start 2021-22.
“It’s a really unique relationship, us being here at the Toyota Sports Performance Center and being able to watch the Kings practice and see what they do,” Millar said. “We get the clips from our video coaches and we have a lot of dialogue and what you see is the habits and the details. Not one of these goalies is “cookie-cutter”. They all have a different way of how they want to play certain situations, but the work ethic, the attention to detail and their willingness to keep learning is what makes these guys elite. For Quick and Petersen, their ability to work and their willingness to make changes and find the best version of their game at any point in the season is incredible and that definitely rubs off on a guy like Matt Villalta who has been around them and even Sparks, who is a bit older, coming into the environment has been contagious. We’re fortunate to have them one door away and you can watch those guys practice and see it in real time which is invaluable.”
There’s still a long way to go, but both teams are hoping to continue seeing high-level results from their goaltenders, which would set them up for more success later in the year.