Contributed by AJ Cich
Well, the regular season is over, and it’s time for some playoff hockey! As most fans would tell you, this has been a rather exciting year for the sport of hockey. With all the excitement of the IIHF World Junior Championships and the high impact Winter Olympic Tournament, hockey enthusiasts have had their fill of appetizers, but it’s time for the main course. On Wednesday, April 14, both the NHL’s Stanley Cup and AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs kick off. So here is the breakdown of who to pay attention to and my predictions through the first round.
Atlantic Division Semifinal- Series “A”: Best-of-7
A1-Worcester Sharks vs. A4-Lowell Devils
The Worchester Sharks had a great run heading into the post season. The Sharks’ record of 49-25-3-3 was good enough for 104 points overall and the top seed in the Atlantic Division. Many of the Sharks’ wins this season can be attributed the well-balanced scoring of the team. Standouts this season include D Danny Groulx who lead the team with 66 points and a plus/minus of +17, and LW T.J. Trevelyan who finished the season with a team leading 28 goals. But the main reason for the success of the Sharks is G Alex Stalock. Stalock’s outstanding play lead him to a 39-19-2-4 record with a 2.63 GAA and a .908 SV%.
The Lowell Devils finished the regular season with 88 points, good enough for fourth place in the Atlantic Division with a record of 39-31-4-6. The Devils had a fairly decent season, but finished up strong by clinching their playoff spot on April 11 with a 6-3 win in their last game of the season against the Providence Bruins. Some noteworthy names in the Devils lineup are C Ben Walter, who led the team in points with 22 goals and 36 assists, and rookie D Matt Taormina, who I spotlighted earlier this season and finished off the regular season with a team-leading 40 assists.
Who wins the series?: Lowell steals Game 2 but is blown out for the rest of the series.
4-1: Worchester wins the series over Lowell in five games.
Atlantic Division Semifinal – Series “B”: Best-of-7
A2-Portland Pirates vs. A3-Manchester Monarchs
When Worchester clinched the Atlantic Division, it wasn’t by much. For at least 80% of the season, the Sharks and the Portland Pirates were neck-and-neck for the lead in the division. This happened although the Pirates had a terrible and injury-ridden start to the 2009-10 season. Portland finished the regular season with a record of 45-24-7-4. This is due their potent offensive style of hockey. Some Pirates to watch in this series are veteran RW Mark Mancari, who led the team with 73 total points, and rookie LW Nathan “The Killer Bee” Gerbe, who had 11 goals and 27 assists this season. One notable player who may be absent from the Calder Cup playoffs is rookie gunslinger and AHL Rookie of the Year C Tyler Ennis. Ennis plundered his way to the R.O.T.Y. honors after scoring 23 goals and 42 assists. Currently, Ennis’ high-octane performance won him a current spot with the Buffalo Sabres due to the major concussion of RW Drew Stafford. So expect to see Ennis centering the second or third line in the first round against the Boston Bruins.
The Manchester Monarchs are coming into this year’s playoff with the third seed in the Atlantic Division, finishing only six points behind Portland with 95 total points. The Monarchs were the third team in the Atlantic to win 40+ games this season, ending with a record of 43-28-3-6 with their last two games ending in defeat. The Monarchs look to bounce back in the playoffs with their defensive style of play. Keep an eye on star goaltender G Jonathan Bernier, who finished the season with a record of 30-21-6-9 with a 2.03 GAA and a.936 SV%. Much of the Monarchs’ style of play is focused on the success of their transition game, and that is quarterbacked by Bernier. Also, D Alec Martinez led the Monarchs in plus/minus with a rating of +12.
Who wins the series?: It’s a goaltenders’ dual between Bernier and Pirates netminder G Jhonas Enroth. Portland’s high powered offense ends up being too much for Bernier.
4-2: Portland wins the series over Manchester in six games.
East Division Semifinal – Series “C” Best-of-7
E1-Hershey Bears vs. A5-Bridgeport Sound Tigers
The defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears are looking to maul anyone who gets in their way. Hershey finished the season with 123 total points for an earth-shattering record of 60-17-3-3…let that sink in for a minute… Hershey won 60 games this season, which is a staggering statistic. It would be difficult for anyone to convince me that this is NOT the team to beat because Hershey has it all. They scored 342 total goals and only allowed 198 goals against this season. If that stat isn’t enough for you, let this blow your mind. As of April 11, 2010, no active Bears player had a negative plus/minus rating… that means the ENTIRE TEAM has a positive number for their plus/minus. So, rather than list the entire team for who to watch, here is the top line, who are also the points leaders for the Bears: Keith Aucoin, LW Alexandre Giroux and RW Andrew Gordon, whose season’s goals and assists total combined for a total 279 points with a plus/minus rating of +82. Simply amazing.
The Bridgeport Tigers have a lot to be proud of this season. Their strong showing at the end of the season helped them sneak into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with their eventual matchup against the Hershey Bears. The Tigers ended their season with a record of 38-32-4-6, giving them 86 total points. If the Tigers have any shot at beating Hershey, they are going to need a stingy defense and strong goaltending from the keeping tandem of G Nathan Lawson and G Scott Monroe. These two young netminders split the goaltending duties all season logging almost identical win/loss records (Lawson: 16-16-3-1) (Munroe: 19-16-3-3) and save percentages (Lawson .922 SV%, Munroe .920 SV%).
Who wins the series?: Does David beat Goliath? Absolutely not. Bridgeport is only the first team to be destroyed by Hershey on their way to back-to-back championships. I just hope Hershey will play Wilkes-Barre/Scranton so I can keep quoting The Office throughout the playoffs. “Which bear is best? FALSE! The Hershey Bear.”
4-0: Hershey sweeps Bridgeport in four games scoring at least 12 goals in that series.
East Division Semifinal – Series “D” Best-of-7
E2-Albany River Rats vs. E3-W-B/Scranton Penguins
Despite playing in the same division as the Hershey Bears and knowing that the team will be relocated at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, the Albany River Rats finished the regular season with an impressive 94 points. This secured the River Rats the second seed in the East Division. Much of Albany’s success may be attributed to their hard working attitudes despite all the adversity surrounding the team. Their first round matchup again the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will be very even so Albany must look to their leaders to help make that extra playoff push. Players like RW Jerome Samson, the River Rats sniper who netted 37 goals, 41 assists and top points leader on the team this season, and assist-machine D Jamie McBain, who lead the defensive core with 33 assists.
If there is anything to say about the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, it is that they are always consistent. The Penguins have made it deep into the playoffs for the past six straight seasons, two of which were Calder Cup Championship appearances, and this season is no different. The Penguins finished the regular season with a record of 41-34-2-3. Although the Penguins have not yet won their first Calder Cup as a franchise, look to them this postseason to make another deep run. What makes the Penguins so good year to year is because of how well the Pittsburgh Penguins’ front office drafts young talent. C Sidney Crosby and C Evgeni Malkin are just two of the plethora of names that have been drafted by the “Big Pens”. W.B.-Scranton is another one of those well balanced teams where they focus on moving the puck and getting shots through to the net. Players to watch are C Dustin Jeffery, who scored 24 goals and 47 assists this season, and the crafty RW Nick Johnson, who netted 16 goals and 27 assists.
Who wins the series?: This is going to be a very good first-round matchup that looks very even on paper.
2-4: Albany loses a couple of one-goal heartbreakers to favorite W.B.-Scranton.
North Division Semifinal – Series “E” Best-of-7
N1-Hamilton Bulldogs vs. N4-Manitoba Moose
If the Hershey Bears are an unstoppable force, then the Hamilton Bulldogs are the immovable object. The Bulldogs are the only other team in the AHL to come remotely close to the Bears for the overall points lead in the league. Hamilton finished with 115 total points coming from an impressive 52-17-3-8 record. Hamilton was third in the league in goals for this season behind Hershey and Worchester, pocketing 271 goals. Another amazing stat is that Hamilton allowed the fewest goals against this season, only letting in 182 goals, besting even Hershey this year. Hamilton is another team that has benefitted the past few seasons from good scouting and drafting. Bulldogs to watch in this series are two guys I reported about earlier this season in my GenNext articles. C David Desharnais, who lead the team in points with 78 total, and C Brock Trotter, whose dominating style of play earned him 36 goals and 41 assists this year.
The Bulldogs have some stiff competition in the first round this year. They face the tough, hard-nosed Manitoba Moose, a team that met the Hershey Bears last season in the Calder Cup finals. The Moose finished the regular season with a record of 40-33-5-2. Manitoba is not a team that the Bulldogs can look past because if recent history says anything about these the Moose, it is that they will not go down without a fight. Manitoba has been in the Calder Cup playoffs for the past five straight seasons and knows a thing or two about playing playoff hockey. The Moose play a defensive, hard-hitting style of hockey and have no problem mixing it up when things get “tense”. Manitoba is known for their counter attacking style of play which is very heavily defensive. If Manitoba has a shot at beating Hamilton, it will stem from some of their core defensemen: D Lawrence Nycholat, D Brian Salcido and D Travis Ramsey to shut down the Bulldogs high-powered offense.
Who wins the series?: This series might end up being the one that I pay the most attention to because it will undoubtedly be the most exciting to watch.
4-3: Hamilton wins the series in seven games after there offensive onslaught becomes too much for Manitoba to handle.
North Division Semifinal – Series “F” Best-of-7
N2-Rochester Americans vs. N3-Abbotsford Heat
The Rochester Americans have been a team that really has impressed me this season, finishing with a record of 44-33-2-1. For a long time, the Americans roster was made up of two squads, the Buffalo Sabres draftees and the Florida Panthers draftees. During this time, the Americans benefitted from having a very good squad, made up from the best that both teams could draft. Yet, once the Buffalo Sabres split ties with the team two years ago in order to take on their own AHL franchise, the Portland Pirates; many thought that Rochester would have faltered after losing much of the talent drafted by the Sabres. In the end, the “junior Panthers” put together a winning franchise, which is more than what can be said about the “big Panthers”. If the Americans want to get through the first round or any subsequent round, it will be on the back of their swagger-licious, rookie goaltender G Alexander Salak. Salak is known for having an air of confidence (or arrogance as some would say) in the way that he backs up his big talk with the big saves he makes.
The Abbotsford Heat, the hockey team formerly known as the Quad City Flames, has had a lot of success this season and is no stranger to the Calder Cup playoffs. The Heat finished the regular season with a record of 38-29-5-7, good enough for the third spot in the North Division, just behind Hamilton and Rochester. Abbotsford finished of the regular season on a four-game winning streak and looks to capitalize off of that momentum against Rochester. Much of the Heat’s success stems from a gritty defensive core which has seen some playing time in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. Stay-at-home defensemen D Keith Seabrook and D Andy Delmore combined for 18 goals, 36 assists and 287 shots on goal this year. Pay attention to the success of these two because I guarantee if they are able to get some opportunities to get shots to the net, especially on the powerplay, the Heat will be able to win the series.
Who wins the series?: This is another evenly matched series and being division rivals, expect a tough series with a lot of hard hits and trash talk.
2-4: Rochester is able to get the series 2-2 at one point but Abbotsford’s all-around defensive skills take the series in six games.
West Division Semifinal – Series “G” Best-of-7
W1-Chicago Wolves vs. W4-Milwaukee Admirals
The Chicago Wolves have had another winning season and secured the top spot in the West Division. The Wolves finished out the regular campaign with a record of 49-24-1-6, gaining them 105 total points for the season. The Wolves being in the Calder Cup playoff race is no surprise to anyone who follows AHL hockey. The Wolves made the Calder Cup finals in 2005-06, the conference finals in 2006-07 and won the Calder Cup back in 2007-08. Chicago definitely has the depth to go very deep into the playoff this year because of the consistency of all of their players. Many of these guys have been around the team for the past few playoff runs so experience is on their side. Some Wolves to watch are C Jason Krog, who was the Calder Cup MVP back in the 2007-08 and also if the team’s leading scorer again for the third straight year with 14 goals and 61 assists for 75 points. Krog is also one of my favorite hockey players because of his attitude and skill. Krog’s goal production is down from the past coupe of seasons but don’t let that dissuade you from getting behind this crafty veteran. Another Chicago player to pay attention to is G Drew MacIntyre, whose record on the season is 20-17-2-3. Although MacIntyre was called up a few times this season for the Atlanta Thrashers, his inconsistencies in his play might be his downfall this postseason.
The Milwaukee Admirals are one of the most enigmatic teams in the AHL. Teams never know who is going to show up on any given night. After an up and down year, the Admirals finished the regular season with a decent record of 41-30-2-7. Milwaukee finished with a winning record but has played .500 hockey most of the year. In the last ten games they played, the team went 4-4-1-1, which is exactly in line with what fans and experts would expect from the Admirals. The problem with Milwaukee is that there are really no standouts on the team. Only three players scored over 20 goals this season, whereas most of the team was in the single digits in the goals column. If the Ads expect to beat Chicago, their A-Team needs to show up or it will be a quick series. Expect to see good play from C Mike Santorelli, who leads Milwaukee in all point categories with 26 goals and 33 assists, good enough for 59 total points on the season. Regardless of what happens to the Admirals in this year’s playoffs, expect to see Santorelli starting for the Nashville Predators next season. Count on it!
Who wins the series?: Regardless of who shows up for Milwaukee, the Wolves smell blood and are about to attack. They are going to “bury some skeletons” in the first round.
4-0: Chicago’s attack is no match for Milwaukee; the Ads are swept in four games.
West Division Semifinal – Series “H” Best-of-7
W2-Texas Stars vs. W3-Rockford IceHogs
The Texas Stars are a very talented team filled to the brim with skill players. The Stars locked up the second seed in the West Division after their 46-27-3-4 season, finishing only six points behind the Chicago Wolves with 99 total points. Although the Stars lost their last two games of the season, they had won six out of ten in the last couple weeks of the season. The Texas roster is chocked full of 20-20 players who can play very good two-way hockey. Expect to see some well-balanced lines centered by the team’s point leaders, C Aaron Gagnon, C Perttu Lindgren and C Travis Morin. Gagnon had been called up to play for the Dallas Stars for the remaining few games this month. I believe this was a preview of things to come. Expect to see Gagnon playing full time for the “big Stars” next year.
If anyone has a chance at beating the skilled Texas Stars team, it would be the “rough and tumble” Rockford Icehogs. The Icehogs finished up their last ten games of the season playing .500 hockey, completing their season with a record of 44-30-3-3. Rockford has equaled the amount of skill as Texas and will also make it a point to body check and beat you out of the building. For instance, two guys that the Stars should watch out for are RW Danny Bois and D Danny Richmond. These two, when combined, racked up 322 minutes in penalties this season as well as 11 goals and 33 assists. This is Rockford style: they beat you into the boards and on the main one too. Also watch for C Mark Cullen, who centers the Icehogs’ top line and led the team with 53 total points.
Who wins the series?: This is going to be an extremely close series because of how skilled both teams are.
3-4: Texas sticks with Rockford for the entire series but just cannot complete with their physical style of play, Rockford takes game seven and the series.
Enjoy the first round and I’ll be back for the coming rounds…AJC