And then there were four, finally.
The 2013-’14 Calder Cup Playoffs are down from 16 teams to four as the 30 team league is finalizing their 78th AHL season in winding down to the top four consisting of the Toronto Marlies, Texas Stars, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and St. John’s IceCaps. The Quarterfinals saw three division leaders fall in Binghamton, Manchester and Springfield in the Eastern Conference while Texas and Toronto maintained their Division Champs status in the Western Conference.
Providence Bruins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins went the distance in a seventh game Wednesday night as the Pens hung on despite having a five goal lead winning 5-4 and sent the Bruins home to finally kick it to the next round to the Conference Finals as three other teams have been waiting in limbo. Neither of the four finalists has won a league championship before with the Penguins going the longest Cup-less streak in 15 straight seasons.
The powerhouse East Division has represented a team in the Calder Cup Finals for the past 10 consecutive years winning six championships in the process featuring the Binghamton Senators winning it all in 2011 and the Hershey Bears, winners of three trophies of their own in 2006, ’09 & ’10.
Let’s take a look at all four and how they arrived at this juncture. Each team is numerically ranked by their standings in their respected conference’s at the start of the playoffs.
Western Conference Finals
- #3 Toronto Marlies
Steamrolled through two very good clubs sweeping both the Milwaukee Admirals and Midwest Champs Chicago Wolves in the first two rounds. Binghamton, NY area native Jerry D’Amigo is leading the scoring with 4 goals with 8 helpers along with All-Star defenseman T.J. Brennan (3g 4a) in keeping their club to a perfect 7-0 record so far in the post season. Goalie Drew MacIntyre has started in all seven posting a sizzling 1.56 gaa and a 0.949 sv% along with two shutouts to lead all active netminders.
Toronto has also turned the page in their offense game netting 30 goals which averages out to league top of 4.29 per game. They have also given up the fewest with just 11 averaging 1.57 per game. The Marlies have the top three in the plus/minus category with D’Amigo (+11), Korbinian Holzer (+9) and Trevor Smith (+8). Talk about peaking at the right moment as Toronto is rolling.
- #1 Texas Stars
Their first round sweep of the Oklahoma City Barons started strong out of the chute but the defending AHL champions Grand Rapid Griffins gave them a handful in the Semi-Finals, as Texas prevailed winning the series 4-2. In goal we have Cristopher Nilstorp and Jack Campbell splitting the duties for the Stars so far as they search for their first Championship and look to return to the Finals for the second time since their loss to the Hershey Bears in 2010.
Forward Travis Moron leads his club in scoring with 2 goals and 8 assists along with Mike Hedden (5g 4a) as this team is very dangerous in racking up the points in a balanced attack scoring at will as they set up an example pummeling the Griffins 7-1 in the decisive Game 6 of the Semi’s. I want to pick this club to win it all but my gut tells me otherwise. Either way, I believe the Calder Cup will be won by a team representing the Western Conference again this year.
Eastern Conference Finals
- #4 St. John’s IceCaps
In knocking off Albany 3-1 in the first round and winning against Norfolk in completing their second round series, the IceCaps proved to be a formidable opponent but let’s face it, they got a break. A big one. Norfolk had been cruising along knocking off the Atlantic Division winning Manchester Monarchs in the opening round 3-1, and then the next round against St. John’s they split the first two at ‘The Rock’. Goalkeeper John Gibson was then summoned up by Anaheim and Norfolk imploded, losing the last three out of four as the series ended up 4-2.
Nonetheless, the IceCaps are here and take on Wilkes-Barre which should be a good series to take in. Goaltender Michael Hutchinson is 7-3 between the pipes and has a respectable 1.77 gaa as veteran forward Andrew Gordon (6g 2a) and Eric O’Dell (7g 1a) lead the team in scoring.
- #6 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
The team that eliminated the East Division leader Binghamton Senators in Round I 3-1, continues to roll but it took them seven games to handle the Providence Bruins 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. This franchise has made the post season for 12 straight seasons and ended up in the finals for three of them losing to Saint John Flames in 2001, Milwaukee Admirals in 2004 and the Chicago Wolves in 2008.
Forward Chuck Kobasew (5g 6a) and defenseman Brian Dumoulin (2g 9a) lead the club as the vastly experienced Pens seek their first ever Calder Cup. In net Peter Mannino has been a off this post season going 7-4 while posting an uncharacteristic high 2.51 gaa while narrowly avoiding disaster in that game seven win. St. John’s is rested as the Penguins might have reached their peak in this post season heading into the third round.
My Prediction For The Finals
Toronto Marlies vs. St. John’s IceCaps. Yes, Texas is having a stellar year and has been playing consistent hockey all season but the post season is all about momentum, and Toronto currently is hot and with better goaltending. The question is will the long break in-between games falter the momentum or will the Marlies pick up where they left off. The IceCaps should make it a tough series against the Penguins as that round might go the distance with St. John’s coming on top as the Penguins may be drained in that last series with Providence.
In Other News, Realignment?
Rumors have it the league might consider a realignment in the East Division and reverting back to an Empire State Division like their four-year run from 1997-2000 consisting of Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Adirondack and Hamilton while Binghamton was participating in the UHL as the Iceman. This time around the Senators would be added in place of Hamilton along with newcomer Utica Comets giving them potentially six in the new division.
This would seem plausible with the Philadelphia Flyers farm club Phantoms relocating from Adirondack to Allentown, PA which would possibly create a Southern Division with three Pennsylvania clubs (Wilkes-Barre and Hershey the other two) along with Norfolk and Charlotte. Adirondack gains in the cross continent move by the Abbotsford Heat shifting from the West division to the Eastern hockey-bed in Upstate New York in lieu of the Phantoms.
However, that would leave just four teams in the West as someone has to switch divisions making it balanced which brought up the initial conversation of an all New York group. Wishful thinking or reality, guess we’ll find out soon.
~Graphic Art by Matt Trayling.