The West in the AHL was definitely wild. The defending champions were swept out, a team in their final year aren’t going out without a fight, and two thrilling five-game series happened– which should make the second round very hard to top.
(1W) Utica Comets vs. (6W) Oklahoma City Barons
Much like in the East, the top-seed in the West had a tough go in the first round, but make it out with no worse for wear. For a defensive team, the Comets had the playoff mentality all season and with three overtime games– the Comets are ready to go forward. The Barons are in their last throws in Oklahoma City and by sweeping the San Antonio Rampage; they show that they are going go out guns a-blazin’ before they leave town.
The cornerstone of the Comets success is Jacob Markstrom, who had a solid 1.97 GAA, but a little low save percentage in .917 over the five games. Markstrom should still be solid as they go onto the second round– but will need some scoring help. As Cal O’Reilly has seven assists, the goal scoring has been very spread out. Sven Baertschi has been a great pick-up for the Comets during the season, as other rookies Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk have also stepped up to take over the goal scoring duties for the Comets. With Adam Glendening and Bobby Sanguinetti holding it down on the blue-line; the Comets could be set for a deep run this season.
With the move looming of their heads, the Barons are playing with house money and after upsetting the West Division champion Rampage; they could be the underdog everyone gets behind. After swapping goaltenders from Laurent Brossoit to Richard Bachman, the defense has gotten a lot tighter and since Bachman has been there before– it could be a couple more wins, if not a couple series wins for the Barons. A ton of playmakers on the roster with Matt Ford, Jason Williams, and Brad Hunt dishing it to guys like Ryan Hamilton and Connor Jones will make for a great success. Outside of Jones, there are a lot of rookies on the roster contributing– Kellen Jones, Josh Winquist, and Jordan Oesterle to name a few– will be great for depth and hinder game plans for the Comets in trying to defend.
(2W) Grand Rapids Griffins vs. (4W) Rockford IceHogs
The Griffins won their series against Toronto in thrilling fashion, after coming back from 0-2 down in the series to move forward, especially without the presence of Petr Mrazek. The IceHogs haven’t been in the playoffs for years and made a big statement beating the defending champions and making sure they savor their run this season.
For the Griffins, Teemu Pulkkinen kept his goal-scoring touch alive with six goals in the first round, while rookie Andreas Athanasiou put up four goals of his own. Andy Miele was great in setting up guys like Pulkkinen and Athanasiou; as rookie Mark Zengerle put up five assists in his first playoffs and has adjusted to the system amazingly for the Griffins. After a rough stop, Tom McCollum has come up big after Jared Coreau couldn’t take the reigns after Game Two. With McCollum developing more and more into the goalie the Red Wings wanted him to be, he’ll be under the microscope going forward and will have a lot of weight on his shoulders.
As they ventured into their first playoffs in forever, especially with rookie defensemen like Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka stepping up on the big stage and contributing both offensively and defensively. Michael Leighton (yes, that one) has been amazing for the IceHogs and keeps the trend of veteran goalies being a huge presence in these playoffs alive and well. Deadline pick-up Spencer Abbott is proving his worth putting up both his goals with the extra man, but with Ryan Hartman not stepping up just yet means the IceHogs have a lot of room to grow after their quick first series in the playoffs.