Image via TheAHL.com
(1E) Manchester Monarchs vs. (1W) Utica Comets
When you look at a final series in any championship, you want to the two best teams out on the ice to compete for the championship. Such is the case in the Calder Cup Finals, were the Manchester Monarchs are representing the east with the Utica Comets holding the flag for the west. The top-seeded teams were also the top teams in the AHL outright, which is something that doesn’t necessarily happen out of chance.
On the surface, however, it seems that the Monarchs have the edge and most well-rounded team. They were the fifth in goals for during the season and second in goals against, while in the playoffs they are first in goals and gave up the least amount of goals of the final four teams. The Comets were right behind the Monarchs in goals against, mainly thanks to the play of Jacob Markstrom, who has gotten his career back on track in a big, big way in Utica. Markstrom was able to outlast the high scoring Grand Rapids Griffins, which shows that he is not afraid and won’t break against a high scoring offensive team. On the other end, the numbers haven’t been as great for J-F Berube in Manchester (2.83 GAA, .894 Sv%), but he’s gotten it done in the win-loss column with an 11-3 record. Berube has gotten a lot of support from the entirety of the team, which has helped him get that next save and not worry about being on edge the entire time.
Speaking of scoring, if there is a hiccup in the game of the Comets, it’s their lack of scoring. While they have been able to spread the scoring around up and down the roster with Cal O’Reilly being a huge set-up man (15 assists, but no goals); the Comets don’t have a goal scorer over six goals in the 18 games they’ve played and that’s from Sven Baertschi— who hasn’t played in two of the games these playoffs from being up in Vancouver for a couple games at the end of their playoffs. On the flip side, the Monarchs top line of Jordan Weal, Michael Mersch, and Brian O’Neill have been dominant and have three of the top four spot in scoring; despite the Monarchs only playing 14 playoff games this year. That line has combined for 30 goals and 21 assists in the playoffs and should be a true test for Markstrom.
While they haven’t been scoring much, the Utica Comets are getting plenty out of their defense, with Adam Clendening and Bobby Sanguinetti playing solidly in front of Markstrom. That’s not to say the likes of Kevin Biega and Travis Ehrhardt aren’t playing well either– as the team who has been staunch in their defense continues that trend going into the finals. On the flip side, the surprise has been Vincent LoVerde has come on strong for the Monarchs, with Colin Miller being as consistent as he was during the regular season. The last four defensemen in Andrew Bondarchuk, Derek Forbort, Jeff Schultz, and rookie Kevin Gravel aren’t putting up the numbers offensively, but have been very calm in front of Berube to keep the Monarchs in the game night after night.
Special teams haven’t been so special for the teams, as they have combined for only 17 goals in 117 attempts (14.5%), while the penalty kills have combined to give up 29 goals on 126 attempts against them (76.9%). Even though there are teams eliminated long ago, the fact they are hovering in the 14% rank on the PP and 77% on the PK doesn’t bode well. Though, it could awaken one of the stagnant power plays with the way the PKs have been. This is especially odd for Utica, who had an 86% PK ratio during the season, but haven’t been able to find their edge in the playoffs. The same goes for Manchester’s power play, which was top of the league with a 20% efficiently rate.
With the series being a 2-3-2 format, despite being under the imaginary 300-mile rule (295 miles, which is the shortest distance since 1989), so that could help Utica get back on track at home, though Utica is only two-games over .500 at both home and on the road. The Monarchs, however, as solid at home as they are 7-0 these playoffs and have one 13 straight playoff games in Manchester.
There wasn’t a Cinderella story for the AHL this season, which could be best for the product. Two top teams (one of which is going to the ECHL next year) will be battling it out for the Calder Cup and a deserving champion will be crowned– either the team who is exiting for California next season or a team who, in their second season, are developing in a quick way to bring prominence back to minor league hockey in Utica