Farm Report Podcast: 06.15.15

In the last weekly podcast for the season, Scotty wraps up the playoffs in all their forms. Former Ontario Reign president Justin Kemp breaks his silence and talks about how he knew Ontario would host AHL hockey some day. Paul Bissonnette played a key role in the mentoring of Adrian Kempe in his first venture into North American hockey. Derek Hulak hasn’t forgotten about his friends, especially Cody Smuk. All that plus, News and News and We Hardly Knew Ye.

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New League, Same Result for Americans

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It’s one thing to come into a new league at the last minute and be successful to the next change. It’s a completely different thing to come into a league, be successful, appear to be solidly dominant during the playoffs, and then win a championship in the process. However, the Allen Americans did just that and took home their third championship in as many years with a 6-1 win in Game 7 over the South Carolina Stingrays to claim the Kelly Cup.

Granted, towards the end– you could see either fatigue or competition start to get to the Americans. The Ontario Reign seemed to give them some trouble in the Conference Finals and the Stingrays gave them all they could; but even through it all– the Americans were able to bear down and push through their adversity to win the title.

When you look at how the Americans did it, the scoring and heroics came from different sources. Gregor Hanson won the MVP of the playoffs for his stellar offensive output (12g, 17a), which continued from his consistent performance during the season. Chad Costello was dominant during the regular season, but did slow up his torrid pace in the playoffs with only 28 points in 25 games (9g, 19a), while Gary Steffes was very silent in the playoffs after having a solid regular season. Coach Steve Martinson had a goalie carousel for a decent amount of the playoffs with Riley Gill finally winning out as his go-to guy; despite Joel Rumpel playing solid in his time on the ice and was helpful to the Americans performance.

The one thing that did seem interesting is the fact that after getting out of the Central Division, the Americans were able to see the true talent of the ECHL– though it was deep in the playoffs and fatigue was able to set in. That said, Coach Martinson was right when he said to me this was a team geared up and ready to take over the ECHL— which what they did. It also helped that guys like Spencer Asuchak came back to the line-up and Chris Crane was able to step-up and contribute as he was able to do.

For the next act, the Americans are going to have a nice task to get through the entire ECHL. No one will sleep in them (if they even did before) and they’ll be hard-pressed to retain players in the ECHL since you can assume that Costello and Asuchak will be highly looked at for AHL gig. Lucky for the Americans is that they’ll be a prime destination for players coming into the ECHL or for free agents looking for a solid place to play. So, if the San Jose Sharks do call a lot of guys to play on the Barracuda– the cupboard should be restocked pretty quickly by Martinson.

To have a team that has won three championships in three years– the fan base has been treated to some great things from this team and they turned out in a big way in Game 7 in order to make sure the Americans had the home-ice advantage. They have been treated to some great hockey and really haven’t known much of losing– which could be a good thing for them or a bad thing if it should happen in the next season or two. It doesn’t look like it would happen or that the organization would let it happen– but it’s always a case of injury or bad luck that could derail this dynasty of a team that Allen has right now.

When all is said and done with this era of hockey in Texas, the Allen Americans are going to be on the top of the list for what they have given to the minor league hockey community and help contribute to hockey gaining popularity in a region that’s primed for the picking when it comes to harvesting new talent for USA Hockey in the future.

ECHL Playoffs: Kelly Cup Finals

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(1C) Allen Americans vs. (2E) South Carolina Stingrays

It’s all down to this. Through the entire playoffs and two epic Game 7s in the Conference Finals; the Allen Americans will host their first Kelly Cup Finals game today against the South Carolina Stingrays. Right off the bat, the fact that the Americans will host the first three games mean that the momentum could be swung in Allen’s favor very quickly, so long as they take the advantage of home-ice.

One of the keys for the Allen Americans success will depend on how the goaltending in the Finals will be. There has been a bit of a consistency issue with Riley Gill and Joel Rumpel, but after setting down in Game 5 on the Conference Finals, Gill seems to have gotten to take over the crease. They will have to be on their game because they are facing the ECHL MVP in Jeff Jakaitis at the other end. Jakaitis hasn’t as on point as he was in the regular season– but his ability to make the big save and keep the Stingrays close has helped them through a pretty grueling playoffs so far with the team.

Scoring hasn’t been much of a problem for either team, however– as both squads have 67 goals these playoffs with South Carolina averaging 3.35 goals per game and Allen having a slightly better 3.72 mark. The Stingrays have gotten scoring all over, but none more surprising that from Joe Devin, who is tied with Andrew Rowe for the team lead in goals with 11. Devin only put up 17 goals in his 48 regular season appearances, but with a stable line-up spot; he has been able to turn up the offense when his team needed it the most. That is to say nothing of the leading scorer in South Carolina– Wayne Simpson, who has 22 assists and 31 points heading into the final round. Rookie Derek DeBlois has played well in his first go-round, posting three game-winners this off-season.

For the Americans, the scoring from Chad Costello and Gary Steffes has been there; but hasn’t been as frequent as it was during the regular season. Luckily, Gregor Hanson has been able to pick up the goal-scoring “slack” so to speak. A big addition to the roster was when Spencer Asuchak was returned from time with Providence and Worcester in the AHL. Asuchak has come back in and put up 18 points in 18 playoff games. Another welcome surprise is the play of winger Chris Crane, who has seven goals and 12 points in his 18 games, providing some secondary scoring for the Americans.

Defensively, it’s another even match-up, with both sides getting some output on the power play from their blue-line. Konrad Abeltshauser has been a solid defenseman for the Americans, putting up three power play goals, with rookie Justin Baker stepping up at the right time. One of the interesting things is how Aaron Gens hasn’t been as offensive effective, but has played a solid game in his own end. If he’s waiting for the right moment to strike– the Finals will be the best place.

Both Drew MacKenzie and Michal Cajkovsky have been the force for the Stingrays defense on the scoresheet, but overall– the Stingrays haven’t been on point in their own end. That could be due to lack of experience with three rookies in the line-up back on defense with Frankie Simonelli, Marcus Perrier, and Wade Epp. Though they have been able to get this far, who knows if the inexperience and possible tiredness will be the undoing of them.

Coaching could play a role in all of this, too. Amercians’ coach Steve Martinson has had playoff success in the past winning four WCHL titles, two CHL titles, and one UHL title; though none of those leagues no longer exist. Martinson and the Americans are in their third-straight finals and with some of those players still on the roster know the grind. South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery has been in this situation as a player, where he has won a Kelly Cup in 2009 as a member of the Stingrays; but has never gotten this far as a coach in his young coaching career. It will be interesting to see if Carbery’s playing experience can match the experience behind the bench that Martinson has.

In a playoff with plenty of excitement behind it; this match-up could put the cherry on top. With great stories on both sides– Allen being the new kid in town and South Carolina trying to end out their dream season– the Finals will create a lot of intrigue and something that not many fans would want to miss out on.

Adjustments Allow Americans to Advance

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Photo from Allen Americans’ website

They always say that it’s darkest before the dawn. That’s something that the Allen Americans could probably realize as they went into the locker room during the second intermission Game 5 down 2-1 to the the Ontario Reign and just 20 minutes away from their dream season being squashed right there in California. To that point, they were held to only two goals in the last 11 periods of hockey, which was after a Game 1 victory where they scored eight times and you had to think that they didn’t know how to solve Ontario goalie Joe Cannata, who came in during Game 2 to help shut the Americans down.

During that intermission, someone must have said something– whether it be coach Steve Martinson, one of the captains– Jamie Schaafsma, Gary Steffes, or Tyler Ludwig— or if it just clicked in the team’s head that they needed to play with utter desperation, but for the last seven periods of that series; the Americans were the dominant team they had been during the regular season.

After being down three games to one, the Americans roars back and only allowed two goals in the last six periods to get into the Kelly Cup finals in their first season in the ECHL, as well as their third championship series in the past three years; being as they were the two-time defending Ray Miron Cup champions in the Central Hockey League.

But what got them to that point?? It’s not as if they imposed their will like they have been known to do this post-season. The Americans, aside from the five-goal outburst to save their season in Game 5, only scored five more goals in the last two games of the series. Was it the fact that Riley Gill and the defense were able to be that much better in those last seven periods that was the difference?? The Reign threw all they could at Gill, but the former Kelly Cup MVP was able to stop 67 of the 69 shots in those last seven periods to help assert himself as the top goalie, which was something that needed to be done as both he and Joel Rumpel were jockeying for playing time in the playoffs.

Yet, one part of the equation that could be the big factor was the opponent. For all intents and purposes, the Americans were pretty comfortable with the division they were in. They had known the old Central League teams and knew how to play against them. When I talked to Coach Martinson earlier in the season, he said that this team was more of an ECHL team than the rest because that’s how they ran things in the CHL. With only a handful of games against actual ECHL opponents during the regular season (which they were 2-2-1), including two games against the Reign; maybe the team wasn’t ready for that style of hockey, since they didn’t see it often enough. Whatever they were able to see in the first four games plus– the Americans made the right adjustments in order to stave off elimination in three games and take home the Bruce Taylor Trophy for Western Conference champions.

As they head into the Kelly Cup Finals, the Americans have quite the advantage. The first three games they play are at the Allen Event Center, which should give them a nice step-up when playing in front of their fans– where they were 24-6-5 in the regular season and currently 8-2 in the playoffs. The Americans are making their mark in the record book and it goes to show that even though I spoke nothing about Chad Costello or Gregor Hanson (who both have 23 points in the playoffs), this is a team that’s on a mission and need all hands on deck to make sure they see their goal through in winning the Kelly Cup.

ECHL Playoffs: Conference Finals

The Final Four are set in the ECHL, with only one team being here before in this league. While the Allen Americans are coming off of back-to-back Central Hockey League titles, only the South Carolina Stingrays have lifted the Kelly Cup. The city of Toledo knows what it is to be in the Final Four, but not this Walleye squad, while the last hurrah for the Ontario Reign keeps on trucking on.

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Photo via the ECHL

(1N) Toledo Walleye vs. (2E) South Carolina Stingrays

It’s a good thing that the Walleye have home-ice advantage, as they have lost all but one game on opposition ice; despite only being a minus-3 (16 goals for, 19 against) in those six road games. However, of the four games these two played against each other, the Walleye put up three wins in South Carolina. On the good side, Tyler Barnes broke out with four goals and four assists in the series against Fort Wayne, while Shane Berschbach kept rolling along with three goals and eight assists against the Komets. One question could be what happens with Jeff Lerg and Neil Conway. Coach Derek Lalonde turned to Conway for Games 2 and 6, which could show that Lalonde was either trying to shake up the rest of the roster or send a message to Lerg.

After taking the first three games, the Stingrays faced adversity in two multiple overtime losses against the Florida Everblades; but took all three road games in the 2-3-2 format that the series had. As much as the Walleye have had issues on the road, the Stingrays are the same at home; winning only three of the eight home games they’ve had in Charleston. With four goals and six assists last series, Wayne Simpson has come out as the leading scorer for the Stingrays, as Derek DeBlois had two goals and five assists and captain Andrew Rowe putting up three goals and seven assists. Yet, goaltending is a little suspect, which is something you wouldn’t expect from the league MVP– but Jeff Jakaitis has had a rough go about it this playoffs, though rebounded a bit in the last series.

This series could be a war of attrition. The Walleye and Stingrays have played the most games of the team remaining, as the Walleye have played the maximum amount of 14 games thus far, to the Stingrays’ 13. Also, the Walleye were the last team the Stingrays beat in their 23-game winning streak; which was the only game the Stingrays won out of the four they played Toledo this season.

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Photo via ECHL

(1C) Allen Americans vs. (2P) Ontario Reign

With a relatively easier match-up in the first round– the Americans seemed to be caught off-guard, which was noticeable in their Game 1 loss, which could have also been chalked up to the long break between rounds. With five goals and seven assists against Rapid City, Gregor Hansen has been a nice surprise going into the Conference Finals, especially with Chad Costello‘s scoring clip slowing down in the playoffs, even though Costello had two goals and seven assists versus the Rush. Though Joel Rumpel started the series and had another chance to regain his crease– Riley Gill stepped up to reclaim the starting role, but each goalie seems to know that if they keep winning; they’ll be starting.

The Reign made short work of the Utah Grizzlies in only a five-game series, but they have started to come into their own in their last hurrah. With two goals and four assists, Matt Register took over the team lead in points, which is a shock for a blue-liner in the playoffs, while Garry Nunn posted three goals and six assists against the Grizzlies; which could be a scary thought for a team that is playing for a lot in these playoffs. With the way that Jussi Olkinuora has been playing in goal, the Reign look like the perfect combination of high scoring and tight defense which will be a nice mix for the Allen squad they’re facing.

This is the first time these teams have been in the Conference Finals; Allen because this is their first year and Ontario is making the most out of their last run in the ECHL. These teams only met twice in the thrown together schedule, but it was a split between them. There wasn’t much to go on with that small series. While it seems that there is a little bit of a hiccup happening for the Americans, the Reign seem to be getting stronger with each round– with the rest between rounds being very crucial for this series coming up.

ECHL Playoffs: Western Conference Division Finals

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CENTRAL DIVISION

(1C) Allen Americans vs. (2C) Rapid City Rush

It’s not as if the Allen Americans needed more of a rest, but this is a team who hasn’t played since last Tuesday. Whether or not the 10-day rest will prove to put rush on this usually well-oiled machine remains to be seen. The Rapid City Rush, however, played Game Seven on Wednesday– but have also played the Americans fairly close, despite only winning four of the 12 match-ups this season.

There’s an embarrassment of riches for the Americans, especially with the return of Spencer Asuchak— who came back from the AHL to put up three goals and eight points in five games. When you add Asuchak to Chad Costello and Gary Steffes‘ already potent offense– the Americans look like they will be the offensive spark that is usually unseen in most playoff series. Gregor Hansen has been solid on both sides of the puck for the Americans, with defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser being the main contributor for the blue-liners. One interesting thing is how Joel Rumpel has replaced Riley Gill as the netminder of record, which could continue into this round for Steve Martinson‘s squad, but to have Gill as a back-up will be a nice bonus for an Americans squad who looks as solid as any team has been in the ECHL.

Rapid City will probably live and die by the play of Danny Battochio in net. He was solid against an underrated Quad City squad, but will be really tested in this match-up with the high octane Allen team. With not a lot of goal contributions, the Rush will need to shut down the Americans early and often. The responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Michael Young and Dallas Ehrhardt to help Battochio, while Cody Ferriero and Winston Day Chief will need to help wake up Jesse Schultz to provide the offense for the Rush.

PACIFIC DIVISION

(2P) Ontario Reign vs. (4P) Utah Grizzlies

After a big upset, the Grizzlies are in the Division Finals against a team in the Reign that they match-up well against. With the Reign being pushed to seven games against the Colorado Eagles, it could be a good sign for the Grizzlies to play a team that was worn down a bit in the first round. That said, the Reign have been scoring at an impressive clip. However, it will be a match-up of the Grizzlies top penalty kill unit in the playoffs and the Reign’s second overall power play unit.

The offense has been spread around a bit amongst the trio of Judd Blackwater, Matt Register, and Matt White; but haven’t gotten the too much other goal-scoring help. With Garry Nunn still waiting to break-out, the Reign seem set to provide a lot of offense. However, the Reign have not been good on the penalty kill and were the most penalized team in the playoffs with 36 called against them that resulted in power plays, which resulted in eight power play goals against. At full-strength, the Reign have been solid– especially on defense with rookies Alex Roach and Dennis Brown holding down the defensive side. The combo of Jussi Olkinuora and Joe Cannata will need to be much better, especially if they have to get into a platoon situation.

The Grizzlies have not lost in regulation this playoffs, which shows how much of a tough out they will be. More over than that, they have been a solid offensive team, getting a lot out of Ryan Hayes and Danick Paquette, who have combined for nine goals in the first round. Even the likes of Mathieu Aubin and Alex Krushelnyski have produced a lot, but overshadowed by Hayes and Paquette. It could be a little alarming that the blue-line hasn’t contributed much, but they have been steadfast in their own end. Yet, it’ll come down to Igor Bobkov, who has been solid down the stretch, in order to keep the Grizzlies season alive. Bobkov didn’t fare great against the Reign, only winning two of six appearances– yet, his 9-2-2 record in the last 13 games coupled with the Grizzlies offensive output should be enough to push them to the Conference Finals.

Round One: Kelly Cup Playoffs: Western Conference

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It all starts today with the ECHL’s Kelly Cup playoffs, as the Central Division kicks off the Western Conference side of things. As two of the newer teams are going to drop the puck tonight; it seems like the easy place to start for a playoff preview, with the Eastern Conference coming tomorrow.

CENTRAL DIVISION

(1C) Allen Americans vs. (4C) Tulsa Oilers

As they have the goalie with the most wins in the league (Riley Gill), the forward with the most goals in the league (Gary Steffes), the forward with the most points in the league (Chad Costello), and the top goal-scoring team in the entire league; the Allen Americans are going to be a hard out in these playoffs, especially in the Central Division play-downs. Especially to have someone like Gill, who has won a Kelly Cup two years ago in Reading; the Americans are primed to really take the playoffs by storm.

Yet, Tulsa has been able to play the Americans pretty close in their 17 match-ups, winning five games, losing two in extra time, and also playing several one and two-goal games. The Oilers are bring 40-goal scorer Adam Pleskach, 50-plus assist-man Drew Fisher, and solid rookie Jeff Jubinville to the fold and will give quite a task to the Americans’ defense. Thanks to Kevin Carr in net, the Oilers had their highest win total in team history since 2002-03.

That all said, with Chad Costello having himself an amazing year and putting up 15 goals and 31 points in the 17 games against Tulsa, it could be just a question of how many games the Americans will win this.

(2C) Rapid City Rush vs. (3C) Quad City Mallards

There might be no hotter team in the ECHL as the Rapid City Rush. The second half of the season, the Rush went 23-8-5 after the midway point of the season. Outside of the Jesse Schultz and Cody Ferriero up-front, one of the guys who played well against Quad City was Daniel Barczuk who had six goals and 10 points in the 13 match-ups the two had. With Mathieu Brisebois on the back-end contributing on the power play, the Rush are solid for scoring. One main questions is what can Danny Bottochio do in net, as he was only 5-3-3 in his appearances against the Mallards., but had a GAA under 2.00.

One thing for the Mallards is that they have two solid options in net with Parker Milner and Evan Mosher, which could be the determining factor for the Mallards when all is said and done. Yet, there’s a nice well-rounded aspect to the Mallards game, as they have gotten solid play from Mario Lamoureux, Justin Fox, and rookie Joe Perry, along with special teams’ help from Kevin Baker and defenseman Matt Duffy— the Mallards could very well will their way to win this series.

In a tight series like the Mallards and Rush have played this season; it’ll come down to how teams do in extra time, where the Mallards took three of the four extra time games. With their goaltending solidified with Milner back, the Mallards may have the edge– even with the Rush being the hottest team in the season half of the season.

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PACIFIC DIVISION

(1P) Idaho Steelheads vs. (4P) Utah Grizzlies

When it comes to output, the Steelheads got plenty out of Wade MacLeod; who not only lead the team in scoring and ended up second in the league; but he also took control during the series against the Grizzlies with nine goals and 19 points this year against Utah. With the addition of Jason Bast off the IR for the playoffs, the offense should be solid for the Steelheads; who will also get plenty out of goaltender Olivier Roy and blueliner Gaelan Petterson in terms of keeping the Grizzlies off the scoresheet.

If anything, the Utah Grizzlies will rely on tight-checking and defensive play, as only the Wheeling Nailers and Quad City Mallards have less goals for the season than the Grizzlies had (213). The acquisition of Jacob Johnston early in the year helped the blue-line throughout the season, especially when through 13 defensemen in the season, many of whom are on the younger side of the age scale. It will be a test on Alex Krushelnyski and Michael Pelech if the Steelheads are able to neutralize leading scorer Mathieu Aubin.

Neither Roy nor Utah’s Igor Bobkov saw much time in net during the head-to-head match-ups, nor did they fare all that well when they got the chance. But with Roy back at full strength and the top offensive players for Idaho coming back; the Grizzles may be in an uphill battle to win this series.

(2P) Ontario Reign vs. (3P) Colorado Eagles

Though they haven’t faced the Eagles since February, the Reign have been quite solid since then– especially with Jussi Olkinuora playing solid down the stretch for Ontario. With the pick-up of Garry Nunn, the offense has been a little more explosive, as Nunn put up 21 points in his 15 games for Ontario. With Judd Blackwater and Matt White riding alongside, the offensive side is covered; even getting contributions from the blue-line from Matt Register and with forward Maxim Kitsyn— who had eight goals against the Eagles this year.

With the rotating net for the Eagles, it seems that Clarke Saunders has been able to overtake the crease from Doug Carr; especially when it comes to the Reign where he went 7-2-0; though he had an inflated 2.49 GAA. The one good thing for the Eagles is their spread out scoring with set-up man Trent Daavettila dishing to Brock Nixon and Taylor Vause; with Collin Bowman having the touch on the power play from the blue-line. There is also a lot of grit on the Eagles with both Darryl Bootland and Teigan Zahn putting up more than 200 PIMs this year on the 4th most penalized team in the ECHL.

If Saunders can stay healthy and hot against the Reign, the Eagles will only need to put up points in order to get past the Reign. That said, the Reign will be playing for pride, as it is their last season in the ECHL and they would want to go out with a bang before they move to the AHL.