This week, Scotty breaks down the new AHL alignment, as well as the weird scenario that may have the California AHL teams playing only 68 games as opposed to 76. Regardless of the number, the Stockton Heat are ready to go, at least by how Brian Burke and Brad Pascall are talking. The Fort Wayne Komets wonder what could have been this season and what could happen with their affiliation status, while the members of the 2008-09 Albany River Rats recollect their horrific bus accident in the wake of a minor league baseball teams own tragic happening. All that, plus News and Notes, as well as We Hardly Knew Ye.
(1N) Toledo Walleye vs. (2N) Fort Wayne Komets
These two teams, for the majority of the season, were battling atop the North Division and were very evenly matched. After the two big games in November where the Walleye won by at least three goals, the other five match-ups were one-goal affairs, four of them ending in an overtime or shootout. However, with the rest that the Komets have had after the first round could prove to be a huge advantage.
The Walleye were given all that they could muster against the plucky Wheeling Nailers. Despite getting two out of three wins on the road, the Walleye also dropped two games at home in the seven-game set. However, the Walleye did get their scoring from two of their top three guys, as Troy Schwab and Shane Berschbach were able to lead the way, though Tyler Barnes still hasn’t gotten his time to shine in the playoffs. Also, the Walleye have gotten a lot of production from the blue line with Cody Lampl and Shane Sims being the main contributors, yet as a whole– the defense have provided three goals and 12 assists among the eight who suited up in the first round. Jeff Lerg has played on par with how he played in the regular season, but with a well-rested Komets team, his workload could be drastically increased in the divisional finals.
The Komets made short work of the Kalamazoo Wings, despite letting up eight goals in the last two games of the five-game series. The first three, the play of Roman Will was solid, with 94 saves on 97 shots including a shutout. Will defeated the Walleye in the two games he play against them this season and has faced an average of 27.9 shots during the season, which will help him against the high firing Walleye. Mike Embach was the leading scorer, but the shot in the arm for the Komets was the return of Mitchell Heard; who put up two goals and two assists in his three games. during the first round. Matthew Pistilli had a scoring touch with four goals in five games. The play of Mikael Tam on the blue-line has been a nice added bonus for the Komets, while Drew Daniels has been steady as always.
(1E) Florida Everblades vs. (2E) South Carolina Stingrays
The home ice has not been kind during the regular season between these two teams. During 11 match-ups, the home team only won three times, all by the Everblades. So, if it comes down to a home-ice advantage, it could be the Stingrays who are favored by it. Both sides had tough tasks in the first round, so they aren’t going to be taken by surprise starting tonight.
The Everblades looked like they were going to sweep the Orlando Solar Bears, but not being able to have the killer instinct could be the downfall of the squad. One big surprise is that Nicolas Deschamps has matched his season totals with three goals and seven assists in half as many games after spending time over in Europe and 12 games in the AHL. Mike Little is living up this defenseman of the year moniker, while the pick-up of Casey Pierro-Zabotel has proved to be solid for the Blades. One of the big hits is that Allen York may not be ready for this series, as he had his neck injured during Game Five, but Dan Altshuller came in to play solid in the two games of reserve. While York would be nice to have back, should Altshuller play well, they may ride the hot goalie throughout.
The Stingrays went back and forth in their seven-game set against the Reading Royals, which also showed the cracks in the facade of Jeff Jakaitis, who didn’t play up to his MVP caliber. With only a 0.890 save percentage, the Stingrays may need to be getting a lot more support for him moving forward. Though Joe Devin has busted out with six goals, they will still need Derek DeBlois and Andrew Rowe to create more offense, especially against a Everblades team without their regular keeper. Yet, the defense is something that needs improvement, especially when losing Frankie Simonelli, the rest of the squad is not only struggling to find some offense, but keeping the puck out of their zone is going to be quite the task. The cornerstone of the Stingrays is their defense and if they are unable to get back to their defensive ways, they won’t be long for these playoffs.
Photo from the Fort Wayne Komets’ Facebook page
On Saturday, Journal-Gazette beat writer Justin Cohn brought up an interesting topic in lieu of the series between the Fort Wayne Komets and the Kalamazoo Wings, which was hours after the Komets eliminated the Wings in Game Five. After this season, the ECHL will realign and change the playoff format from divisional match-ups to the 1-8 seed style. However, the Komets will be in odd circumstances as they will move out to the Western Conference and be in a division with the Cincinnati Cyclones, Indy Fuel, Evansville IceMen, and Quad City Mallards.
Cohn brings up a pretty logical complaint for when it comes to breaking the Komets from everyone else they are rivals with, especially in Kalamazoo:
In the Komets’ 6-4 victory over the Kalamazoo Wings, which completed a five-game series victory for Fort Wayne, there were about 700 fans supporting the Komets. It was unreal how loud they were in the North Division Semifinals.
Forget about the fact Kalamazoo is West of Fort Wayne but will be in the Eastern Conference next season, the ECHL should encourage as many playoff battles between these teams as possible, not limit them.
Dare I say, it’s the biggest rivalry in the league? In terms of how many fans travel to the other team’s rink, it is without question.
Trust me, neither the Komets nor the Wings want to be in different conferences next season. Sure if they meet in the Finals, that would be unbelievable. But what are the odds of that happening?
Geographically, it doesn’t make much sense– as Cohn states Kalamazoo is west of Fort Wayne, while breaking up the Ohio combination of Cincinnati and the Toledo Walleye into two different conferences doesn’t make a lot of sense. The only big move that the ECHL really had to make was find a way to move Brampton to the Eastern Conference and one team back into the Western Conference. It didn’t need an entire overall of the league– hell, keeping the four divisions and playoff structure was entirely possible, but they decided to change it for whatever reason.
And to be honest, the fix is really an easy one– move Brampton to the North Division and move Evansville to the Central Division and then you don’t have to overhaul the entire league and really displace a lot of good rivalries by moving teams in different conferences.
Yet, it seems that the ECHL is setting up for an expansion that may or may not come. The way the conferences are aligned, they have three divisions per and a 4-5-5 set-up in those divisions. Thus, they have one spot open in the North Division (Toledo, Kalamazoo, Brampton, and Wheeling Nailers) and one open in the Central Division (Allen Americans, Wichita Thunder, Tulsa Oilers, and Missouri Mavericks). My only thought is that the ECHL is hoping that there will be expansion teams announced in Worcester and Oklahoma City in order to fill the void that will be left when their AHL franchises go away. No clue whether or not there are ownership groups willing to move forward; but with the schedule coming out this week– odds are that they won’t be getting a team in time to make it for the 2015-16 season.
Future planning could have been a reason, but to have lopsided divisions isn’t the worst thing because the top-four would get in regardless if they have seven or eight teams in that division. It would have been so much easier and have less complaints to swap Brampton for Evansville and then worry about the expansion later– but alas here we are. As much as I think Fort Wayne does grandstand a bit because of the longevity of the Komets name– they should get some respect when it comes to rivalries they have in the league.
With the West taking center stage the first two nights, the Eastern Conference will now step up and start up their second-season with the top team in all of the ECHL to start off the action.
(1N) Toledo Walleye vs. (4N) Wheeling Nailers
After a dismal season last year, the Walleye got a new coach and a new outlook in their hockey life by winning the Brabham Cup for most points in a season. One of the bigger reasons for that is the play by Jeff Lerg, who was a walk-on for coach Derek Lalonde and had a helluva season. Lerg should be in the running for top goaltender with his 32 wins on the season. More over than that, youth was served for the Walleye, as well, with rookies Tyler Barnes and Shane Berschbach leading scoring, with second year player Kyle Bonis leading the team with 36 goals on the year. Though Martin Frk is on the reserve list– his 23 goals in 29 games will be a boost if he gets sent down. On the blue line, Cody Lampl and Shane Sims have been solid and contribute here and there.
To counteract what Toledo has, the consistent nature of the Nailers will be on display. Though Derek Army was the only 20-goal scorer for the Nailers, they did have three above the 50-point plateau and were getting relief from Sahir Gill, who only played 26 games for the Nailers, but chalked up 29 points. They’re going to have to rely more on their defense, which is very unheralded with Paul Cianfrini and Tristan Llewellyn anchoring the blue line. With a solid tandem of Franky Palazzese and Eric Hartzell, the Nailers could be sneaky enough for the big upset.
These are two cities who are familiar with each other, as it is their fifth series between the cities; though it was the Toledo Storm who was before this. This is the first time the two cities have met since 2006 and there’s still no real love-loss. And while the Walleye dominated the season series by winning six of the seven games; the Nailers were on a hot streak towards the end of the season to get the last playoff spot in the North.
(2N) Fort Wayne Komets vs. (3N) Kalamazoo Wings
In their first year with a NHL affiliation, the Komets did get affected a little bit by some call-ups; but still were in the hunt for the top spot in the North Division thanks to the play they got from everyone when they were together. Shawn Szydlowski had a fantastic campaign with 38 goals and 74 points in only 57 games, while rookie Eric Faille played well enough to get promotions to Lake Erie with his 27 goals and 54 points in only 45 games in Fort Wayne. One true question is whether or not Pat Nagle or Roman Will will be in the cage for the playoffs. Both had a solid season and both stepped up when needed, but Nagle did miss some time at the end with a call-up to various AHL squads.
In net, Joel Martin has been consistent for the Wings, putting up 30 wins this year and being a leading force behind the Wings’ playoff push. Martin was tied for 3rd in shutouts with four, though his GAA and save percentage was not near the median for the league. Luckily, the Wings have three 25+ goal-scorers on the team with Matt Caria, Dane Fox, and Ludwig Blomstrand skating around; while Gergo Nagy put up an impressive 54-point season on his own. Jeremie Blain and Sacha Guimond are going to have to be in solid in the playoffs as they were in the season, while Sam Ftorek‘s veteran leadership should help the rest of the team.
It was an even match-up during the regular season, with the Komets winning eight of the 15 match-ups, which should prove to be a solid series. If Martin gets hot in net as he has been in spurts during the season could be the difference in the seven-game set.
(1E) Florida Everblades vs. (4E) Orlando Solar Bears
Though they weren’t as rowdy and have the big win-streaks as their compatriots in the East Division, the Everblades are still one of the most consistent teams in the league; making the playoffs for the 16th time in their 17 year history. Despite being called up to the AHL, Allen York has been solid for the ‘Blades in net in a mass of rookies that they have. While Andy Iles will be back in time, the weight will weigh on York for the most part. However, the acquisition of Casey Pierro-Zabotel could be key in the playoffs– despite him playing only five games and registering four assists. Luckily, Adam Brace, Alex Lavoie, and Mitch Wahl have been contributing offensively throughout with Brace being the guy to help against the Solar Bears with 16 points in the 15 match-ups.
With no 20-goal scorers, the Solar Bears will have to rely heavily on the play of Garret Sparks in net and the play of Bryce Aneloski, Eric Baier, and returning Eric Knodel on the blue line. While Jacob Cepis did a helluva job against Florida and during the season, the mid-season acquisitions of Johnny McInnis and Peter Sivak have added some scoring, despite the team not really have a outward goal scorer.
Without much goal-scoring, it could be rough for Orlando to advance, but should Sparks hit a hot streak; the Solar Bears could be the upset-special. That said, the Everblades look too tough and if they can get York for the entire series, will be looking ahead to next round.
(2E) South Carolina Stingrays vs. (3E) Reading Royals
It’s been a dream season for the Stingrays with team and league records broken all through out the year. With the tandem of Jeff Jakaitis and Adam Morrision, the Stingrays are in solid hands when it comes to the goaltending. With those guys putting up a combined 11 shutouts, the Stingrays don’t need to have a flashy offensive guy, with Derek DeBlois being the only 20-goal scorer who was on the Stingrays all season (Brandon Wong had only four on the Stingrays roster). With only two losses in their last 29, the Stingrays know how to win, but should look out for a Reading team who has been just as hot.
With six 20-goal scorers on their roster, the Royals are primed to trying and break the Jakaitis/Morrison contingency. Veteran Olivier Labelle is going to the prime focus of offense for the Royals, as he’ll get plenty of support from Cam Reid and Sean Wiles. They will need to score, as Connor Knapp and Martin Ouellette haven’t been the best, but have gotten the job done in net. Due to that, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the blue line, mainly Maxim Lamarche, Brett Flemming, and Jordan Heywood; all of which are vet presences on the defensive side of it.
These teams didn’t face-off much, which means they will be relative unknowns, having not played since late January. Both teams have changed plenty and will be hard up against each other, especially with plenty of guys who have known the grind of the Kelly Cup playoffs.
With the NHL Trade Deadline over, the look-back on it pretty much is to see how teams got better an dhow some got much worse. Obviously, the big thing is how teams are attempting to tank for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel— mainly the Buffalo Sabres, who pretty much destroyed their team.
However, one of the things that happens is a trickle down theory into the AHL and ECHL. Hell, it’s even gone to the SPHL in some cases. In the Sabres case, what will happen with the Rochester Americans who sit nine points out of a playoff spot in 13th in the Western Conference with 13 games left to play. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s Kevin Oklobzija was the first to observe what’s happening to the Amerks and how it effects the rest of the AHL in these next games:
The Amerks roster has been stripped of essentially every scoring forward. Every one. But they still have 18 games to play.
Joel Armia was sent to Winnipeg in the Evander Kane/Zach Bogosian trade. Over the past four days, Phil Varone, Zac Dalpe, Tim Schaller, Mikhail Grigorenko and Jerry D’Amigo have been recalled, joining Amerk teammates Johan Larsson and Matt Elllis in Buffalo.
Which means the Amerks will go into Utica on Wednesday night with a lineup that includes 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
The Toronto Marlies, Utica Comets and Hamilton Bulldogs are surely loving it. The Amerks play Toronto five times. They have four more games with Utica and three against Hamilton.
This is fair? This is good for the league’s competitive balance? Hardly.
And it’s hard not to think about what this means for balance, especially with the breakdown of the schedule left for the Amerks and what this means for the teams overall that are chasing the Marlies, Comets, and Bulldogs. Even with a depleted roster, the Amerks went to a shootout with the Comets Wednesday night, despite losing it in the end.
It trickles down to the ECHL, too– as the Fort Wayne Komets have been plucked over and over when it comes to their roster, whether it be from their parent club in Lake Erie or other teams taking their free agents. The only upside for the Komets is that they have been able to take the “next man up” philosophy and despite all of the call-ups; continue to be first in the North Division and tied for first in the Eastern Conference. Yet, the GM of the Komets is none too pleased with it, despite the players getting chances with different organizations in a higher level:
Mike Embach and Shawn Szydlowski have been called up to Norfolk of the American Hockey League. Embach has 55 points and Szydlowski 51.
“I think it’s more short-term than long-term, but I really don’t know,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “Right now, we’ve got what we’ve got. There’s a chance we could get some help from Lake Erie. We’ve got the rest of the week to see what we can do.”
Along with Eric Faille in Texas and Pat Nagle in Utica, the Komets will have four players in the AHL who are not part of their affiliation with Lake Erie.
“I’m not happy about it at all, but it’s a good opportunity for the players,” Franke said. “Once again we lose some of our best players to a team that we’re not affiliated with. That’s the nature of the beast in this league. I think it will work itself out. I don’t think it’s a long-term deal and we’ll just deal with it. We’ll be fine.”
Heading into the season, the Komets said they were hesitant when it came to getting into an affiliation again, mostly because their roster was left to shambles and trust was broken from other NHL teams. Luckily, the depth of the Komets has been enough that they haven’t been too effected by the call-ups and been able to keep up with the rest of the league, which has a lot to do with the systems the Komets have put into place.
Though, if you want to talk about the Komets and their fear of their team being ripped apart, the Komets actually called someone up from the SPHL that is being called the reason why this team is not going to make the playoffs in the SPHL, which is a super tight race right now. As Kevin Murdock was called up, the Fayetteville FireAntz had to go ahead and scrambled to find a goalie with Murdock’s pedigree (top save percentage in the SPHL: .936) and this after they lost Sean Bonar to the Orlando Solar Bears mid-season:
Murdock was the brightest of the few high points in the FireAntz’s .500 season. When he’s not around, the results have been disastrous. After Murdock beat first-place Peoria on Friday night, the FireAntz gave up six goals Saturday and nine Sunday to the Rivermen. Jordan Tibbett was torched for all 15 of those, has a 2-5-1 record, and his goals-against has ballooned to an astronomical 5.08.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Murdock gets to play while in Fort Wayne. It’s his second stint there: He played 12 minutes in one game last season for the Komets after coming out of college. He was 1-1 in limited action in Tulsa earlier this year, playing on back-to-back nights, then having the remainder of his time wasted on the bench. Ditto for Sean Bonar, who was called up to ECHL Orlando and was 1-1 before being traded recently to Wichita, and he’s had a front-row seat for four games without being used.
Murdock is expected to be with the Komets for at least two weeks and maybe as long as four. If it’s the latter, well, the FireAntz’s season ends March 27-28 with a home series against Pensacola. Their postseason hopes are pretty much toast without a goalie of Murdock or Bonar’s caliber.
Even though you have a lot of goaltenders out there with the lack of teams around, not only trying to get the quality of player on the team is one thing, but the willingness for a goalie to play in a league like the SPHL– which has gotten better over the years, but still doesn’t hold the prestiges as other minor leagues due to lack of exposure. The FireAntz sit four points out of a playoff spot with 11 games left and suspect goaltending to say the least– the FireAntz will have to man-up in order to save some kind of face as push comes to shove.
In the Murdoch case, it’s basically the epitome of how call-ups have a trickle-down effect as the FireAntz lost their heart and soul twice and now have to go ahead and hope for the best. But that’s the nature of the business– the Komets had to go ahead and do something in order to save their face as other teams are pulling their best guys to give them better chances, despite those AHL teams being pretty much out of the playoff race. As far as the Amerks, they are just going by the plan of their ownership group and the bigger picture of the team goals overall….when it comes to the NHL side. No clue how that replenishes the AHL side of things– unless that master plan is something that will be revealed in free agency– but the Amerks team, fans, and others are trying to be as good of soldiers as possible even when they are more than frustrated over the situation they have been put into.
On this week’s Farm Report, Scotty talks about the great piece done by ESPN’s Katie Strang about Cory LaRose’s venture out of and back into hockey and how the Charlotte Checkers are helping him get his love for the game back. Many writers in the ECHL thinks there needs to be a little more justice when guys get plucked from to the AHL, but sometimes it’s not the league’s fault in that. The Norfolk Admirals have a lot of tough guys on their roster, but thanks to adapting, they’ve become more valuable than just throwing fists. Oh, and there’s some more news developing from the AHL West migration this week as we get closer to a possible announcement during All-Star Weekend. All that plus News and Notes and We Hardly Knew Ye
As the main holiday season and the year wind down to a close, the ECHL will be having a dawning of a new era starting Saturday, as the Toledo Walleye are hosting not one, but two outdoor games– the first in ECHL history. In conjunction with the annual Toledo Winterfest, the Walleye were able to get something together with Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens (which is the same owners as the Walleye), to go ahead and make this event possible. Saturday, the Walleye will play the Kalamazoo Wings and on January 3rd they’ll take on the Fort Wayne Komets. Outside of the SPHL, the ECHL is the last to hold an outdoor game in the minor league hockey pantheon.
And it comes at a great time for the Walleye, as when this was thrown about last year– the Walleye were in peril with their roster being a revolving door of players and not being able to get any kind of chemistry going. Now, the Walleye are one of the most offensive teams in the ECHL with a league leading 111 goals going into the outdoor game, which is averaging out to 4.3 goals a game. That’s not all, though, as they have only given up 73 goals, which is fourth lowest in the Eastern Conference, proving that head coach Derek Lalonde bringing one of his former players in Jeff Lerg (12-2-1, 2.57 GAA, .913 SV%) to tend net wasn’t a bad idea– despite Lerg being a smaller goalie.
To the offense, rookie Tyler Barnes (12g, 20a) is making the transition from the University of Wisconsin to professional hockey smashingly. With a 12 goals and team-leading 32 points on the year so far, Barnes is in the top-three in scoring for the ECHL. Anthony Luciani (13g, 15a) and Kyle Bonis (13g, 5a) have been lighting the lamp fantastically with 13 goals apiece with Shane Sims (4g, 7a) putting up three power-play goals from the blueline, which accounts for 75% of his goals.
However, the defense has been a round-about roster with Scott Czarnowczan and Jared Nightingale being called-up. Luckily, Joel Chouinard has picked up the minutes for those guys, all while Sims, Cody Lampl, Kevin Clare, and Richard Nedomlel have been rotating around to get the minutes accounted for. They may not be the most offensive group with only 15 goals coming from the back-end.
Their first opponent on the outdoors is the Kalamazoo Wings, who come into the game on a three game losing skid and only winning three of their last 10 games. However, one bright spot for the Wings is the play of rookie Curtis Valk (10g, 12a), who is coming in from the WHL Medicine Hat Tigers and leading the way with 12 goals and 22 points while getting call-ups from the Utica Comets. Nathan Longpre (7g, 11a) has been the secondary scoring for the Wings, with Sascha Guimond (2g, 15a) being the main contributor from the blue-line. Dane Fox (5g, 5a) has been the crucial player on the extra-man with three-power play goals.
Though, the Wings are going through some of the issues that the Walleye had last year with a lot of players being called up from two clubs– most notably Kane Lafranchise and John Negrin— while also trading away an offensive stud in Josh Brittain to Missouri. Another bright spot for the Wings has been the play of goalie Joel Martin (8-7-1, 2.90 GAA, .903 SV%), who is a two-time CCM Goalie of the Week winner as he accounts for all but one win for the Wings this season. ECHL all-time games played leading Sam Ftorek (0g, 6a) will add another notch to his belt in the ECHL by taking part in this, which should only help his long list of achievements.
In the new year, the Fort Wayne Komets will come into Fifth Third Field in what will be a battle of the two top teams in the North Division and in the Eastern Conference overall, the Komets having 43 points and leading the division (as of December 26th), while the Walleye are two points back. The Komets have been on a huge run with a streak currently of 11 games with at least a point– 10 of those being wins. However, of the four regulation losses for the Komets, the Walleye are responsible for two of them, as well as a shootout loss. Thus, the Komets will be determined to spoil the outdoor game and the festivities for the Walleye.
Despite losing Mitchell Heard to the AHL, the Komets keep rolling with their top line of Shawn Szydlowski (15g, 14a), Mike Embach (7g, 20a), and Eric Faille (12g, 14a) running on all cylinders, with Garrett Meurs being brought back from the AHL just in time to help contribute to his ECHL stats with nine goals, 13 points, and two power play markers in only 15 games. James Martin (5g, 17a) has been coming in strong from the blueline to contribute, while Matthew Pistilli (7g, 9a) will be hanging around for some secondary scoring.
But the goalie is a solid story as ECHL stalwart Pat Nagle is having another stellar season for the Komets with a 14-3-1 record, 2.38 GAA, and .910 SV%. Nagle has been a big help in keeping the Komets at the top of the Conference, but also has been getting a lot of help on defense from the likes of Drew Daniels (0g, 10a) and Joey Leach (1g, 8a) who have a combined +44 despite only totaling for 19 points between the two of them with just one goal in it all.
For all it’s worth, it should be a great happening for the city of Toledo and their hockey team– which has been a great success story in ECHL expansion. With the revitalization of the team from a down-turn last year, the Walleye are in a prime spot to make this spectacle a successful one in more than just attendance for this game– but getting four points out of these games will help them in the standings. The stage is set for the ECHL to be the first outdoor game of the hockey season and now it’s time for them to deliver in a decent way. Just have to hope that Mother Nature doesn’t completely take over– as it is supposed to rain Saturday afternoon at 50F, but will dip down to 36F for the game.