After some time off, Scotty Wazz is back to give you the news that happened since he was gone– like all the coaching changes in the AHL and ECHL. Speaking of change– Lamar Hunt, Jr. has some thoughts on the changes he’s made since taking over the Missouri Mavericks. More change is happening thanks to winning for the cities of Toledo, Utica, Manchester, and Rockford; while there are a lot of names changing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s media guide next season. But nothing ever changes in the Federal Hockey League, as it is still a gongshow. All that, a little news and notes, and We Hardly Knew Ye.
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.
Photo by Jon Rosen
Even before they knew the Los Angeles Kings would move their AHL operation to Ontario, California; the Monarchs looked like a team ready to finally make a big run at the Calder Cup. While this past season wasn’t their best in terms of wins and points (51 wins and 110 points was reached twice in 2004-05 and 2006-07), it is the first season they were able to have the highest wins and point total in the league (50 wins and 108 points). And while this team didn’t have a win past the first round in four previous playoffs– there was something a little more determined by the team to give their fans a good send-off to the AHL. Though, it was the first round that almost did the Monarchs in again, as they were pushed to a decisive Game Five against the Portland Pirates, but were able to make it out of their alive and then cruise through the rest of the Eastern Conference and then play a hard-fought five games to defeat the Utica Comets and win their first Calder Cup in their last season.
More over, though, is what the Monarchs have done in terms of development and who the fans have been able to see. From Jonathan Quick, Mike Cammalleri, and Matt Moulson; the Monarchs produced a decent amount of NHLers and many who have gone on to win a Stanley Cup with the Kings. Even to the end, with playoff MVP Jordan Weal, defenseman Colin Miller, goalie J-F Berube, and breakout performer Michael Mersch were all Manchester products who will be an asset to the Kings in the future. The fans lucked out big time when it came to the Kings drafting and signing great young talent for them to watch since 2001.
And the fans did turn out for this team, even though after the first few years– they weren’t able to pull in the big 8,000+ average. In the last few years, the Monarchs were at the middle of the AHL charts with attendance at the 5,500+ mark. Much can be put towards the downturn in attendance– the economy, people moving away from the area, more things to do in the area– but the die-hard fans were there to the end and were rewards with this Calder Cup victory.
Yet, the big question is whether or not they’ll turn out in the same numbers with the ECHL team in town. That has been one of the main concerns with the swaps of team is if people who had enjoyed AHL hockey for years will enjoy the “downgrade” of leagues and embrace the new players that will come in, but under the same moniker they feel is familiar with the AHL. While there are few entries in this, the numbers don’t really help the cause for support– as the Peoria Rivermen saw a drop-off of around 1,500 fans not attended the SPHL incarnation the season after they left the AHL. When the Utah Grizzlies went from the AHL to the ECHL, they saw about a 1,000 person drop-off, though their numbers were steadily declining in their last few AHL years. That said, the Grizzlies have rebounded the past few years with better teams and management decisions.
The Monarchs will join the 1967 Pittsburgh Hornets, the 1970 Buffalo Bisons, and 1982 New Brunswick Hawks as teams who won the Calder Cup and not play in the AHL the next season. It will be interesting to see how the Manchester Monarchs go about raising their championship banner. Will they do it during their parade celebration in a couple weeks or will they wait until ECHL opening night to raise their 1st Calder Cup winning banner from the rafters of the Verizon Wireless Arena?? Regardless of the decision, to leave a league out on top is anything that anyone in that organization could have hoped for as the transition happens.
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
For the final four in the AHL, four of the top five teams are still left, including the two top seeds in the Western Conference. With two match-ups that provide high-powered offenses against tight defenses– these match-ups could very well an amazing set-up to the last gasps of the AHL season.
(1E) Manchester Monarchs vs. (3E) Hartford Wolf Pack
After a rough first series, the Monarchs were able to make short work of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in five games and return to the ice after a week and a day off. One guy who came through in the last series was David Van der Gulik, who put up two goals and four assists while scoring in all five games of that series. But the top guys for the Monarchs still were the contributing with Jordan Weal had five goals and three assists, including a hat trick in Game 4, while linemate and league MVP Brian O’Neill added two goals and four assists on the series. The defense has been on lockdown as well, with J-F Berube only facing 24.5 shots on average these playoffs, which can be chalked up to the play of Jeff Schultz, Derek Forbort, and Colin Miller for keeping the pucks away from Berube, though it does kill Berube’s stats; as he holds a .898 save percentage on the playoffs.
In the last three games, the series against the Hershey Bears turned into the Ryan Bourque show, who posed a goal and seven assists in those last three games, as the Wolf Pack rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win in six games. Not to be outdone in that series was Joey Crabb who put up all of his seven points (4g, 3a) in that Hershey series while Marek Hrivik posted his first three goals of the playoffs in the series clincher. But yet, Yann Danis still continues to contribute without taking away the focus, holding the highest save percentage of those left in the playoffs with a .931 percentage.
In the playoffs, these two are really no strangers. Granted, those were in 2002 and 2006, which is a lifetime ago– but the Wolf Pack hold the two series wins in that. With both teams well-rested and on a mission, this series could join those past series between the two in going the full seven games to complete. That said, with two different teams and two different mentalities; it could be a different outcome– which is what the Monarchs will be hoping for in this series.
(1W) Utica Comets vs. (2W) Grand Rapids Griffins
With each of their series going the distance, you have to wonder if the Comets have any left in the tank for this round and if possible the next round. However, one of the big things on the Comets sides is the play of Jacob Markstrom who was able to post a shutout in Game 7 against Oklahoma City, the 11th goalie to do that in a Game 7. The Comets are relying on their defense, only scoring more than three goals twice. One of the catalyst for the offense has been Alexandre Grenier, as he put up four goals (including the series winner) and three assists in the series against OKC, while also leading the team with ten points (4g, 6a) in the playoffs. The lack of scoring from the rest of the Comets– like Cal O’Reilly, Alex Friesen, and Sven Baertschi— could be the downfall of the team, unless they’re waiting until an even bigger stage like this.
On the flip side, the Griffins have the top goal-scorer in the playoffs in Teemu Pulkkinen, who put up seven goals and two assists in the five-game series with the Rockford IceHogs; which also put Pulkkinen tied for the top spot in the playoff points with Jordan Weal of Manchester. Not to be outdone, with a goal and six assists; Andy Miele was provide the set-ups for Pulkkinen, while Tyler Bertuzzi has been stellar in his games for the Griffins– putting up four goals and two assists in the last round. Tom McCollum has been able to shut the door when needed in net, only losing two games in these playoffs while taking the reigns in the first round over Jared Coreau.
The chess match of this series when it comes to defense in Utica and offense in Grand Rapids should be interesting to see. For what it’s worth, it could be competitive as a series can get and go the full seven or Utica will be out of gas and lead to the Griffins to run roughshod over the Comets. Working for the Comets is how Markstrom has been strong in net regardless of the offense– but this will be the first real test from one of the top teams in the Western Conference and not one of the lower seeds that Comets have had trouble with thus far.
With the top-four seeds advancing in the East, the best of the best are going to be out there to take the conference. With a couple teams having troubles in the first round, it’ll be interesting to see if there’s going to be any upsets or trouble for these teams moving forward.
(1E) Manchester Monarchs vs. (4E) Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins
The Monarchs squeaked out a series victory over the Portland Pirates, where the home team won every game. The Monarchs were able to get their offense up to snuff, but their lack of road presence could be something that bites them the further along they go. The Baby Pens made short work of the Syracuse Crunch in their three-game sweep, outscoring the Crunch 14-3. With the team rolling at the right time, the Baby Pens could be the team to be reckoned with this post-season.
Though they went to distance, the Monarchs did get a lot of scoring– led by rookie Michael Mersch and Jordan Weal, while Sean Backman has been taking the role of breakout star for these playoffs. Regular season MVP Brian O’Neill will still need to contribute a bit more, despite being a point-per-game already. One main concern has to be the defense, who allowed two or more goals in all of the five games, which could be the penalty kill issues– which is 12th of the 16 playoff teams and last amongst the teams still remaining. J-F Berube will have to be a little better for the Monarchs if they still want to have success in the rest of these playoffs.
For the Baby Pens, they keep their hot streak rolling. Led by rookies Conor Sheary and Kasperi Kapanen with Sheary leading in points with five and Kapanen leading in goals with three. The secondary scoring in Carter Rowney, Andrew Ebbett, and Jayson Megna still have a lot of show still, I’m sure, which– with rest– could cause trouble for Manchester. Matt Murray, which is a shock to no one, has been solid as usual, have a 1.00 GAA and .965 save percentage through the first round. With as solid as he has been, Murray’s play could be key should the offense falter slightly against a tougher opponent.
(2E) Hershey Bears vs. (3E) Hartford Wolf Pack
With the Bears decisive win in Game Four, they showed that they weren’t going to let up on the competition, which could prove solid when it comes to needing a killer instinct. The Wolf Pack however played all but one of their games with one-goal margins; two going into overtimes in their five-game series with the Providence Bruins. Those close games and dealing with overtimes could battle harden the Wolf Pack quickly. Luckily, these two teams are facing off as their parent affiliations are facing off, as well.
One of the questions will be what the health status of Philipp Grubauer will be. He left during Game One, handing the reigns over to Pheonix Copley, who did an admirable job in relief. Grubauer said he will be ready for these series, but who knows if he’ll aggravate the injury again. The offense should be much better for the Bears, though they are getting it from all sources involved in the action. Cam Schilling has led the way from the blue-line, but Casey Wellman, Chris Brown, and Liam O’Brien have been the top guys; while Stanislav Galiev is still waiting to explode on the scoresheet.
There have been a lot of tight checking games for the Wolf Pack, which shows by only one goal scorer having more than a goal (Chris Mueller), as the team has had nine different goal scorers through the first five games. As Oscar Lindberg and Danny Kristo have been solid, they still need an extra gear in the playoffs. The loss of Ryan Bourque to the Rangers is a big deal, but they will need to counteract it somehow. Surprisingly, the play of Yann Danis has been solid. The veteran netminder has been solid while facing as many shots (175) as he has. He’ll be tested again by the Bears, but his prowess in these playoffs will be a nice edge as Hartford moves forward.
It’s the last season to get their playoffs underway, but the AHL is primed to have a solid showing with plenty of teams that could very looked at as very elite when all is said and done. However, to quote a great man– to know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been. Today, we start out East and then move out West tomorrow and my bleak attempt to break it down from a fundamental standpoint.
(1) Manchester Monarchs vs. (8) Portland Pirates
After completing their third 50-win season in franchise history (first since 2006-07 when it was an 80-game season), the Monarchs are loaded up with plenty of offense, leading the East with 241 goals, as well as have four 20-goal scorers. AHL MVP Brian O’Neill and Mike Mersch will be joined by Nick Shore, who was reassigned by Los Angeles and has registered more than a point-per-game in the AHL during his limited time over in Manchester. On the back-end, J-F Berube will be supported solidly by Derek Forbort with Andrew Bodnarchuk providing the first pass out of the zone and Colin Miller adding scoring and power play prowess from the point.
They needed a last game win in order to make it, but the Pirates could be considered a team playing for their playoff lives for almost a month now. Despite a six-game losing streak, the Pirates were able to battle back and lot of that was on the back of Mike McKenna in net, who went 8-4-4 in the last two months. The defense will be a big thing, especially with the Pirates not producing many goals– especially on the power play where they were 27th out of 30 in the league (48 for 345; 13.9%). Though Alexandre Bolduc and Brendan Shinninmin had 20-goal seasons, it’ll be on Dylan Reese and the defensive corps to keep the series close.
(2) Hershey Bears vs. (7) Worcester Sharks
The Bears haven’t been torn too apart this season from call-ups, which means they could be one of the more complete teams in the playoffs. With Stanislav Galiev returning, their offense is as potent as anything in the league. Going along with Galiev is Casey Wellman, both of whom had 25 goals. Chris Conner‘s season half of the season helped him down the stretch; as Steve Oleksy and Cam Schilling have been solid on the back-end in front of Philipp Grubauer. However, Grubauer is up with Washington, which means the duties will be loaned to Pheonix Copley until Grubauer gets back.
When it looked like the Sharks were out of it, Aaron Dell came up to pretty much save the day for the Sharks; who are in their last season in Worcester. Dell went 13-6-1 since February 1st and helped the Sharks get to the playoffs, despite a three-game losing streak to end the season. Even though they had no 20-goal scorers, the Sharks did get plenty of contributions up and down the roster– mostly from captain Bryan Lerg, Micheal Haley, and rookie Evan Trupp; while also having Taylor Fedun contribute on the defensive side.
(3) Hartford Wolf Pack vs. (6) Providence Bruins
One of the interesting things about the Wolf Pack is that they had only a +7 goal differential, which means while they put pucks in the net; there were times they had trouble keeping them out. Yet, since Yann Danis was brought into the fold and settled down– the Wolf Pack have been solid, taking the Northeast Division. Luckily, Chris Bourque and Oscar Lindberg were solid when it came to the forward presence, though Conor Allen will have to stay out of the penalty box to help the defensive play, though rookie Mat Bodie was tied for points (with Charlotte’s Trevor Carrick) for rookie defensemen.
The potential for the Bruins to score goals is there, but it wasn’t for the regular season. Barely two 15-goal scorers, but they also lost David Pastrnak for most the season; which probably hurt a lot and will give Providence a nice boost when it comes to the playoffs. Helping Pastrnak will be Alex Khokhlachev, who lead the team in scoring, and Colin Stuart, who lead the team in goals. With not much support, there could be a lot of weight on Jeremy Smith‘s shoulders– who seemed to distance himself from Malcolm Subban in net in their 1a/b situation. The veteran prowess of Steve Eminger could help the young team go ahead and steal a couple games from Hartford.
(4) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. (5) Syracuse Crunch
There’s no doubt that the story of the Baby Pens’ year is the emergence of goalie Matt Murray– who not only took home top goalie honors, but also top rookie honors. Another breakout performance was the 26-goal campaign by Jayson Megna, who had 11 goals and five assists in the last two months of the season, most in the absence of Andrew Ebbett; who was travelling back and forth to Pittsburgh. With two veterans on the squad in Tom Kostopoulus and Danny Syvret; it could help out the young-ish team. This is all not even talking about Conor Sheary— who led the team and was 8th in rookie points.
After winning only one of their last 10 games, the Crunch picked the wrong time to start slumping. That said, they are better than their record with plenty of talent. Yanni Gourde, Jonathan Marchessault, and Mike Angelidis have led the way in every facet of offense since Vlad Namestnikov was called up to Tampa for the rest of the season. However, the fact the Crunch only lost once to the Baby Pens this season should be a nice motivator, but they will need Kristers Gudlevskis to get back on his game in order to keep the pucks out of the net.