Better late than never for this Farm Report edition, as Scotty goes over the playoff fantasticness. The Utica area has been brought alive by the play of the Comets and the city is regaining some pride because of it. Looking forward to 2016, the Oklahoma City area is primed to be picked for minor league hockey; which is something that will happen sooner rather than later. It’s been a while for Scott Ford when it comes to getting to a championship series again, but he’s making sure he enjoyed every moment of the South Carolina Stingrays’ run. The FHL is a mess…and Scotty is trying to make sense of the league as a whole. All that, News and Notes, plus We Hardly Knew Ye.
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
(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.
Photo via the South Carolina Stingrays’ Facebook
You could say that the Eastern Conference finals in the ECHL was one for the ages.
The South Carolina Stingrays went up three games to none, looking like they would have their first playoff sweep since 2009. However, the Toledo Walleye had other plans and came back to tie up the series setting up for an epic Game 7. To that point, every game was a one-goal game with Game 6 ending with rookie sensation Tyler Barnes scoring the overtime winner to see if they could come all way the way back.
Then Game 7 actually did happen and it was more than anyone could have ever expected.
It was a chess match of biblical proportions in front of the standing room only crowd of 8,300 in the Huntington Center in Toledo. The Walleye started off strong, taking control in the first half of regulation, trying to make sure the momentum they had from not only Game 6, but from coming all the way back didn’t wear off. Justin Mercier had the best chance for the Walleye, breaking in on Jeff Jakaitis with plenty of room to move, but being denied. That could have been when the Stingrays decided to up the pressure on their on midway through the second period and into the third, dominating the Walleye in their own end, forcing Jeff Lerg to come up big in his own net.
The end of regulation saw this would be the seventh one-goal game of the series and make sure fans on both sides were clutching at their rally towels tightly.
The first overtime was frantic and thanks to some skill (and luck from his posts), Jakaitis was able to withstand the flurry of shots the Walleye were able to put forth, while down the other end; Lerg came up as big for his side– though he didn’t have to be as acrobatic as his counterpart. The 26 shots generated by both teams in that frame showed that it was run-and-gun with both teams hoping that if they fired enough at the net– something would be made of it.
With a little bit of a tighter checking second overtime, it brought about the only power play. Troy Schwab of the Walleye was called for hooking at the mid-point of the 2nd OT, but the Stingrays couldn’t convert– which gave the Walleye a bit of a momentum boost. The Walleye took that boost and peppered Jakaitis after that, putting seven shots on him– including one that almost squirted through his legs, but the defense was able to push it back under Jakaitis to keep the game even through two overtimes.
You could sense something was going to happen. The teams had already played the longest Game 7 in ECHL history and during the 3rd OT, they would have played the longest 0-0 game in ECHL playoff history. Something had to give. Early on, it was almost the Stingrays who gave it up entirely. Thanks to some great puck movement, the Walleye were able to draw the Stingrays’ defense on one side, opening up Martin Frk on the opposite wing for a tremendous opportunity….but whether the puck when on end or just bad luck; Frk put it over the net keeping the game knotted at one.
For the Walleye– it was a heart-breaking defeat; but one during a season they shouldn’t be ashamed of. Under a new head coach (and Coach of the Year) in Derek Lalonde and with a stable affiliation, the Walleye were able to take home the Brabham Cup for top regular season points. They had the Rookie of the Year in Tyler Barnes and turned the horrid season from last year around to a Conference Finals this year– with even bigger things for next season.
For the Stingrays, it is their fourth Bud Gingher Memorial Trophy for Eastern Conference champions and it lines them up for a shot at their fourth Kelly Cup and first since 2009. For a team that had a storybook year during the 23-game winning streak, having the MVP in Jeff Jakaitis, and plenty of momentum– their toughest task in facing the Allen Americans and having to deal with the first three games on the road could prove to be a mental feat to get over– as well as a physical one.
Regardless of that, this Game 7 was tabbed as an instant classic by many and you’ll find it hard pressed to find anyone who thinks differently.
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.
In this week’s Farm Report, Scotty reviews the AHL and ECHL playoffs thus far, Danny Biega is feeling more confident in his game, all thanks to just ten games in the NHL; while the city of Biloxi is confident they’ll get another minor league hockey team– but not this upcoming season. All that, plus News and Notes and We Hardly Knew Ye
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.