Finding Solace in Second

There can only be one champion, but even with that– the accomplishments of the runners-up in the Calder and Kelly Cups aren’t something that should be thrown by the wayside. These teams were able to get that far and be it no fault of their own– just got outplayed, were unlucky, or just ran out of steam during the grind. Yet, even with the loss– the season shouldn’t be overlooked and the progress the teams made shouldn’t be scoffed at in hindsight.

(Utica Comets photo by Lindsay A. Mogle)

(Utica Comets photo by Lindsay A. Mogle)

The rise of the Utica Comets was on great display in the playoffs, especially in the Calder Cup Finals, where they were playing in the Finals just two years after they were granted acceptance into the league. The group that Robert Esche put together and Travis Green coached has been solid through the first two season and they should have a solid crop of returnees for next season. With the local business and fans turning out in a big way due to this success; the future looks bright overall in Utica.

Not only that, but this season was a revitalization for the career of Jacob Markstrom. Formerly in San Antonio, the one highly-touted prospect was able to finally display what his hype was all about and get a hang of the AHL game with 23 wins in 32 games and his first 20-win season in North America. Markstrom wasn’t the only one to find solid footing in Utica, as Cal O’Reilly led the team in scoring both in the regular season (10g, 51a) and playoffs (2g, 17a), while Sven Baertschi looks to be gaining a second-wind after being traded to Utica from Adirondack.

With a boost of young talent on the horizon, the future could look bright for the Comets…so long as Vancouver doesn’t do a complete overhaul and deplete the roster of the Comets to a shell of itself. Not only that, but Markstrom will probably be looked at by other teams, as will coach Green. The downside of playing so well and getting a big playoff run is people will notice the valuable assets and stop at no cost in acquiring them.

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For the South Carolina Stingrays, this is a team who may not have been in a position like this if not for their incredible mid-season burst. Their 23-game winning streak was a new ECHL record and the play of Jeff Jakaitis was amazingly stellar– enough to get him the ECHL MVP award. This was a team who, if not for that run, may not have even gotten into the playoffs, as they were playing .500 hockey throughout the season leading up to it.

Then you get to the playoffs where this team played almost the max amount of games, as all series except for the division finals went to seven games. Because of that, Wayne Simpson was able to break the ECHL playoff scoring record with 38 (13g, 25a), while captain Andrew Rowe tied the old record at 34 points (15g, 19a), if not for the play of Simpson. Even rookie Derek DeBlois kept his hot regular season going with a solid playoff, leading all rookies in points with 29 (11g, 18a).

Despite the team being in a bit of financial trouble, the fact they were able to have a big run during the season and in the playoffs brought excitement to North Charleston and should keep the buzz there into next season. As one of the last originals in the ECHL, the Stingrays know how to go through the ebbs and flows of life in the ECHL– which means they will be able to counteract any obstacle in their way.

While these things may be of no consolation, they are something to be admired. They outworked the rest of the league in order to get to a spot of winning the championship– which is something that should be commended. Not only that, but because of their runs, these places are now destinations for possible free agents and spots where players may not mind being sent down to rework their game because they know they’ll be in a top-notch organization.

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Farm Report Podcast 06.10.15

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.

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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.

The Epicness of the ECHL’s Eastern Conference Finals

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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.

Then “Mighty” Joe Devin got a pass from Caleb Herbert…..and Stingrays broadcaster Joe Zakrzewski can tell you the rest. (The Monumental Sports Network also posted the video evidence)

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.

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.

Farm Report Podcast: 05.10.15

In this week’s Farm Report, Scotty talks about the patience in net for the Capitals’ farm hands, Joe Devin‘s venture back from Europe to South Carolina, Keith Seabrook‘s venture back into hockey overall, and Tom Kostpoulos‘s possible last adventure in the AHL. All that, plus News and Notes and We Hardly Knew Ye.

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ECHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Division Finals

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NORTH DIVISION

(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.

EAST DIVISION

(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.