Lalonde Helping Iowa Climb From Obscurity

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When Derek Lalonde got hired by the Iowa Wild, there were many people scratching their heads. Not so much in wondering why Iowa would want Lalonde as their coach, but more why would Lalonde leave a great situation like he had in Toledo with the Walleye to go to a team that was limited success in the AHL?? One could only assume that not only did Lalonde like the promotion, he welcomed the challenge of trying to elevate a that has festered in the basement of the AHL standings, while also employing a system that will work not only on the AHL level, but in the NHL as well.

So far, so great for Lalonde’s vision.

On Saturday night, the Iowa Wild won their 29th games of the season, thus setting a franchise record for wins in a season with 16 games left to play. They sit in 4th place in the Central Division, four points up on Cleveland, though Cleveland has two games in hand. This is after a trade deadline which saw Iowa’s leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen get dealt, along with secondary scoring center Grayson Downing, as well as Zac Dalpe being lost to waivers. Couple that with injuries and call-ups, the Iowa roster has taken a licking, but keeps on ticking.

While they’re not the most offensive team in the league (ranking 26th in the league in goals-for), the defense has been superb for Iowa, ranking 9th in goals-against with 158 goals given up on the season. That has put a lot of the spotlight on Alex Stalock and Steve Michalek, both of whom have performed admirably. Yet, defense has always been the calling card for a Lalonde coached team. In his short time as a head coach, Lalonde’s teams have only one given up more than 200 goals-against, and that was the 2012-13 Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.

However, the modus operandi of Lalonde seems to be that when he takes over a team, he makes them better. While he took over a rather successful Green Bay Gamblers team in 2011-12, he was able to make them better by winning six more games than the year before, while also helping them win a championship in the same year. When he took over the Toledo Walleye, he helped that team get out of the one-year lurch by more than doubling the team’s win total in a year (21 wins in 2013-14, 50 in 2014-15), while also helping the team capture their first Brabham Cup for most points in the regular season in the ECHL. The model continue to work in Iowa, as I stated before, with the team eclipsing their top mark for wins in a season with 16 games to spare.

As Iowa play in the ultra-competitive Central Division, it remains to be seen whether or not the playoff streak of Lalonde’s continues (he has made the playoffs in all five seasons he’s been a head coach), the success that Laldone has already had with Iowa is showing by locking down the defensive side that Iowa has had in its existence (235 GA in 2013-14, 245 GA in 2014-15, 225 GA in 2015-16), while also make this team a winning commodity. Players have bought into his system, also getting help from Minnesota in stocking their AHL affiliate with solid talent with experience in the AHL to help the team climb out of the basement of the league. The fans have seen it, too, as Iowa has cracked the 6,000-person average attendance mark as the time of this writing, proving that winning helps attendance.

Chuck Fletcher has also helped Iowa by helping the team stock up with some AHL veterans (Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan), as well as bright, young talent (Alex Tuch, Sam Anas, Mario Lucia) to help Lalonde’s success. The last time a Minnesota AHL team had this much success was in 2012-13 when the Houston Aeros had the likes of Justin Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, and Jason Zucker on their squad– all of whom made the jump to become regulars in the NHL. With the NHL parent club caring for the AHL squad, it helps immensely in the AHL squad trying to have success on top of development. 

The future is bright for Lalonde, especially if this turnaround ends in a playoff run for Iowa. While there’s always the issue of what could happen if an NHL goes after the AHL “Flavor of the Month Coach” as they have in the past with Dallas Eakins and Jared Bednar (though the situations weren’t keen to success for either), the success Lalonde has had in the past at every level should help his cause a little bit, so long as his players buy into his system as they have before, however– only time will tell if that long-term vision becomes maintained success.

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Farm Report Podcast– 07.05.15

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.

CLICK TO LISTEN/DOWNLOAD

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.

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.

Round One: Kelly Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference

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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.

NORTH DIVISION

(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.

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EAST DIVISION

(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.

The Weekend That Was: March 20th-22nd

AHL

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-As they fight for the final playoff spot in their final season in Worcester, the Sharks are getting a great boost from Aaron Dell, the goalie who has turned his “brief” call up from the Allen Americans into a NHL contract from San Jose. With two wins this weekend for the Sharks, Dell improved his record to 10-5-2 with a 1.87 GAA and .931 save percentage. The wins kept the Sharks in the hunt as they are a point out of a playoff spot with three games in hand over eighth-place Springfield. In their wins this weekend against St. John’s and Lehigh Valley, captain Bryan Lerg put up three goals, with Rylan Schwartz having two goals, and Jimmy Bonneau put up two assists on Sunday.

-With new acquistion Sven Baertschi putting up four goals in their three wins, the Utica Comets have all but sealed the North Division title, which will put them in the top-three spots in the Western Conference. The three wins this weekend extends the point streak for the Comets to six games. To match the four goals by Baertschi, captain Cal O’Reilly added four assists, with Joacim Eriksson winning Friday and Sunday with Joe Cannata winning Saturday’s game.

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ECHL

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Photo from Allen Americans Facebook Page

-Despite going through a bit of a slump, the Allen Americans kicked it back into shape this weekend with two big wins; helping them clinch the Central Division. Gary Steffes put up two goals and three assists on the weekend while league leading scorer Chad Costello had two goals and two assists. Aaron Gens and Tyler Ludwig added from the blue line with Gens having four assists and Ludwig putting up a goal and two assists. The two wins also put Riley Gill as the first goalie in the ECHL to record 30 wins and the first of his career.

-The Toledo Walleye clinched a playoff spot this weekend with three big wins thanks to Shane Berschbach contributing two goals and four assists, as well as Troy Schwab‘s two goals and three assists and potential rookie of the year Tyler Barnes adding three goals and three assists. Jeff Lerg stopped 56 of 58 shots taken at him in two of the games, with Neil Conway stopping 22 in his win on Saturday. The Walleye have had an amazing turnaround as they currently are 43 points better than they were last season, with that number sure to grow in the last month of the season.

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SPHL

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-The dismal season for the Huntsville Havoc is near a close, as they will go down in history as the worst SPHL team to date. With only three games remaining, the Havoc can only max out at 12 wins, with the old lowest win total being at 14 with the Winston-Salem Polar Twins. One of the few bright spots for the Havoc has been the play of Stuart Stefan, who sits second in goals (10) for defensemen in the league and is fourth in points with 28. While it is well off his career-high pace from last season, Stefan has been a decent story for the Havoc.

-With one week until the playoffs starts, the SPHL has all the contenders into the playoffs with only Fayetteville and Huntsville not making the cut. The only thing to be determined is the positioning of the teams. Peoria needs three points in their weekend set against the Mississippi River Kings to clinch first-overall or need the Columbus Cottonmouths to drop one of their last three games, as they play Louisiana once and Huntsville on the weekend.