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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Yesterday, the East were profiled and now it’s time for the Western Conference, as top-seeded Utica starts off the conference against the Chicago Wolves in some pretty even match-ups through and through.
(1) Utica Comets vs. (8) Chicago Wolves
One of the cornerstones of the Comets’ big season was the solid goaltending from both Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson. Both had 22 wins in the regular season and was the big factor for Utica getting the top-seed in the west. Also a key to that was the defense of Bobby Sanguinetti, who also chipped in with 40 points and six power play goals. Offensively, Alexandre Grenier potted 11 of his 17 goals with the extra-man, while Cal O’Reilly lead in scoring with Brandon DeFazio being the only 20-goal scorer on the squad.
Conversely, the Wolves are bringing a lot of scoring to the table, only being nine goals below the Comets overall. Those duties to try and break the Comets goaltending will be the three-headed monster of Shane Harper, Ty Rattie, and Jeremy Welch with Magnus Paajarvi adding his own touch just in time for the playoffs. The Wolves aren’t that bad defensively either, with Brendan Bell‘s acquisition being a strong addition at the deadline to help Jordan Binnington in net. Brent Regner has been solid on both sides of the puck, adding another cavet to the Wolves line-up.
(2) Grand Rapids Griffins vs. (7) Toronto Marlies
With league-leading goal-scorer Teemu Pulkkinen, you can tell that the Griffins are a high-scoring team; especially with Andy Miele on the roster and a possible reappearance by Landon Ferraro. The Griffins are getting help from all angles, though, as they got a lot of help from their youth movement– such as Anthony Mantha and Mark Zengerle— and should be ready to play “next man up” on their roster. That’s most evident from Tom McCollum stepping up in net with Petr Mrazek going to and from Detroit.
TJ Brennan could be the biggest pick-up of the deadline and he has come in to put up 16 points in his 19 games with the Marlies, back in his comfort zone that he made for himself. Brennan’s veteran leadership will help rookies like Connor Brown and Brendan Leipsic as the scoring leaders on the Marlies. There will be a lot of heat on Chris Gibson in net, but with Brennan and Brendan Mikkelson and surprising rookie Viktor Loov; Gibson will get plenty of support.
(3) San Antonio Rampage vs. (6) Oklahoma City Barons
Depth scoring is going to be the key for the Rampage. While Connor Brickley and Bobby Butler led the way, they were able to get key scoring from Garrett Wilson and Logan Shaw in way of goals, with Quinton Howden and Rocco Grimaldi playing the roles as set-up men. One question is whether or not Dan Ellis is the man who is going to help lead the way between the net. Despite Greg Zanon having a solid year as a veteran force, Ellis could be a hot-and-cold guy during the playoffs– which could be the worst time for it.
Since this is their last season in OKC, the Barons are going to try their best in order to prolong the end as much as possible. One of the questions could be who will be the top guy in net– Richard Bachman or Laurent Brossoit. Brossoit has played more games, but Bachman has the better numbers overall. A bigger loss offensively could be the knee-injury that hampered Ilro Pakarinen when he was in Edmonton. That said, Andrew Miller and Jason Williams have been the driving force up front, as Brad Hunt will be the defenseman who will be in charge of most of both offense and defense for the Barons.
(4) Rockford IceHogs vs. (5) Texas Stars
With their first playoff back in a while, the IceHogs are going to rely on their defense in order to win the series. Michael Leighton has been solid while taking over for Scott Darling, while Antti Raanta has been getting his footing underneath him despite his demotion. Rookie blueliners Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka have been solid, especially with TJ Brennan getting traded for Spencer Abbott (who put up 12 goals in 19 games with Rockford). Johns has been solid in his own end, while Pokka has been lethal on the power play with six power play goals.
The defending Calder Cup champs had a rough go about it early in the season, but Travis Morin and the Stars bounced back and have rounded into form at the right time. Morin, Brendan Ranford, and Justin Dowling were solid after a bit of a hiccup, while Jussi Rynnas weathered the storm when Jack Campbell had to readjust his game in the ECHL. One of the bigger issues will be if the defense can stand up the IceHogs offense– as Derek Meech, Maxime Fortunus, and Julius Honka, while contributing to the offense– lacked help in their own end. That said, there’s a decent amount of returnees from last year’s team– so the switch will be flipped as the games get underway.
-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.
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.
-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.