The Calder Cup playoffs are headed into their “final four”, which starts Friday.
Three of the four division winners are still alive through two rounds, along with one second-place team, the Lake Erie Monsters.
The Monsters take on the defending-champion Ontario Reign (who were still the Manchester Monarchs when they took last season’s title) in the Western Conference Finals, while division champs Toronto (North) and Hershey (Atlantic) do battle in the Eastern Finals.
Survival was not easy for those two Eastern Conference division winners, as both had to withstand seven-game wars in the Division Final round. The Marlies, who ran away with the regular-season points leadership with a .750 points percentage, better than half a percentage point ahead of the Reign, who had the next best mark at .684, fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 in their second-round battle with Albany. Toronto then had to squeak out a 4-3, come-from-behind win in Game Seven of that series, after losing Game Six at home with a chance to oust the Devils.
“I think we gave it our best,” Penguin head coach Clark Donatelli told the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice. “It wasn’t like we were outplayed. We just ran out of time and they got a couple bounces, and that’s just how it went.”
Game Seven in Hershey was the fifth of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s ten playoff games to go to OT, and they had won the previous four, including a 2-1 victory in Game Four against the Bears after Hershey had taken two of the first three games of the series.
Rookie Travis Boyd scored the series-winner just under 11 minutes into the overtime for the Bears, who had lost 1-0 and 2-1 leads in regulation of Game Seven. Boyd, a sixth-round pick by the parent Washington Capitals in 2011, had an excellent regular season for Hershey, with 21 goals and 53 points, but had scored only once in the Bears’ previous 11 playoff games.
Justin Peters continued to carry the load in net for the Bears, playing the entirety of the series except for the last two periods of Game Six, and he commented to the Harrisburg Patriot-News after the Game Seven Win, “It’s such a fine line between winning and losing and we’re just excited to have an opportunity to keep playing.”
The leading scorer in the series was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 37-year-old, 17th-year veteran captain, Tom Kostopoulos, who struck for four goals and five assists in the seven games.
Albany also came agonizingly close to pulling an upset, one which would have been a bigger one than if the Penguins had beaten the Bears. The Devils finished 12 points behind the Marlies in the North, but never blinked once in the seven-game series against the Maple Leaf farmhands, outshooting the stacked Toronto club in four of the seven contests.
The Devils actually took a 2-1 lead early in the third period of Game Seven, but the Marlies would go on to score three goals of their own in the third, including the game-winner by Richard Clune with 2:30 to play.
It sounded like an extremely gallant effort by the Albany side, which was missing the likes of Mike Sislo, Brian O’Neill, Reid Boucher, Jim O’Brien and Pavel Zacha for at least parts of the series, due to injuries, and lost veteran defenseman Dan Kelly for the last three games, after the AHL suspended him for his elbow to the head of Marlie forward Andreas Johnson in Game Four.
“I would have liked to have seen it with some of the key guys we were missing in the lineup, I think it could have been a different series,” Devil head coach Rick Kowalsky said after Game Seven. “But that’s part of playoffs, that’s why you’ve got to rely on your depth. There’s no question this was a good series, and I think a lot of people in the hockey world weren’t expecting us to have this type of series with this team, and I think we opened up a lot of eyes.”
With all of the firepower Toronto has up front, by far their most productive player in the postseason has been defenseman Connor Carrick, a trade-deadline acquisition by the Leafs from Washington. He has 6-8-14 thus far in playoff action, six points more than the next highest-scoring Marlie.
Having survived a stern test, first-year Marlie bench boss Sheldon Keefe is confident that his group will be stronger going forward.
“This will do wonders for us in the next round,” Keefe commented to the media after the Albany series. “These type of experiences stay with you a long time, the positives and the negatives, going through the emotions, having to bounce back with big plays in pressure situations, those are terrific. You stand a little taller. Here we are May 16, not only playing a Game 7, but going onwards. That’s going to serve the group very well.”
On the western side of the league, the Reign seem to be picking up right where the Monarchs left off last season. Coach Mike Stothers’ club has won seven of its nine postseason games through the first two rounds, after knocking off San Diego in five games in the Pacific Division Finals.
Manchester’s team last year was so dominant it didn’t need that much from its goaltender, and J.F. Berube’s postseason numbers were rather pedestrian. Berube, who saw action in 17 of the Monarchs’ 19 playoff games in 2015, had an 89.8% save percentage and a 2.30 goals-against average in those contests, but still went 13-3. For Ontario this year, though, the goaltender has been the most statistically dominant postseason performer, as 14th-year pro Peter Budaj has carried his stellar regular-season play over into the playoffs.
Budaj, who won this year’s Baz Bastien Memorial Award by leading the AHL in wins (42), goals-against average (1.75), save percentage (93.2) and shutouts (9), has a 1.73 GAA and a 91.8 save percentage mark in playoff action. On the other side of the puck, the Monarchs averaged nearly 3.6 goals-per-game in the 2015 playoffs, and their top line of Jordan Weal (pictured, in action against the Wolf Pack in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals) between Brian O’Neill and Michael Mersch all scored at better than a point-per-game clip. The Reign, by contrast, do not have anyone averaging a point-per-game, and as a team they are only averaging 2.67 goals per playoff contest.
When asked to compare the two squads, Stothers was quoted by LA Kings Insider as saying, ”I think last year’s team, we had more offense. Like, naturally gifted scorers and playmakers with O’Neill, Weal and (Nick) Shore. From the back end, we had (Colin) Miller with 20 goals – 19, to be exact, but we round up to 20. We had (Andrew) Bodnarchuk. But there’s enough guys remaining from the organization that knew what it took to win, and the sacrifices you’ve got to make. You’ve got to believe in our system, and that’s throughout our whole organization. It starts with the coaching staff up top with the Kings, and we try to follow suit, and it helps when our guys get called up that they can step in and play. It’s very successful. But everybody has to do it. We had some great success when we can get every single guy, all five guys on the ice doing the same thing, whether it’s through the neutral zone or in the defensive zone coverage, or trying to get things going in the offensive zone. It’s a hard way to play, it’s a physical way to play, it’s very demanding, but we try to mix it in with some good work days and some recovery days and some maintenance days.”
The Reign will have had a full week of recovery time by the Saturday start of their series with the Monsters, who got a bit of a scare in their second-round series with Grand Rapids after winning the first three games. The Griffins recovered to take Games Four and Five, and then had a 3-1 lead in the second period in Game Six, before Lake Erie came back to tie that contest and eventually won in overtime.
The Monsters were a darned good team in the regular season, finishing with 43 wins and 97 points, but it looks like a late-season addition from the college ranks may have put them over the top. Defenseman Zach Werenski, who doesn’t turn 19 until July 10, and joined Lake Erie March 29 after finishing his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, had the OT goal that finished the Griffins in Game Six and is the Monsters’ leading playoff scorer, with 4-6-10 in nine games.
While the Eastern Conference foes, the Bears and Marlies, played twice in the regular season, Game One of the Western Finals will be the first meeting of the year between the Reign and Monsters. The two clubs should not be totally unfamiliar with each other, though, as a significant contingent of the Lake Erie roster was with Springfield last year, before Columbus moved its affiliation to Cleveland, and the Falcons and Monarchs were frequent foes.