Eakins flies into San Diego hot seat

June 28, 2015

One season your stock is hot, the next it’s a cold as ice with fans and pundits writing you off, left, right and centre.

Whilst coach of the Toronto Marlies, Dallas Eakins was a highly touted head coach who many Leafs fans wanted in charge during and after Randy Carlyle’s tenure in Toronto.
Eakins left the Marlies with a 157-114-41 record in four seasons where he took the team from a losing record to a Calder Cup final appearance in 2012.

The former defenseman’s reign in Edmonton as head coach of the Oilers did not go as he or the club may have hoped and he was fired in December of 2014, less than 18 months into the job.
A 7-19-5 start to the 2014-15 season was the reason for his departure but this was a team who never bought into his defensive systems, despite their obvious frailties in their own zone.

Rumours had been banded about that Eakins was due to take a job in the WHL, with Vancouver Giants specifically, but it was announced via the Twitter account of the San Diego Gulls that he was to take their vacant head coaching position.
In the seemingly cyclical nature of hockey, Anaheim moved their franchise to San Diego from Norfolk, who Dallas Eakins Marlies lost to in the aforementioned Calder Finals (Norfolk were Tampa’s affiliate at that time).

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It will be no easy task for Eakins in his new role for various reasons. Norfolk finished last season with the second least amount of victories in the AHL and were the lowest scorers with a mere 168 goals.
The Pacific Division that San Diego find themselves in might just turn out to be the toughest in the AHL.
Bakersfield Condors (were OKC Barons): A winning record in five years of existence, making playoffs each season.
Ontario Reign (were Manchester Monarchs): Consistently top AHL team and current Calder Champions.
Texas Stars: Former Calder Cup Champions and been a force during last three seasons.
San Antonio Rampage, San Jose Barracuda and Stockton Heat: Each will be a unknown force but have promising rosters for next season.

With expectations so low perhaps this is the perfect job for Dallas Eakins to rebuild his slightly broken reputation, in what is hardly a hotbed of hockey.
I’m sure he’ll have learnt a lot from his experience in Edmonton and will be looking to replicate his previous success in the AHL.

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Your guide to the AHL realignment 2015/16

June 22, 2015

The latest round of changes in the AHL have even the most devout followers of the league in a spin.

Brand new teams, changes of affiliations, switching the league format to four divisions and conference movement, has led to many being confused.

With this article I’ll look to break it down as simply as possible, with an explanation for each individual team and where, (if at all) they will be competing in 2015/16 along with any other details of note.

Albany Devils

A relatively easy one to begin with as the Devils will still be the affiliate of New Jersey and remain in the Eastern Conference. They’ll move from the North-East to the new North division and will be competing against some new foes in the process.

New Jersey Devils – Albany Devils (North Div/East Conf)

Adirondack Flames

The Calgary Flames affiliate will move after just one season as the Flames and will become the Stockton Heat, playing in the newly formed Pacific Division of the Western Conference.

The Calgary organisation acquired the Stockton Thunder ECHL team and will move them to Glen Falls, replacing the Adirondack Flames and they will now be called the Adirondack Thunder.

DEFUNCT: Becoming ECHL team Adirondack Thunder (Calgary Flames affiliate)

Binghamton Senators

The Binghamton Senators remain the affiliate of Ottawa and also stay in the Eastern Conference. They will be shifted into the North Division to compete with variety of different rivals than recent seasons.

Ottawa Senators – Binghamton Senators (North Div/East Conf)

Bridgeport Sound Tigers

The Sound Tigers continue to be the farm team of the New York Islanders, staying in the Eastern Conference but switching to the Atlantic Division. They will however keep their instate rivalry with Hartford, as they too make the switch.

New York Islanders – Bridgeport Sound Tigers (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Charlotte Checkers

Will continue to operate as the Carolina Hurricanes affiliate and will still compete in the Western Conference. Geographically they are the hardest team to position in the league and with other’s switching it was no surprise to see them stay in the West and placed in the newly formed Central Division. The only change should be where the Checkers play their home games as it looks like they are returning to Bojangles’ Coliseum, a venue the team played at up until 2005.

Carolina Hurricanes – Charlotte Checkers (Central Div/West Conf)

Chicago Wolves

Very much like Charlotte, Chicago will remain in the Western Conference and be placed in the Central Division. Still affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, although this season will be the last of the three year agreement between them.

St. Louis Blues – Chicago Wolves (Central Div/West Conf)

Grand Rapids Griffins

The Griffins remain affiliates of the Detroit Red Wings. Staying in the Western Conference, they will join the new Central Division, losing rivals like the Toronto Marlies but will face off against the new Manitoba Moose.

Detroit Red Wings – Grand Rapids Griffins (Central Div/West Conf)

Hamilton Bulldogs

In a deal kept very quiet, the Hamilton Bulldogs will no longer be an AHL team.

The Montreal Canadiens have been affiliated with the Bulldogs since 2002 and bought the franchise from the owner, Michael Andlauer.

Montreal are moving the franchise to St. John’s, where they will become the new IceCaps, replacing the Winnipeg franchise which has now moved to Manitoba.

There will still be hockey in Hamilton as Andlauer purchased the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls and they will take resident at the First Ontario Centre, taking the Bulldogs name.

DEFUNCT: Becoming OHL(CHL) team Hamilton Bulldogs

Hartford Wolf Pack

After having their best season in ten years, Hartford’s re-alignment will barely cause a ripple of change.

They stay in the Eastern Conference and will line up against many familiar faces in the Atlantic Division.

New York Rangers – Hartford Wolf Pack (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Hershey Bears

The longest continuously operating member club in the league will be staying in the Eastern Conference and like Hartford will compete in the Atlantic Division.

Washington Capitals – Hershey Bears (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Iowa Wild

This two year old team will stay in the Western Conference but with a move to the Central Division, will be facing some new foes as only Charlotte follow them across.

Minnesota Wild – Iowa Wild (Central Div/West Conf)

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Lake Erie Monsters

It’ll be more of the same really for the Lake Erie Monsters as they stay put in the West and move to the Central Division where all the former Mid-West team will be competing.

However the Monsters will no longer be associated with the Colorado organisation and instead are now the affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and shall be looking to break their four year playoff drought with a new multi-year agreement.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Lake Erie Monsters (Central Div/West Conf)

Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Lehigh Valley will continue to the Philadelphia Flyers affiliate for the second year of their operation and stay in the Eastern Conference, switching from the defunct East to the Atlantic.

Philadelphia Flyers – Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Manchester Monarchs

The Manchester Monarchs finished their 14-year AHL tenure as Calder Cup champions

The Los Angeles organisation will be switching their two affiliates and the Monarchs will now become an ECHL outfit.

DEFUNCT: Becoming ECHL team Manchester Monarchs (L.A Kings affiliate)

Milwaukee Admirals

Milwaukee will continue to the affiliate of the Nashville Predators, as they have been since 1998. The Admirals stay in the Western conference, switching to the Central Division

Nashville Predators – Milwaukee Admirals (Central Div/West Conf)

Norfolk Admirals

Three years after the winning the Calder Cup (Tampa’s affiliate at the time) Norfolk are being shipped out by the Anaheim Ducks to pastures new.

The Admirals will become the San Diego Gulls, while the Bakersfield Condors, formerly of the ECHL, will be moving to Norfolk, using the Norfolk Admirals name as the ECHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.

DEFUNCT: Becoming ECHL team Norfolk Admirals (Edmonton Oilers affiliate)

Oklahoma City Barons

There will be no hockey in Oklahoma as it stands, with the Edmonton Oilers relocating the Barons to Bakersfield to become a part of the Pacific Division. There are rumours of an ECHL team in Oklahoma (possibly the Blazers) but that wouldn’t be until 2016 at the earliest.

DEFUNCT:

Portland Pirates

Despite numerous unrest in the teams history, Portland will continue as the Pirates but they are no longer affiliated with Arizona (was Phoenix). In the merry-go round that entailed with the announcement of the new Pacific Division, the Florida organisation and Portland were left without dance partners and so the following collaboration entailed. In a deal that will last four seasons, this will be the fifth different NHL affiliation in Portland’s history.

Florida Panthers – Portland Pirates (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Providence Bruins

Same old, same old for Providence, who shall stay in the Atlantic Division and continue to be the affiliate of the Boston Bruins, as they have been since 1992.

Boston Bruins – Providence Bruins (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Rochester Americans

In a move that makes total sense, Rochester are amongst a host of teams switched to the Eastern Conference. The fourth oldest franchise in the AHL will continue to operate as Buffalo’s affiliate.

Buffalo Sabres – Rochester Americans (North Div/East Conf)

Rockford IceHogs

One of the newer franchises in the league ,Rockford will continue to operate in the West but switch to the Central Division. The IceHogs remain Chicago’s affiliate in what has been a profitable collaboration with many players making the step up to play a part in Chicago’s recent Stanley Cup victories.

Chicago Blackhawks – Rockford IceHogs (Central Division/West Conf)

St. John’s IceCaps

The Winnipeg Jets moved their affiliate from St. Johns to Manitoba in a not unexpected move except the final destination. What happened next was a surprise as the Montreal Canadiens, packed up and shipped their affiliate from Hamilton, Ontario to St. Johns for the next two seasons, where they will keep the original IceCaps name but with some colour changes to mirror the NHL club.

Montreal Canadiens – St. John’s IceCaps (North Div/East Conf)

San Antonio Rampage

The Rampage will be one of only two teams to play that last, that help make up the new Pacific Division.

San Antonio second’s stint at Florida’s farm team is officially over and a new affiliation with Colorado Avalanche will come into effect next season in a deal reported to be for five years.

Colorado Avalanche – San Antonio Rampage (Pacific Division/West Conf)

Springfield Falcons

Springfield will have the third different NHL affiliate in their history but yet again it’s not an ideal situation as regards to distance. Following an agreement with Columbus since 2010 (700 miles away), a new deal has been struck to become the farm team of the Arizona Coyotes for three seasons. The 2500 miles distance between the two teams is only bettered by the 3000 between Vancouver Canucks and Utica Comets. The Falcons will stay in the Eastern Conference but there could well be a new jersey design with Columbus having influenced the current one.

Arizona Coyotes – Springfield Falcons (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Syracuse Crunch

Syracuse will continue to operate as Tampa Bay’s affiliate for the fourth season after a short association with the Anaheim Ducks. The Crunch will remain in the East but face some brand new divisional opponents (switched from the WEST) in the north in the shape of Rochester, Toronto and Utica.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Syracuse Crunch (North Div/East Conf)

Texas Stars

The Stars will head to the new Pacific Division to join San Antonio Rampage as the only two existing teams from last season to make up the numbers. Other changes to come are some brand new logo’s and colour scheme’s to closely match their NHL affiliate (Dallas Stars) as now both organisations are owned by Tom Gaglardi.

Dallas Stars – Texas Stars (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Toronto Marlies

The Toronto Marlies have competed in the North Division since the teams inception in 2005 and will continue to do so following the switch to the Eastern Conference.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Toronto Marlies (North Div/East Conf)

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

The three-time Calder Cup finalists remain affiliated to the Pittsburgh Penguins. A no-brainer that they remain in the East and switched to the Atlantic Division.

Pittsburgh Penguins – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Worcester Sharks

The Worcester Sharks are to be know more after San Jose moved their franchise to the new Pacific Division. Despite having a previous AHL team in the form of the Worcester IceCats from 1994-2005, there are currently no plans to host another hockey team of any level in Worcester.

DEFUNCT:

Utica Comets

The 2015 Calder Cup finalists will continue to be the affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.

Utica will follow their fellow North Division rivals from 14/15 into the newly formed North Division, now placed in the East. Vancouver and Utica have the greatest distance between an NHL team and it’s affiliate (3000 miles).

Vancouver Canucks – Utica Comets (North Div/East Conf)

AHL 2015-16

The following six teams will be playing their inaugural AHL seasons.

Bakersfield Condors

The Edmonton Oilers purchased the Norfolk Admirals franchise and have moved it to Bakersfield to replace the ECHL incarnation of the team, keeping the Condors name however.

This will be the first time Bakersfield have hosted an AHL, having previously had twelve seasons in the ECHL and a WCHL team before that.

Edmonton Oilers – Bakersfield Condors (Pacific Div/West Conf)

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Manitoba Moose

It’s a welcome back to the Manitoba Moose, who were a part of the AHL from 2001-2011 as Vancouver’s affiliate. They are the only “new” team not to feature in the Pacific division but the Moose will be headed to the Western Conference. Home games will be played at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre for the foreseeable future. During their previous tenure, Manitoba made the Calder Finals once, but fell to Hershey in five games.

Winnipeg Jets – Manitoba Moose (Central Div/West Conf)

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Ontario Reign

The Los Angeles Kings are switching their two affiliates with the Manchester Monarchs AHL franchise now switching places and leagues with the Ontario Reign. It’s a straight swap as both teams will keep their original names but there will be logo and jersey changes. The Reign will continue to play at the Citizens Business Bank Arena and Calder Cup winning head coach Mike Stothers will still be in command.

Los Angeles Kings – Ontario Reign (Pacific Div/West Conf)

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San Diego Gulls

The San Diego Gulls shall be the affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, with the NHL organisation having moved the franchise from Norfolk, Virginia. This will be the fifth occasion that the Gulls name has been used by a San Diego hockey team with the current WSHL team changing their names to Sabers for next season to accommodate the change. Home games will be played at the Valley View Casino Centre, built in 1966.

Anaheim Ducks – San Diego Gulls (Pacific Div/West Conf)

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San Jose Barracuda

After nine seasons in Worcester, San Jose have moved their AHL franchise closer to home, in fact much closer as the newly formed San Jose Barracuda will play home games in the SAP Centre, current residence of the Sharks. Roy Summer, head coach of the Worcester Sharks for the entirety of their history, will be taking the reigns of the Barracuda.

San Jose Sharks – San Jose Barracuda (Pacific Div/West Conf)

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Stockton Heat

Not even four months into Adirondack’s inaugural season as Calgary’s farm team, it was announced that the NHL organisation would be picking up sticks and moving the franchise to Stockton, California, replacing the ECHL team nicknamed Thunder. After a naming contest it was decided the team in Stockton would be called the Heat and they will play home games at the Stockton Arena, former home of the Thunder.

Calgary Flames – Stockton Heat (Pacific Div/West Conf)

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Below is an alphabetical list of all NHL teams with their AHL affiliates for next season, along with which division and conference they will be competing in.

I hope this is article is of some hope as we enter a new age of the American Hockey League.

Anaheim Ducks – San Diego Gulls (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Arizona Coyotes – Springfield Falcons (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Boston Bruins – Providence Bruins (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Buffalo Sabres – Rochester Americans (North Div/East Conf)

Calgary Flames – Stockton Heat (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Carolina Hurricanes – Charlotte Checkers (Central Div/West Conf)

Chicago Blackhawks – Rockford IceHogs (Central Division/West Conf)

Colorado Avalanche – San Antonio Rampage (Pacific Division/West Conf)

Columbus Blue Jackets – Lake Erie Monsters (Central Div/West Conf)

Dallas Stars – Texas Stars (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Detroit Red Wings – Grand Rapids Griffins (Central Div/West Conf)

Edmonton Oilers – Bakersfield Condors (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Florida Panthers – Portland Pirates (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Los Angeles Kings – Ontario Reign (Pacific Div/West Conf)

Minnesota Wild – Iowa Wild (Central Div/West Conf)

Montreal Canadiens – St. John’s IceCaps (North Div/East Conf)

Nashville Predators – Milwaukee Admirals (Central Div/West Conf)

New Jersey Devils – Albany Devils (North Div/East Conf)

New York Islanders – Bridgeport Sound Tigers (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

New York Rangers – Hartford Wolf Pack (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Ottawa Senators – Binghamton Senators (North Div/East Conf)

Philadelphia Flyers – Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Pittsburgh Penguins – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Tampa Bay Lightning – Syracuse Crunch (North Div/East Conf)

Toronto Maple Leafs – Toronto Marlies (North Div/East Conf)

San Jose Sharks – San Jose Barracuda (Pacific Div/West Conf)

St. Louis Blues – Chicago Wolves (Central Div/West Conf)

Vancouver Canucks – Utica Comets (North Div/East Conf)

Washington Capitals – Hershey Bears (Atlantic Div/East Conf)

Winnipeg Jets – Manitoba Moose (Central Div/West Conf)


Jacob back making his mark

June 20, 2015

On March 4, 2014, Swedish netminder Jacob Markstrom was traded along with Shawn Matthias to Vancouver in a deal that saw Roberto Luongo and Steven Anthony head the other way to the sunshine state.

Markstrom, a 31st overall selection by Florida in 2008, left the organisation after four years with a losing NHL record and less than flattering statistics to boot, having never really established himself.

He would make three starts for Vancouver before the season end, allowing a combined eight goals in two losses but would garner a win on home ice, allowing just a goal on 22 shots against Calgary.

With Vancouver signing Ryan Miller during the summer and preferring Eddie Lack as his number two, Markstrom was to start the season in Utica, a full 3000 miles from Vancouver.

Out of sight out of mind? Well Markstrom made sure that wasn’t the case as he began 2014/15 like a man possessed between the pipes.

He would record four shutouts in his first six games and go eight games unbeaten in regulation to begin the season.

For a man whose AHL win record was only three games above .500, Markstrom responded well to his run being broken(shelled by Rochester for six goals), by winning five of his next six, allowing just six goals in those victories.

The backend of January wasn’t so kind to the Swedish netminder as he endured his worst losing run of the season but a record of 5-2 in February, allowing just thirteen goals during that period, led to a call-up due to injuries in Vancouver.

It was the first of three call-ups in a short space of time for Markstrom, which didn’t begin at all well on his seasonal debut for the Canucks. The visiting San Jose Sharks chased him from the net just 7:45 in, as they tallied three times on just four attempts, with their players admitting afterwards that was their well executed plan. Markstrom would have to wait 19 days for his next start and on March 22, he showed some of the excellent form he’d been exhibiting in Utica, allowing just one goal on 27 shots on the road in Arizona.

It would be back to the AHL and helping the Comets propel themselves to the Western Conference title with a scorching run to finish the season.

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 13: Goalie Jacob Markstrom #35 readies to make a save during NHL action against the Calgary Flames on April 13, 2014 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

 (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Almost inevitably Markstrom’s return resulted in his fifth shutout of the season, repelling a desperate Chicago team on the road. He would go on to win every start to finish the regular season but failed to go the distance in a quite remarkable game in Binghamton. A hit from Kramer on a Utica player in the Comets zone drew a crowd including Markstrom who was ordered back to his net. The fighting continued in front of him and eventually Markstrom dropped the gloves with Binghamton goaltender Peter Manino, who himself was only in net after coming in as relief ten minutes into the game.

With both men ejected, Joacim Eriksson took to the net for Utica but allowed five goals on nine shots as the Comets let slip a late lead to lose in overtime.

Jacob Markstrom would finish the regular season with a record of 22-7-2 and statistics in the top five of all AHL goaltenders.

His play in the playoffs would step up a notch as he helped see off Chicago in the first series that went all the way to five games.

In the two rounds that followed versus Oklahoma and Grand Rapids respectively, Markstrom would record a shutout in the game decider of both series.

In fact through the opening three rounds of the playoffs, only on three occasions did the Swedish goaltender give up more than two goals. Against a top notch Manchester Monarchs in the Calder finals, Markstrom gave everything he had but even he had no answers to the constant firepower of the Los Angeles affiliate as Utica fell in five.

Confidence and belief are such huge characteristics in hockey and no more so than for goaltenders.

Markstrom’s ability to put bad goals or defeats behind him was no better encapsulated than during the first three rounds of the post-season as Utica went 7-0 after recording a loss.

An RFA heading into the summer, Markstrom has certainly done himself no harm in helping Vancouver find a new suitor should they wish to part company. At 25 years old, he’s certainly not reached his peak and for the first time in his North American career he found a level of consistency, albeit in the AHL.

All the talk is that he is ready for the NHL level and having seen him play a great deal this season I don’t disagree with that view.

If Matt Murray was the number one goaltending story in the American Hockey League during 2014/15, Markstrom certainly wasn’t far behind him and it’ll be interesting to see where both ply their trade next season.


Manchester Monarchs clinch the 2015 Calder Cup

June 14, 2015

In what was essentially a very close series between the two best teams during the regular series, it was Manchester’s extra power in front of net that saw them hoist the Calder Cup in five games.

Four of the five games were decided by a single goal as the Manchester Monarchs ended their 14-year AHL tenure with a championship.
The opening two games of the series saw Utica visit Manchester and it was the home team who prevailed on both occasions in overtime.
Despite being heavily out-shot and outplayed at times, Utica twice responded in quick fashion to going a goal behind in game one, scoring just 1:01 after Manchester’s opener and 3:01 after the second, five minutes into the final frame. The Monarchs dominated the four minutes of overtime played and tallied on the fourth attempt as Michael Mersch potted his 13th goal during the playoffs.

Game Two was a far more balanced affair for the most part and the Comets were unfortunate to fall behind after being the better side for the most part during the opening period, as Zach O’Brien struck on the powerplay. Utica responded to tie the game just a minute into the second and there would be no more scoring during regulation. Manchester were on top during the final twenty minutes and then through overtime and perhaps deservedly took the win through Nic Dowd’s goal.

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The series headed to Utica with the Comets needing to register a win to avoid the possibility of being swept at home.
They were given the perfect start as Cal O’Reilly, usually the assist king, scored his first of the post-season inside six minutes. Manchester then lost netminder Jean-Francois Berube to injury and in came Patrick Bartosak. The Czech goaltender faced a barrage from the home team who were being roared on by a fervent and passionate crowd. Their 17 shots during the opening frame would provide a second goal, this time from Aleixandre Grenier but against the run of play Manchester’s Adrian Kempe potted one with 25 seconds to play.
Nicklas Jensen restored the two goal advantage for Utica at 6:18 of the second period but just over a minute later Kempe struck once again. That was as close as Manchester would get however and the scoring was done as both netminders were excellent, especially Markstrom as he backstopped Utica to their first victory of the series.

Game four was perhaps more reminiscent of the way Manchester prefer to play and it certainly wasn’t to Utica’s taste. It was certainly a feisty affair, as tempers flared with 64 penalty minutes accrued.
Sean Backman and Dowd struck within 32 seconds to put Manchester up 2-0 but Utica also put a pair of quick goals(inside five minutes) to ensure a tied game after twenty minutes.
Another rapid double for Manchester early in the second period restored their previous advantage and this time there was no let-up and with 11 seconds remaining in the middle frame they struck a fifth and a killer blow through that man Dowd again.
A sixth goal from Kempe six minutes into the third period saw Markstrom replaced and Utica would only muster a consolation late in the piece as they fell 6-3.

With everything on the line in their last home game of the series whatever the outcome, Utica came out firing but would shoot themselves in the foot. A horrible turnover allowed Kempe to open the scoring at the midway marker of the opening frame and just three minutes later a powerplay tally doubled Manchester’s lead. Whatever the Comets threw at young goaltender Bartosak, the Czech goalie was turning aside in a performance that showed a great deal of poise and promise. His thirteen saves during the middle frame ensured his side’s two goal advantage with twenty minutes left to play.
Both team’s exchanged gilt edge chances and some of the saves made bordered on the ridiculous.
Bartosak’s shutout bid was denied with 15 seconds left on the clock but there wasn’t to be one more comeback from the Comets as Manchester deservedly hung on for the win and the championship.

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(Photo Credit: Manchester Monarchs / Facebook)

Manchester’s dominant firepower did prove the difference as I suggested in my preview and the following guys came up big when required.

Nick Shore put up seven points during the finals with six helpers.
Dowd, Mersch and O’Neill all had five points to their name with the former two also tallying an overtime game winner a piece.
Kempe led his team with four goals, all coming in the final three games of the series.
Jordan Weal was held to just three assists during this series but he was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the MVP in the Calder Cup Playoffs for 10 goals and 12 assists for a league-best 22 points in 19 playoff games.
A special mention must be given to Patrick Bartosak, thrown into this series after the injury to Berube and after a shaky effort in game four at times, he was superb in the decider.

It was a hell of a season for the Utica Comets and they were only defeated by another outstanding team.
I’ll have more to come on the season Comets and the impressive Jacob Markstrom in upcoming articles.

Many congratulations to the Manchester Monarchs on a well earned Calder Cup victory.


Manchester Monarchs v Utica Comets 2015 Calder Cup Final

June 5, 2015

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Utica and Manchester

Well we are due to find out in this years Calder Cup Final as the two number one seeds clash in the shape of the Manchester Monarchs and Utica Comets.
Manchester were the best team during the regular season and have made the Calder Cup final at the 14th attempt, in what will be their final season as an AHL outfit.
On the other side of the coin you have the Utica Comets, just in their second season and on their first playoff run. When you consider the Comets took eleven games to win their first game in franchise history last season, then this is some turnaround.
This will be the first time that teams with two best regular season records will meet in Calder Cup Finals since 2000, when Hartford and Rochester did battle.
Manchester will be aiming to become the 36th team to win the Calder Cup as the regular season champion.

These two teams have never met before and it will be another chalk and cheese match-up as they both have different formula’s to winning.
Manchester are averaging 3.70 goals per game in the playoffs, often getting off to a fast start and leaving opponents trailing in their wake. Tremendous front runners, all eleven playoff victories have been gained by scoring the first goal, while conversely their grand total of three losses so far, saw them fall behind in the process.
The Monarchs have won six straight and after sweeping Hartford, have been able to put their feet up since their last victory on May 27. Home cooking has been the huge key to their success, winning all seven games at the Verizon Wireless Arena but Manchester have become better on the road as they’ve progressed, winning their last four after dropping the first three.

Utica have been pushed to back and beyond to make it this far, needing 18 games to progress to the final. The Comets have been involved in 12 games decided by a solitary game and six needing overtime.
No such dominance at home for Utica who are 6-4 but conversely have a positive 5-3 record on the road. Shutting out their opponents in the last two deciding games to win the series just shows how clutch the Comets have been when everything has been on the line. Utica have shown a capacity for mounting comebacks as well, winning two of seven games when behind after forty minutes should provide a test for Manchester’s front running record. Another feather to the Comets cap is that they are 7-0 after recording a loss.

The Monarchs fire power has been provided in the most part by Jordan Weal, 19 points, Michael Mersch (18) and Brian O’Neill who was the regular season MVP (17). Proving they are more than a two line team, the likes of Sean Backman and Nike Shore stepped up in the last series to provide invaluable offense.

Utica have managed just 43 goals so far but allowed just six less and certainly score by committee with various individuals stepping up at different times. Cal O’Reilly continues to be playmaker extraordinaire with 15 helpers, the most by any skater in the post season. Sven Baertschi, Alexandre Grenier and Alex Friesen have all chipped in while Bobby Sanguinetti continues to provide offense from the blue line. Two of Sanguinetti’s three goals have been game winners, with one in overtime.
Cory Conacher was the MVP for the 2011-12 season and he’ll be looking to win his second championships having been a part of the dominant Norfolk Admirals in 2012.
After scoring 3 goals in his first 39 career AHL Playoff games, Conacher now has three goals in his last four games.

You could certainly argue that Utica hold the aces when it comes to between the pipes as Jacob Markstrom goes head to head with Jean-Francois Berube.
The 23yo Berube has had to wait for his opportunity in the AHL, with this just his second full season.
Jacob Markstrom may only been two years senior than the Monarchs goaltender, but he has far more experience with 50 NHL games and international outings at every level.
The Utica netminder has proved the difference so many times in this playoff run for his team and has outstanding numbers leading into the final (1.87GAA – 0.931sv%). In the last two games to decide the series, Markstrom has shutout the opposition and he was immense in the victory over Grand Rapids earlier this week.

Neither side’s special teams have overly shone during the post-season, though Utica’s penalty kill did a great job of shutting down Grand Rapids powerplay in the last round. With both sides evenly matched in both departments it could well be a crucial key to deciding the series.

There is a Toronto connection between the two coaches, with Mike Stothers and Travis Green both having worn the Maple Leaf during their playing careers.
Manchester’s Stothers is in his first AHL season having previously coached the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors for three years.
Travis Green is also a WHL graduate, with several different roles including assistant coach, assistant general manager and then head coach of the Portland Winterhawks. This is Green’s second season behind the bench with Utica, having been with the franchise since day one.

I find it hard to look beyond the rampant Manchester Monarchs but Utica’s excellent defensive game with Jacob Markstrom in tow, is hard to write off either.
Something has to finally give though and it’s hard to look past Manchester’s potent offense.
We are sure to witness to future NHL stars, especially in the Manchester team, and it’s bound to be an enthralling series and one you can watch for free through AHL Live.
Game 1 – Sat Jun 6 6:00 PM Utica at Manchester
Game 2 – Sun Jun 7 5:00 PM Utica at Manchester
Game 3 – Wed Jun 10 7:00 PM Manchester at Utica
Game 4 – Fri Jun 12 7:00 PM Manchester at Utica
Game 5 – Sat Jun 13 7:00 PM * Manchester at Utica
Game 6 – Tue Jun 16 7:00 PM * Utica at Manchester
Game 7 – Wed Jun 17 7:00 PM * Utica at Manchester


2015 Calder Cup Western Conference Final Preview

May 24, 2015

The best of the west (literally) will meet in the Western Conference final as top seeds Utica Comets will play second seeds Grand Rapids Griffins.

Utica have certainly had to work hard to get to this point, having gone to a deciding game in both series thus far. Finally overcoming Chicago in five games, it was Oklahoma City Barons who pushed Utica all the way and Edmonton’s former affiliate took game one in the fourth period of overtime.

In a series contest that saw five of the seven games decided by a solitary goal, the Comets closed out the Barons 1-0, in a game seven where both goaltenders were fantastic.
It’s no surprise when you consider Utica’s success this season has been down to their fantastic defensive record. Jacob Markstrom had a terrific regular season campaign in his quest to make it back to the NHL full-time and he’s continued that form into the post season with a GAA of 1.85 and a 0.930 save percentage. His play and worth to Utica, was perfectly encapsulated in the game seven victory against OKC, where he recorded a shutout and made some stellar saves as the Barons piled on the pressure late in the third period.

At the other end of the ice, Utica have relied heavily on Alexandre Grenier to lead the way.
All his four goals came in Barons series and included an OT winner in game two and the only goal in game seven. Can you say clutch? With six assists also to his name, Grenier is Utica’s leading point scorer but some familiar names have also come to the party. Cal O’Reilly was an assist machine during the regular season and it’s been no different during his teams playoff run with nine helpers to his name.
Alex Friesen and Sven Baertschi both have eight points while defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti has acquired seven as Utica continue to be a team scoring by committee.

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Grand Rapids Griffins however, have the most potent offense in the West and perhaps the most effective goalscorer in the AHL in the shape of Teemu Pulkkinen. The man with the cannon for a shot has 13 goals ten games with five of those tallied on the man advantage. Teeing up Pulkkinen most often is Andy Miele, who has ten assists to go along with his three tallies. Rookie Tyler Bertuzzi is making a name for himself with six goals, of which four have been the deciders thus far. He’s not the only youngster making hay though as RW Mark Zengerle has eight assists while Andreas Athanasiou and has electric speed has proven potent, no more so than in their first round victory over Toronto.
They’ve also bolstered their ranks by signing 2014 Detroit first round pick, Dylan Larkin to an amateur tryout. The centre man put pen to paper on a entry-level contract with the Red Wings after returning from the (IIHF) World Championship with the United States.

Perhaps Grand Rapids weakest point would be in net as Tom McCollum is certainly no Jacob Markstrom but has played well since game four of the series with Toronto.
He will be sorely tested by a Utica team who have the best shot differential during these 2015 playoffs.
The Griffins got to this point by coming back against Toronto in five games where home advantage finally proved key and then efficiently disposing of a fine Rockford team in just five games, that many, myself included, would be a lot tighter and go further.

The Comets and Griffins met only twice during the regular season, where both won their home games with relative ease. Grand Rapids home form will be key to their chances of making the final, as they’ve yet to lose a game in Michigan, out-scoring opponents 23-11 in the process. As you might expect, Utica’s goal-scoring record is far more reserved, averaging just 2.33 to the Griffins 3.7, but on the flip side only giving up 2.16 goals per game.

It’s the second seeds who also hold sway coming into this series when it comes to special teams.
A powerplay running at 22% with nine powerplay goals in ten games, Grand Rapids have a habit of tallying on the man advantage when it really matters during these playoffs. Utica are averaging a powerplay goal every other game whilst their penalty kill has been beaten ten games in their twelve games. Grand Rapids penalty kill statistics are bolstered a little by facing Toronto’s terrible powerplay but they were a force to be reckoned with during the regular season. Allowing opponents only five powerplay makers so far and less than four opportunities per game to score with the extra man.

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With 600 miles separating the two teams, it’s an “AHL” format for this series with Grand Rapids playing their three home games consecutively after the series opens in Utica. If required, games six and seven will head back to NY state.

Utica were able to quell OKC Barons potent offense in the last round and this series will hang on whether they can do the same thing to Pulkkinen and company. My gut is that this will be a tight series but that Utica’s lack of ability to consistently put the puck in the net might hamper them in their quest to reach the Calder Cup final in just their second season of existence.
In what should be a fascinating battle of styles and match-ups (Markstrom v Pulkkinen for one), my head is saying that the Griffins will be heading back to the finals for the second time in three years.

Western Conference Finals – Series “N” (best-of-7)
1-Utica Comets vs. 2-Grand Rapids Griffins
Game 1 – Sun., May 24 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
Game 2 – Mon., May 25 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
Game 3 – Thu., May 28 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 7:00
Game 4 – Fri., May 29 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sun., May 31 – Utica at Grand Rapids, 5:00
*Game 6 – Tue., June 2 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00
*Game 7 – Wed., June 3 – Grand Rapids at Utica, 7:00


2015 Calder Cup Eastern Conference Final Preview

May 21, 2015

Manchester Monarchs (1) V Hartford Wolfpack (3)

And then there were four.
The best of each conference will be doing battle with some fascinating team and individual match-ups on show.

The first in the East will pitch the AHL’s best team during the regular season, Manchester Monarchs, against the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Manchester have made the playoffs a very impressive twelve times in their 13 years of existence. However, ten times they’ve fallen in the first round despite often being the higher seed.
On the other two playoffs runs, Manchester made the conference final before losing to Hershey on both occasions.
They’ve met the Wolf Pack twice in the post season but the last match-up was as long ago at 2006 and it was Hartford who came up trumps, though both series went to a deciding game.
Hartford has some playoff pedigree having won the Calder Cup back in 2000 but haven’t made this stage since 2004 and this is only their second season back as the HWP after a franchise name change to the Connecticut Whale for 3 years.

The two sides did battle four times during the regular season with Manchester holding the upper hand with three victories. Hartford won the last encounter back on April 4, in the shootout.

Manchester threatened to repeat their old trick of falling in the first round, this time to the Portland Pirates who scraped into the playoffs taking eighth place. The Monarchs blew their opponents out of the water in the first two games, scoring eleven goals, but back in Portland, the Pirates took the honours in a five goal thriller before tying the series by sinking the top seeds 5-0! In a pulsating deciding game, Manchester led 3-0 early in the second period but Portland struck to tie the game after forty minutes. Manchester would pull out the win with two early third periods goals.
Fourth seeds Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins looked like tough opponents but the series ultimately hinged on game one. It took until 4:13 into the third period of overtime to decide the winner and Manchester took that momentum to take a 2-0 series lead the following evening.
WBS won the first game back in their own barn but Manchester proved irresistible, taking the series in five.

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Hartford have had a considerably tougher route to this point, having trailed in both series so far. After the first two encounters were split, first round opponents Providence Bruins took game three in the third period of overtime. A 28 save performance from Yann Danis helped keep the series alive in Providence as the Wolf Pack stole a 2-1 victory and the close nature of these games continued in the decider. Hartford had to come from behind twice, the second time on the powerplay with just 46 seconds remaining in regulation. They would go on to win inside the first five minutes of overtime.
The overtime theme continued in the next round against second seeds Hershey. Despite taking game one in OT, Hershey took a 2-1 series lead in Hartford. The Wolf Pack responded by winning the following evening and won the series with three straight victories including game five in overtime, where they trailed 3-1 after 13 minutes and 4-3 with under four minutes remaining in regulation.

Leading Manchester’s high powered offense will be this season’s MVP Brian O’Neill. At 26 years but only in this third full AHL season, O’Neill put up 80 points during the regular season and has a further eleven through ten playoff games. Jordan Weal has been dynamite during the post-season after his best regular season points tally and the 23yo Centre has ten goals (including four PP markers) and five assists so far. Michael Mersch is having himself quite the rookie season and he’s another to have stepped up his game during the playoffs with thirteen points.
Hartford will be relying on experienced Chris Bourque to light the way offensively. Back in North America after a spell in Russia and the Netherlands, Bourque was a league fifth overall in scoring and is second only in post-season scoring to Jordan Weal.
Oscar Lindberg has proved to be the king of assists during Hartford’s playoff run after a solid (28G/28A) sophomore season. His nine helpers is just one behind Bourque’s tally..
This is the sixth Calder Cup playoff campaign for Chris Mueller and he’s only two points shy of his best ever tally during the post-season. Mueller has been a key cog on Hartford’s powerplay with six of his nine points coming on the man advantage (3G/3A).

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With so much potent offense on show, the difference could be goaltending.
In net for Manchester will be Jean-Francois Berube, who since making his professional debut in 2011, has bounced between the ECHL and AHL, with Martin Jones above him in the pecking order before this season. Although having the best regular season campaign of his career, Berube’s save percentage during the playoffs has been below .900 and he’ll need to be up to his best against an experienced old hand at the other end of the ice. Yann Danis will tend the twine for Hartford, for whom this is his 6th AHL team, having also played for four NHL teams and spent time in the KHL. It’s been a strange season for Danis, who was without a team until signing for Norfolk on a PTO. Suiting just eleven time for the Admirals, again Danis was without a suitor until Hartford came calling, who had first hand of his abilities in the season as he shut them out in a 2-0 Norfolk victory.

Special teams should be a fascinating battle, though neither team owns a spectacular powerplay.
Manchester are running at 15% but have yet to allow a shorthanded goal against. On the other hand, Hartford’s PP is a percentage point higher during the post season but they’ve also allowed four goals to the opposition.
Hartford hold the upper hand when it’s come to penalty killing, over 85% and have put up three goals while down a man, Joey Crabb potting two of those.
Manchester have allowed nine goals while shorthanded at a rate of almost one in four, and will need to stay out of the box as much as possible.

With only 150 miles between the two teams, the format of the series takes on a more standard look that we recognise in a 2-2-1-1-1, with Manchester at home this Thursday and Saturday evening.

The Monarchs have always had so much talent in their ranks and they will never get a better opportunity to make it to the finals and win the Calder Cup for the first time. With so much firepower at their disposable, I’ll take them to edge out Hartford in this series.

Game 1 – Thu May 21 7:00 PM Hartford at Manchester
Game 2 – Sat May 23 7:00 PM Hartford at Manchester
Game 3 – Tue May 26 7:00 PM Manchester at Hartford
Game 4 – Wed May 27 7:00 PM Manchester at Hartford
Game 5 – Sat May 30 7:00 PM * Hartford at Manchester
Game 6 – Sun May 31 7:00 PM * Manchester at Hartford
Game 7 – Tue Jun 2 7:00 PM * Hartford at Manchester


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