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


European NHL Fans could be left in lurch once more

May 18, 2015

Back in 2011 European Ice Hockey fans were frustrated with the NHL’s lack of correspondence and haste, regarding a television deal to broadcast live games. A deal was finally hashed late in the day with middle-men AMI/Medge Consulting, who then sold the rights to individual countries.

It wasn’t an ideal result for many fans in differing countries, all suffering varying issues with their individual providers, but once again NHL hockey was going to be available on television after the ESPN contract had expired.
The five year deal signed was reported at being worth anything up to $22 million a season, almost double the previous yearly contracts with ESPN America/NASN.

As reported by Bryan Koenig of Law360, Washington, it’s a deal that could end abruptly.
I won’t post the entire article below but quote the important pieces.

“The National Hockey League on Thursday checked a Swedish media company in New York state court, saying it put at least $22.5 million in owed licensing fees on ice in a breach of a contract to distribute games in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway.
Medge Consulting AB stopped making payments in the middle of the 2013-14 season, the NHL alleged in its complaint, despite still owing at least $2.5 million for the remaining season and another $10 million per season for the agreed 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons.
The NHL also alleged that even when Medge made the payments for distribution rights in the so-called Nordic countries, they were always months late and required substantial follow-up.”

For this current season the NHL also alleges it hasn’t received a single payment from Medge, when an initial fee should have been paid back in September.

“The contract called for Medge to pay up to 75 percent of the $10 million-per-season Nordic licensing fee by Sept. 1 of the applicable season and the remaining 25 percent by Jan. 1, according to the complaint. The contract also pegged any legal dispute to New York courts, the NHL said.”

“Medge made the first payment for the 2013-14 season but not the second, and it has also refused to hand over fees it collected from sub licensee Viasat Broadcasting UK Ltd., the NHL alleged. After excoriating Medge for the money, the NHL ultimately terminated the agreement in a Nov. 17, 2014, letter that also once again demanded payment, it said.”

A termination letter was sent on December 18 (horrifying news for us fans) by the NHL and “Medge erroneously denied that it breached the [contract] by claiming that the NHL was in breach because it purportedly failed to deliver rights to Medge in relation to a World Cup and other unspecified properties,” the NHL said.
There was no World Cup during the contract period and the contract didn’t call for one to be held, the league said, asserting that it has upheld all of its obligations under the bargain.”

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There has been no comment from Medge over these mind boggling revelations but it’s clear that the NHL is at it’s wits end and wants to be paid what is due and ASAP.
There is still one year left on the five year contract which runs until the completion of the 2015/16 season, but at this point it’s hard to see this obligation being completed, assuming that the NHL has the power to pull the plug, and you wouldn’t assume otherwise.
Although this relates only to the Nordic countries, you can’t help but be concerned for the other countries that AMI and Medge sell into. The two companies are separate entities as such but contract’s are complicated beasts and you wonder if this breach (if confirmed by the courts) could affect the whole deal if monies aren’t paid.

I’m specifically concerned that Medge brought up rights in relation “to a World Cup and other unspecified properties,” because the latter would not have even been on the negotiating table back in 2011.
It does not fill me with confidence and once again the fate of an NHL television deal in Europe is in doubt as we head into another summer.

I shall try and keep you informed of the developments as best I can and I would like to thank Rob Smith and Kevin Hayles for pointing me in the direction of this latest news.
If you’ve any questions, information or any news you would like to put my way, please do via a comment here or you can find me on Twitter, where my handle is @MarkUkLeaf.

Let us hope this is not a situation which quickly goes downhill and leaves us in the same predicament as 2011.


Abbott revelling in Rockford

May 17, 2015

Sometimes no matter how hard you strive or achieve in sports, certain circumstances just aren’t meant to be.

You could argue that case for former Toronto Marlie Spencer Abbott, who was traded for the first time in his career this season.

Abbott had a spectacular 2013/14 for the Maple Leafs affiliate, which ironically started in the worst way possible for the right winger.

Called up to the Leafs, Abbott would make his NHL debut on October 5, 2013, in a come from behind shootout win for Toronto in their home opener. The former University of Maine graduate received just five minutes of ice-time however, was a minus two and would never be called upon by Randy Carlyle despite being one of the AHL’s elite player in the month’s to follow.

Abbott was sent straight back to Ricoh the following day and recorded a single assist in a 5-1 victory over Lake Erie, that began a 13 game point streak to start the season for him (1G/18A).

Just his second year in professional hockey went from strength-to-strength, recording 18 multi-point games in accumulating 16 goals and 52 assists for 69 points.

Finishing seventh in all skaters for points accrued, all those above him played more games, as injury curtailed the end of the regular season for Abbott.

Abbott would miss Toronto’s first playoff series but returned for the second round sweep of Chicago, where he tallied three points.

He then did as much as anyone during the in the Conference Final series against Texas, putting up eight points including a hat-trick but it wasn’t to be with a late collapse in the deciding seventh game to the eventual Calder Cup Champions.

The former Hobey Baker nominee must have come into the 2014 camp with much optimism but he barely received a glance from the Leafs top brass and was sent to the Marlies before many other young players and rookies.

That must have been a dagger blow for a man lauded by the Toronto organisation the season before and he never really looked the same player. His struggles mirrored those of the Marlies as the team struggled to string wins together and by the turn of the year Abbott had 16 in 29 games with just one multi-point effort for a forward known for match winning efforts and star performances the season before.

You don’t become a bad player overnight and February 26, 2015, would prove the turnaround date for Abbott, as Chicago traded him in exchange for a former team-mate in T.J Brennan. The two had combined so brilliantly the season before and I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on the pair of them.

Spencer Abbott Rockford

Immediately sent down to Rockford, Abbott was carrying a slight injury at the time of the trade and would have to wait until March 6, to make his debut. Surely determined to make an impact, he did more than that with a goal and an assist in his first time in Rockford colours and proceeded to put up three multi-point games in his first five outings and was at PPG pace through his first ten games.

Abbott would suit up 19 times the end of the 14/15 regular season and only be held off the score sheet on six occasions. His six game point streak helped Rockford clinch the fourth playoff berth and finish only a point behind divisional rivals Grand Rapids.

His 21 points for Rockford may not have been a surprise but the face that twelve of those were goals would be, as the at times reluctant shooter was finding the net with regularity.

Abbott kept his run of form heading into the post-season and his pair of powerplay markers helped Rockford come from behind to defeat Texas in game one. Having swept the Calder Cup holders, Rockford are currently engaged in battle with the Grand Rapids Griffins and although they’ve found life tough, Abbott has tried to do his part, and is second in points for the IceHogs as they look to stay alive in the series in the upcoming game five.

A UFA heading into the summer, Abbott has certainly given himself the best opportunity to gain a new contract, whether that be in North America or a new adventure.

 


AHL Western Conference Semi-Finals 2015

May 4, 2015

It’s back to a best of seven for the semi-finals and both encounters feature a team that swept and the other who were taken all the way to five games.

1-Utica Comets vs. 6-Oklahoma City Barons

Top seeds Utica were never behind in their first round series but had to win two in overtime to put out Chicago, who failed to progress for the first time in eight years.

Showing the qualities from the regular season, the Comets only allowed two goals on average per game, as once again Jacob Markstrom gave his team a chance to win.

They will face 6th seeds Oklahoma City Barons, who caused the first upset by sweeping San Antonio.

Scoring nine goals in their first two games, OKC mounted a terrific comeback in game two before clinching in overtime. Game three would also be decided in extra hockey, although in a far tighter game which saw just three goals.

The Barons relied on some familiar names to in the first round as Ryan Hamilton scored three goals, Matthew Ford registered four points and Andrew Miller three. Rookie centre man Connor Jones also chipped in with two goals.

Utica’s assist king Cal O’Reilly was back in business with seven helpers while Sven Baertschi has flourished since the trade and put up five points in just three games. His rookie partner Hunter Shinkaruk had three points and offensive defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti had a pair of goals and assists.

Brendan Gaunce could be a man to watch as after being dropped for games three and four, he put home the series winner in game five and most likely has a fire in his belly to prove the coach wrong.

Both teams had success with the man advantage, especially Oklahoma who were firing like they had done back before Christmas, tallying at 35%. Utica’s PP running at over 20% is not to be sniffed at but surprising their penalty kill gave up four goals on 25 attempts.

The two teams met just twice during the regular season. OKC claiming a 1-0 OT win at home in December and losing the reverse fixture 4-2 in March, but at a time when the Barons roster was still severely depleted.

In what will be a real clash of styles, the series will be decided by the clash between the Barons offensive power and Utica’s excellent blue line and goaltending.

I slightly favour the firepower and the experience of OKC, who will be looking to split the initial series in Utica this coming Thursday.

Prediction: OKC Barons in six

Game 1 – Thu., May 7 – Oklahoma City at Utica, 7:00

Game 2 – Fri., May 8 – Oklahoma City at Utica, 7:00

Game 3 – Mon., May 11 – Utica at Oklahoma City, 8:00

Game 4 – Wed., May 13 – Utica at Oklahoma City, 8:00

*Game 5 – Thu., May 14 – Utica at Oklahoma City, 8:00

*Game 6 – Mon., May 18 – Oklahoma City at Utica, 7:00

*Game 7 – Wed., May 20 – Oklahoma City at Utica, 7:00

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2-Grand Rapids Griffins vs. 4-Rockford IceHogs

The 2013 champions and second seeds will be looking to harness home advantage in what looks an incredibly tight match-up on paper. Grand Rapids lost the two opening games to Toronto in the first round before roaring back to win every game at the Van Andel Arena to take the series in five.

In a high scoring series, it was Grand Rapids special teams that turned the balance more often than not.

In somewhat of a surprise, Rockford swept the defending Calder Cup Champions, twice scoring four goals in Texas to take the opening two games before returning home to clinch the series in overtime.

These Midwest divisional rivals finished just a point apart during the regular season (100 and 99 respectively) and in meeting eight times, split the series. The lowest scoring encounter between them during the regular season saw three goals so I think we can expect some exciting games.

Grand Rapids were bolstered with the addition of Teemu Pulkkinen and he found the twine six times as his dominance in the AHL continued. Andy Miele also put up six points while impressive rookies Andreas Athanasiou (4G/1A) and Mark Zengerle (5) both put up five points. Secondary goal scoring came in the form of Nosek, Bertuzzi and Aubry tallying two goals each.

Centreman Phillip Danault led the way for Rockford with a pair of goals and assists, while new addition Spencer Abbott put up three points, with his two goals both powerplay markers. Secondary scoring came from Brandon Mashinter, Peter Regin and two rookie defenseman in the shape of Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka, with all garnering three points in the opening round.

These two teams match-up so well in every category that it’s almost impossible to pick a winner and despite Grand Rapids impressive home record, Rockford know how to win in that building. The difference could be in goaltending, where I still don’t particularly rate Grand Rapids duo and is probably their weakest aspect. Michael Leighton was stellar in the first round for Rockford and if he keeps up a similar vein of form then that could swing this in favour of the fourth seeds.

Prediction: Rockford in six

Game 1 – Wed., May 6 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00

Game 2 – Fri., May 8 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00

Game 3 – Wed., May 13 – Grand Rapids at Rockford, 8:00

Game 4 – Thu., May 14 – Grand Rapids at Rockford, 8:00

*Game 5 – Sun., May 17 – Grand Rapids at Rockford, 5:00

*Game 6 – Tue., May 19 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00

*Game 7 – Wed., May 20 – Rockford at Grand Rapids, 7:00

 


Calder Cup Western Conference Quarterfinal Previews 2015

April 22, 2015

The 2015 Calder Cup playoffs are here and there is no better time of the year.

The Western Conference Quarterfinal’s will be contested by five of the teams that fought it out last year, including the current holders, Texas Stars.

The first round is a best of five, with the higher seed choosing which way they would like to have their home advantage.

Interestingly on this occasion, each lower seed will begin with two home games before the series switches to the arena of the higher seed for a possible three games. I wonder how many higher seeds may regret that decision if they trail 2-0 heading back home.

1-Utica Comets vs. 8-Chicago Wolves

This is the match-up of the young upstarts against the old hands, with Utica’s first shot at the playoffs in their second season of existence, while

Chicago are looking to repeat their 2008 Calder Cup victory.

The two sides faced four times during the regular season and although Utica won convincingly in the last encounter, it’s Chicago who held sway with three victories(one in OT).

Utica led the North Division from the get-go but only reached the pinnacle of the Western Conference with a terrific late run of form which saw them finish 13-1-1-1.

Chicago never reached the heights of last season when they finished second in the league and only really cemented a playoff berth with a seven game win streak at the end of march into early April.

Both teams are equally matched as regards special teams and perhaps the biggest key to this series is who get’s their nose in front.

Through the regular season, both teams records winning leading after the first and second period were extremely impressive and frankly frightening.

If Utica do hold an edge, it’s probably in net where they can call on the services of Jacob Markstrom, who is back from Vancouver with Ryan Miller now fit.

The Comets hold the second best defensive record in the West and it’s likely to be crucial to any success they are likely to have. Chicago’s road record this season is actually better than form at home and being the 8th seed, this may actually help them.

A tough series to weigh up, as they all are, I’m slightly favouring Utica.

Prediction: Utica to win in five

Game 1 – Wed., Apr. 22 – Utica at Chicago, 8:00

Game 2 – Fri., Apr. 24 – Utica at Chicago, 8:00

Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 29 – Chicago at Utica, 7:00

*Game 4 – Fri., May 1 – Chicago at Utica, 7:00

*Game 5 – Sat., May 2 – Chicago at Utica, 7:00

2-Grand Rapids Griffins vs. 7-Toronto Marlies

Grand Rapids catapulted themselves to the Midwest Division title with a quite incredible 19 game point streak. Up until that point, they were a team on the fringes of the playoffs, as call-ups and injuries had taken their toll.

The Griffins were the highest scorers in the entire league during regulation play but will be missing leading goalscorer Teemu Pulkkinen in this opening round. Also missing will be Landon Ferraro and netminder Petr Mrazek, both were mainstays during the Griffins Calder Cup victory in 2013.

Grand Rapids held sway with Toronto during the four encounters in the regular season and blasted 19 goals in winning three games.

They weren’t all one sided affairs as the scoreline may suggest and Toronto are the team on the up. The Marlies were rock bottom of the Western Conference on December 1, but clawed their way back with some excellent even strength play, clinching a playoff berth with two games to spare.

The special teams battle will be a critical one as far as the seventh seeds are concerned, as they struggled with both aspects throughout the entire season.

Toronto have now reached the playoffs for four straight seasons and in each of the last three campaigns they’ve only lost to the eventual champions, including Grand Rapids in 2013. The Griffins fell short of defending their championship by losing to champions elect Texas last year and will be hungry to regain the title.

This series will ultimately come down to how well Toronto defend and if they can rely on the excellent goaltending they’ve had this season.

My loyalties are obviously towards Toronto but I have a feeling that the Marlies may well pull this out the bag, with confidence high after a seven game win streak to end the season.

Prediction: Toronto in four

Game 1 – Sat., Apr. 25 – Grand Rapids at Toronto, 3:00

Game 2 – Sun., Apr. 26 – Grand Rapids at Toronto, 3:00

Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 29 – Toronto at Grand Rapids, 7:00

*Game 4 – Sat., May 2 – Toronto at Grand Rapids, 7:00

*Game 5 – Sun., May 3 – Toronto at Grand Rapids, 5:00

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3-San Antonio Rampage vs. 6-Oklahoma City Barons

San Antonio are back in the playoffs after two barren seasons, where they played well below .500 hockey. The second highest scorers in the conference may well have been the number one seeds had they not finished with a 0-2-2-0 record but I don’t think they’ll be too upset at facing OKC in the first round.

The two teams have met twelve times already this season and despite half of those games being decided in overtime or the shootout, the Rampage hold a 9-1-0-2 record against their opponents.

The last time San Antonio made the post season, they faced OKC in the second round but fell by four games to one, and that’s the furthest they’ve ever been in the quest for the Calder Cup.

This is the farewell tour for Oklahoma City Barons, as they will cease to be no more after this post season. In their four years of existence they’ve made the playoffs on every occasion and reached the conference finals twice. OKC rather fell into a playoff spot, no doubt thankful for an impressive start to the season which saw them leading the standards for a long time.

Injuries and call-ups left them with a bare a roster as you can imagine, even at one point having to sign Brampton Beast (CHL) players on PTO’s to play a game in Toronto. For the playoffs they will have some reinforcements back and some of their injury worries have been lessened.

OKC have excellent special teams which should give them a chance to compete but I imagine this to be a very high scoring series between two side that have lots of goals in them.

My heart says OKC, my head goes for San Antonio.

Prediction: San Antonio in five

Game 1 – Thu., Apr. 23 – San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 8:00

Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 25 – San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 8:00

Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 29 – Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 8:00

*Game 4 – Fri., May 1 – Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 8:30

*Game 5 – Sat., May 2 – Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 8:00

4-Rockford IceHogs vs. 5-Texas Stars

Rockford are back in the playoffs after four barren seasons. Before that they had made the playoffs for three straights year but never progressed beyond the second round, where ironically is the last time they played Texas, losing the series 4-0.

The IceHogs hold the best defensive record in the Western Conference, which will doubtless be tested by a potent Texas offense.

Rockford held sway during regular season meetings between the two teams, winning all four games, though three were decided by a solitary goal. With Chicago looking good in the NHL playoffs, there will be no goaltending help in the form of Scott Darling, while Texas will have a full roster to choose from with Dallas eliminated. Rockford score by committee and will doubtless hope recent addition Spencer Abbott keeps up his incredible scoring rate since his arrival late in the season.

Texas Stars are the reigning Calder Cup Champions and will be looking to made their third finals appearance in just six years of existence.

they still have players from last seasons successful campaign, including Maxime Fortunus and that experience will be their biggest asset. Texas will rely on Travis Morin to lead the offense and it’s likely that Jussi Rynnas will start between the pipes. Texas had to push relatively hard to make the post season towards the backend of the season, but an 11-3 stretch for four weeks from mid March

saw them clinch fifth spot.

I believe that holding sway through the regular season and home advantage(24-9-4-1 during reg season) will favour Rockford as they eliminate the champs.

Prediction: Rockford in four

Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 24 – Rockford at Texas, 8:30

Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 25 – Rockford at Texas, 8:00

Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 29 – Texas at Rockford, 8:00

*Game 4 – Fri., May 1 – Texas at Rockford, 8:00

*Game 5 – Sat., May 2 – Texas at Rockford, 8:00

 


Team GB’s Olympic Ice Hockey Dream

March 29, 2015

During the Ice Hockey qualification tournament for the 2014 Winter Olympics, GB Men’s team came as close as they have done in recent history by making the last phase.

Facing Latvia (11), France (14) and Kazakhstan (17) was never going to be an easy task however and despite some promising moments, GB lost all three games and hosts Latvia won the group.

I’m sure we can remember how they fared in the Winter Olympics, winning a host of fans and admirers along the way.

All teams, bar the hosts and eight top seeds, will learn later this year which qualifying group they will placed in for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, Korea.

This makes the upcoming 2015 IIHF World Championship’s even more important, as the rankings for this year will decide all seeds for the Olympics.

GB will be contesting Division I Group B in Eindhoven, Netherlands, facing the 25th ranked hosts along with Korea(23), Croatia(28), Lithuania(26) and Estonia(29).

Great Britain will be the highest raked team, currently 22nd in the world and there should be high hopes for a medal of some colour at the very least.

Even a Gold medal and promotion would be unlikely to see them jump high enough to avoid Pre-Qualification but the ambition to host the group as the top seed for PQ should be motivation enough to do well.

Olympic qualifying

GB will have a new coach in the shape of Peter Russell, his first time taking charge of the Men’s national team. Russell is Great Britain’s most successful junior coach and has won four gold’s, one silver and two bronze medals in 11 tournaments in charge of GB U20s and GB U18s.

His experience in these tournaments will doubtless hold him in good stead, while his determined and no nonsense coaching style will hold all players responsible for their actions. That’s something we’ve not seen from recent GB Men’s teams, who despite competing well at times, have lacked discipline when it really mattered and it‘s cost them dearly.

After being relegated in 2013 from Div. I Group A, having lost all five games and scoring just five times, GB finished fourth in this division last year, winning three and losing.

Russell has named a squad of 31 heading into two friendly international fixtures against Poland, 9-10 April, with the final 23 being announced shortly afterwards

The new coach tends to do things his way, not listening to calls from media or fans, for this player or that, and there are some interesting selections.

Back in come Russell Cowley and Craig Peacock, the latter had to miss the last World Championships through injury, while Matty Davies and David Clarke both miss out this time due to that reason.

The influx of younger players is perhaps the most controversy but most encouraging in my opinion.

Former GB U20 players in Josh Batch, James Griffin, Matt Haywood, Tom Murdy, Sam Oakford, Jack Prince, Joey Lewis and Liam Stewart are in the 31, as in Jonathan Boxill who was an U18 representative.

Hopefully in the run-up to the Olympic qualification in 2016, some more young talent can come through as GB start to showcase more promising young players and have success with their junior teams.

The U18’s have been contesting Div II Group A in recent times and after recording just four victories in the previous three years, finishing fourth on each occasion, just this weekend they took a step forward by winning bronze.

The U20 side is also on the rise having been relegated in 2012 from Div. I Group A.

The following year saw them win just one game but survive relegation before hosting their group in 2014 and making great strides forward.

They would have to beat Japan in the last game to make sure of survival but in earlier games had only lost to eventual Gold medallists Italy in overtime and beaten Bronze medallists France in a shootout.

Despite being relegated due to fielding an eligible player, 2015 saw them gain promotion immediately, winning every game, taken to overtime on just one occasion.

Great Britain haven’t looked as strong in depth of Men’s hockey for a long while and there should be some real optimism moving forward into these world championships and then the Olympic qualification phase.

World Championship (Division 1B) Eindhoven, 13th to 19th April 2015

13 Apr Great Britain v Croatia

14 Apr, Estonia v Great Britain

16 Apr, Korea v Great Britain

18 Apr, Great Britain v Netherlands

19 Apr, Lithuania v Great Britain

GB INITIAL 31-MAN SQUAD

Josh Batch – Cardiff Devils

Chris Blight – Dundee Stars

Jonathan Boxill – Nottingham Panthers

Ben Bowns – Cardiff Devils

Russell Cowley – Coventry Blaze

Ben Davies – Braehead Clan

Robert Dowd – Sheffield Steelers

Robert Farmer – Nottingham Panthers

Mark Garside – Belfast Giants

James Griffin – Coventry Blaze

Matt Haywood – Braehead Clan

Robert Lachowicz – Nottingham Panthers

Stephen Lee – Nottingham Panthers

Joey Lewis- EC Bad Tolz

Stevie Lyle – Swindon Wildcats

Sam McCluskey – Dundee Stars

Tom Murdy- Telford Tigers

Stephen Murphy – Belfast Giants

Matthew Myers – Cardiff Devils

Sam Oakford – Nottingham Panthers

Ben O’Connor – Sheffield Steelers

Craig Peacock – Belfast Giants

David Phillips – Belfast Giants

Jonathan Phillips – Sheffield Steelers

Jack Prince – University of Alabama-Huntsville

Mark Richardson – Cardiff Devils

Colin Shields – Belfast Giants

Liam Stewart – Spokane Chiefs

Paul Swindlehurst – Dundee Stars

Ashley Tait – Coventry Blaze

Jonathan Weaver – Telford Tigers

 


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