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.
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).
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