The Hershey Bears and Lake Erie Monsters will fight for the right to hoist the Calder Cup.
Both teams have certainly earned their way to the 2016 final, with each having defeated the number one seeds in their respective conference’s.
Hershey will hold home advantage having accrued one more point (43-21-5-7/ 98pts) during the regular season than Lake Erie.
The Bears have had a far tougher ride to this point than the Monsters, having being pushed all the way in the opening two rounds.
Somewhat surprisingly pushed to five games by Portland in the first round, Hershey had to come from behind twice to proceed.
Less of a surprise was an all the way, momentum-swinging, seven game series with old foes Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Penguins.
A brutal encounter, in which Hershey enjoyed had a slice or luck of two, set them up for a Conference Final with the all-conquering Toronto Marlies.
It didn’t turn out to be the contest expected however as the Bears played to their very best, whilst the Marlies were way below the form that saw them clinch the regular season title.
Homework had clearly been done by the Washington affiliate and was backed up by their top players all performing, especially Justin Peters between the pipes. They were certainly extremely good value for a 4-1 series win, attained with victory in Toronto.
This will be the fifth time in 11 seasons that Hershey have contested the Calder Cup final but the first for head coach Troy Mann.
Hershey’s success has been driven by a small but every effective group of offensive players, excellently led by AHL MVP Chris Bourque.
It’s another old hand who leads the way in points production however, as Carter Camper has 15 points through 17 outings. Rookie Jakub Vrana is showing why Washington drafted him with seven goals, though that number could be double figures if taking more of his opportunities against Toronto.
Zach Sill had himself quite the series against the Marlies and has attained eight points along with Dustin Gazley and rookie Travis Boyd.
Aaron Ness has registered nine assists from the blue line, with Christian Djoos the next best defensive producer with a pair of goals and two helpers.
There is little doubt Justin Peters will be a vital cog for the Bears.
He’s taken the reigns from Dan Ellis and has an 11-5 record through the post-season.
Two shutouts, a 1.95GAA and 0.929SV% for Peters, made more impressive having faced two of the best offensive teams in the Eastern Conference.
It’s somewhat of a fairytale story as far as Lake Erie are concerned.
In eight previous seasons of existence, the Monsters had only made the post-season on one occasion and fell in the first round in doing so.
The Calder Cup Finals will return to the city of Cleveland for the first time in 50 years, since the Cleveland Barons made their 14th and final appearance in 1966.
In their first season affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets and head coach Jared Bednar at the helm, Lake Erie look set to emulate the success of the Cleveland Barons before them.
In the first round, Rockford were swept in three games, with the Monsters scoring 15 times in the process.
Divisional rivals Grand Rapids provided a sterner test, requiring six games to down their foes and suffering their only two playoff defeats thus far.
Many pundits, myself included, though Lake Erie would give Ontario Reign a run for their money.
What nobody could have foreseen was a sweep however.
Lake Erie won both games in Ontario by a single goal, scoring seven against a defensively strong Reign outfit.
Back in Cleveland, the Monsters won 4-0 before clinching the series in double overtime.
Lukas Sedlack is leading the charge offensively, atop post-season scoring with eight goals, the last of which was the OT game winner in game four versus Ontario.
Josh Anderson is next best with seven goals, including a hat-trick in the opening round.
Rookie defenseman Zach Werenski is also making a huge impact.
The eight overall draft selection in 2015 has recorded eleven points from the blue line, of which two of his goals have been game winners.
Oliver Bjorkstrand is another of the young guns to impressive with five goals and as many assists.
The right winger is certainly not shy of shooting the puck and it’s paid dividends during a very good rookie campaign.
Just one of the Broadhurst brother remains with the Monsters and Alex is providing veteran leadership with ten points. As is Ryan Craig who has responded well during the post-season after an unusually unproductive regular season for him.
Goaltending had been a tale of two halves for Lake Erie during the playoffs.
Rookie net minder Joonas Korpisalo was given the reigns and won six straight games.
Things came unstuck against Grand Rapids, losing consecutive outings and then pulled twenty minutes into his next start, having allowed three goals on nine shots.
The more experienced Anton Forsberg came in and shut the door, allowing Lake Erie to clinch the series in overtime and he’s now the starter heading into the final.
Just seven goals against for Forsberg, a 5-0 record, one shutout and 0.955 save percentage to boot.
With these teams not having faced one another during the regular season, scouting and readjustment will be key factors to success.
Lake Erie did not face Ontario during the regular season either but received A+ for homework as they worked out the Western Conference team from the get-go.
With plenty of time to look at potential opponents in Toronto or Hershey, there’s little doubt they have the edge in preparation.
Special teams are always important and it appears the Monsters may hold the upper hand.
The Monsters power play has scored on twelve occasions at a frequency above 22%.
Hershey’s penalty kill may be a strong part of their game but the amount of chances they give up (averaging 4.4 per game) will surely come back to bite them at some point.
The Bears will certainly require their feeble powerplay (12%) to step up on what’s it’s been capable of thus far.
Hershey’s home form has been crucial to their progress, with just a 0.500 road record.
The Bears are 7-2 at the Giant Center, having won five straight games.
The Monsters have suffered defeat just twice during the post-season. Overall records are 5-1 at home and 6-1 on their travels.
Lake Erie have won all three games going the extra distance and are certainly better rested heading into game one (Wednesday June 1st) having not played since May 26.
It’s been a difficult post-season to make predictions but mine for this series is Lake Erie to win the Calder Cup in five games.
I believe they are an all-round better team than Hershey and play a brand of defensively sound hockey that could nullify Hershey’s greatest asset.
The Calder Cup will be broadcast free of cost on AHL Live, just an account required to log into.
2016 Calder Cup Finals (best-of-seven)
Game 1 – Wed., June 1 – Lake Erie at Hershey, 7:00
Game 2 – Fri., June 3 – Lake Erie at Hershey, 7:00
Game 3 – Mon., June 6 – Hershey at Lake Erie, 7:00
Game 4 – Sat., June 11 – Hershey at Lake Erie, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sun., June 12 – Hershey at Lake Erie, 6:00
*Game 6 – Tue., June 14 – Lake Erie at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 7 – Fri., June 17 – Lake Erie at Hershey, 7:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern