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The final four

Aaron Palushaj recorded 57 points in 68 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs this season. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Aaron Palushaj recorded 57 points in 68 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs this season. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Most years, the Calder Cup playoffs are anything but predictable and this spring ranks among the most topsy-turvy post-seasons in the circuit’s 75-year history.

The top four clubs in the regular season - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Portland, Milwaukee and Hershey - are finished until next October and a healthy dose of new blood has livened up the final push to the Calder Cup.

The Eastern Conference final begins Thursday night when Charlotte hosts Binghamton, while Hamilton and Houston begin the Western Conference final Friday. Here is a look at the remaining four clubs.

BINGHAMTON SENATORS

When Binghamton fans last sampled playoff hockey, it left them with a terrible aftertaste following a six-game loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2005. This season’s Senators have begun to exorcise some of those playoffs ghosts. Rookie goaltender Robin Lehner has stepped back into the Binghamton crease and helped. Trade deadline acquisition Ryan Potulny, a true veteran NHL-AHL ‘tweener,’ leads the AHL in playoff scoring. A group that will figure prominently in Ottawa’s rebuilding plans, one that includes Bobby Butler, Patrick Wiercioch and Jared Cowen, are all part of the Binghamton post-season run.

CHARLOTTE CHECKERS

The Carolina Hurricanes decision to relocate their top affiliate closer to home has been a major success. Along the way, Canes prospects with the Charlotte Checkers have righted some past failings. Seen by many as being much too irresponsible on the defensive side of the puck during the regular season, the Checkers clamped down and took out Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in consecutive rounds. The Checkers rank first in the playoffs on the penalty kill and their 2.25 goals-against average places the club third among playoff teams. Of course, the Checkers have not abandoned their bread-and-butter scoring style. Down 3-0 in the third period of Game 6 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Checkers devastated the AHL’s top goalie, Brad Thiessen, with four goals in just nine minutes to take the series. A top Carolina affiliate has not advanced to the third round of the playoffs since the Cincinnati Cyclones did so in the International League back in 2000.

HAMILTON BULLDOGS

The Bulldogs are the old standby of AHL post-season play and ice at Copps Coliseum in May is a Hamilton tradition. The Bulldogs have advanced to the conference final in five of the past 10 springs, though this year’s march to the third round was not without its ruts for Randy Cunneyworth’s group. The Bulldogs needed triple overtime in Game 7 of their second round battle with Manitoba to finally put away the Moose. Deadline acquisition Drew MacIntyre has sparkled in net and has been a tremendous workhorse, having played 34 consecutive games since arriving in Hamilton. The club’s top line of Dustin Boyd, Nigel Dawes and Aaron Palushaj has been remarkably potent. Can the Bulldogs atone for a third round collapse last spring and advance to the Calder Cup final?

HOUSTON AEROS

A true collection of spare parts that have all blended quite nicely into a well-oiled machine, the Aeros have been impressive this post-season. Behind rookie goaltender Matt Hackett, the Aeros stunned a strong Peoria club in a first round sweep and then took out a legitimate Calder Cup contender in the Milwaukee Admirals over a grueling seven-game series. Now the Aeros and their rookie coach, Mike Yeo, have Houston in their second Western Conference final in three years. The Aeros are a resilient group and have three overtime wins so far this post-season.

From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.

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