The Hershey Bears (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The farm teams for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals will square off for the main prize as the AHL celebrates its 80th season. Expect a hot series between two markets that have been very historically successful. And you can watch it all for free…
The first time AHL teams from Cleveland and Hershey played in a Calder Cup final was 75 years ago, when the Barons beat the Bears in five games. Now, during the league's 80th anniversary celebrations, the Cleveland-based Lake Erie Monsters will try to take the glory over Hershey again – but it won't be easy.
The Calder Cup begins in Hershey on Wednesday and the entire series will be available to watch for free online. While the times for Games 3-5 have not been released yet, here's the schedule so far. Lake Erie is the farm team for the Columbus Blue Jackets, while Hershey reps the Washington Capitals.
Now let's get to the fun stuff.
Hershey comes in as the Eastern Conference champs, easily pushing aside the Toronto Marlies in the semifinal. The Bears play with a lot of poise under coach Troy Mann and have received big contributions from their veterans. Netminder Justin Peters has two shutouts and a 1.95 goals-against average through 16 games, while journeyman pro Carter Camper leads the team in scoring with 15 points in 17 games. Chris Bourque has also been pretty clutch. The team cycles the puck well and the penalty-kill has been very good, with four shorthanded goals vs. 10 power play goals surrendered.
But the Bears aren't just about the older guys. Left winger Jakub Vrana has looked excellent of late, using his wicked shot and a surprisingly strong frame to put up 13 points for Hershey, while Madison Bowey has been punishing on the back end. Bowey and fellow rookie pro defenseman Christian Djoos have also chipped in with some timely offense, with Djoos earning first-star honors in the final game against Toronto thanks to two points in a 3-2 win.
Vrana and Bowey ranked 2-3 among Washington prospects in THN's Future Watch this year, with only KHL goalie Ilya Samsonov surpassing them. Vrana ranked 22nd among all NHL prospects, while Bowey came in at No. 54 overall.
The Monsters rely a bit more on their younger players and can really burn opponents with their speed and skill, particularly since star defenseman Zach Werenski joined the team late in the year. Werenski, Columbus' top gem and the sixth overall NHL prospect in Future Watch, is a breakout machine thanks to his puckhandling and offensive acumen. The former Michigan Wolverine ranks second in playoff scoring among D-men with 11 points in 13 games. Not coincidentally, Lake Erie has the best power play of any team that got out of the first round, clicking at a 22.2 percent clip.
But there's more youth making noise, too. Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand and especially big Josh Anderson have been great for Lake Erie during this playoff run and it is interesting to see how many of the Monsters played for Columbus' prospect team at the Traverse City pre-season tournament. The Blue Jackets squad won the eight-team showdown for the second straight year and it's not hard to see that this group has a lot of confidence when they're together. Lukas Sedlak was not in Traverse City, but the 23-year-old center leads the Monsters in scoring nonetheless with 13 points in as many games.
While Lake Erie has two good goalies in Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg, it was Forsberg who iced the Ontario Reign in the Western Conference final after Korpisalo faltered in the final two games against Grand Rapids the round before. Forsberg is undefeated in five post-season decisions and boasts an AHL-best .955 save percentage.
The Bears and Monsters did not play each other during the regular season, so this will be a very fresh series. Hershey won the Atlantic Division, while Lake Erie finished second in the Central. Cleveland last hoisted the Calder Cup in 1964 thanks to the old Barons and the city has won nine titles overall. Hershey last won the chalice in 2010, going back-to-back from 2009, and has 10 titles overall.