Alexandre Giroux had 78 points in 70 games for Oklahoma City this season. (Photo courtesy Steven Christy/Oklahoma City Barons)
Playoff time has arrived in the American League.
The Hershey Bears are bidding to become the second team in AHL history to win three consecutive Calder Cup championships. The Bears took out a stubborn Texas Stars club last June and will match the 1960-1962 Springfield Indians should they skate away with another Calder Cup this June.
Here is a look at the AHL playoff field…
WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON (117 PTS) vs. NORFOLK (93 PTS)
The Penguins possess remarkable scoring depth (12 players hit the double-digit mark in goals this season) and netminder Brad Thiessen won the AHL’s top goaltending honors. Norfolk tied for second in the AHL in goals with 265 and is the first full Tampa Bay affiliate to reach the Calder Cup playoffs. The teams waged a bitter season series with the Pens taking the final five games from the Admirals.
Prediction: Penguins in five games - Anything the Admirals can do, the Penguins can do better.
HERSHEY (100 PTS) vs. CHARLOTTE (97 PTS)
The Bears bring experience, a deep talent base, grit and the AHL’s most intimidating home-ice advantage. Hershey has won eight consecutive series, a league record. Injuries and recalls hampered the Bears this season, if a 100-point season can be considered hampered. Watch out for Andrew Gordon, Keith Aucoin, Kyle Greentree and Brian Willsie. Charlotte tied Norfolk for second in AHL scoring. Hershey would be wise to stay out of the penalty box and away from Charlotte’s third-ranked power play. Charlotte’s Justin Pogge desperately needs to put forth a strong playoff effort in his bid to remain on the NHL radar.
Prediction: Bears in seven games - Charlotte can score, but so can Hershey and the Bears also can play defense. But the Checkers will not go quietly.
PORTLAND (103 PTS) vs. CONNECTICUT (88 PTS)
The Pirates rang up an AHL-best 280 goals this season, but the Whale were defensively solid. Streaky all season long, Connecticut did not close out the regular season particularly well. Portland is without top netminder Jhonas Enroth. Leading scorer Mark Mancari’s absence is a big hit to the Pirates lineup. Connecticut played Portland tough all season, taking five of eight games with the Portland power play struggling mightily against the Whale. The Pirates have largely been playoff busts as the Buffalo Sabres affiliate, so a strong playoff run is needed this spring.
Prediction: Pirates in six games - Connecticut is just too unpredictable and Portland’s scoring will overwhelm.
MANCHESTER (98 PTS) vs. BINGHAMTON (92 PTS)
The Monarchs long ago placed themselves in a comfortable position in the very weak Atlantic Division and spent much of the season beating up on softies Bridgeport and Springfield. But Manchester did not finish strong, while the Senators were engaged in a playoff fight until the final week of the season. Binghamton possesses AHL MVP Corey Locke and perhaps the best defenseman in the circuit in Andre Benoit. Binghamton owns the top power play in the league, but will go up against the fourth-ranked Manchester penalty kill.
Prediction: Senators in five games - Binghamton is on a mission this spring.
MILWAUKEE (102 PTS) vs. TEXAS (92 PTS)
For a team that won the Western Conference, the Admirals certainly drew an unfavorable opponent. Somewhat similar teams, both clubs rely on a defense-first approach, strong goaltending and high-quality bluelines. Texas won five of six meetings this season, allowing just seven goals and the Admirals have won only one of their past six playoff series.
Prediction: Stars in six games - Matchups matter most in the playoffs and the Stars match up nicely against Milwaukee.
HAMILTON (97 PTS) vs. OKLAHOMA CITY (91 PTS)
Hamilton is an annual springtime fixture, while Edmonton’s farmhands in Oklahoma City represent the first full Oilers affiliate to reach the playoffs since 2004. Goaltender Drew MacIntyre, acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers organization in February, saved the Bulldogs’ season after Curtis Sanford went down with an injury. Nigel Dawes, Dustin Boyd and Aaron Palushaj are an offensive force that can match any trio in the AHL. The Barons’ Colin MacDonald led the AHL with 42 goals and the club has received a slew of NHL-tested Oilers, including Linus Omark, Ryan O’Marra, Jeff Petry, Chris Vande Velde and Teemu Hartikainen. Bryan Helmer and Alex Giroux are flat-out winners.
Prediction: Barons in seven games - MacIntyre had a heavy workload to close the season and will have his hands full with offensively gifted Oklahoma City.
HOUSTON (98 PTS) vs. PEORIA (92 PTS)
The Aeros’ roster does not rank amongst the AHL’s most shiny and impressive, but all Houston does is go out and win games. Coach Mike Yeo did a masterful job in his first season running an AHL bench. Peoria boasts a dominant blueline and a proven veteran power forward in Graham Mink. Dean Arsene, Nathan Oystrick and Mink all are Calder Cup winners. Rookie goaltenders in Peoria’s Jake Allen and Houston’s Matt Hackett make up the storyline in the crease. Both clubs have strong power plays, but the Rivermen’s penalty-kill also excelled this season.
Prediction: Rivermen in seven games - The Aeros will not disappear quietly, but the Rivermen had a strong season series and Peoria’s veteran experience is among the AHL’s best.
LAKE ERIE (96 PTS) vs. MANITOBA (93 PTS)
This space’s pre-season pick to represent the Western Conference in the Calder Cup final, the Moose were plagued by injuries, recalls and inconsistency all year. Lake Erie, meanwhile, staged a late-season run and blasted its way upward through the Western Conference. The Moose, expected to be a scoring force this season, had to remake themselves into a defensively oriented club mid-way through the season. Rookie goaltender Eddie Lack impressed, but inconsistency was an issue for much of the rest of the club. With Cody Hodgson in Vancouver, who will score? The Monsters are as deep as any club in net, have nice scoring depth and a solid blueline.
Prediction: Monsters in five games - The Moose backed into the playoffs; the Monsters crashed the playoff party.
CALDER CUP FINAL PREDICTION: PENGUINS over BARONS.
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.