Robin Lehner backstopped the Binghamton Senators to the Calder Cup and won MVP honors for his efforts. (Photo by JustSports Photography)
The American League concluded 75 years of play this week and one of its flagship cities made some history of its own.
The Binghamton Senators completed an unlikely journey to the Calder Cup on Tuesday by taking out the Houston Aeros in six games, delivering the small New York State city its first Calder Cup. The championship is the first for an Ottawa affiliate since the NHL club’s inaugural 1992-93 season.
Led by playoff MVP Robin Lehner and snipers Ryan Potulny, Bobby Butler, Kaspars Daugavins and captain Ryan Keller, the Senators capped off the spring in fine fashion with a blend of experience and young talent that included Jared Cowen taking an important role on the club’s blueline.
Binghamton fans had not seen their local AHL club reach the Calder Cup final since 1982 when the former Whalers were defeated by the New Brunswick Hawks. Since then, local fans had been teased by the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, who posted the most regular-season points in AHL history with 124 only to be eliminated in the second round, and the loaded 2004-05 NHL lockout season team led by Jason Spezza, Anton Volchenkov and Ray Emery that self-imploded in a first-round playoff loss.
Along the way, Binghamton fans also experienced painful lows. The 1989-90 Whalers’ mark of 31 points still stands as the fewest points by an AHL club in one season. The Rangers left town for Connecticut in 1997, leaving the city without AHL hockey for five years before Ottawa established a working agreement with the town in 2002. Most recently, Binghamton went five seasons without a playoff appearance before this spring’s return visit.
The Senators had some inspiration for Game 6 after chest pains sent assistant coach Steve Stirling to the hospital. Stirling underwent quadruple bypass surgery and missed the Cup-clinching victory in Houston.
The Calder Cup victory caps a long walk in the minor-league wilderness for top Ottawa affiliates. The 1992-93 New Haven Senators managed a meager 55 points before the club headed to Prince Edward Island for a three-year stint. Shared affiliation agreements with other NHL clubs followed before a brief International League stint for Ottawa farmhands eventually led the NHL Senators to Binghamton, a small city four hours south of Ottawa.
Nothing comes easy for Binghamton fans, however. Despite a busy off-season and the addition of new upbeat coach Kurt Kleinendorst, the Senators found themselves in a stacked East Division populated by the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who finished atop the AHL with 117 points. The Senators squeaked into the post-season by qualifying for the Eastern Conference’s crossover playoff slot with 92 points.
Binghamton, bolstered by the addition of its young prospects that had seen some late-season ice time in Ottawa and the trade deadline acquisition of Potulny, found itself in a 3-1 series first-round hole to the Manchester Monarchs. The Senators, however, rattled off three consecutive overtime victories to snatch the series.
An impressive second-round handling of a strong Portland Pirates team followed and set up an Eastern Conference final match-up with the Charlotte Checkers. Charlotte itself had stormed through the conference by taking out Hershey and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in consecutive rounds in a most impressive fashion.
The Senators, however, blew out the Checkers in a masterful and thoroughly dominating four-game sweep to set up the city’s first trip back to the Calder Cup in 29 years.
A Houston club that had racked up impressive series wins over Peoria, Milwaukee and Hamilton awaited the Sens in the final. The clubs split the first two games in Texas before the Binghamton took two of the next three games on home ice to set up Tuesday’s Game 6 in Houston.
The 19-year-old Lehner began the post-season in a backup role to veteran Barry Brust, who had anchored the Binghamton net for most of the regular season. But when Brust sputtered against Manchester, Lehner took over the net in Game 5 and steered the ship from that point forward, including a 51-save performance in Game 6 against the Monarchs.
Lehner went on to deliver a 14-4 record to go with his 2.10 goals-against average and .939 save percentage that also included three shutouts along the way.
Potulny delivered 14 goals, which tied him for the lead among all AHL playoff scorers with Hamilton’s Nigel Dawes, while Butler followed closely with 13 goals. Veteran off-season additions Andre Benoit and Geoff Kinrade held together a Binghamton blueline that featured 12 defensemen seeing action during the post-season.
For the second time in a row, a Keller goal wrapped up a series for the Senators. Keller’s third-period tally in Game 6 against the Aeros completed a third-period come-from-behind rally that put the Aeros away for good.
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.