The American Hockey League regular season is quickly drawing to a close with just under two weeks to go. Each team only has 4-7 games remaining on their schedule before the sixteen top teams get set to battle for the Calder Cup. With so little time left, the games are heating up for those that are battling to make it to the post season. This past weekend saw the first set of teams clinch playoff berths. Here is a look at how the playoff picture is shaping up.
The Springfield Falcons got off to an impressive start this season in the East. After missing the playoffs for 9 straight seasons, and having a winning percentage of .500 or better only twice in that time, this was definitely a team that was a surprise. Even after losing a number of players when the lockout ended, the Falcons continued to show what they were made of. Brad Larsen leads the team in his first year as head coach after having spent the prior two seasons as the assistant. Not only did he lead the team to their first playoff berth since the 2002-2003 season, but they also became the first team to clinch their division. That had not been done in Springfield since the 1997-1998 season.
The Syracuse Crunch also clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference over the weekend. This was a team that did not surprise as many people. After starting the season 10-2-1-1, the Crunch seemed unstoppable. The prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning won last year’s Calder Cup while in Norfolk. However, the Lightning switched their affiliation in the off-season and the Syracuse Crunch were happy to pick right up. Although they have trailed off a bit, the Crunch are still atop their division and have clinched a playoff spot. If they are able to clinch the division title as well, it will likely take until the end of the season. Division rivals, the Binghamton Senators, have also clinched a spot in the post season. Only two points separate the teams with the same number of games played. They are also set to play on the last day of the season in what could be a very important game to determine seeding.
Additionally, in the Eastern Conference, the Providence Bruins clinched their first playoff berth since the 2008-2009 season. Prior to that season, the Bruins had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The Bruins started the season slowly, just 4-6-0-1 but have really picked up the pace since then. They are now 44-21-0-5 with the most points and most wins in the league. They have heated up at just the right time, but still have to face the Falcons twice before the season ends in battles that will likely become important in determining who wins the Conference.
Over in the Western Conference, only one team has clinched a berth so far. The Texas stars are only in their fourth season in the league and have made the playoffs three out of the four seasons. This season, second year forward, Matt Fraser who is currently in the NHL with Dallas, has led the Stars with 33 goals. Although the Texas Stars have had a lot of call-ups to contend with, they remain atop their division and conference. Their next two games are against the Charlotte Checkers, who are in second place in the same division.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are three teams that have already seen themselves mathematically eliminated from the post season. The Hamilton Bulldogs are missing the playoffs and finishing with a win percentage below .500 for the second straight season. They are currently last in the league in points. Also in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Rampage will miss the playoffs. They made a run last season, but had missed the three seasons prior to that. Finally, in the Eastern Conference, the Adirondack Phantoms will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. They have yet to see the post season.
With four spots up for grabs in the Eastern Conference and seven still unclaimed in the Western Conference, every game for teams in the hunt becomes important. The AHL schedule resumes on Tuesday with 3 games. As in most seasons, this season’s playoff race will probably come down to the last day of play. On April 21st, the pool of 30 teams will be reduced down to the 16 teams that get to continue past the regular season. Then the battle starts to be the last team standing for the Calder Cup.