It’s that special time of year again when the weather warms up but inside the rink it’s still cold and filled with tension as AHL teams battle for the right to hoist the Calder Cup. As is the case with any season there are some story lines overshadowing others. This year, the main story line is the incredible amount of movement happening. Many teams are playing their last games in their current arenas before finding new homes or switching affiliations. But focusing on the here and now, the AHL playoffs kicked off Wednesday night and here is a look at the Eastern Conference side. The first round is a best of five but all subsequent rounds are best of seven.
#1 Manchester Monarchs vs. #8 Portland Pirates
In their final season in Manchester, the Monarchs wanted to make things count. Where they missed leading the league in points last season by one, they clinched the Kilpatrick Trophy this year with games to spare and finishing with 109 points and the best winning percentage in team history. They also finished with the league leader in points who was named MVP in Brian O’Neill.
The Pirates battled their way into a playoff spot with just a minute to go in their final game of the regular season. After the Falcons finished strong, the Pirates desperately needed a point to slide into the 8th and final playoff spot. They managed to get two points with a 5-4 win against the Sharks as time ticked down for what could have been their final game.
These two teams promise to be an interesting match-up. During the regular season, they met 12 times and competed in something called the “VIP Cup” which awarded a trophy to the winner of the 12 game series. Manchester came out as the clear winners, but the series was filled with goals, close games, and plenty of hard feelings. This playoff series has all the makings of being even more emotionally charged and exciting. Neither teams parent club made the playoffs resulting in having a few extra players around.
#2 Hershey Bears vs. #7 Worcester Sharks
The Hershey Bears have a history of playoff appearances year after year. After finishing 9th and just barely out of the playoffs last season, they were ready to make their presence known once again. Their success seemed to come from a great group of core veterans at forward along with a young goaltender in Philipp Grubauer. However, Grubauer will be unavailable for the start of the playoffs while he plays with the Washington Capitals.
The Worcester Sharks have been a team that could be best described as having two different sides. They have had some really impressive streaks this season where the goals have been flowing freely. Something has just seemed to click for them between their infusion of new faces and those returning. However, they have also had stretches where they could not buy a goal. This will be their last season in Worcester though before the team moves to San Jose and that is sure to play a role.
The teams met four times during the regular season and split the wins but in some very close games. The two teams seemed to match up well against each other despite the difference in ranking. It will likely come down to which version of the Sharks show up as well as how far the Washington Capitals make it in the playoffs as Grubauer has already seen a game (which he won). Conversely, the San Jose Sharks did not make the playoffs and sent a few players back to Worcester.
#3 Hartford Wolfpack vs. #6 Providence Bruins
The Hartford Wolfpack return to the playoffs after having not made it since the 2011-2012 season, when they were known as the Connecticut Whale. Despite having to rotate through a few goaltenders, they finished atop their division and earned a 3rd spot in the playoffs. They also suffered from a lot of rotating skaters, but their core group was solid and managed to lead the team. In his first year back in North America, Chris Bourque led the team in scoring and had a familiar face in his younger brother, Ryan, who has been a staple in Hartford.
The Providence Bruins seemed to be plagued by injuries both in Providence and up in Boston throughout the season. It left them filling holes often but they always seemed to find a way to do it. Although he spent much of his time in Boston, rookie sensation David Pastrnak made his presence known when he was in Providence, scoring 28 points in just 25 AHL games. The Bruins were also led by sophomore forward Alexander Khokhlachev who followed up an impressive rookie campaign. With Boston not making the playoffs, Providence got several players back that could be the difference makers.
The two teams squared off four times during the regular season. Although Providence won the first match, Hartford went on to win the other three, ultimately outscoring the Bruins 11-5 over the four games. However, everything can change in the playoffs. With the addition of faces like Pastrnak and defenseman Zach Trotman to Providence and Hartford not getting players back, things could get interesting. The New York Rangers are currently leading a playoff series against the Penguins.
#4 Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins vs. Syracuse Crunch
It is never wise to credit one player with the success of a team in hockey, but in the case of the Penguins much of their success fell on the shoulders of their rookie goaltender. Matt Murray was named AHL Rookie of the Year as well as Top Goalie. He and Jeff Zatkoff also won the Harry “Hap” Holmes award presented to the team with the fewest goals allowed. The 20-year old had an impressive 1.58 GAA and .941 save percentage amid a Penguins roster dealing with call-ups.
The Syracuse Crunch were led by what some might have considered an unlikely scoring duo. Two small forwards from Quebec led the way. Jonathan Audy-Marchessault has a history of scoring despite his size and came to Syracuse last season in a trade between the Blue Jackets and Lightning. Yanni Gourde was a late season signing for the Lightning last year that has proved his worth this season.
These teams also played each other four times during the season and each game was only decided by a goal, with two going into OT. Syracuse ended up winning three of the four games, but with close games and the added pressure of the playoffs, anything can happen. Despite being in different divisions, there is a definite rivalry between these teams that promises to be interesting to watch.