All four teams saw impressive success over the regular seasons as the top-two teams from each conference will play for a berth in the Calder Cup Final. In the East, the Norfolk Admirals finished the season on a 28-game winning streak to enter the playoffs, and they used that streak to end the season with 113 points - far and away the best record of any team in the AHL. However, the IceCaps finished second in the conference with 94 points in capturing the Atlantic Division crown in their first season back on the Rock.
In the West, the Oklahoma City Barons paced themselves through the course of the season to the best record and 99 points. The battle for first place in the conference didn't come easy, though, as the Toronto Marlies were gunning for top spot until the final weekend. Toronto did finish second in the conference with 96 points, so it would appear that these two teams are very evenly matched in their upcoming series.
The key in both of these series is that there have been contributors who appears to be ready to make the next step in their hockey careers. There have also been some good veteran players who have shown the younger players how to take the next step in their AHL careers, and these men could be the players that an NHL team needs on a third- or fourth-line role. We'll go through the teams and look at the key competitors that got each team to the conference final series.
NORFOLK ADMIRALS: While Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson were key cogs in the regular season, the Admirals have been getting big contributions from Alexandre Picard and Alex Killorn. Picard, a former eighth-overall pick from the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, has posted six goals and six assists in ten games. Killorn, an AHL rookie, has three goals and eight assists in ten games. Much like they received in the regular season, Norfolk has received outstanding goaltending from the tandem of Jaroslav Janus and Dustin Tokarski. Janus is 3-1 with a 1.69 GAA while Tokarski is 4-2 with a 2.40 GAA. Defence and timely goal-scoring are winning games for the Admirals thus far.
ST. JOHN'S ICECAPS: While St. John's has no point-per-game players, they are getting scoring from a number of sources. Brock Trotter is atop the leaderboard with five goals and five assists, Aaron Gagnon has one less assist, defencemen Derek Meech and Paul Postma both have eight points, and both Ben Maxwell and Spencer Machacek have seven points apiece. Eddie Pasquale is the only goaltender of note in the playoffs for the IceCaps, and he's recorded a 7-4 record with a 2.22 GAA. The IceCaps are much deeper than a one-line team, and they have shown to have the goaltending to back up their offensive defencemen.
OKLAHOMA CITY BARONS: Mark Arcobello and Ryan Keller have been leading the way for the Barons with eleven and nine points, respectively. Teemu Hartikainen and Magnus Paajarvi have six points each, so the Barons who saw a lot of time with the Oilers last season are also contributing. Much like the regular season, the strength in OKC comes from the blue paint. Yann Danis continued his great year with some impressive numbers in the playoffs thus far as he's posted a 7-2 record with a sparkling 2.02 GAA as the only goaltender of record for the Barons. There aren't many holes in the Barons' defensive set and goaltending, and they are riding that wave of success.
TORONTO MARLIES: Toronto has played the least amount of games in the playoffs thus far, appearing in just eight postseason contests. Jerry D'Amigo has been instrumental in the team's success as he leads the way with nine points, but Nazim Kadri - a player a lot of Leafs fans think should be playing in the NHL already - is leaving his mark with eight points in the playoffs. Matt Frattin has a solid seven points after spending a large chunk of the season with the Maple Leafs, and Mike Zigomanis is winning faceoffs and scoring key points just as he did when he played in the NHL. Ben Scrivens, who got a starting position late in the season for the Leafs, has shown why the Leafs are so high on his game. Scrivens has gone 7-1 with a spectacular 1.61 GAA. Toronto is winning games with the best defensive coverage in the AHL, and they look to continue that in the conference final.
In looking at the series, I believe that St. John's and Toronto will prevail.
St. John's may have gone 1-3 in the regular season against Norfolk, but after a 6-2 drubbing in November, the IceCaps went 1-2 in the remaining three games, being outscored 5-4. These two teams are a lot closer than their regular season records give them credit for, and I feel that this series will be decided by who makes less mistakes with the puck. The scoring-by-committee by the IceCaps makes them slightly more dangerous than Norfolk at this point, and it may come down to whether Norfolk can get solid goaltending throughout the entire series. Janus has been incredible, but it appears that Tokarski is the goaltender that Norfolk will rely upon to start this series. If the IceCaps can rattle Tokarski, that could turn the series very quickly.
Toronto and Oklahoma City split the two games that they played during the regular season, and the total goals scored were 3-3. These teams finished the season just three points apart, so this will be a tooth-and-nail battle in every game as neither team gives up many goals. Scrivens and the Marlies' defensive unit, however, has been lights-out with a lead, so Barons cannot afford to get behind in any game. If they do, the Marlies seem content winning 2-1 or 3-2 without breaking a sweat. I like what head coach Dallas Eakins is doing in Toronto, and I think he has the personnel to make it to the Calder Cup Final this year.
Of course, I could be totally wrong, and that's fine. If I am wrong, all bets are off and refunds for this information are 100% guaranteed! Overall, though, it looks like a great set of conference finals in the Calder Cup Playoffs this season, and that should reap rewards for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and Toronto Maple Leafs if they continue to develop players as they are. Well done to the four finalists!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!