Wednesday, 27 May 2009

AHL Calder Cup Similarities

The Manitoba Moose and the Hershey Bears will square off Saturday in Game One for the AHL's biggest prize in the Calder Cup. Both teams have been impressive this season, and it will be hard to predict a victor based on stats alone. Hershey and Manitoba didn't meet at all this year in the regular season, so we can't even base a prediction on their head-to-head meetings. I will, however, throw out random stats that may show an advantage one way or another. Really, though, the only thing that matters is the play on the ice, and both teams have played extremely well this season.

The Eastern Conference Champion Hershey Bears roll into the Calder Cup Final as the third-overall team in the AHL regular season. They finished behind the Milwaukee Admirals and Manitoba Moose in the overall rankings, but still posted a very impressive record of 49-23-2-6 for 106 points. They tied with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in terms of points, but had more goals-for and less overtime losses this season, so the Bears were officially the "Beasts of the East".

In the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Bears kicked things off against the Philadelphia Phantoms, but the series didn't last long. Hershey swept through Philly, outscoring them 14-6 in four games.

In their second series, they met up with their rivals in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. WBS and Hershey had an epic battle through five games where the Baby Penguins staked themselves to a 3-2 series lead. However, Hershey goaltender Michal Neuvirth decided that home ice belonged to him, and absolutely owned the Penguins' shooters in the final two games by posting a shutout in each game to close out the series in seven games. Coincidentally, the home team in this series won each game, showing how important home ice is in the playoffs when battling an upstart opponent.

The third round saw the Bears meet up with the other Bear-based team name in the Providence Bruins. Providence capitalized on a tired Hershey team in Game One, but it was all Hershey after that game. The Bears eliminated the Bruins in five games, setting them up for their third trip to the Calder Cup Final in four years.

The Western Conference Champion Manitoba Moose enter their first Calder Cup Final in franchise history on the heels of their most successful regular season to date. The Moose were the only team to win 50 games this season, posting a record of 50-23-1-6 for 107 points. Their 50 wins allowed them to capture the AHL's Regular Season Champion accolade as they scored one more win than the Milwaukee Admirals who also finished the season with 107 points.

Their opening round series against the Toronto Marlies was not as easy as one may have suspected. The Marlies played stubborn, physical hockey, and were tied with the Moose 2-2 as they prepared for Game Five. The Moose dominated Game Five's scoresheet, and the brawl that erupted at the end of the game proved that these two teams are not fond of each other whatsoever. The Moose eliminated the Marlies in six games to advance to the second round.

It was here that the Moose ran into long-time IHL and AHL rival in the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Griffins used their powerful offence to knock off the Hamilton Bulldogs, so the Moose had to be ready. And they were. The Moose handed down a four-game sweep to eliminate the Griffins, holding their potent offensive stars to a mere five goals in the series. This advanced the Moose to their graveyard - the Western Conference Final.

No Moose team had advanced past this point. In fact, the last time they reached the conference final, they were swept out, meaning they had yet to even win a game in the AHL Western Conference Final. Surprisingly, the Moose met up with the Houston Aeros who had eliminated the high-flying Milwaukee Admirals in the previous round. The Moose jumped out to a 3-0 series lead before the plucky Aeros took the next two games in overtime. However, Manitoba closed out the series at home in Game Six, and book their tickets for their first trip to the Calder Cup Final.

So how do these two teams stack up against one another? Very closely if you look at the statistical analysis.

  • In the playoffs, both Michal Neuvirth and Cory Schneider have identical statistics while guarding the twine. Manitoba's Schneider has a slightly better record at 12-3 with a 2.03 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He's only allowed 32 goals-against in his 15 games. Neuvirth, on the hand, is 12-4 with a 2.03 GAA and a .929 save percentage. He has only allowed 33 goals in the postseason thus far. The only major stat that is different is shutouts - Neuvirth leads 3-0 in that category.
  • Hershey's Alexandre Giroux is second in playoff scoring right now with nine goals and 11 assists. Jason Krog, Manitoba's leading scorer, is sitting in third for playoff scoring with seven goals and 11 assists.
  • Giroux is second in playoff goal-scoring with his nine goals. Krog and teammate Michael Grabner are tied for fourth in playoff goal-scoring with seven apiece.
  • Hershey's Keith Aucoin leads the way in assists. He has three goals and 13 assists thus far, and teammate Giroux is right behind him with 11 helpers. Krog, as stated above, has 11 assists for the Moose.
  • Defenceman Bryan Helmer of the Bears is tied for fourth in playoff scoring for defencemen. His three goals and five assists puts him (and three others) one point ahead of Moose defenceman Mark Fistric who has recorded two goals and five assists thus far.
  • Hershey sent four players to the AHL All-Star Game this season - Bryan Helmer, Alexandre Giroux, Keith Aucoin, and Chris Bourque. The Moose only sent two - Jason Krog and goaltender Cory Schneider.
  • Bob Woods and Mark French, head coach and assistant coach of the Bears, respectively, coached the Canadian All-Star team in that game. However, AHL Coach of the Year honours went to Moose head coach Scott Arniel in leading his team to the best record in the league.
  • The Hershey Bears led the way in terms of fan attendance this season, averaging approximately 9000 fans per game. The Moose were second in this stat this season, averaging approximately 7700 fans per game. As I said above for Hershey, home ice can be a huge advantage for teams, and the top-two teams in attendance are playing for the Calder Cup. Any correlation?
  • Hershey is vying for its AHL-best 10th Calder Cup while appearing in 21st Calder Cup in franchise history, while the Moose are looking for their first in their first appearance. While it's extremely rare for players to carry over in the AHL from championship team to championship team with the turnover in players, the Moose do have the defending AHL Playoff MVP in Jason Krog playing for them. History vs. playoff experience?
  • Neuvirth and Schneider have been outstanding in guarding the nets, but both men have quality, capable backups with NHL experience waiting if they falter. Neuvirth is backed up Simeon Varlamov, the same guy who just about beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Behind Schneider is Curtis Sanford, Roberto Luongo's backup in Vancouver before the acquisition of Jason LaBarbera.
So what does this all mean? I'm hoping it means a very exciting, up-tempo, high-scoring series between the two best teams from either conference. If you're an AHL fan, this has to excite you. Rarely do the two best teams from either conference meet in the final in hockey. And this has all the makings to be a classic series between high-powered teams set on winning the AHL's biggest prize.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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