Saturday, 5 June 2010

Upstart Over Dynasty?

It's rare when a team in their inaugural year in a well-established league plays for that league's championship. There are a number of factors that work against first-year teams, but we're seeing a pretty good Texas Stars team playing in the AHL Calder Cup Final. Their opposition is the battle-tested and dominant Hershey Bears who manhandled the AHL this season en route to a second consecutive berth in the Calder Cup Final. While both teams had excellent seasons, it was Hershey who was the class of the AHL, finishing first overall with 60 wins, 123 points, and the AHL MVP in Keith Aucoin. However, the Calder Cup Final has been anything but par for the course for Hershey as they find themselves down 2-0 against those upstart Texas Stars.

It was tough to determine who would hold the advantage in this series after the two teams did not meet in the AHL regular season. If you went purely by regular season stats, though, the Bears held the advantage in every category: 60 wins vs. 46 wins; 342 goals-for vs. 238 goals-for; 198 goals-against for both teams; Bears' forwards Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux were the only two players to break the 100-point barrier this season.

However, a funny thing happened as the Stars, starting the Calder Cup Final on the road, went into Hershey's Giant Center and took the opening two games by 2-1 and 4-3 scores. Hershey, who had only lost 17 games all season long, find themselves in a serious hole as they travel to Cedar Park, Texas for the next three games in the Calder Cup Final. Just to show how rare a loss at the Giant Center is for Hershey, the Bears had been 37-1-0 before their two losses to the Stars this week!

I'm not sure if Hershey is feeling the effects of rust as they had a lot of time to prepare for the Final, but Texas took it to the home team in the first period of Game One, outshooting the potent Bears offence by a 12-2 margin. Neither team recorded a goal, but Texas showed that they were not going to be intimidated by the AHL's best team and defending Calder Cup Champions.

The biggest star for the Stars right now has to be goaltender Matt Climie. Climie replaced the injured Brent Krahn in the Stars' net in Game Six of the West Division Final against Chicago. Climie not only won that game, but helped Texas knock off the Chicago Wolves in Game Seven on the road. From there, he outdueled Hamilton's Curtis Sanford at the opposite end of the ice to help the Stars knock off the Hamilton Bulldogs by a 4-3 series margin. In 12 games, Climie has a 7-3 record, a 2.51 GAA, and an impressive .923 save percentage.

Dallas Stars' rookie Jamie Benn was sent down to the AHL Stars at the end of the NHL regular season, and he's making a major push to become the AHL Calder Cup MVP. Benn has been tearing up the offensive zone in the playoffs, recording 11 goals and 14 assists in 20 playoff games. Benn's 25 points means he's been in on approximately 40% of Texas' offence, showing that his NHL experience this past season has paid off in spades.

Hershey, on the other hand, find themselves trailing in a playoff series for the first time this postseason, and the first time since the 2008 Division Semi-Finals against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Where Hershey has shown an amazing offensive ability to score goals seemingly at will, the Texas Stars have shown that they can skate with the Bears by limiting their chances. It was suggested in some circles that the Bears' offensive prowess would carry them to a second straight AHL Championship, but the Stars are demonstrating that a good defence can defeat a great offence.

Defencemen Andrew Hutchinson, Dan Jancevski, and Maxime Fortunus are a combined +33 in the playoffs! Now that's a defensive presence! In fact, all seven defencemen on Texas' roster bring a combined +30 to the table! Only Trevor Ludwig and Garrett Stafford are playing in the minus region right now at -3. That's some great attention to detail in the defensive zone!

I hardly am one, however, to count the defending Calder Cup Champions out of the game. Hershey came into Manitoba last season and took two of three games to win the Calder Cup, so they know how to win on the road. Hershey needs to clamp down defensively, though, as Game Two was lost on a goal with 46 seconds remaining in the third period. Those kinds of mistakes have to end if the Bears want to repeat as champions.

All in all, it appears the next few games in the Lone Star State should be entertaining. And if Texas can win two of three, they can skate the Calder Cup around the ice at Cedar Park Center in their first year - something that hasn't been done in a long time in the AHL. For the Dallas Stars, the future looks bright, but the job isn't done yet.

Game Three goes Monday June 7, Game Four is on June 9, and Game Five - if necessary - is on June 11. If you're in or around the Austin, Texas area, get out and support the Stars in their run for the Calder Cup!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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