I just noticed that I didn’t do a Report Card this season for the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins. That frees up the week leading into the Calder Cup Playoffs where I can stretch things out into each day with new content and give each conference it’s own look. Today with the Western Conference and Wednesday with the Eastern Conference. My own series preview with the Penguins and Checkers will be here on Thursday before Game 1 Friday.
Much like last year, I give you how each team got here, how they match up and new this year, what each team needs to do to win. Finally, I offer a prediction.
But for Rockford, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee, the Penguins didn’t play any of these teams. Milwaukee is the only team Wilkes-Barre played that didn’t make playoffs. The Pens didn’t play any one in the Pacific Division so naturally, let’s start there. Here goes nothing…
Tucson Roadrunners (P1) vs. San Jose Barracuda (P4)
How the Roadrunners got here: Stayed consistent in a division that had comers and goers. Carter Camper came over in a midseason trade and helped solidify Tucson as contenders and a guy by the name of rookie Hunter Miska was 22-9 in net for the Roadrunners.
How the Barracuda got here: Used a miracle run in the final weeks of the season to overcome a 10 point deficit and won six straight while San Diego choked away the final spot to squeak in on the penultimate day of the regular season.
How they match up: 5-2-0-1 if you are a San Jose fan and 3-4-1-0 if you are a Tucson fan. So not a walk in the park by any means for the Western Conference Champion Roadrunners and a great matchup for the San Jose Barracuda who finished the season on a tear.
How Tucson wins: Keep doing what they have been doing. Seems easy, but these are the playoffs and the margin for error is razor thin.
How San Jose wins: The, “us against the world” mentality has to continue here. San Jose shouldn’t even be here, they know it, everyone knows it, yet here they are.
Prediction: Roadrunners survive the scare. Tucson in five.
Texas Stars (P2) vs. Ontario Reign (P4)
How the Stars got here: Lunchpail group led by veterans Travis Morin and Mike McKenna stayed above the teams that play eight fewer games in the division and managed to get the second seed in the Pacific. If Ontario (ended the season on a four game losing streak) and San Diego didn’t choke, maybe it’s a different story for the Stars but Morin and his group saw to it that this didn’t happen.
How the Reign got here: Same story really, San Diego choked it away, Stockton faded and Bakersfield and San Antonio stopped being contenders at the start of the New Year. Reign went on a late run that put them as high as second at one point, and that was enough, with all the tumultuous things going around for teams around them, that got them to the postseason.
How they match up: 3-1 if you are a Reign fan, 1-1-1-1 if you are a Stars fan. So naturally, this goes five games.
How Texas wins: Reliance on the veteran group of Morin and McKenna and production from role players, kind of what got Texas to the postseason.
How Ontario wins: Seven Reign skaters had 30 or more points and two others were only two points or less off that feat. The coming at you from all sides approach is going to be a major factor in Ontario’s success.
Prediction: Experience prevails. Texas in five.
Chicago Wolves (C1) vs. Rockford IceHogs (C4)
How the Wolves got here: Went on a tear in the final month of the season to push Manitoba out of the top spot in the Central, something that the Moose held for months.
How the IceHogs got here: Using the free fall that the Iowa Wild experienced and overcoming the inconsistant Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford rose above the best of the rest and claimed the final seed in the Central.
How they match up: 6-2-3-1 if you are a Wolves fan, 6-6 if you are an IceHogs fan.
How Chicago wins: The Wolves won arguably the most volatile division. They have to maintain focus and realize that the job is not done and not overlook the Rockford IceHogs.
How Rockford wins: Containing Teemu Pulkkinen. Pulkkinen led the Wolves in points and torched the IceHogs this season for 14 of those 65 points for the Wolves. No easy task, but in order to win, you need to do the things that are hard to do.
Prediction: Wolves make this look easy. Chicago in four.
Grand Rapids Griffins (C2) vs. Manitoba Moose (C3)
How the Griffins got here: Defending champs struggled mightily to start the season, but slowly warmed, caught up with the pack and flirted with the division championship before getting passed by the Wolves for the top spot. A 7-1-1-1 run to end the season was only bested by Chicago’s long term consistency.
How the Moose got here: The Moose didn’t win the Central. So what? They have coach of the year in Pascal Vincent, rookie of the year in Mason Appleton and defenseman of the year in Sami Niku. Considering where they were last year (7th in an 8 team Central) this is a major improvement for a Moose team that many didn’t expect to be here, with all these accolades.
How they match up: 6-2 for Grand Rapids over Manitoba; 2-5-1-0 for the Moose over the Griffins.
How Grand Rapids wins: They have been here before, having won two Calder Cups in recent memory. Using that experience for remaining players and the run that they were on to end the year carries the Griffins past the Moose.
How Manitoba wins: They have the best coach, the best rookie and the best defenseman. They had a hiccup at the end of the season but rivaled Toronto for the best overall record in the AHL. Getting back to that approach and quickly pushes the Moose across the line over the defensing champions.
Prediction: The decline of Manitoba proves too hard to reverse. Defending champions advance here. Grand Rapids in four.
That’s how I see the West shaking out. Check back tomorrow for the Eastern Conference Previews.