Chirps from Center Ice

A fan blog about the AHL's Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins

Category Archives: The AHL

Conference Finals Previews

Four teams remain in contention for the Calder Cup. They are the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Toronto Marlies, Rockford IceHogs and Texas Stars.

Interesting series developments here. In the East, it’s a battle of the top two teams in the Marlies and Phantoms. In the West, it’s the veteran Texas Stars vs. the undefeated in postseason Rockford IceHogs.

Let’s take a crack at predicting each series, starting in the West.

     Rockford IceHogs vs. Texas Stars     

How the IceHogs got here: They haven’t lost a game yet, sweeping the Manitoba Moose in four games. The Moose led the Central Division for large chunks of the season while the IceHogs toiled at the cut line for most of the season. But as Rockford proved, it’s a new season now.

How the Stars got here: Beat Pacific Division Champion Roadrunners in five games. They got opportune scoring from their forwards and excellent goaltending from Mike McKenna and used experience to dismiss youth in a quick series that lasted just five games.

How they matchup: 1-2-0-1 if you are a Stars fan, 3-1 if you are a Rockford supporter.

How Rockford wins: IceHogs were unfazed by the Central Division Champion Chicago Wolves in Round One and smoked the division champs in a three game sweep. They stared down a Manitoba side that is going to be good next year and swept them. In order to do that to Texas, they will need to get to McKenna early and often, bottle up the Stars offense and make this series look as easy as the two prior. Easier said than done.

How Texas wins: It’s the experience that got the Stars here, and the experience that gets them past a pesky Rockford side that is that, “hot team at the right time” club that you sometimes see in these postseason tournaments in the AHL.

Prediction: It doesn’t end in a sweep, nor does it with Rockford advancing. Texas in six.

     Lehigh Valley Phantoms vs. Toronto Marlies     

How the Phantoms got here: Beat Providence easily in four games, and Charlotte the same way including the longest game in AHL history. Phantoms are playing tough teams and beating them easily.

How Toronto got here: Survived a scare in five games with Utica, then swept away a Syracuse team that looked at times to push the Marlies for the North Division lead in the regular season.

How they matchup: 0-1-0-1 if you are a Phantoms fan and 2-0 if you are a Marlies fan.

How Lehigh Valley wins: Alex Lyon stole the series for the Phantoms making 94 (yes, ninety-four) saves in Game 4’s five overtime thriller. The Phantoms will be heavily relying on their net minder to get them past the Toronto Marlies.

How Toronto wins: They made it look easy against a team they are familiar with in Syracuse, and will need to overcome their closest challenger in Lehigh Valley who finished runner up in the Conference. These teams played just two games against each other in what can only be described as a small, maybe insignificant, sample size.

Prediction: It’s the unstoppable Lehigh Valley Phantoms who are blitzkrieging opponents vs. the immovable object in the best all around team in Toronto. I haven’t picked the Phantoms to win a playoff series yet in this series I have been doing for the blog because I thought that the teams that they were facing in Providence and Charlotte were better than them. I know that Toronto is the better team here. Marlies have been good all season and know that they are a series away from playing for the ultimate goal. Toronto in five.

That’s how I see it shaking out. If you still have a team in it, enjoy the ride.

2018-19 Schedule Matrix Announced

I think Hershey was the first team to announce a schedule matrix of opponents for 2018-19 on Thursday. Other teams followed suit slowly. Well, Friday it was the Penguins turn.

No real changes from last year but for the addition of the Cleveland Monsters to the schedule docket. Wilkes-Barre will play every Eastern Conference team at least once and also go back to Grand Rapids, Rockford and Milwaukee.

Breakdown goes as follows….

Opponent Home Road   Opponent Home Road
Binghamton 2 2 Milwaukee 1 1
Bridgeport 4 4 Providence 3 3
Charlotte 2 2 Rochester 1 1
Cleveland 2 2 Rockford 1 1
Grand Rapids 1 1 Springfield 3 3
Hartford 3 3 Syracuse 1 1
Hershey 6 6 Toronto 1 1
Lehigh Valley 6 6 Utica 1 1

Thoughts:

  • I am not a fan of playing Charlotte, a divisional foe, just four times. Those games matter.
  • Further, I’m not a fan of playing Syracuse just twice. Those games turn into premier games in that it’s the only time all season that you will see the club. I don’t associate that at all with the Crunch.
  • Easy fix is to simply take two games off of the Hershey and Lehigh Valley series, only play the Phantoms and Bears 10 games, and add a game to the Charlotte series and one more to Syracuse.
    • That would likely mean that the Penguins would have to play three straight in Charlotte. I don’t know that they would want to do that because of distance.
  • The Cleveland series will likely be a back to back Friday-Saturday series in Cleveland.
  • I’m not complaining, but I would have liked to have seen Iowa and Chicago on the matrix instead of the same combination of Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Rockford. But hey, they are Western Conference teams.

Overall, pretty business as usual. Schedule should be out pretty soon, once the Calder Cup Finals wrap up in about a month.

The Offseason Moves List has its own dedicated page now, which you can access here or just use the tab at the top of the blog.

Next blog update will be the Conference Finals Preview. Toronto is in, awaiting the winner of Lehigh Valley and Charlotte. Texas is a game away from advancing past Tucson and Rockford has Manitoba in a 3-0 hole. Look for that very soon.

2018-19 AHL Alignment Announced

This announcement from the League happens every year around this time and with how scarce news is while playoffs are still ongoing I figured I would drop in and note the news.

For the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins and the rest of the Atlantic Division, the news yesterday didn’t really do much to affect the order of business. There were no changes. Divisional opponents remain Bridgeport, Charlotte, Hershey, Hartford, Lehigh Valley, Providence and Springfield. The Penguins will play the Bears and Phantoms 12 times, that you can bank on and a bunch more with the other teams in the division.

The rest of the alignment was standard and no real surprises. Expect the Penguins to play the Cleveland Monsters a few times next season as the Monsters join the North Division and come over from the Western Conference.

In the Western Conference, Texas and San Antonio leave the Pacific to join the Central Division and the new, 31st AHL team in Loveland, Colorado will play in the Pacific Division with the other part time teams that play 68 games.

Full release here. No mention of playoffs, but I would assume that now that you have every team in order with teams in a division where everyone plays the same amount of games, we can scrap the idea of ranking teams by percentage points and go back to straight up points.

2018 Divisional Final Previews

Well, since the Penguins are out of the playoffs and nothing to do for the next six months, I may as well stay up with the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs. I have had a few people ask me if I was going to continue to preview the next round and beyond so I may as well continue.

So in this round, it’s the teams that made it, how they got here, how they stack up and my prediction.

I was 5-for-8 in my first round picks. I picked Chicago, Grand Rapids and Providence to advance in round one. Chicago got swept, Grand Rapids got blown out in Game Five on home ice and Providence didn’t have enough for Lehigh Valley, going out in four games.

Hopefully this round will go better for my predictions. Here we go…

     Leh. Val. Phantoms vs. Charlotte Checkers     

How the Checkers got here: Made no mistakes and capitalized on Wilkes-Barre / Scranton’s. It was a methodical dissection of one of the better AHL teams in the league. Charlotte was favored in some circles but the sweep of Wilkes-Barre was a surprise.

How the Phantoms got here: Outlasted a Providence team in just four games. Bruins stole Game 2, and but for a close Game 1 and an overtime series clincher in Game 4, the division champs withstood a good Bruins team that just lacked the offensive punch that Lehigh Valley utilizes.

How they matchup: 4-4 both ways. So an even matchup if there ever was one.

How Charlotte wins: Continue to make no mistakes, push the Phantoms into pressure which worked somewhat for the P-Bruins in round one that got Providence some goals.

How Lehigh Valley wins: Use home ice and the raucous PPL Center crowd and the advantage of being the best team in the Division. There are a lot of similarities between Charlotte and Lehigh Valley, but it was the Phantoms that stayed at the top of the division and Charlotte who remained in fourth for much of the second half of the year.

Prediction: This may be the most exciting of the divisional finals. I got Charlotte in six. I witnessed first hand how it can methodically dissect a team and run away. Lehigh Valley’s inconsistencies are exposed and Charlotte advances.

     Toronto Marlies vs. Syracuse Crunch     

How the Crunch got here: Finished off a sweep of the Rochester Americans quite handily. Syracuse was the better team in the regular season matchup and quickly dispatched Rochester in three games.

How the Marlies got here: Got a scare from Utica, who pushed Toronto to five games. Garret Sparks 37 save clean sheet in Game 5 was enough to push the Marlies past the Comets to avoid the upset.

How they matchup: 3-5 if you are a Crunch fan and 5-2-1-0 if you are a Marlies fan.

How Syracuse wins: This is a strong group, but so is Toronto. So is it a clash of styles or the team that makes fewer mistakes? The Crunch have been here before. So it’s that experience that they need to use to carry themselves against the Marlies.

How Toronto wins: Well, whatever it was in the two games in Utica, burn that tape to the ground. It’s not a back to basics for a team that had 112 points in the AHL this season. But this is a matchup that favors Toronto, so it’s limiting your mistakes and capitalizing on the opponent’s that pushes the Marlies to the conference finals.

Prediction: Toronto in seven. Marlies outlast the Crunch in a classic between two heavyweights.

     Tucson Roadrunners vs. Texas Stars     

How the Stars got here: Needed just four games against an Ontario Reign team that started to give fits. But then Mike McKenna stepped in and didn’t allow a single Reign goal the rest of the way. Texas’ veterans outlasted a Reign side.

How the Roadrunners got here: Dispatches the San Jose Barracuda quite handily in four games. Tucson avoided the hot run that the Barracuda ended the season on and avoided the upset from the fourth seeded Pacific Division team.

How they matchup: 1-1-2-0 if you are a Stars fan and 3-1 if you are a Roadrunners fan.

How Texas wins: Nothing is going to change here. The veteran Stars continue business as usual against Tucson.

How Tucson wins: Continue to be the class of the division. Adin Hill closed out Games 3 and 4 with back to back shutouts. Roadrunners ride they goaltender forward to that special group of forwards.

Predication: I can see an “old lion” of Mike McKenna vs. “young lion” Adin Hill here and a good old fashioned goaltenders duel. Regardless, I get the sense that youth prevails. Tucson in six.

     Manitoba Moose vs. Rockford IceHogs     

How the Moose got here: Took out the defending champion Grand Rapids Griffins in five games. Overwhelmed the Moose in the deciding game and crushed the defending champs on their home ice.

How the IceHogs got here: Swept the Division Champion Wolves in three games. A four seed should not make it look as easy as the IceHogs did against the Wolves.

How they matchup: 2-1-1-0 if you are a Moose fan, 2-2 if you are an IceHogs fan. This one should be fun.

How Rockford wins: IceHogs used swagger and a fearless approach against a Wolves team that looked dangerous. Rockford exploited Chicago’s weaknesses in a big way and made it look easy. They need the same against a Moose team that was on top of the Central for about 90% of the season.

How Manitoba wins: Moose took out the defending Calder Cup Champion Griffins in five games. They outlasted the Griffins and made it count when they needed it to in the decisive game. Outlasting Rockford here is something that a Moose team that spent more time at the top is something that Manitoba will need to do to advance.

Prediction: Series screams seven games. There may be others here that go the distance, but this series in particular talks, walks and looks like a seven game series. Manitoba in seven.

That’s how I see this round shaking out. Good luck to you if you have a team still in it.

Penguins / Checkers Series Preview

Hello darkness, my old friend…

The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs for sixteen straight seasons. No other team in the AHL can claim that honor. Sure, there are AHL teams from decades past that have longer postseason appearance streaks. But one thing has been certain for more than a decade and a half when it comes to life. Death, taxes and the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Fifteen of those years have left the Penguins without the ultimate prize, the Calder Cup. Their captain, Tom Kostopoulos, announced a few weeks ago that this would be his final season, his last year of professional hockey. He’ll walk out of the Penguins locker room for the final time in his playing career be it this round or later on with some hardware in the form of a Calder Cup, and walk straight into the AHL Hall of Fame someday, probably after he is enshrined in the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins Hall of Fame.

The Penguins meet in the first round the team that shocked them many years ago and beat them in six games, the Charlotte Checkers. Charlotte has been a nomad team, playing in just about every division and every conference in the American Hockey League in the past five years.

This is going to be a battle of offense vs. defense. Let’s break it all down.

Schedule

Atlantic Division Semifinals – Series “B” (best-of-5)
A2-Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins vs. A3-Charlotte Checkers
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 20 – W-B/Scranton at Charlotte, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 21 – W-B/Scranton at Charlotte, 6:00
Game 3 – Thu., Apr. 26 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 4 – Sat., Apr. 28 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 7:05
*Game 5 – Sun., Apr. 29 – Charlotte at W-B/Scranton, 3:05
*if necessary… All times Eastern

Forwards

Valentin Zykov won the AHL’s equivalent of soccer’s golden boot as the man with the most goals. Zykov posted 33 goals in 63 games. Zykov was bested by teammate Lucas Wallmark who, in just 45 games, put up 55 points to Zykov’s 54. Rookie Warren Foegele had a nice season for himself, 28 goals, 46 points in 73 games. Greg McKegg came over to the Checkers in a midseason swap of forwards between the parent teams of the participants and exploded for 9 goals, 14 assists, 5 of them power play goals in just 19 games for Charlotte.

Wilkes-Barre is led by superstar rookie Daniel Sprong, who had a very balanced season and just missed out on the goal scoring lead with 32 goals, 33 assists and 65 points for the Penguins in just 65 games. 11 of those goals were on the power play. After Sprong, J-S Dea put up 50 points, 18 goals, 4 of those shorthanded and Teddy Blueger who was balanced, like Sprong in his offensive attack; 21 goals, 24 assists in 70 games. Josh Jooris was traded for Greg McKegg but has spent much of his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has only appeared in 6 games and scored once.

Advantage: Charlotte. Not a matter of if the Checkers forwards fill up the score sheet, it’s a matter of when. Charlotte had the most explosive offense in the AHL, averaging 3.45 goals per game. Penguins were a half step behind with 3.32 goals per contest. The Penguins may be equally as capable, but the Checkers have the advantage on paper.

Defensemen

An extremely healthy group of high caliber defensemen are employed by the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins. Because of all the offensive firepower up front for Charlotte, Checkers defenders can focus on keeping pucks out of the their goaltenders nets and have. Charlotte had the 8th best defense, limiting opponents to 2.79 goals per game. The Penguins, normally automatics in the top three in defense, had an uncharacteristic year and placed 17th in defense at 2.93 goals per game. Texas (20th) and Rockford (22nd) are the only teams currently still playing with worse numbers defensively.

That said, this group Wilkes-Barre has have a lot of games together and are very experienced. The only rookie in the defensive corps is Lukas Bengtsson.

Advantage: Penguins. These guys will know who to key in on when they step over the boards and will be ready for whatever the Checkers forwards throw at them.

Goaltending

It was a position by committee for the Penguins, who used seven goaltenders this season as compared to the Checkers who used Callum Booth for four games and Alex Nedeljkovic (49) and Jeremy Smith (30) for the remaining games. No goalie in this matchup led the AHL in any significant category (Nedeljkovic was fourth in minutes played with 2726:13)

Nedeljkovic projects as the Checkers Game 1 starter. He went 31-12-3-5 with a 2.55 GAA and a .903 SV%. Tristan Jarry projects as the Penguins Game 1 starter with a 9-5-2-0 record and a 3.05 GAA and a .901 SV%. Jarry spent a significant portion of his season playing in the NHL backing up or filling in for Matt Murray.

What this series may boil down to is the backups. Michael Leighton is fully healthy and has stepped in when the Penguins needed to win a big game to qualify for playoffs (April 7 vs. Binghamton) or lock up home ice in the first round (April 14 at Leigh Valley) How short a leash does Clark Donatelli give Jarry if the Penguins are down 3-0 in the second period of Game 1? If the Penguins lose Game 1, does Leighton step in and play Game 2? Leighton is a sure fire AHL Hall of Famer, and was brought in during the year for veteran insurance purposes. His sample size is small, because he spent the majority of his time injured once he arrived in Wilkes-Barre and played most of his games on the road and not in front of the fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza.

Jeremy Smith’s numbers were pedestrian. 13-13-1-0 with a 2.71 GAA and a .902 SV% If the Checkers turn to Smith, it may be series over for Charlotte.

Advantage: Penguins. Tristan Jarry’s audition for the NHL backup job for next season starts Friday in Charlotte. If he stumbles, Clark Donatelli has an ace in the hole with Michael Leighton.

Intangibles

Coaching, special teams get talked about here plus anything else not mentioned above.

Penguins special teams in the regular season was a punchline to a joke. 29th in the 30 team league, 13.8% only trailed by the Belleville Seantors, who struggled out of the gates from the drop of the puck in October. The Penguins power play clicked somewhat at the end of the season, but otherwise has been in the bottom third for a long while. Charlotte’s power play was 3rd overall, clicking at just a tick over 20% (20.4%) so far and away, the Checkers dominate the Penguins in special teams.

Clark Donatelli opposes Mike Velucci on the benches. Both had their hands full. Velucci’s forwards all want the puck, only Andrew Poturalski appeared in all 76 games for the Checkers and was followed by Trevor Carrick and Warren Foegele who played 73 each. Every other night was a roster in flux with players shuffling in and out.

Clark Donatelli had to balance winning and getting to second overall in the division with seemingly a different goaltender in the net every night for a large portion of the season. Both come heavily respected and may some day be running NHL benches. I see my first push here and it comes in the coaching department.

Collectively, both teams have 29 wins and 16 losses against Atlantic Division foes. Head to head, Charlotte won the series 3-1.

The Checkers have a full compliment of players at their disposal since the Carolina Hurricanes did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins have forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Josh Jooris, Dominik Simon and goaltender Casey DeSmith on recall from Wilkes-Barre as eligible players to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Perhaps expect one player, Josh Jooris to return to the AHL. Dominik Simon’s return could tip the scales for the Penguins, but I wouldn’t bet on it unless Pittsburgh is knocked out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Social Media Covverage

For the Penguins…

Twitter: @WBSPenguins
Radio: @MikeOBrienWBS / @_NickHart
Beat: @CVPicotti and @TomVenesky
Facebook: /WilkesBarreScrantonPenguins
Instagram: wbspenguins

For the Checkers…

Twitter: @CheckersHockey
Radio: @Jason_Shaya
Beat: None that I know of
Facebook: /charlottecheckers
Instagram: checkershockey

Prediction

Obviously, Wilkes-Barre needs to limit Charlotte offensively. Ideally, the Penguins need to score a power play goal a game and comes out of this series with a power play success rate of 25% or better. The Penguins also need to stay disciplined. Taking penalty after penalty will be the death knell to the high powered offense that the Checkers employ. Limiting penalties to no more than four a game and ideally zero stick fouls has to be the goal for Wilkes-Barre written on the chalkboard in the locker room.

The series starts in Charlotte for Games 1 and 2 before shifting to Wilkes-Barre for Game 3 and 4 or 5 if necessary. Charlotte will have the advantage by having the first two games played at the Bojangles’ Coliseum with last change. The Penguins need a split or better if they want to have any chance of advancing to the second round.

The Checkers simply need to do the same, get at Jarry quickly, goad the Penguins into mistakes that cost them a man and they win this series.

Checkers in four. Charlotte has been on of late, firing out of the doubt of missing playoffs at the benefit of fifth place Bridgeport and rocketed past Providence to claim third place. Give another week in the season and it could easily be Charlotte with the home ice advantage in the first round and the Penguins the road team. Donatelli sticks to his guns, refuses to turn the reigns over to Leighton if things go south and the Penguins aren’t able to adjust enough with the series beginning in Charlotte to advance to the second round. Wilkes-Barre may chase this entire series, get frustrated and in a five game series where the margin of error is razor thin, the Checkers advance in four games.

That’s how I, unfortunately, see it unfolding. If you agree, disagree or just want to comment, do so below.

2018 Eastern Conference Calder Cup Preview

Welcome back to Day Two of the Calder Cup Previews. Yesterday I previewed the Western Conference. Today, I return to familiar territory and examine the Eastern Conference.

In keeping with what I have done since I started this blog, I am saving the prediction for Penguins / Checkers for its own more detailed post. Look for that Thursday at noon.

Let’s get right to it.

   Toronto Marlies (N1) vs. Utica Comets (N4)   

How the Marlies got here: Were class of the field the entire year. No one really got close to challenging the Marlies 112 points that won them the Macgregor Kilpatrick trophy for the best overall record in the AHL.

How the Comets got here: The North was ridiculously top heavy. Utica was just better than terrible Binghamton, Belleville and Laval teams.

How they match up: 5-2-0-1 for the Marlies over the Comets and 3-4-1-0 for the Comets over the Marlies.

How Toronto wins: Don’t fall for the slashes after the whistles and ignore all the noise coming out of the Comets players mouths. Really should be business as usual.

How Utica wins: They need to steal a game in Toronto and split at home and go balls to the wall in Game 5. The Marlies are a team that only comes around once in a while, it’s going to take a herculean effort to take them out.

Prediction: Only series I see that ends with a sweep. Toronto in three.

   Syracuse Crunch (N2) vs. Rochester Americans (N3)   

How the Crunch got here: Defending Eastern Conference champions picked right up where they left off. 100 points for Benoit Groulx’s group, who ran roughshod over a bad North Division.

How the Americans got here: Re-tooled from the front office all the way down, Sabres GM Jason Botterill knows a thing about playoff teams in the AHL. Botterill hired Chris Taylor and brought in the right type of players and again, played above average hockey in a below average division.

How they match up: 6-2-1-1 if you are a Crunch fan, 4-5-1-0 if you are an Amerks fan. It’s a, “they have our number” type of series.

How Syracuse wins: They have been here before. Rochester should be a walk in the park, given the season series coming in.

How Rochester wins: Going to need to scrap for every inch. Syracuse stayed lockstep with Toronto all year, one bad week for the Marlies and it could have easily been Syracuse as the division champ. That said, Syracuse may be vulnerable and can be beat.

Prediction: Part of me wants to say that Syracuse outlasts Rochester in a series for the ages, but the other part of me sees a hungry, determined Syracuse side that disposes of a Rochester side that will learn to lose first before it wins. Either way, the Crunch advance. Syracuse in four.

   Leh. Val. Phantoms (A1) vs. Providence Bruins (A4)   

How the Phantoms got here: Took over the top spot in the Atlantic at the start of the new year and never looked back. Lehigh Valley’s 104 points is second best overall to only Toronto.

How the Bruins got here: Sort of faded at the end of the season, but built up enough of a cushion on fifth place Bridgeport that missing playoffs was never really a concern.

How they match up: 4-1-1-0 for the Phantoms over the Bruins and 2-4 for the Bruins over the Phantoms.

How Lehigh Valley wins: Running out to a multi goal lead and riding out the storm that the Bruins bring edges the Phantoms past the Bruins.

How Providence wins: The Phantoms and Bruins played much of their series in the final month of the season where Providence wasn’t at their best. Playoffs are a different animal, however. Series begins in Providence, so a split is a necessity for the Bruins to advance.

Prediction: Providence knocked out overall number one Wilkes-Barre last year in five games. I see the same thing happening here in a knock down, drag out series that includes multiple overtime games. Providence in five.

   W-B / Scranton (A2) vs. Charlotte Checkers (A3)   

How the Penguins got here: Were never worse than second place all season after leading the Atlantic for much of the first half of the season.

How the Checkers got here: Used a late run when they felt some heat from Bridgeport and pushed past a Providence team that stumbled at the end to nudged into third place. Valentin Zykov led the AHL in goals scored with 33 goals in 63 games.

How they matchup: 1-3 if you are a Penguins fan and 3-1 if you are a Checkers fan.

How Wilkes-Barre wins: Defense has to shut down Zykov, Lucas Wallmark, Warren Foegele and ex-teammate Greg McKegg. That’s going to be a tough task for any team, not just the Penguins.

How Charlotte wins: Full compliment of players with NHL parent Carolina’s season over. Points in last ten games, there isn’t a team hotter right now in the division. Checkers need to continue to ride that momentum.

Prediction: I will give it to you Thursday at noon with a more in depth breakdown.

That’s how I see the East shaping up. Disagree? Comments are open. Check me out tomorrow for a full breakdown of Wilkes-Barre / Charlotte.

2018 Western Conference Calder Cup Preview

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.