June 03, 2010
The AHL's Calder Cup Finals begin Thursday night in Hershey between the Eastern Conference champion Bears (Washington Capitals affiliate) and the Western Conference champion Texas Stars (Dallas Stars affiliate). The Bears are trying to become the first team since the Springfield Indians 19 years ago to repeat as AHL champions.
Rather than have this turn into a superficial debate about the virtues of chocolate vs. barbeque (or, better yet, the fun factors between Hershey Park and the city of Austin), we decided to pester two bloggers with AHL ties for their thoughts and predictions on the Calder Cup.
Fighting out of the West corner: Tanner Wilson, a Dallas Stars fan since the age of 6 who blogs on Texas Ice Hockey Expert about puck in the Lone Star State.
Here's everything you need to know about the Calder Cup, from why you should care to the all-important question about the Texas Stars Ice Girls.
WILSON: This is a very important event for hockey fans to follow, as these players are on the final step before the making the National Hockey League. This is where more fans need to learn more about their prospects, as some of them get chances to fill in for injures and suspensions. They're also looking to impress when they get big chances like this to maybe compete for a NHL roster spot for next season.
It's also a great battle with the team that's won the most Calder Cup titles in league history, against a team that's hoping to win in their first year. Also, it's one of the top offenses against one of the top defenses, as the T-Stars are looking to continue the success and growth of hockey in the Southwest.
VANCE: Is there anything worse than a music snob? Yeah, there is; a hockey snob. The AHL is pure, unadulterated, puck heaven. Why? It's "Field of Dreams" incarnate. It's the future of the NHL. It's Great Gatsby on ice. But most of all, it's June hockey. It's June hockey you can afford.
And this year; history will be made. The Hershey Bears already come in to these finals as the most storied franchise in AHL history. They just completed the single greatest regular season in league history, posting a regular-season record of 60-17-3. They are the defending Calder Cup Champions; they've now played in four of the last five Calder Cup finals. This franchise has 61 playoff appearances in their 72 seasons. They've won 301 playoff games and they've lost 254. They've won 65 series and they've lost 50. They captured 10 titles; hell, they've even lost 11 others. The quintessential AHL franchise? You bet.
Their opponent? The Texas Stars. Well, these Stars, they don't have a history. In this, their inaugural season of play, they find themselves in the Calder Cup Finals, facing arguably the greatest team in AHL history.
It's Drago vs. Balboa. It's David vs. Goliath. It's USA vs. Estonia. It's Hawks vs. Flyers. It's the 2009-2010 Calder Cup Finals.
Q. How many players on your team are, or legitimately should be, in the NHL right now?
WILSON: I think Aaron Gagnon(notes) is a great player to watch as he's been the team's leading scorer in the regular season and second during the playoffs only behind Jamie Benn(notes). Also, our goaltending duo of Krahn and Climie have made up for having a lack of offense on some nights.
Also watch out for Andrew Hutchinson, who can set up great breakaways and is leading the AHL playoffs in defensive scoring.
VANCE: You didn't know? The Bears are the AHL affiliate of your Presidents Trophy (and nothing else) winning Washington Capitals. Their affiliation began in the fall of 2005, coinciding with the rise of the Caps, and the fall of the Avalanche.
Coincidence? I think not. That said; the cupboard is full for Washington, and these guys could be and should be cracking the lineup in Washington (or elsewhere) next season.
John Carlson(notes) - The great American hero. The 20-year-old played 22 games with Washington during his first professional season, putting up six points while he got his feet wet in DC. By the time the playoffs rolled around; he was so effective for Washington he was averaging nearly 20:00 of ice time. But in Hershey, he put up four goals along with 35 assists in just 48 games, playing in the shutdown pair for the Bears. Frankly, I hope he didn't get too comfortable in Hummelstown, because he won't be there next year.
Karl Alzner(notes) - Alzner was anointed the savior of the Capitals' defensive corps last year, before Carlson's arrival. Playing 30 games for the Caps in the '08-09 season, and 21 games this year, the steady Alzner is more than ready to make the jump from Hershey's juggernaut to saving Mike Green's(notes) ass.
Arguments can be made for Keith Aucoin(notes) and Alexandre Giroux(notes), who over the past two seasons, 197 games total, have posted 203 goals and 290 assists. You'll be seeing guys like Mathieu Perreault(notes), Kyle Wilson(notes), and Andrew Gordon(notes) sooner than later, just not quite yet.
Q. The Texas Stars have incredible ice girls, but the Hershey Bears have an adorable mascot. Which one can have a greater affect on determining a Cup champion?
WILSON: Give me the Ice Girls anytime anyplace. The Ice Girls can do some cheerleading-type stunts to thrill fans and get the fans motivated much more then a mascot ever could. While the mascot, all he can do is run around and have an effect on the kids, but that's about it.
VANCE: Yes, I know, Coco isn't the most intimidating mascot. Yes, I realize the mascot's name is Coco. Ironically, so too are half the Texas Stars Ice Girls.
But seriously, I'm going to go ahead and give the edge to the Ice Girls. Why? Well, this Coco biography makes me feel dumber for having read it, and by the looks of things, it's true, everything is bigger in Texas, and so am I after all my "Internet research."
Q. Who are three key players for your team during its playoff run and why?
WILSON: I will begin with a shocker — Ethan Graham may have been a journeyman in the AHL, but he's been great when needed. Including an OT game-winner in Game 3 that made the semifinal series against Hamilton 2-1. If Texas would have lost, they would have gone down 3-0. He also scored the goal in Game 7 that started the comeback to win the west and eliminate Hamilton.
Andrew Hutchinson(notes) is really dangerous. In addition to being to leading the playoffs in defensive scoring. He also can produce great breakaways and is a great passer and puck-controller. Going back to the scoring for a moment, he has produced at least point in 10 of the teams 18 playoff games.
Francis Wathier brings a big body to the team. In addition his hits where he had over 100 penalty minutes during the regular season. He also added 40 points (19G 21A) as well. During the playoffs he's wanted to bring a player that can bring in an imitation factor and someone who can be an enforcer as well.
VANCE: Chris Bourque(notes)— Yes, Raymond, your son is crucial to this series. Even if Penguins fans all simultaneously shrieked "JOKE! VOMIT CITY BLOG" and started complaining about Marian Hossa(notes), Chris Bourque currently leads the Bears in points this postseason. In 15 games, Bourque has seven goals and 16 assists, providing very important secondary scoring for the Bears. This season saw the first line of Giroux, Keith Aucoin, and Andrew Gordon pot 122 goals, but the second line only put up 54 goals, with Bourque netting 22 of them. With the second line rolling; the staunch Stars defense (second in GA during regular season) won't be able to key on the Bears top line so much, so they could potentially run roughshod over Stars backup netminder Matt Climie(notes).
Michal Neuvirth(notes) — The Czech netminder has regained his playoff form from last season, where he took home the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP, and where he set an AHL record with a preposterous 1.92 GAA. This playoff season he's running with a 10-2 record, 2.13 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Neuvirth is trying to become the first goalie to win back-to-back Cups since the 1978-1979 campaign, when Pete Peeters (Seriously...Pete Peeters) won two for the Maine Mariners. Unfortunately, Neuvirth caught the injury bug this season, limiting him to just 22 regular season contests, so if the Bears want to put the finishing touches on their historic season, they might need to do it without their stellar netminder.
John Carlson - The Bears aren't the only team with a dynamic scoring punch. Dallas Star rookie wunderkind Jamie Benn brought his 82-game NHL experience to Cedar Park for the AHL playoffs. The move has definitely paid off, with Benn leading all playoff scorers with 14 goals and 10 assists in 18 games. So naturally it would come down to the Bears top shutdown pairing of Carlson and Alzner to key on Benn, and the rest of the Stars offense.
Q. How confident are you in your goaltending?
WILSON: I think we have two guys that with Marty Turco(notes) leaving the Stars, should be serious contenders to be the Dallas backup next season. Climie winning Game 7 against Hamilton was stunning, he was the reason that the Stars won the game after being outshot 34-11 through two periods and only keeping the game at 2-0 when it should have been a lot worse. My worry on this front is Krahn being injury prone; and how much longer can Climie keep this up before he may get to tired?
VANCE: Nobody has got a swagger like us. Even if Neuvirth falters (he won't), or falls to injury (far more likely), the Bears have Braden Holtby(notes) to be the man between the pipes. In 37 regular season games in his rookie campaign, Holtby had a 25-8-2 record, with a 2.32 GAA and .917 Save percentage. Further down the depth chart? The well travelled Jason Bacashihua(notes), who had a 17-3-1 record, with a 2.48 GAA and .911 save percentage. So yeah, I'd say we're all pretty confident, regardless of who's betwixt the iron.
Q. If both teams were at full strength, could your team take the current configuration of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a seven-game series?
WILSON: That would be sad to see Toronto lose a best-of-seven to lose to an AHL Team. It would be interesting to see, but at the end of the day, they are still NHLer's and even average NHL'ers should beat the best the AHL has to offer.
VANCE: Oh hell yes they could. This team isn't a fluke like the Canadiens; these Hershey Bears have had a season of historic proportions. These Bears scored 342 goals during the regular season, the Leafs? Just 210. The Bears gave up just 198 goals this year, the Leafs? 263.
But it's the NHL versus the AHL right? Well, how many Bears have NHL experience? John Carlson, Grant Lewis(notes), Sean Collins(notes), Karl Alzner, Andrew Gordon, Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson, Bryan Helmer(notes), Jay Beagle(notes), Mathieu Perreault, Boyd Kane(notes), Michal Neuvirth, and Jason Bacashihua all have NHL experience.
Wait; I don't have to justify any of this; the Leafs suck. The Leafs suck so much they'd lose to every AHL franchise, the Windsor Spitfires, and half the Swedish Elitserien league. AMIRITE?! /Habs Fanned.
Q. Finally, your prediction for the Calder Cup and why.
WILSON: It pains me to say this. But I'm going Hershey in six.
This is because Hershey's offense I think will be too much for the Stars to stop. Especially if Aucoin and Giroux go wild (251 points combined in the regular season and playoffs this year). That is just deadly force to deal with at any level.
VANCE: Bears in six.
The Stars may be acting like a team of destiny with five OT wins and a pair of Game 7 road victories in these playoffs. But the dream ends here for Cinderella.
The 2-3-2 playoff format will keep the Stars in it for one game longer than they would otherwise, but as soon as that series heads back to Hershey, it's game over. The Bears have won 37 of their last 38 home games; including going 8-0 this playoff season. With a capacity crowd of over 12,000 (what's your excuse now Long Island? Phoenix? Atlanta?), the Hershey faithful fill the barn like no other AHL franchise.
You need more? The Bears are 9-0 when they score first; they're even 5-2 when they trail after two. The Bears are too strong when they're on top, too strong coming from behind. That's why the Calder Cup will be making its way back up the Hershey highway for an unprecedented 11th time this summer and history will have been made.
Nearly all photos via Texas Stars and Hershey Bears websites, Just Sports Photography.