NHL Prospects

Calder Cup Playoff Preview: San Jose-LA rivalry brewing in AHL

(Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Four of the five remaining of the AHL Calder Cup First Round Playoff series open this evening, while the final Game 1 will take place Saturday in Toronto.

Today’s Slapshot takes a look at the four series starting tonight, starting with a familiar rivalry in California.

Ontario Reign vs. San Jose Barracuda
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 22 – Ontario at San Jose, 10:30
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 23 – Ontario at San Jose, 10:30
Game 3 – Thu., Apr. 28 – San Jose at Ontario, 10:00
*Game 4 – Fri., Apr. 29 – San Jose at Ontario, 10:00
*Game 5 – Sun., May 1 – San Jose at Ontario, 6:00

While the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings are locked into a first-round Stanley Cup series, their AHL affiliates will meet in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s a good rivalry already, playing in the playoffs only adds to that,” Barracuda coach Roy Sommer said. “Even before we moved to California, we would meet in playoff series. When these two franchise get together it creates exciting hockey.”

The teams met 12 times during the regular season with Ontario winning nine of the games, six of them in regulation.

For Ontario, everything starts with Peter Budaj after he pieced together one of the most impressive seasons in AHL history. The veteran netminder had a .932 save percentage and 1.75 goals against average in 60 regular season games.

He also has a heavy team in front of him. The Reign play just like the Kings. They finish checks, forecheck hard, and physically dominate games.

San Jose isn’t as heavy as Ontario, but has been playing playoff hockey for almost two months. The Barracuda became the final team to clinch a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs when they won their final game of the season.

“Our guys are ready for this, because they’ve been playing do-or-die already,” Sommer said. “I like how are team is playing as we head into the postseason.”

Milwaukee Admirals vs. Grand Rapids Griffins
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 22 – Grand Rapids at Milwaukee, 8:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 23 – Grand Rapids at Milwaukee, 8:00
Game 3 – Tue., Apr. 26 – Milwaukee at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*Game 4 – Wed., Apr. 27 – Milwaukee at Grand Rapids, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sat., Apr. 30 – Grand Rapids at Milwaukee, 8:00

The AHL’s Central Division was a dog fight this season. It was arguably the best division in the AHL, and those regular season battles will continue when the Milwaukee Admirals host the Grand Rapids Griffins tonight.

Milwaukee is the higher seed, but Grand Rapids won five of the eight regular season meetings. The Griffins picked up a handful of wins against the Admirals when they were piecing together AHL-best 13 and 15-game win streaks during the regular season.

“They’re a team that can get rolling,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said. “You have to start strong against them and try to take away momentum early. I think that’ll be the key, along with special teams in this series.”

Grand Rapids coach Todd Nelson had similar thoughts on the series.

“Special teams will be one of the biggest things in this series,” Nelson said. “When you have two evenly matched teams like this, the one that wins the special teams battle will be advancing.”

For Grand Rapids that means finding consistency.

“Our special teams kind of went like our season, there were streaks of really good moments, while we also had stretches of bad play on the PK and power play,” Nelson said.

Milwaukee had one of the AHL’s top power plays and converted on 21.2 percent of opportunities this season. The Admirals also won the most recent meeting between the teams, chalking up a 4-1 win on March 29.

Hershey Bears vs. Portland Pirates
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 22 – Hershey at Portland, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 23 – Hershey at Portland, 7:00
Game 3 – Thu., Apr. 28 – Portland at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 4 – Sat., Apr. 30 – Portland at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sun., May 1 – Portland at Hershey, 5:00

Despite sharing a division, the Bears and Pirates only met four times this season and they split the series at 2-2.

Hershey is led by AHL MVP Chris Bourque, who led the league with 80 points (30 goals, 50 assists), and Riley Barber, who pitched in 55 points (26 goals, 29 assists). The duo helped Hershey score 259 goals this season, while Portland is a more defensive-minded unit.

The Pirates allowed 207 goals this season and have a veteran goalie in Mike McKenna, who earned an AHL All-Star nod this season. Portland also had veteran contributions from Robbie Schremp and Cameron Gaunce, while Portland have a number of younger players with playoff experience from last season with the San Antonio Rampage (Florida changed it’s affiliate from San Antonio to Portland before this season).

Albany Devils vs. Utica Comets
Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 22 – Utica at Albany, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 23 – Utica at Albany, 5:00
Game 3 – Tue., Apr. 26 – Albany at Utica, 7:00
*Game 4 – Thu., Apr. 28 – Albany at Utica, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sat., Apr. 30 – Utica at Albany, 5:00

If not for Toronto’s success, Albany would be one of the favorites out of the Eastern Conference.

The Devils had 102 points this season and had the third-best record in the AHL (behind Toronto and Ontario), while they stifled opponents.

Goalies Yann Danis and Scott Wedgewood both dazzled during the regular season and Albany only allowed 167 goals, and each posted a 3-1 record against Utica.

Overall Albany won six of the eight meetings with Utica, including four that went to overtime.

Utica does head into the playoffs with a playoff mentality. The Comets were one of the last teams to reach the postseason and won six of their past 10 games.

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