Four teams remain in the AHL Western Conference playoff race that kicks off tonight in California and in Cleveland.
The two matchups feature teams that met several times this season, so both series could potentially go the full seven games.
Ontario Reign vs. San Diego Gulls
The blood feud between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks extends to the AHL and these teams could share more than a few choice words during a seven-game series.
And it’s a series with one of the more bizarre schedules. Due to arena availability the best-of-seven schedule is a setup as a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1, with Ontario having home ice in Game 1, 3, 5, and 7.
It’ll create some added travel to the series, while it seems to even up the series for San Diego not having to start with back-to-back games in Ontario.
While the schedule is odd, it shouldn’t be a surprise these teams are meeting with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line. Ontario and San Diego are built in the image of their NHL affiliate and built to play against each other – it will be physical, it will be nasty, and the team that plays better defense will win.
Both teams also are at full strength after their NHL affiliates were eliminated from the postseason, and it made a significant impact on San Diego.
Shea Theodore re-joined San Diego and is now part of the top defensive pairing with Brandon Montour. The duo moves the puck well and are deadly on the power play.
Chris Wagner also made an impact in the first round when he re-joined San Diego in time for Game 3 against the Texas Stars. Wagner had three points in two games against Texas, adding to an impressive arsenal with Mike Sgarbossa, Nick Ritchie, Chris Mueller, and Joseph Cramrossa.
Mueller is the veteran of the group and sets the table for the young prospects. In the first round he had a team-high five points and three assists.
Ontario had the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season and its stifling defense was at full force in the first round against San Jose, while a trio of rookies provided a spark.
Johnny Brodzinski had three points in the first round, Adrian Kempe had two, and Kurtis MacDermid also had a pair of goals in four games against San Jose.
Ontario also has the AHL’s top goalie in Peter Budaj, who was rarely tested in Round 1, but was superb when needed.
San Diego’s goaltending situation is a bit murkier. Anton Khudobin got hurt in Game 4 against Texas and could force the Gulls to turn to Matt Hackett in Game 1.
Grand Rapids Griffins vs. Lake Erie Monsters
Grand Rapids and Lake Erie have had ample time to plan for each other after both teams pulled off surprising first-round sweeps.
Grand Rapids swept away Central Division champion Milwaukee in dominant fashion, while Lake Erie easily dismantled Rockford. Both series were expected to be hard-fought affairs, especially in a division that was one of the most difficult during the regular season.
The Griffins are a streaky team and that could come into play this series. When they’re on, they can’t be beat – as evidence by 13 and 15-game win streaks during the regular season. When they struggle, they struggle mightily and can quickly piece together a losing streak.
Lake Erie has been more consistent throughout the season and didn’t have as many ups and downs. The Monsters are a deep team, and they’ve been clicking since NHL-affiliate Columbus had its season end before the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Josh Anderson led Lake Erie with four goals and an assist in the first round, while Oliver Bjorkstrand had a goal and an assist. Zach Werenski chipped in nicely from the blue line with two goals and an assist.
Former first-round pick Sonny Milano added three points in the series, while goalie Joonas Korpisalo dazzled with 73 saves on 79 shots in the series.
Grand Rapids got key contributions from Anthony Mantha (three goals, one assists) and Tyler Bertuzzi (three goals) in the first round, while Martin Frk continued to develop as a playmaker and had three assists.
The Griffins were one of the few teams in the first round to use the same linuep all three games, and that worked well with veteran goalie Tom McCollum who stopped 91 of 94 shots in the series.