From a marketing perspective, you couldn’t have scripted a better match for the Calder Cup Final.
Closing out the American Hockey League’s 80th season, two of the historically marquee cities will go head-to-head when the Hershey Bears and Lake Erie Monsters clash in Game 1 on Wednesday.
The Bears are the Montreal Canadians of hockey’s Triple-A circuit. Hershey is making its 23rd trip to the final and the Bears are looking for their 12th title.
“We talk about it here, about the expectations,” Hershey coach Troy Mann said. “It’s always been about a balance of winning and development here. The players really get that, from the draft picks to the veterans we bring in. They really understand what it means to be a Hershey Bear.”
The Monsters are new to the final, but Cleveland is steeped in Calder Cup history. The old Cleveland Barons won nine Calder Cups — second only to Hershey — while Cleveland and Hershey battled for the title in 1941, 1945 and 1954.
And the 2016 Cleveland-Hershey meeting is a result of upsets, at least on paper, in the Conference Finals.
Lake Erie swept the defending Calder Cup Champion Ontario Reign (which won as the Manchester Monarchs in 2015), while Hershey made quick work of the AHL regular season champion Toronto Marlies in five games.
Both the Monsters and Bears won their respective conference with a balanced four-line attack, and both teams have speedsters that posses the puck.
“Both teams have done it the right way,” Lake Erie coach Jared Bednar said. “Depth and speed will be keys in this series, and I think it’ll be an entertaining one for the fans.”
Hershey has home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series, but Lake Erie looks like the favorite on paper.
The Monsters have an 11-2 record in the postseason and have a 7-1 record in one-goal games. Lake Erie ran into a two-game dry spell against Grand Rapids in the second round, but learned from the experience and launched the current five-game win streak.
It’s the calling card of a young team. The Monsters have been led at the blue line by teenage phenom Zack Werenski, while Lukas Sedlak has emerged as a playoff goal scorer. The Czech forward has an AHL-leading eight goals in the playoffs and 18 tallies in his last 23 game total.
“He’s just doing his job and going to the right areas,” Bednar said. “He’s been a key player all season doing the little things, now he’s getting rewarded for the work he’s done.”
Lake Erie is a young team with teens like Werenski and Sonny Milano, but an extremely disciplined one that takes advantage on special teams. The Monsters are converting on 22.2 percent of their power plays (12 of 54 in the playoffs) and have killed off 84.3 percent of opponent’s opportunities.
Hershey enters the finals after knocking off a young Toronto team that many picked to win the Calder Cup before the postseason began. The Bears have had tough postseason battles with the Providence Bruins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and prevailed with balanced scoring and strong goaltending.
“Anytime you have to play an elimination game, like we did, you get better,” Mann said. “As a team you learn about yourself in those situations.”
Carter Camper leads Hershey with 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) while Jakub Vrana has pitched in 13 (7 goals, 6 assists) and AHL MVP Chris Bourque has 10 (4 goals, 6 assists). It’s been more than enough for Hershey veteran goalie Justin Peters and his 1.95 goals against average and 0.929 save percentage.
Lake Erie will counter with a younger goaltender in Anton Forsberg who has a dazzling 0.955 save percentage and 1.30 goals against average after starting the postseason on the bench.
Games 1 and 2 will be in Hershey, while Games 3 through 5 will be in Cleveland. Game 6 and 7, if needed, will be in Hershey while all of the games will be streamed for free by the AHL.