The AHL Conference Final feels like a new beginning for the four remaining teams.
It’s a fresh start after a hard-fought second round, while it’s also an introduction to a brand new opponent. And in this case, it really is an unfamiliar face.
The Lake Erie Monsters and Ontario Reign didn’t meet in the regular season. The Hershey Bears and Toronto Marlies only clashed twice, with the last meeting coming back on a forgettable Friday in late February.
It’s a far cry from the rivalries all four teams batted through to reach the Conference Final.
Ontario had to battle through the San Jose Barracuda and San Diego Gulls, a pair of regional rivals, while Lake Erie went head-to-head with frequent foes in the Rockford IceHogs and Grand Rapids Griffins.
Out east the Bears beat the divisional rival Portland Pirates in Round 1 and then followed that up with a seven-game slugfest against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Toronto went through a similar, but less intense, rigmarole with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and a seven-game bout with the Albany Devils.
Now everything starts fresh.
“It goes from being very familiar, almost to familiar, in the first two rounds to planning for the unexpected (in the Conference Final),” Hershey coach Troy Mann said.
Lake Erie coach Jared Bednar agreed.
“We don’t know much about each other in this round,” he said. “We can look at video and plan and give the players our best scouting reports, but we haven’t played each other year. So it’s hard to tell exactly how each team will react.”
Toronto Marlies vs. Hershey Bears
Game 1 – Fri., May 20 – Toronto at Hershey, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., May 21 – Toronto at Hershey, 7:00
Game 3 – Wed., May 25 – Hershey at Toronto, 7:30
Game 4 – Fri., May 27 – Hershey at Toronto, 7:30
*Game 5 – Sun., May 29 – Hershey at Toronto, 3:00
*Game 6 – Tue., May 31 – Toronto at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 7 – Thu., June 2 – Hershey at Toronto, 7:30
Defense be damned, offense is going to determine Eastern Conference Final between Toronto and Hershey.
The Marlies led the AHL with 294 goals this season, while the Bears finished third with 259. Five of the AHL’s top-20 regular season point producers will take the ice in this series, and both teams have put scoreboard operators to work in the postseason.
And Hershey is well acquainted with Toronto’s leading scorer in the playoffs.
Connor Carrick started his season with Hershey and had 26 points in 47 games with the Bears before being traded by Washington to Toronto right before the deadline. As a Marlie the 22-year-old has been an offensive force from the blue line with an AHL-leading 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 10 games.
And that’s only the tip of the spear for Toronto.
Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Marc Arcobello, Kasperi Kapanen, Ben Smith, and William Nylander are all close to point-per-game pace. The Marlies also have two-time AHL defenseman of the year T.J. Brennan, who has five goals in 10 playoff games.
“They have players sitting out that would be on the second or third line on other AHL teams,” Mann said. “That turns this really into a four-line series. Our 12 forward and three defense pairs will have to execute, otherwise they can beat you with how deep that lineup goes.”
To be fair, the Bears are also saddled with offensive weapons.
AHL MVP Chris Bourque leads a young group that consists of nine players 21 or younger. Carter Camper, Jakub Vrana, Travis Boyd, and Aarron Ness all have at least six points this postseason and have grown during back-to-back series that went the distance (in the AHL the first round is best-of-five).
During that time the Bears have also improved defensively, which will be of upmost importance against Toronto.
Tyler Lewington and Madison Bowey have both been defensive keys as playoff rookies, while veteran goalie Justin Peters has been a stalwart behind the young blue liners.
Peters will look down the ice at Toronto’s Antoine Bibeau, who has taken over the starting job after splitting the first round with Garret Sparks and watching Game 1 against Albany from the bench.
The schedule adds another wrinkle to series. Instead of a traditional seven-game format, the teams will play 2-3-1-1 series with Toronto hosting Games 3 through 5 and 7 as the higher seed. It was necessitated by the circus coming to Hershey (seriously) and puts more of an onus on Game 1 for the lower-seeded Bears.
“They’ve actually been just as good on the road as at home,” Mann said. “So we need to start strong. We learned from Round 2 where we came in slow after back-to-back elimination games before. So I’m expecting us to have a stronger start this series.”
Ontario Reign vs. Lake Erie Monsters
Game 1 – Sat., May 21 – Lake Erie at Ontario, 11:00
Game 2 – Sun., May 22 – Lake Erie at Ontario, 10:00
Game 3 – Tue., May 24 – Ontario at Lake Erie, 7:00
Game 4 – Thu., May 26 – Ontario at Lake Erie, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sat., May 28 – Ontario at Lake Erie, noon
*Game 6 – Tue., May 31 – Lake Erie at Ontario, 10:00
*Game 7 – Wed., June 1 – Lake Erie at Ontario, 10:00
To be the champs, you have to beat the champs.
That’s the mantra Lake Erie is taking into the Western Conference Final against Ontario. The Reign won the 2015 Calder Cup as the Manchester Monarchs before they packed up and moved to California this season.
Ontario returns 15 players from that championship squad, while the Reign have gotten even better in goal with Peter Budaj’s resurgence. The 33-year-old Slovak was named the AHL’s top goaltender this season after posting a .932 save percentage and minuscule 1.75 goals against average.
It’s the base of Ontario’s playoff-style approach to the game. The Reign, like their NHL parent club the Los Angles Kings, play a hard physical game. There isn’t much space available in front of the net and they win the battles in the corners.
“They play the way you’re supposed to win playoff games,” Bednar said.
While the Reign have championship experience, Bednar’s team has been learning on the fly.
The Monsters swept their opening-round series and jumped out to 3-0 series lead against the Grand Rapids in Round 2 to start the playoffs with six straight wins. Then the Griffins won back-to-back games and a young Lake Erie team was forced to rebound and eventually ended the series in overtime of Game 6.
“Not just the young players, but the whole team has learned throughout the process,” Bednar said. “You can only really coach guys so much. Once they get into the games with higher implications like this, that’s when they really learn.”
And on a prospect level, this series is going to be fun to watch.
For Ontario Nic Dowd, a late bloomer from the 2009 draft, leads the team with eight points in nine postseason games. Adrian Kempe, the 29th overall pick in 2014, has five points, as do highly-touted wingers Michael Mersch and Justin Auger.
“Always hungry for playoffs,” Kempe said. “I tried to step up my game for the playoffs and we try to make the team better.”
The Kings top-ranked defensive prospects — Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel — have had quiet, yet effective postseasons and Lake Eerie has it’s own highly ranked defensive prospect that’s led the way in the playoffs.
Zach Werenski turned pro after finishing up his collegiate career at the University of Michigan this spring. Werenski had a team-high 10 points through the first two rounds, including the series clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against Griffins.
“He brings a new dynamic to the back end,” Ontario coach Mike Stothers said. “He can really bring the puck up the ice … it’s a good team.”
In addition to his point totals, Werenski has played big minutes in all situations and has been a reliable penalty killer for Lake Erie.
He’s joined by fellow highly ranked prospects Sonny Milano and Oliver Bjorsktrand, who are having strong AHL postseasons. Bjorskstrand has eight points in nine playoffs games, while Milano has put up one of the highlights of the playoffs with a spinning, no-look backhand goal against Grand Rapids.