SPRINGFIELD, Mass – It was a tumultuous season for the American Hockey League. Due to travel restrictions and other COVID-19 related issues, the league decided to forgo their annual Calder Cup Playoffs. Instead, each division had the opportunity to elect to hold their own post-season play. Only the Pacific Division decided to opt-in, with the other divisions awarding the top teams in their respected division paced on points percentage.
This left many fans wondering, “what if?” Could their team have gone all the way to win the 2020-21 Calder Cup? Well, we here at The Sin Bin decided to try and answer this very question. Writers Zack Power, Andrew Rinaldi, Corey Swartz, and AHL Editor Deana Weinheimer put their heads together using season trends, head-to-head stats, and more to hypothesize how the playoffs would have shaken out this year.
Due to the lack of clear-cut conferences this season, we came up with our own playoff seeding and format. We seeded the teams based on their points percentage at the end of the regular season for all divisions outside of the Pacific.
AHL Playoff Simulation: 2021 Calder Cup First Round
While the AHL team with The Sin Bin has been predicting how the 2021 AHL Playoffs would unfold, Power decided to take a second approach, leaving it in the hands of EA Sports and NHL 21.
He set it all up with the seeding the same based on point percentage and even simmed the Pacific portion, but with a wink and a nod to Bakersfield, who won the title.
It’s a best of seven series, lasting four rounds. With game style set to arcade, and superstar, we got the sim going.
(1) Hershey Bears vs. (4) Utica Comets
By: Corey Swartz
Hershey and Utica did not meet during the 2020-21 season. A hypothetical playoff series would have been the first matchup between the two teams since December 27, 2019, where the Bears won a marathon 6-5 game in New York.
The Hershey Bears finished at the top of the North Division in a very successful season for the AHL’s senior franchise. Hershey’s 24-7-2-0 record was good for the top spot in the AHL as a whole, with their fourth straight win to conclude the season. Key players like Connor McMichael, Matt Moulson, Brett Leason, and Aliaksei Protas would be key players to watch entering the postseason. Hershey had three sound goaltenders in Pheonix Copley, Zach Fucale, and Hunter Shepard, any of which would inspire confidence in goal.
Then, Connor McMichael gets a slam dunk courtesy of a great feed by Brett Leason! pic.twitter.com/A3LTShaB8x
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) May 15, 2021
The Bears dealt with numerous injuries, particularly at the conclusion of the season that would have most likely factored into a playoff series significantly, missing such key players as Brian Pinho, Mike Sgarbossa, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Kody Clark, Riley Sutter, and Lucas Johansen. Although the Bears were able to find late-season success despite missing these players, the loss of these key players would have been an item of concern heading into the playoffs.
Utica received solid seasons from rookie skaters Carson Focht, Will Lockwood, and Tyler Tucker and was lead by Sam Anas with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 23 games played, Lukas Jasek with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 28 games played, and Jonah Gadjovich with 18 points (15 goals, three assists).
The Utica Comets finished with 28 games played this season, finishing at 16-11-0-1, the fewest games played in the North Division. The Comets were hit by COVID-19 in March, only playing two games in the month and only playing three teams the rest of the way. The only area of concern with the Comets would be in goal, where they had six different netminders (four of whom were rookies) start in goal this season. Joel Hofer had the highest number of games played with ten, sporting a 3.33 goals-against average and a 0.898 save percentage playing up to the season’s end.
A playoff series between the two teams would have been unique. The Bears have not played an opponent from Utica in the playoffs since the team played the Utica Devils in the 1989 Calder Cup Playoffs, where Hershey won by a 4-1 series score in the opening round of the playoffs. Hershey’s injury situation is certainly worth watching and would potentially improve as things progress, the Bears would most likely take the series, and three games to one in a best-of-five series is my prediction.
NHL 21 Simulation Prediction
Another series that would go to seven games, the third to be exact. Not the best series to be had by all. No notable leaders in that round, but a spirited three-games won by Hershey on the road. The Bears will move on.
(2) Lehigh Valley Phantoms vs. (3) Syracuse Crunch
By: Deana Weinheimer
Lehigh Valley and Syracuse did not meet during the 2020-21 Regular Season. They met twice in the shortened 2019-20 Regular Season, with both teams carrying a 1-1-0-0 record in that season series. In the past five seasons, Syracuse has a decisive advantage: 6-2-0-0.
Lehigh Valley Pros
Finishing second in the North, the Phantom would be primed for a strong post-season run. Perhaps their strongest asset would be found in goaltender Zane McIntyre. He backstopped the Phantoms to an 11-3-3 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and .917 save percentage and one shutout. This was good enough for fifth in the AHL in goals-against average and third in save percentage in the 2020-21 season.
On offense, Cal O’Reilly and Ryan Fitzgerald both averaged above .70 points per game, with playing at least 28 games in the short AHL season. Would that continue into the playoffs? It is a very good chance!
Lehigh Valley Cons
If the Phantoms want to continue to the second round, they need to find some help on the power play. It was producing at just 17.9% at the season’s end, good enough for 18th out of 28 teams. While their penalty kill is ranked significantly higher, they are also third highest in the AHL in shorthanded goals against at six.
The old fake him out pic.twitter.com/IZBwys8Vxn
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) May 16, 2021
When it was announced that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers would be sending prospects to ice a team in Syracuse, there were questions about how it would all shake out. Turns out it went pretty well. The Crunch were only two points out of second place in the North and landed seventh in the overall standings.
Boris Katchouk (29gp, 11+23=34pts., +17, 1 PPG, 1 GWG) and Taylor Raddysh (27gp, 12+17=29pts., +2, 3 PPG, 1 SHG) led the way for the Crunch this season.
Having the Lightning and Panthers skating in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Syracuse’s top talent would likely have been unavailable.
If the Crunch want to move on, they would need to find some way to play a clean game. With a penalty kill that ranks 20th in the league at 79.8%, they wouldn’t want to give Lehigh Valley too many opportunities.
Which special teams unit figures itself out first? Who commits the most penalties? Those questions would lead us to potentially figuring out which team would move onto the second round.
I think that this would be a very tight series, going right on into game seven. With a thinned Crunch roster, they are looking at a bit of an uphill road. However, the Phantoms would ultimately prevail.
NHL 21 Simulation Prediction
Mathieu Joseph was the first star for the Crunch starting out. Producing seven points in three games, Joseph was a +4 and shooting north of 40%.
That series would end up going to seven games, where after six, Joseph remained atop the leaderboard in points and continued to steamroll the competition.
Despite having some of the best in the playoffs, the Crunch would fall in the seventh game, moving the Phantoms to the next round.
Atlantic and Canadian Divisions
Due to the limited number of teams participating out of the Atlantic Division, we combined it with the next smallest division: the Candian Division. The top four teams in this combined division make up this part of our bracket.
(1) Laval Rocket vs. (4) Belleville Senators
By: Zack Power
Belleville had an exceptional end to the season. In the last nine games of the season, Belleville won eight of them. In that time, the Senators outshot their opponent 38-25. Amongst that stretch included a 4-3 win against the Rocket where Logan Brown would score the game-winning goal.
Belleville has often been a team to start lying down in the third period. Belleville holds two season records for the fewest shots fired in the third period. Only discharging one shot, one of their leaderboard nights came in a 3-0 loss against Laval on April 23rd. To add to the stat, Belleville has an abysmal 1-14-1 record when trailing after two periods; Laval is running a 1-6-2 record while trailing after two.
Vejdemo a failli réduire l'écart de moitié!
— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) May 8, 2021
There’s no looking past the season series in this one. Laval had a stranglehold on the season series during the 2020-21 season. Running a 9-3 record, Laval even had a streak of five straight wins against the Senators. In their 12 game set, the Rocket flew past Belleville scoring 33-26, with both teams boasting a shutout.
While Laval’s focus would be solely on the AHL and the Calder Cup, there’s no doubt that there would be some thought about Montreal being in a tight series against Toronto. With the Senators not in the playoffs, their roster wouldn’t be so concerned about playoffs hopes against their biggest rival, as Laval.
When looking for a winner in the series, there’s no doubt you can look for a solid playoff run from Laval. Their play has been dominating all season, and they have a team of raw talent. That being said, Belleville’s core could no doubt put up a strong fight. I give it to Laval, but taking it in seven games.
NHL 21 Prediction
Joey Daccord recorded a shutout in game one against Laval, backstopping 25 shots.
EA went with Flip Gustavsson for the better part of the tail of the series. In his first two starts, he published a 2.14 GAA and a 0.912 SVS%
Gustavsson was seemingly the right choice as Belleville knocked off the Canadian Champs in six games.
(2) Manitoba Moose vs. (3) Providence Bruins
By: Zack Power
2020-21 Season Series
No games played
Manitoba has an outstanding prospect to look to in Cole Perfetti, who had an exceptional season in the Canadian Divison. Drafted 10th in the 2020 draft, at just 19 years old, Perfetti captured nine goals and 17 assists through 32 games with the Moose. Perfetti was named AHL’s April Rookie of the month and has put himself in contention for the top rookie through the 2020-21 season.
The Moose would possibly have to do it without goalie Mikhail Berdin and C.J. Suess, who could have been recalled to the Winnipeg Jets as they roll through the 2021 NHL Playoffs. Berdin has been able to provide solid goaltending through the 2021 season for the Moose. Meanwhile, Suess has been serving as their assistant captain through the regular season, providing 14 points through 31 games.
As a side note, Suess was one of the leading scorers through The Sin Bin’s NHL 21 Sim-Series.
Providence has one of the best penalty-killing records in the AHL. During the 2021 AHL season, the Bruins were able to execute near 85% when down a man. Landing in third in the league for their PK, Providence only allowed 21 goals through their 99 times short-handed.
One thing that the Bruins will have to push through in this series is their experience. Due to COVID-19 restraints, Providence has only been able to face teams within the shortened Atlantic Division. While the Bruins were atop of the division consisting of Hartford and Bridgeport, they haven’t been able to take a crack at teams outside their circuit since the 2019-20 shortened season.
NHL 21 Simulation Prediction
Suess was #1 in points through the first two games of the playoffs. This came as a surprise to me, as he only recorded 14 points through 31 games during the AHL regular season. His team had a 2-0 series lead going into game three.
But Providence would come back, forcing a game seven against the Moose. Their comeback bid would fall short in the seventh game on the road. It was a series where the home team won every game.
(1) Chicago Wolves vs. (4) Iowa Wild
By: Andrew Rinaldi
The Chicago Wolves and Iowa Wild played eight games in the abbreviated 2021 season, with the Wolves taking six of those games in a particularly decisive fashion. The first four games were won by Chicago with a combined score of 24-5, highlighted by Chicago’s excellence on special teams where they refused to yield a Wild powerplay goal, scoring twice shorthanded, and terrorizing Iowa with their own man advantage with 8 powerplay markers.
The Wolves, however, aren’t strangers to physical play themselves and seem to take their transition game to another level when their opponents are coming hard down the boards. Chicago’s defensemen making quick passes out of the zone would create odd-man rushes for their speedy forwards, who feasted on the Wild with such play all season.
Though the skewed numbers started to even out as Iowa added first-round selection Matt Boldy and took a couple of games from the Wolves, Chicago would continue to pour it on offensively against the Wild until their last match of the season.
Consistency. You could see that they had the talent, and when they moved their feet and put the effort in, they were pretty unstoppable. But there were several stretches where they kind of rested on their laurels and coasted a bit, resulting in lapses in the defensive or neutral zones and saw them on their heels when they really didn’t need to be if they just buttoned-down and cleaned up their game a bit more. Those are the mistakes that games get stolen on in the postseason.
Iowa plays an incredibly physical style, as highlighted by their PIM totals. Led by veterans Cody McLeod, Mitch McLain, and Gabriel Dumont, the Wild forecheck intensely that would translate into a war over a series of playoff hockey where the checking becomes even tighter.
Speed and playmaking. For as big and massive as they are, they struggled mightily to keep up with the Wolves in transition. Likewise, they have decent scorers, but I’ve noticed a PP quarterback missing that they could terribly use. They’re not much of a cycle team, and while they play to their strengths, a solid puck possession player that can hold and move the puck would be a huge difference, especially in keeping a dangerous Wolves attack from the puck.
Iowa ended up leading the AHL in PIMs, with Chicago a somewhat distant fourth in time served. In their eight games, Iowa and Chicago averaged over 50 PIMs per game. Several fights erupted from scrums and rough play after almost every whistle, and plenty of words were exchanged between both benches.
A few quick goals, some frustration from the Wild leading to powerplay opportunities would make this a quick but chippy series. The Wild won’t make it easy for their bitter division rivals and might steal a game. Still, the Wolves’ speed on the wings, their transitions to beat the Wild forecheck, and ability to execute on Iowa’s undisciplined play should see a Chicago victory in about five games.
NHL 21 Simulation Prediction
This matchup was the first to draw blood. Last season, I predicted the two go to the finals, and Chicago is the Sim-Series defending champs. They only wasted one game in taking out Iowa 4-1. Alex Nedeljkovic was their cornerstone, providing the Wolves with a .930 SVS% and a 1.71 SVS%.
(2) Cleveland Monsters vs. (3) Grand Rapids Griffins
By: Deana Weinheimer
|Feb 13||@Cleveland||Grand Rapids||3-1|
|Feb 20||@Grand Rapids||Grand Rapids||2-1 OT|
|Mar 20||@Cleveland||Grand Rapids||5-2|
|Apr 20||@Grand Rapids||Grand Rapids||5-3|
|Apr 21||@Grand Rapids||Grand Rapids||2-1|
|May 5||@Grand Rapids||Cleveland||3-2|
|May 11||@Cleveland||Grand Rapids||2-0|
|May 15||@Grand Rapids||Grand Rapids||4-1|
Cleveland would have all eligible players at their disposal with the Columbus Blue Jackets not in the playoffs. Their power play ranked second in the league, thanks to the likes of forwards Tyler Sikura, Tyler Angle, Carson Meyer, and defensemen Thomas Schemitsch and Dillon Simpson.
Angle and Liam Foudy found chemistry in the back half of the season, especially on special teams. When on the penalty kill, they generated plenty of short-handed chances.
What an absolutely unfortunate matchup for Cleveland. Once the season got underway and the players settled into a groove, Cleveland looked like a strong contender every night. The only team to really give them problems? Grand Rapids.
Cleveland had problems shutting down Grand Rapids, being outscored 32-21 on the season. Rookie goaltender Daniil Tarasov had the highest win count for the team on the season series at two and had the lowest save percentage at 0.906. He came over from the KHL late in Cleveland’s season and had some issues adjusting to North American ice.
Riley Barber on the PP brings this one to a one-goal game. Tarasov has had an issue with these shots in traffic tonight.
That's Barber's 10th point on the season against Cleveland. Think he likes playing them?
— Deana Weinheimer (@SinBinMonsters) May 15, 2021
Grand Rapids Pros
Grand Rapids would honestly not need to change much to get a win each night in this series. Just ice Riley Barber and Taro Hirose. Simple as that. These two made quick work of Cleveland at each match this season. Barber had 11 points in 10 matches, with Hirose having 9 in 9. These are just the kind of weapons that Cleveland could not find answers for.
Their power play is deadly, clicking at 21.5%, which finished fifth in the league.
Grand Rapids Cons
When it comes to a matchup against Cleveland, there are few cons to find with this Griffins roster. The only issue I could find is their power-play goals against, 16, which is the sixth-highest in the league. In comparison, Cleveland is 13th with 11. Still not a glaring error, but it is something.
Cleveland is pretty advantageous of errors and can ride momentum very well, especially at home. Having the lower seed, the Griffins would need to keep Cleveland contained in a loud and large arena.
Basically, the Griffins just need to protect their high scorers, and they would be fine in this series.
Grand Rapids takes this series easily. Cleveland relies on Matiss Kivlenieks in net, but he is no match for the Griffins’ firepower, especially Hirose and Barber. This is a very spirited series with lots of speed and grit. Grand Rapids wins the six-game series. My prediction is that Cleveland’s wins come at home, bolstered by a loud and passionate fan base.
NHL 21 Simulation Prediction
Calvin Pickard recorded a shutout through game one. Pickard stopped 20/20 through his 60.
Pickard would drive his team to a 4-1 series win in the first round. Pickard had a swift 0.939 SVS% and a 1.60 GAA. Cleveland only scored eight goals through the five games. Grand Rapids had 14.
With the Pacific Division actually holding a playoff series (congratulations, Bakersfield), we won’t be delving too deep into the pros and cons of the series. However, to keep the sim as real as possible, we used the seeding based on the regular season results and ran these teams through as well.
Bakersfield (2) vs. San Diego(3)
Alex Dostie came to an explosive start for the Gulls, providing a hattrick in game one, pushing them to a 3-2 victory. Dostie was also responsible for that game’s OT winner, just six minutes in.
San Diego would continue to dominate the series, taking off the divisional champions in Bakersfield, who won the playoffs just weeks ago.
Josh Mashura was the top scorer in the series, recording six points through the first five games.
San Diego won in five games.
(1) Henderson vs. (4) San Jose
It was a little shocking to see that San Jose had quickly grown a 3-0 series lead. They were unsuccessful through their 11 power plays but had an advantage throughout.
Henderson was riding Oscar Dansk, who had a 0.840 SVS% and a 4.69 GAA through three games.
It came as no surprise that San Jose knocked out Henderson just one game later. Henderson was outscored 19-12 in the five-game series.
Stay tuned to The Sin Bin for the second round simulation coming next week!