With the AHL’s regular season ending Sunday, The Sin Bin’s Matthew Harding, Cameron Turner, and Samantha Hoffmann take a look at their top four teams predicted to make a splash in the playoffs, and a few who could play spoiler.
SPLASH: Lehigh Valley Phantoms – (45-19-5-5) The Lehigh Valley Phantoms have clinched the Atlantic Division, sitting at 100 points with three games to play. They will be looking to build upon last season, one in which they improved their point total by 26 points from 2015-16 (101-75). They held a similar record (48-23-0-5, 101 points) but failed to make it out of the first round – now is the time to take that next step and win in the postseason.
Offense has been the name of the game for the Phantoms, who are tied atop the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers at 3.42 goals/game. Phil Varone leads the way for the Phantoms with 70 points (23 G, 47 A), tied for the most in the AHL. Greg Carey holds the team lead in goals, and his 31 is just one off the AHL high. Lehigh Valley has scored first 40 times this season and has at least a point in 34 of 40, posting a record of 30-4-3-3.
The Phantoms will have a very difficult road to travel if they are to advance to the Calder Cup finals. They will have to beat two 90-point teams to get out of the Atlantic, and likely a fellow 100-point squad in the East Final. To put that in perspective there is currently only one team in the entire Western Conference with 90 points or more – Chicago with 91. The Phantoms will have home ice advantage throughout at least the Atlantic Division portion of the playoffs, however, and are 25-6-3-2 inside the PPL Center.
SPLASH: Tucson Roadrunners – (39-20-5-1) The Tucson Roadrunners have yet to officially clinch the Pacific Division, but have a magic number of just two to take home the crown and can do so Wednesday night. This year has been a tremendous step forward for Tucson, as the Roadrunners are in the playoffs for the first time in just their second season in the desert. Tucson was 29-31-8-0 last year in its first season since moving from Springfield (Falcons).
The Roadrunners have been towards the top of the league in both offensive and defensive stats, ranking fourth in goals against and ninth in goals for. They have been led by their lockdown defense all season, which ranks second in the AHL allowing only 26.71 shots a game. With the opponents frustrated, the Roadrunners will then turn to two players who have been point-a-game guys in their time with Tucson in 2017-18. Dylan Strome has spent some time in the NHL but has still 50 points in 47 games (22G, 28A). Tucson added another threat before the trade deadline in Carter Camper. Camper has 61 (16A, 45A) points in 68 games, including his time with last-place Cleveland, but has 19 points (3-16–19) in 15 games since coming over from Cleveland.
The Pacific has been the deepest division top to bottom in the AHL, but Tucson has been on top the majority of the year. They play the type of hockey needed to win in the playoffs, but one question remains – will they have the experience to know what it takes in the second season Should they find that answer is yes, this could easily be your Western Conference representative in the 2018 Calder Cup Finals.
SPLASH: Toronto Marlies – (51-18-2-2) You are reading that correctly, the Marlies have lost just four games in extra time this season. They have been the league’s most dominant team from the first puck drop of the season, and have a 10-point lead over the second place Syracuse Crunch. The first team in the league to clinch not only a playoff spot, but also their division, Toronto has a goal differential of +78, almost twenty more than the next team.
With a goaltending tandem of Garret Sparks (30 wins) and Calvin Pickard (20 wins), you would be hard-pressed to find a better duo than these two in the AHL, let alone the NHL. Either of these men could backstop this unstoppable team to the Calder Cup Finals, and Sheldon Keefe has to be feeling pretty confident about his team’s backend at this point.
Keefe’s team also has 13 skaters sitting at 20 points or above. Their leader Ben Smith has 57 points (27G, 30A) in 72 games, but Toronto’s ability to spread out its scoring is an extremely positive thing entering the playoffs. Unlike other teams quarterbacked by one or two high-scoring players, the Marlies get contributions from everyone and therefore do not have to worry about potentially losing a player to call up or injury the way other playoff teams do.
On paper, the Marlies should easily be the Eastern Conference Champions in a month’s time. One potential weakness is their performance at home – 22-13-1-0 – compared to 29-5-1-2 on the road. While Toronto still has a great record at home, playoff hockey is a different animal, and with home advantage sured up through all of playoffs they have to be better to hoist the Calder Cup.
SPLASH: Chicago Wolves – (40-22-7-4) Rocky Thompson’s team found itself struggling to climb out of a 5-11-4-1 hole on December 2nd, and it did just that and more. After stringing together a 14-game point streak beginning just a week later, the Wolves now sit on top of the Central Division having overcome the Manitoba Moose who seemed untouchable earlier in the season.
Part of Chicago’s early struggles came due to the revolving door in the crease. The Wolves saw five goaltenders don a jersey for them, but each outperformed expectations en route to Chicago’s ascension to the top of the Central Division.
One thing Chicago needs to worry about entering playoffs is getting wins on the road. Though this team appears to have home ice for a bit, their road record of 17-13-5-2 is the worst of any playoff team.
While the Wolves are 6-2-0-2 in their last ten, they were struggling to ice a healthy team during that entire span. Now, they have their top-two centers in T.J. Tynan (13G, 45A, 58 points) and Wade Megan (11G, 22A, 33 points) back healthy, plus Brandon Pirri (29G, 23A, 52 points) returned from a recent stint in Vegas. With Teemu Pulkkinen (25A, 34A, 59 points) returning to his scoring prowess and the Wolves finally getting consistent scoring contributions from the blue line, this team could make a run in the playoffs and potentially challenge for a Calder Cup as long as they keep up their consistency.
SPOILER: Rockford IceHogs – (39-26-4-4) Rockford has been on fire to end the year, and has risen to the fourth spot in the Central Division. By no means are they locked into the four seed as they find themselves tied with the Moose and Griffins in points with 88, and within three points of the first-place Wolves. They are behind on points percentage, however, as they have played one more game than the three teams in front. They have two games (a home-and-home against the Wolves) left to try to get to second and earn home ice for the first round, and are 22-12-2-1 in Rockford this season.
Rockford has had scoring from throughout the lineup, with 14 players on the active roster with 20 or more points. They do not have anyone among the league leaders, with the team high at just 43 points (Matthew Highmore, Anthony Louis), but Chris DiDomenico has 22 points in 20 games since coming to Rockford from Syracuse. The IceHogs will also have their full complement of goalies, as John-Francois Berube and Jeff Glass were returned from NHL Chicago April 8. Berube is just 7-8-0 on with Rockford but has a save percentage of .920 and a GAA of 2.37, while Glass is 15-8-2 with the IceHogs.
Rockford appears headed for a showdown with the Chicago Wolves, but the IceHogs do not care who they will play. This is a team which looked like it would be on the outside looking in a couple months ago, and is now coming in on an absolute roll. The Wolves have also been rolling, and would be the favorite, but the reinforced IceHogs are completely capable of winning the series. Expect the weekend series with Chicago to potentially indicate who could win a playoff series. With the added depth and experience, this is a team that could go a long way if they can get through round one.
SPOILER: Utica Comets – (37-25-7-4) One of the largest reasons Utica has such success, especially on the road, is because of its goaltending. Thatcher Demko is the future of the Canucks’ goaltending, and he has the fourth-most wins in the AHL this season with 24. After Milwaukee’s Anders Lindback, Demko has the second-most saves in the AHL.
Utica also finds itself getting contributions from all ends of the ice, with Patrick Wiercioch recording 36 points (9 G, 27 A), good for 11th overall in the AHL amongst blueliners. The Comets have five players at or above 30 points this season, and will be getting Reid Boucher and Nikolay Goldobin back for their run at the Cup. The addition of the recently-acquired Tyler Motte to Utica’s playoff roster only further strengthens this team’s scoring depth.
The Comets are 21-11-4-1 on the road, and will not have home advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. With as good as the Comets have been on the road, their first-round foe, the Syracuse Crunch, have been even better at home. For this team to play spoiler, they will have to make sure they are the ones scoring first. Utica has a 0.736 points percentage when scoring first, while Syracuse has a 0.813 points percentage.
However, if the Comets want to play spoiler in the Calder Cup Playoffs, they have to try and decide games in regulation. In an exhausting 25 overtimes games played, the Comets have gone 8-7 in overtime and 6-4 in the shootout. Hopefully, all those extra time games do not mean the Comets are any more worn than the rest of their Northern divisional rivals. If Utica can score first against Syracuse and decide games in overtime, though Utica has a tough division to try and make it out of, they could make a run with all the added help Vancouver added after its season ended.
SPOILER: Syracuse Crunch – (44-21-3-5) It seems weird that we have labeled the defending Eastern Conference champions as a “spoiler,” but here we are. Syracuse appears loaded and ready to defend their crown when the Calder Cup Playoffs begin next week.
The Crunch have been strong at home this season, earning a North Division-leading 24 wins at Oncenter War Memorial Arena. Away from the friendly confines, the Crunch have the third most wins in the division, with 20 on the campaign (as of press time,) so it is clearly evident that head coach Benoit Groulx has developed a game plan that can transport easily, a crucial key to success at this time of year.
One of the pillars to Syracuse’s success this season has been that they have received contributions from every position on the ice, with eight players collecting 30 points or more so far this season. Of greater significance, is the contributions the Crunch have received from the rookies on the roster, four of whom have more than 30 points this season, including Mathieu Joseph, who has 53 points (18G, 38A) in 63 games. On the blueline, Mat Bodie leads the Crunch with 37 points in 73 games this season.
After some turbulence in net earlier this season, things appear to have stabilized for the Crunch heading into the playoffs. Eddie Pasquale & Connor Ingram will likely be the tandem in the playoffs, with Louis Domingue up with the Tampa Bay Lightning for their playoff run. Pasquale has played in nine games with the Crunch since being traded there in late January, and has a 9-1-1 record in 14 appearances. He has a 1.79 goals against average, a .936 save percentage with one shutout in the blue & white. His rookie counterpart, Ingram, has shouldered much of the load since Domingue’s call-up to the big club. The 21-year-old netminder is 19-11-2 on the season, with a 2.40 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and three shutouts on the season. Of note, though, is that Ingram has lost his last two games, allowing seven goals on 51 shots faced.
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