Almost one year ago today – 362 days to be exact – the Aeros were taking to the ice in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final in Manitoba against the Moose. It’s a much different picture today for the Aeros, as they continue their search for a new head coach and the sting of missing the playoffs for just the third time in 16 seasons is just starting to fade.
Right now there’s a lot of scoreboard watching being done by Aeros’ fans, as the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs play out and a champion is eventually crowned some time in mid June.
With their thrilling, come-from-behind 6-5 overtime victory in Game 7 over the Chicago Wolves Tuesday – on the road mind you, the Texas Stars are the new West Division postseason champs. The Aeros of course held that honor last season.
In my last blog I said the Wolves would win in a decisive seventh game, and for a while it looked like I would be spot on. The Wolves had two, two-goal leads and a one-goal lead after Jason Krog snapped a 4-4 tie halfway through the third period. But the Stars would not be denied and from the parts of the broadcast I heard (listening to the Stars’ Josh Fisher) it was all Texas late in regulation and overtime, as they ended up out-shooting the Wolves in the game 53-29. The Stars were more desperate, more determined and despite having several key players either injured or suspended during the epic seven-game series, they found a way to prevail. Mighty impressive to say the least…
Before I get to my Conference Finals predictions, here is some fodder from around the AHL:
• The Dallas Stars have purchased the Iowa Chops franchise, which needed to happen for the Texas Stars to be a permanent fixture in the AHL. The Austin-based Stars were granted a temporary membership by the AHL for this season and they needed to purchase a full-time membership to play past this year. From what I gathered, the whole thing was never really in doubt, but they did have to purchase a membership. The reported sale went for $3.75 million.
• Several current AHL coaches are being considered for NHL jobs, and leading the way are Moose head coach Scott Arniel and Hamilton Bulldogs’ bench boss Guy Boucher. Arniel has already interviewed for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers openings, while Boucher hasn’t interviewed with anyone yet given the fact the Bulldogs are still alive in the battle for the Calder Cup. Kevin Dineen from the Portland Pirates has also been interviewed by the Blue Jackets.
• Speaking of coaching opportunities, the Aeros aren’t the only West Division team looking for a head coach, as the Peoria Rivermen are not bringing back interim head coach Rick Walmsley.
• Also, the Peoria-Journal Star reported that defenseman Jonas Junland turned down a one-way, $500,000 contract offer from the St. Louis Blues to head back overseas to play in the Swedish Elite League. Junland is of Swedish descent.
Western Conference Finals: Texas Stars vs. Hamilton Bulldogs
These two teams are amazingly similar – built around their team defense, solid goaltending and their fluid skating ability. Thus, without question, this is going to be a long series. Here are some regular season numbers to compare:
• Each team won once in the head-to-head matchups, with the Bulldogs win coming via a shootout.
• The Bulldogs ranked 1st in team GAA (2.28), while the Stars were 4th at 2.48
• Both teams were in the top 5 in the AHL in wins when scoring first (HAM: 40 & TEX: 35)
• The Bulldogs led the AHL in road wins with 27, while the Stars finished 4th with 22.
I really see this series as being filled with low scoring, one-goal affairs. That’s kind of a contrast to the 2010 postseason as a whole (NHL, AHL, ECHL) because the games seem to feature more scoring this year than in years past – now that’s just my opinion from looking at box scores, etc.
Anyway, you’ve got two, first-year head coaches hungry for success and two defensive minded clubs that both play a grinding, physical style. Here are a couple more things to consider:
1. The Stars won last night (Tuesday) in overtime and have to play Game 1 in Hamilton on Thursday night. Will fatigue play a role for them early in the series?
2. If the Montreal Canadiens prevail against the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight (Wednesday) in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup series, defenseman P.K. Subban and other valuable reinforcements won’t be available for the Bulldogs. That could loom large.
3. How long will Stars’ goaltender Brent Krahn be sidelined for? He suffered a concussion in Game 6 against the Wolves, so former Aero Matt Climie made the start and earned the win in Game 7 helping them advance.
If the Wolves had beaten the Stars like I predicted, I’d be picking the Bulldogs here. But I won’t make the mistake of going against the Stars again. They are playing inspired hockey and you can’t underestimate the desire of this team. They found a way to win against a more veteran and championship-laden team in the West Division Final, after disposing of a solid IceHogs team via a four-game sweep in Round 1. The Bulldogs were one of the most consistent teams all season, but not having Subban and forwards Tom Pyatt and Ben Maxwell – potentially - hurts their depth considerably. If Climie can hold the fort for the Stars (as Aeros’ fans saw him do last season in the Western Conference Finals), the Stars will win this series. No offense to the Moose or Abbottsford Heat, but I don’t think the Bulldogs have really been tested yet this postseason. That changes in a hurry on Friday night. I see the two sides splitting the first two games from Copps Coliseum in Hamilton and the Stars eventually clinching the series north of the border after taking two of three in Cedar Park.
The Pick: Stars in 6.
Par the course, here’s what some of my colleagues had to say when I posed some questions about the series:
Josh Fisher, Texas Stars’ broadcaster:
What have you been most impressed with during the Stars’ playoff run?
Resiliency – They have shown the ability to play a different style once desperation kicks in. They had a team-record 53 shots on goal in Game 7 against the Wolves. The determination factor was amazing. They outshot Chicago 24-6 in third period and overtime combined.
What style of play will be necessary for success in this series? We need to stick to our system. Defensive style. Collapse to the net, keep shots to the perimeter. It’s a very good match-up with Hamilton, two similar style teams.
Any other trends, stats, or line combinations that the fans should know about?
Game 7 was the best comeback in team history for a team that only had one come back all season when trailing after two periods of play. Not only did they overcome a pair of two-goal deficits, they also erased a one goal deficit in the last ten minutes. Texas was 1-21-1-1 overall when trailing after two periods, including a 1-10-1-1 mark at home.
Now to the Eastern Conference Finals – Manchester Monarchs vs. Hershey Bears
This is almost like the Bears’ parent club, the Washington Capitals, playing the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a few weeks back (and we all know how that turned out for the Caps). And I say that solely because you’ve got the best team in the regular season (Hershey) going up against a hot goaltender and his underdog team. Monarchs’ goaltender Jonathan Bernier has a 1.48 GAA in 10 playoff starts in 2010 and an 8-2 record to show for it, so the Bears, who scored an eye-popping 4.28 goals per game in the 80-game regular season and 40 goals in nine playoff games (4.4 per game), will have their hands full. Keep in mind the Bears have been off for 12 days since sweeping the Albany River Rats. The Monarchs had the fewest regular season wins (43) of any remaining team in the “final four” but they ranked 4th in team defense and they’ve gotten amazing balance in the playoffs, with 14 different skaters scoring at least one goal. The Bears are the defending champs and are coming off the greatest regular season in the AHL’s 74-year history plus they are 8-1 in the playoffs thus far.
Since I didn’t see either of these teams play this year, I’ll go off gut instinct. Bernier steals a game early in the series while the Bears are rusty and maybe the Monarchs win a close one on home ice as well.
The Pick: Bears in 6.
Bears broadcaster John Walton on Hershey's postseason run:
Biggest strength this postseason?
The offense, Giroux and Gordon have combined for 19 goals in the first two rounds.
Biggest surprise this postseason?
The amount of time we've been behind in the third period. Three wins of the eight, we've been trailing after two, and three more we were behind at some point in the third period after being tied after 2. Still 8-1 through two rounds. Not a game you want to play too much, but we're seemingly never out of it. I guess that would also double as our big area of concern.
Having what Frenchy calls our "shot mentality", shoot first, ask questions later. We're facing a heck of a goalie in Bernier in this series, we better be all over that one. We had two guys with 100 points, and they didn't have one that even got to 50 in the regular season. But yet, they're here after beating the top two teams in the Atlantic. We better produce when we can if we want to advance.
Here’s what Kim Mueller, from the Monarchs’ PR staff had to say when asked the following questions:
Biggest strength this postseason?
The biggest strength of the Monarchs this postseason is goaltender Jonathan Bernier. He was named the AHL’s outstanding goaltender for the 2009-10 season and has lived up to that title thus far in the playoffs. In 10 postseason games, he has an 8-2 record with a 1.48 goals-against-average and a .952 save percentage.
Biggest surprise this postseason?
The biggest surprise this postseason has been the timely scoring ability of left wing Bud Holloway. Out of the Monarchs eight wins, Holloway has been credited with the game-winner in six of them which ties him with right wing Darren Haydar (2006 Milwaukee Admirals) for the most game-winning goals in one playoff season.
Area for concern?
The Monarchs are a very young team compared to the Hershey Bears, with very limited playoff experience. But thus far through the playoffs, the Monarchs have not let that affect their game. They are a very close knit team that know how to come together and win games.
One difference-making intangible or key to winning the series?
The Monarchs need to play a full 60 minutes and they need to play smart. They will need to stay out of the penalty box, keep Hershey to the outside and keep the crease clear.
One final thing – I had the chance to catch up with Aeros’ GM Jim Mill earlier this week in a two part interview where we discuss the future of the Aeros, the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs and much more.
Enjoy the conference finals at both the AHL and NHL level, because pretty soon there won’t be frozen pucks flying around until October…
- Aero Joe