So it’s the Wolves and the Stars in the AHL’s West Division Finals.
Before I go any further – kudos to Lane Lambert’s Milwaukee Admirals who gave the Wolves all they could handle taking them to a decisive seventh game. In my previous blog, I said Wolves in 5 and Stars in 6. It ended up being Wolves in 7 and a sweep by the Stars (surprising, I know).
Here are some tidbits from around the AHL:
o Rumors have it that Lowell will be moving their franchise to Albany for next season, which would be closer to their parent club in New Jersey and also make a prime rival for the Adirondack Phantoms.
o If you’ve been “sleeping at the wheel” lately, you’ve probably missed some of the other franchise movement – here’s a summary: The Edmonton Oilers are putting their AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City (previously based out of Springfield), the Columbus Blue Jackets affiliate will play in Springfield and the Anaheim Ducks will move their prospects into Syracuse (last season the Ducks didn’t have a primary AHL affiliate, they instead sprinkled their prospects across the league). The AHL is slated to have 30 teams in 2010-2011.
Now for a breakdown for the West Division Finals:
First of all, this series is going to be spectacular. If you get a chance to go to Austin for a game, do it! As a hockey fan, and a fan of the AHL, it will be worth the trip. Here’s the schedule: Wolves vs. Stars series schedule
Offense: Jamie Benn (6 pts. in Round 1 vs. Rockford) gives the Texas Stars a legitimate offensive threat, something they didn’t have during the regular season while Benn was playing in the NHL with the Dallas Stars. In addition, the line of Francis Wathier, Warren Peters and Ray Sawada will wreak havoc on the Wolves’ skill players, taking away their time and space and hammering them every chance they get. However, the Wolves have more skill overall – they had five skaters with at least 20 goals in the regular season. Advantage: Wolves
Defense: This is a tough one to call. With the Wolves, you’ve got Chris Chelios – need I say more? Then you have former Star Ivan Vishnevskiy, 15-goal man Paul Postma, plus/minus monster Arturs Kulda and another veteran in Nathan Oystrick just to name a few. So there’s certainly some depth there. Flip to the Stars’ lineup and you’ve got steady blue liners like Maxime Fortunus, Garrett Stafford, Andrew Hutchinson, etc. Honestly, this might be dead even. Both teams are deep on the back end and veteran laden. The Wolves probably have a little bit more offensive upside, but not much in my opinion. Advantage: Even
Goaltending: The Wolves used both Peter Mannino and Drew MacIntyre in round 1 and neither were spectacular. Mannino did pitch two shutouts, but he allowed four or more goals three times and he was pulled in two of those outings. This type of inconsistent play (from both goaltenders) was a concern for the Wolves’ coaching down the stretch of the regular season. Mannino has to be much better against a stingy and opportunistic Stars team if the Wolves are going to advance. As for the Stars, Brent Krahn was outstanding in the sweep of Rockford. He allowed just five goals and sported a 96.1 save %. Wow. Krahn is a free agent at season’s end and he appears extremely motivated, hoping to prove he’s an NHL-caliber goaltender. Despite being a veteran netminder, his four wins in round 1 were the first of his Calder Cup playoff career. Advantage: Stars
Special Teams: I’ll take a great penalty kill over a talented power play this time of year, so I’m leaning towards the Stars and their 2nd ranked PK (86.4%) from the regular season. The Wolves can throw out two, talented PP units, but the grit and goaltending the Stars bring to their PK make them tough to crack. Plus, the Stars power play keeps it simple: shots from the point and big bodies in front. Advantage: Stars
Intangibles: The Wolves have a clear advantage here, especially with Chelios in the lineup. In addition, head coach Don Lever and his assistant Ron Wilson won the Calder Cup in 2007 with Hamilton, so they won’t be fazed on a big stage. However, don’t underestimate the Stars’ coaching staff – they are well prepared, determined and hungry for success. Again, I stress the importance of Jamie Benn into the Stars’ lineup – he’s a difference maker and he adds to their forward depth. Both teams have players with Calder Cup rings and other pro championships under their belt, but I don’t even need to do the research to know that the Wolves have more championship experience. Advantage: Wolves
Keys to Victory:
Texas Stars broadcaster Josh Fisher -
1. First Goal - Texas was 4-0 in round one when scoring first and the Wolves out-scored Milwaukee 9-0 in the first period of their series.
2. Brent Kran - The Stars will need great goaltending and it's imperitive to keep the Wolves to the outside.
3. Physical Intensity - The Stars will attempt to wear down Chicago's skill players over the course of a long series.
Chicago Wolves broadcaster Jason Shaver -
1. Goaltending - Peter Mannino looked great in three of the four wins. He notched two shutouts and gave up one goal in Game 7; however, he was pulled in two of the three losses.
2. Special Teams - The Wolves went 8 for 26 on the power play against the Admirals and killed off 13 of 15 penalties in the final four games of te series.
3. Scoring first - The Wolves won four of the five games they scored first in round one.
The Pick: Both teams are solid on home ice with the Wolves winning 29 games and the Stars claiming 24 during the regular season, so with a potential seventh game in Chicago, there has to be some advantage there. The Wolves may have underestimated the willingness of Milwaukee in round 1, and if that happens again, they won’t be lucky enough to survive. According to the Wolves’ coaches when I spoke with them during the regular season, complacency and work ethic were issues for the Wolves at times. We should know early in the series if the Wolves are truly motivated. As for the Stars, their emphatic thumping of Rockford should have sent a notice to the rest of the AHL that they are legit. They’ve got a guy like Landon Wilson (375 NHL GP) playing on essentially their fourth line right now and clutch scorers like Greg Rallo and former Aero Matt Beaudoin make them extremely dangerous even if given just a few opportunities. Finally, don’t be surprised if the winner of Game One takes the series since these two teams are so evenly matched. This series could go either way, but since I can’t sit on the fence… WOLVES IN 7
I’m trying to line up some “keys to victory” and even some audio interviews from the Stars and Wolves respective staffs as we speak, so check back prior to Friday’s Game One for updates to this blog.
- Aero Joe