Calder Cup Finals Preview

The last two years the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings have had some intense first round playoff series’ in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.  But this year, after each NHL club failed to make the playoffs, it is their respected AHL teams, the Lightning’s Syracuse Crunch and the Red Wing’s Grand Rapids Griffins, that have taken the AHL playoffs by storm and will meet in the Calder Cup Finals.

Their History

As mentioned above, the two NHL squads met in the first round of the NHL playoffs in the 2014/2015 season, and 2015/2016 season.  The Lightning would go on to win both of the series, in 7 games in 2015, and in 5 games in 2016.  But before that, the two AHL teams faced off in 2013 for the Calder Cup.  Neither the Griffins or the Crunch had won the Calder Cup going into the series, although the Lightning’s affiliate team the year before, the Norfolk Admirals, had won the Calder Cup before changing their AHL affiliation to the Syracuse Crunch.

During the 2013 Calder Cup Finals, the Griffins would jump out to a 3-0 lead in the best of 7 series but then see their lead dissipate as the Crunch would win the next two, making the series 3-2 in favor of Grand Rapids.  The Griffins would not be denied in game 6 however and would defeat the Crunch to claim their first Calder Cup in the teams history.

As you know, this would not be the last time players from the two teams would see each other.  A year removed and now playing in the “big boy” league, many players from both teams would face off again in what became an intense NHL playoff rivalry between the two.  For the Griffins; goaltender Petr Mrazek, forwards Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, defenseman Danny DeKeyser, and even head coach Jeff Blashill would be both part of the 2013 Calder Cup winning Finals and the NHL playoff series’.  For the Crunch it was forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Vladislav Namestnikov, JT Brown, and defensemen Andrej Sustr and Mark Barberio that played part in both their Calder Cup Finals run and eventually their Stanley Cup Final run in the 2015 NHL playoffs.  Also, the Lightning’s coach Jon Cooper coached the Crunch’s first 65 games before their eventual Calder Cup run, leading them to a 39-18-3-5 record, before being promoted to the NHL before the AHL playoffs began.

How They Got Here

For the Syracuse Crunch, they finished first in the Eastern Conference’s North Division and in the first round took on the fourth seeded St. John’s IceCaps.  They would lose their first game to the IceCaps in the best-of-5 first round format, but the Crunch would go on to win the next three games, one in regulation, one in overtime, and one in double overtime, to move onto the second round.  There they would face the Toronto Marlies in what would turn into an epic 7 game series.  Each team ended up winning their home games heading into Game 7, and the Crunch prevailed 6-3 with a late insurance goal from Cory Conacher and then an empty net goal shortly after.  The Crunch them found themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals where they would make short work of the Providence Bruins, beating them in 5 games thanks in part by scoring a whopping 22 goals in the 5 games combined.

After clinching a playoff spot as a 2nd seed in the Western Conference’s Central Division, the Grand Rapids Griffins have hit the ice running and have not looked backed.  In the opening round, the Milwaukee Admirals took the Griffins to overtime twice but were ultimately swept, as Grand Rapids took the series in 3 games.  Then, in round two, the Griffins would come face to face with the Chicago Wolves, the team that finished one point above them in the standings to claim the top seed in the Central.  But it would not matter.  Brushing off a 7-3 loss in game 2, the Griffins would take the series in 5 games, with all of their wins coming by 2 goals or more.  Next, in the Western Conference Finals, they would take on the winner and top seed of the Pacific Division, the San Jose Barracuda.  Following a similar story of round 2, the Griffins lost game 2 but would take the rest of the games to win in 5, again. They head into the Finals having only lost 2 playoff games thus far.

Who To Watch For

The leading scorer of the AHL playoffs thus far has been Crunch forward Cory Conacher with 9 goals and 11 assists in 16 games.  He is joined by a plethora of other teammates that saw a lot of extended time in the NHL due to injuries on the Lightning team.  This includes Yanni Gourde (17 points), Erik Condra (14 points), Michael Bournival (9 points), Gabriel Dumont (9 points), Joel Vermin (7 points), and Adam Erne (7 points).  Defensemen Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin, both of which have seen extend NHL time as well, may be battling for the last protected spot on the defensive side of the roster for the upcoming expansion draft.  Newcomer Mitchell Stephens (drafted 33rd overall by the Lightning in 2015) will look to make an impact as well at the center position.

While the Griffins may not have as many players currently on their roster with as much NHL playing time as the Crunch, that doesn’t mean they don’t have talent and depth.  Three players lead the team in playoff goals with 7 (Tomas Nosek, Matt Lorito, Matthew Ford) and two different players lead their team playoff points with 15 (Ben Street, Eric Tangradi).  Not even mentioned yet is punishing winger who can also score Tyler Bertuzzi (yes, the nephew of thee Todd Bertuzzi), and flashy Russian winger Evgeny Svechnikov who scored this beautiful shootout winning goal in his first career NHL game.  On defense, Dylan “The Undertaker” McIlrath patrols for bone crushing hits while newcomer Filip Hronek (drafted 53rd overall by the Red Wings in 2016) looks to use his right handed shot to make an impression on the Griffins and the Red Wings.

Journeymen

For the Crunch, it’s been all about Cory Conacher.  Conacher has been here before, but he has also been quite a few places.  During his 2011/2012 rookie season with then Lightning affiliate Norfolk Admirals, he won the AHL MVP, along with the Calder trophy.  The next season as the Admirals became the Crunch, Conacher was rewarded by the club and was called up to the Lightning.  He found his stride with the Lightning quickly and was 2nd in rookie scoring, but was then traded April 3rd to the Ottawa Senators for a goalie you might know, Ben Bishop.  The next year in Ottawa was not good for Conacher as he was waived, but then claimed, by the Buffalo Sabres, and finished out the year there.  Now a free agent, Conacher signed with the New York Islanders only to be traded again to the Vancouver Canucks and was assigned to their AHL team, the Utica Comets.  With the Comets, Conacher reached the Calder Cup Finals for a second time, only to lose to the Manchester Monarchs in 5 games.  A free agent once again, Conacher went overseas to play for SC Bern, a top tier team of the Swiss hockey league system playing in National League A.  In one year there, Conacher helped SC Bern win the National League A title before signing once again with the Tampa Bay Lightning before this hockey season started.  While he has played a few games with the Lightning this year, Conacher has done most of his heavy lifting in the AHL with the Crunch.  He scored 60 points in the regular season and now leads the AHL in playoff scoring with 9 goals and 11 assists in 16 games.  Helping him on his way has been winger Yanni Gourde with 17 points and defenseman Matt Taormina with 16 points.

While this Griffins defenseman may not have as much travel or offensive skill, Dylan McIlrath makes up for it with his brutal checks and fighting skill.  McIlrath was drafted 10th overall in 2010 by the New York Rangers, largely in in part due to his size (6ft 5in, 221 lbs) and the fact that he is a physical monster.  He started his professional career by playing with the Rangers’ AHL team, the Connecticut Whale (now the Hartford Wolf Pack) for parts of several playoffs after his Junior team (Moose Jaw Warriors) was eliminated from the playoffs.  He was added to the Rangers’ playoff teams several times but didn’t crack their full man roster until the start of the 2015/2016 season.  After playing about half the season with not a lot to show for it, other then some fights and penalty minutes, McIlrath was placed on waivers to start the 2016/2017 season.  He was then traded shortly after to the Florida Panthers where he spent most of his time with their AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds, until he was traded, again, this time to the Detroit Red Wings during the trade deadline.  Since then, McIlrath has been a feared blue liner for the Griffins.

What To Expect

Fast, physical, old school hockey.  These two teams may not have the history their NHL clubs have, yet, but they are both equally skilled and fierce.  They both have the potential to run you out of the building by scoring, or knock you out of the building with a bone shattering body check.  All the games may not be close, but the series as a whole should be and don’t expect anything less than 7 games.  In that seventh game, it may come down to the last man standing.  Either way, it should be some really enjoyable hockey to watch for both the action, and for the future of these potential young stars.