As of Tuesday, the American Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff picture remains a muddled mess. With 14 games or less left on every team’s schedule just five points separate fifth place Abbotsford from tenth place San Antonio (Chicago is in third also with 75 points). In between the Rampage and Heat are a Ben Bishop-less Peoria, a free-falling Charlotte, a Eastern Conference schedule dominant Rochester and Lake Erie. Four points further below San Antonio are Milwaukee and Grand Rapids with a hard charging Rockford only another point back.
Therefore, things will change a lot in the coming weeks as teams fight for the West’s final playoff spots. But now is as good a time as any to evaluate the bubble and predict which teams will play for the Calder Cup and which teams should dust off their golf clubs.
First I will start with some assumptions:
1) Oklahoma City and Toronto will make the playoffs. Both teams are currently comfortable, sitting high above the bubble line. Plus their NHL affiliates are unlikely to play postseason hockey, meaning the Barons and Marlies will have plenty of help.
2) Though, this might come back to bite me (especially with the Wolves), I am going to say that Houston and Chicago will also make the playoffs. The Aeros have a favorable home/road schedule coming home, while Chicago has a great goals for/goals against ratio. Both teams pass the “eye test” as far as what counts for a playoff team.
3) On the other end of the spectrum Hamilton and Texas have too large a hill to climb. Both teams stand 10 or more points out and that’s simply too much of a gap to cover in the final weeks of the season.
So who gets in to the Calder Cup playoffs and who does not?
I have these three teams as playoff bound:
Peoria (12 Games Remaining, 35-26-2-1–73 pts.): Despite the recent trades of Brett Sterling and Ben Bishop, the Rivermen remain loaded for a playoff run. Earlier in the season Peoria underachieved with its veteran-laden roster, but this has been a different team in the second half. Plus Peoria’s affiliate St. Louis is healthy, playoff-bound and seems likely to grab the number one position in the NHL’s Western Conference. At least until the NHL playoffs, the Rivermen should remain well-stocked.
Rochester (13 GR, 31-23-6-3–71 pts.): I see Rochester as almost a shoe-in to make the playoffs for the simple reason that the Americans play an incredibly favorable schedule to close their season. Left on the slate are 3 games with Syracuse (9th place East), 1 game with Albany (11th place East), 1 game with Adirondack (13th place East), 1 game with Binghamton (worst record in the AHL), plus a game at Hamilton. The Amerks will likely get into the playoffs even if they only win a game or two against the Western Conference the rest of the way.
Charlotte (14 GR, 32-22-3-5–72 pts.): The Checkers ran into a buzz saw over the weekend against Norfolk to fall to just 2-4-1-3 in their last 10 games. The schedule doesn’t get any easier down the stretch with 4 games with Peoria, two with Abbotsford and two with Hershey (plus 3 with Milwaukee). The lone positive is that though coach Kirk Muller is guiding the Carolina Hurricanes on last ditch playoff run, the Checkers’ NHL affiliate will likely fall short. Therefore, for the end of the season Charlotte will likely load up with youngsters to try to gain them some Calder Cup playoff experience.
I see these four teams falling just short:
MILWAUKEE (14 GR, 31-27-2-2–66 pts.): It’s hard to swallow this one, but barring a late winning streak, the Admirals will fall just short of the playoffs. Much of this has to do with the team’s NHL affiliate Nashville, taking many of Milwaukee’s key pieces during the season, while not sending a whole lot back in return. Combine that with the fact that the Predators frequently traded away draft picks over the past couple of seasons, meant that the Admirals needed another year of overachieving. For the first half of the year Milwaukee did exactly that, but reality has set in so far in the season’s second half.
Grand Rapids (14 GR, 28-24-6-4–66 pts.): Kudos to Grand Rapids for their recent play and their recent affiliation extension agreement with Detroit. However, with the Red Wings riddled with injuries and needing healthy bodies to make sure on the playoffs, I just don’t see Grand Rapids getting much stretch run help. Therefore, the Griffins will fall short.
Rockford (12 GR, 29-28-2-5–65 pts.): Hard to believe a team that has won 7 of 9 games against Milwaukee will not make the playoffs, but Ice Hogs simply started out too slow this season. Like the New Jersey Devils a year ago, Rockford got really hot in the second half and made a huge push for the playoffs, but at some point the Ice Hogs will come back to reality. It doesn’t help that Chicago has borrowed Rockford’s players left and right, and that will likely continue toward the end of the season, torpedoing a miracle playoff birth.
Lake Erie (11 GR, 32-26-3-4–71 points): It was a tough call on the Monsters, but every bubble opponent with the exception of Abbotsford has games in hand on the Cleveland natives and that will likely do in Lake Erie in the end. It doesn’t help that out of nowhere NHL affiliate Colorado is making a playoff run of its own, depleting an already roster-shortened Monsters squad. Overall, it’s amazing that Lake Erie came this close considering the overall talent the team had available.
And my final playoff spot goes to:
Abbotsford (10 GR, 34-25-3-4–75 pts.): Despite having the fewest games left of any playoff contender on its schedule, Abbotsford should be in as a playoff team. Of those 10 games remaining, eight are at home at a rink two time zones away from its nearest opponent. What works against the Heat is that NHL affiliate Calgary is still clinging onto dim playoff hopes, which won’t help stock Abbotsford’s roster. However, I see the Heat slotting in at the eighth spot giving Oklahoma City a travel nightmare in the first round.
If Abbotsford lost last night to Texas, I would have swapped them with my final team out which is:
San Antonio (13 GR, 33-26-3-1–70 pts.): A few weeks ago I said the Rampage were a soft playoff team (in sixth place at the time). Since that point San Antonio has slipped ever so slightly, down to currently just a point out of the playoffs. The Rampage have a strong blend of youngsters and quality veterans, but what will hurt in the end is that NHL affiliate Florida is a playoff contender for the first time in over a decade. In the end Nolan Yonkman (team-leading +15) and company will fall just short.
So Roundtable: What are your AHL Western Conference playoff predictions? Which teams do you have playing postseason hockey and which teams are you counting out?