Houston Aeros (2nd place West Division 46-28-6, 98 points) vs. Binghamton Senators (5th place East Division, 42-30-8, 92 points)
The 2011 Calder Cup Finals should produce an electric series on the ice. Both Houston and Binghamton prefer an offensive-minded blend of hockey which should produce some high scoring contests. Neither team is overly laced with playoff experience as both clubs missed the AHL playoffs last season and feature rookie goaltenders carrying the load in goal. Finally, even though Houston and Binghamton did not face each other during the regular season, both teams competed in the considerably stronger division of their respective conferences.
Offensively, Binghamton should have a slight edge with a team unafraid to light up its opponent. The Senators are stockpiled with several talented prospects capable of scoring big goals. Veteran Ryan Potulny leads all playoff scorers with 14 goals and 25 points, while his wing man Ryan Keller is not far behind (14 assists and 22 points). However, the Senators biggest strength is their offensive depth. 2010-2011 AHL MVP Corey Locke has 10 points in as many games, while rookie sniper Bobby Butler is second on the team with 10 playoff goals.
The talented Colton Gillies leads a Houston offense that can nearly match Binghamton gun-for-gun. Veterans Patrick O’Sullivan and Jed Ortmeyer (15 and 11 points respectively) lead the way offensively, but Colton Gilles (team leading seven playoff goals) is the Aeros’ most explosive offensive player.
Where Houston should have an advantage is defensively. Maxim Noreau (11 points) is one of the AHL’s elite two-way defenders, while Jared Spurgeon (team leading +6 rating) and Marco Scandella represent talented cogs.
Veteran Andre Benoit is the Senators’ go-to defender with 14 playoff points to date to lead all defensemen. Both Geoff Kinrade and Jared Cowen are talented puck-movers but Binghamton lacks Houston’s depth on the blueline.
In goal Senators feature sensational 19-year-old rookie Robin Lehner (10-2-0, 2.41 G.A.A., .932 S.P.), who has taken over the team’s starting goaltending duties since the Manchester series (where he won three straight games to help Binghamton turn around a seemingly lost matchup). Though Lehner struggled at times in his first few playoff games, the Swede was sensational against Charlotte in the Eastern Conference finals, making 35 or more saves in his team’s final three wins while allowing just seven goals in the sweep.
If there is a weakness for Houston it is in goal. Rookie Matt Hackett (12-6-0, 2.56 G.A.A., .898 S.P.) is two-years older than Lehner, but has shown plenty of the inconsistency common for a first-year player. But Hackett’s biggest strength has been his play in Game 7s so far. The London, Ontario-native has a pair of wins while allowing just five goals on 54 total shots.
The X-factor in this series might be the fact that Binghamton swept their third round series, while Houston was pushed to the brink by a Hamilton team that nearly turned around a 3-0 deficit in the Western Conference finals. The Senators faced long series in their first two rounds and desperately needed some rest. However, the question for Binghamton is whether Lehner lost his playoff momentum during the layoff? After competing in two straight seven game series, the question for Houston is whether the Aeros have enough left in the tank to eliminate Binghamton?
With their superior offense which should get to Hackett and a much needed rest for Lehner after the third round, I see Binghamton finishing off an improbable run for their first ever Calder Cup championship. Senators in six games.
So Roundtable: Which team do you have winning the Calder Cup and in how many games? What will be the difference in the winning teams’ success?