With the first two rounds of the American Hockey League playoffs in the books, somehow the four remaining teams, each a top-two seeded finisher in each conference, managed to buck recent trends and advance to the conference finals.
The result is a pair of matchups second to none which will decide who will play for the Calder Cup. Another special note, perennial playoff favorites like Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Milwaukee and Chicago have all bowed out in the first two rounds, leaving each remaining team pursing its first ever league title.
Here are my previews for the AHL conference finals:
Western Conference: 1) Oklahoma City Barons (45-22-4-5–99 points) vs. 2) Toronto Marlies (44-24-5-3–96 points)
Oklahoma City and Toronto both represent the Western Conference’s elite teams this season as both clubs separated themselves from the pack in the early going and never really looked back. Ironically, both teams took the same rout in the second round to get to this point, losing their first game at home before sweeping through the next four games, winning three in a row on the road.
Lead by red hot Mark Arcobello the Barons have a slight edge offensely, but Marlies goaltender Ben Scrivens has been the playoffs best netminder so far.
My prediction: In a hotly contested seven-game series, I have Toronto upsetting Oklahoma City.
Eastern Conference: 1) Norfolk Admirals (55-18-1-2–113 points) vs. 2) St. John’s IceCaps (43-25-5-3–94 points)
Much like the Western Conference final, the Eastern Conference features another major travel adventure, in this case between the conference’s two furthest separated clubs. Like their geography, these were the two clubs that separated themselves the furthest in their own divisions, as Norfolk built up a 18-point cushion on the Penguins in the East Division thanks to an AHL record 28-game winning streak to close the year, while St. John’s coasted in Atlantic Division posting an 11-point edge over Manchester.
But unlike their Western counterparts, neither squad has been overly convincing in the victories en route to the conference finals. Led by AHL star Alexandre Picard and rookie Alex Killorn, the “other” Admirals feature superior offensive talent. Meanwhile, the first-year IceCaps feature depth in scoring behind leaders Brock Trotter and Aaron Gagnon.
My prediction: I think this will be the series that Norfolk pulls away on its path to the Calder Cup, dumping St. John’s in five games.
So Roundtable . . . Who do see winning their respective conferences and why?