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AHL Calder Cup playoffs coming into sharper focus

 

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Sixteen of the American Hockey League’s 30 teams qualify for the upcoming Calder Cup championship playoffs — eight teams each from the AHL’s Western and Eastern conferences and four teams in each of the league’s four geographic divisions.

The 2016 Calder Cup champion will need to win four elimination series – division semifinals, division finals, conference finals and, finally, the Calder Cup Finals.

The Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls have each secured playoff berths among the league’s five new California teams and are waiting to see which teams they will face in the Pacific Division semifinals.

Both teams have rich histories in post-season competition. The Reign won last year’s Calder Cup championship as the Manchester Monarchs before the move west to create the Pacific Division. The NHL Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate has qualified for postseason play 13 times in 14 years.

San Diego is the AHL affiliate of the NHL Anaheim Ducks; the Ducks’ AHL affiliate has now reached the Calder Cup playoffs 12 times in 19 seasons, most recently with the Norfolk Admirals in 2013-14.

Ontario became the first of the league’s new California-based teams – and the first team in the Western Conference — to clinch a playoff berth on March 27. Since then, the Milwaukee Admirals, Grand Rapids Griffins, Lake Erie Monsters and Rockford IceHogs have qualified from the Central Division.

The Gulls became the second team in the Pacific Division to secure a postseason berth when they rallied from two three-goal deficits to post a 6-5 overtime win over the visiting Bakersfield Condors on April 6.

That the Gulls have qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs in their first AHL season in San Diego has sent a ripple of excitement throughout the organization and its large fan base. As the Admirals last season, the Ducks’ AHL affiliate finished with 12 more losses than wins. Since the move west, the rechristened Gulls franchise has accumulated 15 more wins than losses with four regular season games remaining.

San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins said the team obviously has generated “some good feelings” in securing a playoff berth. “It’s a real testament for those players who have been through a lot this year and different adversity this year — whether it’s been call-ups, injuries, lots of different things,” he said.

“This is our first year in San Diego and making the playoffs is huge,” commented Gulls defenseman Shea Theodore, who has 17 games to his credit with three goals and four assists during multiple call-ups to Anaheim this season. “It’s been our goal from the start.”

But whether the Gulls (37-22-3-2) find postseason success is yet to be determined. The defending AHL champion Reign can certainly attest to that.

Ontario played 19 playoff games least season, finishing 15-4, before it finally defeated the Utica Comets, four games to one, to win the 2015 Calder Cup championship.

The Reign (41-18-4-1) owns the best record in the Western Conference and the second-best record in the AHL this season behind the Eastern Conference North Division regular season champion Toronto Marlies (50-15-5, 0.750 points-percentage).

The Pacific Division championships will go through Ontario after the Reign clinched the division’s regular season championship to secure home ice advantage throughout the division playoffs.

    Stretch run

San Diego sits in second place in the Pacific Division standings 0.020 percentage points ahead of the third place Texas Stars (38-24-7-3). The Stars’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is down to one and it appears to be a foregone conclusion that they will also be included in this year’s divisional playoff field.

San Diego and Texas appear to be battling to determine which team will have home ice advantage in the division semifinals.

That leaves one playoff berth still up for grabs in the Pacific Division entering the final week of regular season play. And it’s become a hotly contested race for that final divisional playoff berth between as many as four teams: the San Jose Barracuda, Bakersfield Condors, Stockton Heat – and Charlotte Checkers.

San Jose (29-24-8-3) currently occupies fourth place in the Pacific Division standings, followed by Bakersfield (28-26-7-2) in fifth place and Stockton (30-29-2-2) in sixth place. It’s a tight squeeze. Bakersfield sits four points behind San Jose while Stockton is five points behind San Jose and one point behind Bakersfield.

The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions — as ranked by points-percentage (points earned divided by points available) — qualify for the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs, with one possibility for a “crossover” in each conference if the fifth-place team in the Atlantic or Central Division finishes with a better points-percentage than the fourth-place team in the North or Pacific Division, it will compete in the other division’s bracket.

That is where the Checkers (36-28-3-5, 0.556 points percentage) come into play in the countdown to the final playoff berth in the Pacific Division semifinals.

Charlotte ranks fifth in the Central Division standings but has a better points-percentage than San Jose, Bakersfield and Stockton. Should Charlotte end regular season play with a better points-percentage than whichever of those three contending California teams finish in fourth place in the Pacific Division standings, the Checkers would assume the No. 4 seed in the Pacific Division playoffs.

The points-percentage formula is required because the five California teams are playing only 68 regular season games as opposed to 76 regular season games for the AHL’s remaining 25 teams.

The Pacific Division winner will play the Central Division winner in the Western Conference Finals. The Western Conference champion will meet the Eastern Conference champion in the Calder Cup Finals.

Home-ice advantage in all series will be granted to the team with the higher points percentage.

The division semifinals will be best-of-five series. All other series are in a best-of-seven format.

Playoff schedules for the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs will be announced once all the match-ups have been determined. For updates, visit the website at www.theahl.com.

    Crowning achievement

Last season in Manchester, the Reign compiled the AHL’s top regular season record of 50-17-6-3 and 109 points. A lot of familiar faces, as well as a lot of new faces, have helped fuel Ontario’s regular season Pacific Division championship this season.

While some highly decorated players on last season’s Manchester team were dealt away in trades, such as forwards Brian O’Neill (leading scorer) and Jordan Weal (second leading scorer), and others have since graduated to the Kings’ varsity roster, many more key players off last year’s AHL championship team made the trek westward with the Reign.

Those players making big contributions to the franchise’s successful transition to California include forward Michael Mersch, right wings Sean Backman and Justin Auger, centers Nic Dowd and Andrew Crescenzi, left wings Ryan Horvat and Adrian Kempe, and defensemen Vincent Lo Verde, Nick Ebert, Jeff Schultz, Kevin Gravel and Derek Forbort.

Mersch, Backman and LoVerde were all named to the 2016 Toyota AHL All-Star Classic.

The Kings’ two Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014 owe a great deal to success at the AHL level. At the beginning of the 2015-16 NHL season, 15 Kings players had spent time with the Monarchs during their stay in Manchester.

The player pipeline has continued in California. Mersch, Forbort, Schultz, Ebert, Dowd and Gavel have all received call-ups to the NHL this season. Mersch has played in 17 games for the Kings in 2015-16, collecting one goal and two assists.

Ontario team leaders include Backman with 21 goals and 55 points in 64 games, Dowd with 13 goals and 47 points in 57 games, Mersch with 23 goals and 40 points in 48 games, LoVerde with 11 goals and 32 points in 55 games and Auger with 17 goals and 32 points in 64 games.

Goaltender Peter Budaj, who earned selection to the 2015-16 AHL First All-Star Team, continues to lead the league with a 39-14-4 record, 1.75 goals-against average, 0.931 save percentage and nine shutouts.

All impressive stuff.

    Formula for success

So, with the qualification criteria set, just exactly what does it take to win a Calder Cup championship?

Current San Diego center Chris Mueller accomplished that feat during the 2013-14 season with the Texas Stars. He feels the Gulls possess many of those qualities that the Stars did during their championship-making run.

“It’s a process, it doesn’t just happen,” Mueller stated up front. “You need depth and I think we have that right now. We need four lines to go out every shift and do their job, understand their role. Sometimes they’re going to be called on to score goals and sometimes they’re going to be called on to shut the other team’s top line down.

“If we can look at each other and establish those roles, if our forwards play responsible, because we know we have the scoring touch, we just have to know we got to play both ends of the ice, help our defense keep their gaps and keep their confidence. Our goalie (Anton Khodobin) is a veteran goalie, so I know he knows what to do.

“You’ve got to understand what it takes. At this point of the year, in the playoffs, points individually don’t mean anything — only wins. If a team figures that out, buys into the system, that’s kind of what it takes. Depth is one thing, and we do have that, but we’ve got to just put it together. We’re on a roll here, we’re confident, and that’s what you kind of want to bring into the playoffs. Right now we’re doing the right things.”

But Mueller acknowledged the Stars held many advantages during that 2013-14 championship season, including a top 48-18-3-7 record and league-best 106 points.

“That was a special team,” Mueller noted. “We were the best through the entire year. We were in first place, we won the President’s trophy, we won the Western Conference, our division, everything.

“We had some special players, some special goalies and defensemen – a lot of them are up in Dallas right now because of that team and how good it was and how confident they played. But we started hot early. Our power play was good and there was confidence.

“I kind of see the same thing (with the Gulls). We started off great here, then we went through some injuries, now we kind of got our full team, and it’s a confident team. I think once you have that confidence, along with responsibility, you can go a long way.

“With that Texas team, we knew we were going to win every game and, when we didn’t, we weren’t happy. That’s kind of the mindset right now. It took a little bit to get the culture of this is a winning organization. Losing is not an option. It doesn’t matter if we win 10 in a row, if we lose that 11th game that’s not OK. Right now, we have that confidence and we have that focus. We’ve got to carry that into the playoffs and we’ll be OK.”

While all that might be true, Mueller – who ranks second on the Gulls in season scoring with 52 points (19 goals, 33 assists) in 60 games – said there really is not much of an advantage for teams once the playoffs actually face off.

“That first round is a funny round because it’s only five games,” he explained, “so you can’t ease up, you can’t think I’m the No. 1 seed and I’m going to beat the lowest seed. I don’t think there is an advantage. Ontario is one and we’re technically six (in the Western Conference) and we beat Ontario seven out of 10 games.

“In the playoffs — you see that in the NHL, you see that in the AHL — any team can win if you don’t focus, if you don’t bring it, so I don’t see an advantage as far as seeds. But I do believe that we play very well at home. Our crowd is unbelievable. You’ve got to think for the playoffs that they’ll put 11,000 to 12,000 in here and we feed off that energy. If we can climb the ladder to get home-ice advantage that would be the advantage that we would get.”

Of course, Mueller’s recipe for playoff success would apply to all the contending teams as well.

    Teen phenom

The Stockton Heat, battling playoff elimination, got a big boost from an unexpected source: 18-year-old goaltender Nick Schneider.

Schneider, who signed an entry-level contract with the NHL Calgary Flames after an impressive training camp back in September, joined the Heat following the end of his junior season with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers. Schneider (6-2, 181) appeared in 50 games in 2015-16 for the Tigers with a 24-26-1 record, 3.62 goals-against average and 0.896 save percentage.

Schneider made his pro debut in a March 30 game against visiting San Diego. He stopped 34 of the 37 shots he faced against the Gulls before being pulled for the extra attacker in an eventual 4-2 loss.

He was thrown right back into the fire in the Heat’s next game against division leading Ontario on April 1 and recorded his first win as a pro by out-dueling the Reign’s Budaj, the league’s leading goaltender, by stopping 31 of 33 shots in a 3-2 Heat win.

Schneider extended his pro winning streak to two games when he backstopped Stockton to a 2-1 overtime win in San Diego on April 3. The native of Leduc, Alberta, a suburb of Edmonton, stopped 29 of 30 shots in the game.

Schneider was obviously elated when picking up his first pro win, calling it a “great feeling.”

“It’s something you dream about growing up,” Schneider explained. “It’s a good feeling for sure and something I’ll never forget. It was definitely special to get that first win.”

He credited his teammates with much moral support.

“It’s been nice coming here the last week and the guys working as hard as they can for me,” Schneider explained. “They’re blocking shots, doing everything they can to help me out there. It’s definitely a great feeling.”

He also credited more settled play on his part in supporting his teammates’ efforts. “I was pretty nervous to start (his first pro game), but the guys were great, they always encouraged me and throughout the game made sure they came by and gave me pats on the back and stuff,” Schneider explained.

“It was nice to get the first one out of the way — the more games you play, the more comfortable you get. The more practice time I get kind of helps me with the shot speed and stuff like that. We’re kind of working well as a team right now, clicking and finding ways to win games.”

In raising his fledgling AHL record to 2-1, Schneider boasted an impressive 2.02 GAA and 0.940 save percentage.

He admitted it was a “big jump” from the WHL to the AHL. “Obviously, all the guys are bigger and faster here (in the AHL),” he said. “But as the game goes on, you realize it’s the same game of hockey you’ve played your whole life, just obviously there’s some exceptional players out there. I just have had to adjust to it the best I could.”

    AHL honor roll

Budaj and San Diego defenseman Brandon Montour both earned recognition on the AHL First All-Star Team. Montour also earned a coveted berth on the AHL’s All-Rookie Team for double honors.

Montour leads the league in both power-play assists (24) and power-play points (30). He ranks third overall among all players in the league with 43 assists (first among defensemen). His 55 total points rank in a tie with Backman for most on the five California teams. The 55 points also rank second among AHL defensemen.

“It’s good to get recognized like that,” Montour explained. “Obviously, it’s been a good year and I think for myself I’m happy with how I’ve been playing. Obviously, we’ve had a good year as a team, so it’s definitely been good having those players with me. It’s been a fun year.”

How has his game developed as the season has progressed? “My defensive game has definitely grown a lot positioning-wise, when to go up in the rush,” he said. “I think the defensive aspect of my game has improved.”

San Antonio left wing Mikko Rantanen was the third Pacific Division player to receive all-league honors, as he earned berths on both the All-Rookie Team and Second All-Star Team. He tops all rookie scorers with 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists).

    Trading places

While the AHL’s five California teams have begun to establish new rivalries with one another since their relocation to the Pacific Division, one rivalry that has carried over from the East Coast has been that between San Jose and Ontario, both of which were in the same division (Atlantic Division) last season.

“We played the Ontario Reign a lot last year when they were Manchester,” San Jose center Ryan Carpenter said. “It seems whenever we play them, we remember them. We played them 11 or 12 times, about like this year.”

    Top shelf

Backman leads the AHL with eight game-winning goals and also leads the league with 234 shots.

Stockton’s Derek Grant leads Pacific Division goal-scorers with 27 goals in 36 games. He followed by Bakersfield’s Matt Ford with 26 goals in 59 games.

Texas’s Brandon Ranford tops Pacific Division scorers with 58 points (19 goals, 39 assists), followed by Rantanen.

San Jose’s Aaron Dell (15-14-6) ranks next after Budaj among Pacific Division goaltending leaders with a 2.32 GAA and a .924 save percentage.

    What’s trending

San Diego improved to 30-0-0 when leading after two periods following a 5-3 home ice victory against San Jose on April 2. The Gulls, who are the only team in the league not to have yet lost in regulation play when scoring first (27-0-2-1), have won 19 of their last 26 games, picked up points in 18 of their last 20 contests and are 12-3-0-1 over their last 16 road games. San Diego is 7-2-1-0 in its last 10 games.

However, the Gulls are 2-18-1 when trailing after two periods and 6-18-1-1 when trailing after the first period.

Ontario is 21-8-3-1 at home and 20-10-1-0 on the road to boast one of the league’s most consistent showings on the ice. The Reign is 6-4-0 in its last 10 games and 35-16-4-1 against other Pacific Division teams.

Who wants it more? San Jose is 3-5-2 in its last 10 games while attempting to nail down a Calder Cup playoff berth. Bakersfield is 3-4-3 in its last 10 games while Stockton is 5-5-0 in its last 10 games as both teams attempt to make late season bids to try to catch both San Jose and Charlotte.

    By the numbers

San Diego and Ontario appear to be in a battle for supremacy in crowd count among the five new California teams. Heading into this weekend, Ontario held a narrow edge over San Diego in average attendance — 8,545 to 8,500. Both teams were well ahead of Bakersfield (5,111), Stockton (4,483) and San Jose (4,344).

Hershey continues to lead the league with a 9,711 attendance average. The AHL average is 5,886.

    Taco Cup

San Diego and Bakersfield have set up the Taco Cup – a bet between the respective teams’ presidents. The team with fewer points in the series will buy the winning team’s front office a Mexican feast, hence the name.

Bakersfield captured the season series between the teams with 16 points (6-2-3-1 record) to the Gulls’ 12 points (6-6-0 record).

A California burrito for starters anyone?

Photo/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents