It's too bad the start of the AHL's Calder Cup final overlaps with Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, because signs are pointing towards the series being an absolute doozy.
The Charlotte Checkers enter the final as the favorites, having smoothly cruised through the playoffs after finishing the regular season as the top team. But discounting the Chicago Wolves would be dumb: once again, the Wolves were the Central Division team to beat and are coming off a hard-fought series against the San Diego Gulls.
It's hard to compare the two teams based on their regular-season battles because they never actually met up with each other this year. There was a time when the two teams used to battle it out often, having played in the same division. The last time the two teams met in 2017, the Wolves skated away with a five-game Central Division semifinal victory.
With that in mind, let's break down the two teams heading into the Calder Cup final, which gets underway on Saturday evening in Charlotte:
Calder Cup History
The Checkers are seeking the team's first AHL title after joining the league back in 2010-11. The Checkers did previously win the ECHL championship in 1996, but they've never made it out of the conference final in the AHL.
The Road to the Calder
To say Charlotte is the favorite is an understatement. The Checkers were the only AHL team to hit the 50-win mark this year, finishing with a 51-17-8 record and 110 points. Only the Syracuse Crunch (265) had more goals this season than the 264 accumulated by Charlotte. It's been smooth sailing for the Checkers in the post-season, heading into the final series with an 11-3 run and big momentum after knocking off the defending league champions from Toronto.
Scoring hasn't been an issue this year, with Andrew Poturalski and Aleksi Saarela accounting for much of the team's offense all season long. With Poturalski leading post-season sharpshooters with eight goals and 18 points, he's been an unstoppable force for the Checkers. Saarela, who played with the Hurricanes earlier this spring, has six goals and 12 points to keep things moving.
But one of the most important offensive dynamos for the Checkers has been Tomas Jurco, the former junior scoring star who never really found his footing in the NHL. With 14 points in 13 playoff games, Jurco, a Calder Cup champion in 2013 with Grand Rapids, is a big reason why the club is playing for a title. Nicolas Roy (11 points) and Patrick Brown (eight points) have also been consistent secondary scorers.
Defensively, the Checkers have been money this spring. With just 30 goals allowed and a whopping plus-25 goal differential, the Checkers have utilized its veteran blueline throughout the post-season without showing many cracks.
Few defensemen are as impactful on the scoresheet as Trevor Carrick, currently in his fifth season with the club. The 2015 Spengler Cup champion with Canada set a career high in points with 47 in the regular season while topping his previous playoff best with nine through 11 games. Veteran D-man Bobby Sanguinetti, who returned to the Checkers midway through the season after five years away, has also been tremendous for the Checkers with six points in nine games.
But don't ignore the young duo of Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, one of Carolina's top prospects in the system. Both players spent time with the Hurricanes during the parent club's playoff run and have been important for the Checkers since getting sent down. Now, with just the Calder Cup final to worry about, they can focus on a strong finish.
Alex Nedeljkovic was far from perfect for the Checkers in the conference final against Toronto, but the second-year starter came up huge in the double-overtime thriller with a 43-save performance on Sunday. With an 8-3 record and .914 save percentage in post-season play, Nedeljkovic has been good enough to give his team a chance every night and should be the better goalie in the matchup. If he falters, however, Dustin Tokarski won all three playoff games he's played, including a 40-save effort against Toronto last Friday.
Morgan Geekie has been the AHL's top rookie in the post-season, heading into the league final sitting fourth in playoff scoring with 15 points in 14 games. Geekie only had four points against Toronto, but his two-point night in Game 6, including the game-winning goal, helped put Charlotte in the final.
Forward Martin Necas had a fantastic first season in North America, recording 52 points in 64 games to lead all under-20 AHLers in scoring by nearly 20 points. Necas should be a full-time NHLer next year in Carolina and while he hasn't lit up the Calder Cup playoffs -- with just two goals and seven points -- his first North American post-season has been a success.
Calder Cup History
With two Calder Cup titles this century -- in 2002 and 2008 -- Chicago is one of just three franchises to win multiple league titles over the past 20 years. If the Wolves were to win the title this year, it would be the team's first championship since leaving the Atlanta Thrashers as an affiliate, becoming a Vegas farm club last year after previously being a part of the St. Louis Blues system.
The Road to the Calder
For the third consecutive season, the Wolves finished as the Central Division champions, recording a 44-22-10 record to give them a 10-point advantage over the Milwaukee Admirals. In the playoffs, the Wolves beat Grand Rapids in a deciding fifth game to open the first round before beating Iowa and San Diego in six games in the second and third rounds, respectively.
The Wolves have capable scorers and plenty of them. Eight players finished the regular season with at least 40 points, with Daniel Carr (the AHL MVP this season) and T.J. Tynan recording 71 points apiece – and, funny enough, they're tied with 10 points each in the playoffs. But they haven't been the most noticeable players lately, though. The Wolves have three top-10 scorers in Tomas Hyka (14 points), Curtis McKenzie (13) and Tye McGinn (13), with Hyka's 11 assists ranking first among Cup finalists.
That's not where the offense stops for Chicago. While he's been quiet in the playoffs with just two goals and three points, Brooks Macek is bound for a breakout after scoring 26 goals and 60 points in the regular season. Keegan Kolesar was one of four players to score 20 goals in the regular season for the Wolves and has been OK with five in the playoffs. Gage Quinney and Cody Glass will also be counted on to put pucks in the net.
Currently the top scoring defenseman in the playoffs, Zach Whitecloud has been fantastic with two goals and 12 points from the blueline – he had just 28 points in the regular season. He and Nic Hague do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Wolves, while Griffin Reinhart offers a solid veteran presence from the back end.
Dylan Coghlan returned to the Wolves' lineup for the series-clinching game in the conference final after missing 16 games with an injury. Prior to it, the rookie finished third in freshmen blueline scoring with 40 points. With Chicago's core back together, the team has what it takes to contend from a defensive standpoint.
Great goaltending is a big reason why the Wolves made it to the final. In terms of goalies with at least five starts in the playoffs, Oscar Dansk sits second with a 2.16 goals-against average (Toronto's Kasimir Kaskisuo finished with a 2.14 GAA) and third in save percentage with a .921 mark (Kaskisuo and Bridgeport's Christopher Gibson both ended up at .927). Assuming he goes the distance, Dansk has the slight statistical edge over Nedeljkovic and will need to be fantastic to keep the underdog Wolves in the series. But you can't forget about Max Lagace, who has a 2-1 record in three starts and even scored a goal for the Wolves last weekend. He can provide spot duty if Dansk slips along the way.
Secondary scoring has been vital to Chicago's success this year, but Macek and Quinney, who combined for 45 goals in the regular season, have just three when it matters most this post-season. Charlotte has the slight offensive edge, so it'll be important for Macek and Quinney to have a more impactful playoff round.
Hague should challenge for a spot on Vegas' blueline next year after showing solid consistency and overall talent in his first year of pro. He hasn't been afraid to unleash his powerful slapshot from the point and sits third among rookie defensemen with three goals and nine points in the playoffs – Whitecloud leads the way. The Golden Knights have to feel confident in the development of the team's first golden defensive prospect in franchise history.
All times ET
Game 1 Saturday, June 1 Chicago at Charlotte, 6:00 p.m.
Game 2 Sunday, June 2 Chicago at Charlotte, 6:00 p.m.
Game 3 Wednesday, June 5 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
Game 4 Thursday, June 6 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Game 5 Saturday, June 8 Charlotte at Chicago, 8:00 p.m.
*Game 6 Thursday, June 13 Chicago at Charlotte, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 7 Friday, June 14 Chicago at Charlotte, 7:00 p.m.
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