The American League and its swift-moving playoff bracket is already into the conference finals, with Wednesday night marking the end of a long lay-off for the powerhouse Hershey Bears.â€¨â€¨
The Bears end a 12-day respite on home ice when they meet the Manchester Monarchs in a repeat of the 2007 conference final matchup that was won by the Bears. Manchester used Jonathan Bernier’s stellar play in net to win a second round meeting with the powerful Worcester Sharks in six games and reach the conference final for the second time in four seasons.
Bernier won the Baz Bastien Award this season as the AHL’s top goaltender and the 21-year-old top prospect has extended his stellar play into the playoffs. In the Monarchs’ 10 playoff games this season, Bernier has put up an 8-2 mark, a 1.48 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage. But while the Monarchs’ first two playoff opponents, the Sharks and the Portland Pirates, were formidable and dangerous, those clubs are not the Bears.
Hershey has cruised through the playoffs, dropping only one game. Three of the top four playoff scorers – Alex Giroux (10 goals, 17 points), Chris Bourque (four goals, 15 points) and Andrew Gordon (nine goals, 14 points) – all skate for coach Mark French’s squad. The Bears are clicking at a 25-percent clip on the man advantage and lead the AHL with a staggering 4.44 goals-per-game. As well, playmaker Keith Aucoin, this season’s league MVP, has 12 post-season assists and leads the league in that category along with Chicago’s Matt Anderson.
In the West, the Hamilton Bulldogs shook off a pesky Abbotsford Heat club in six games and navigated through an intriguing shift in net. The Bulldogs have the best goaltending duo in the AHL, so when Cedrick Desjardins looked somewhat shaky in a Game 4 loss at Abbotsford that evened the series, coach Guy Boucher slid NHL veteran Curtis Sanford into the crease. Sanford helped the Bulldogs take the next two games and put away the Heat.â€¨â€¨
Shifty center David Desharnais ranks fifth in AHL playoff scoring for the Bulldogs, who were without P.K. Subban’s services in the Abbotsford series after he was called up to Montreal. If the Habs bow out in Game 7 against Pittsburgh, Subban could provide the Bulldogs with a tremendous boost.â€¨â€¨
The Bulldogs now face the Texas Stars, who took out the Chicago Wolves in seven games in the conference semifinal. The Stars survived Game 7 without goaltender Brent Krahn, who left Game 6 with an injury. The dependable Matt Climie stepped in for Krahn and the Stars poured 53 shots at Chicago’s Drew MacIntyre, taking a come-from-behind overtime decision with a goal from star rookie Jamie Benn. The game was the 15th Game 7 to go into overtime in AHL history. â€¨â€¨
The Stars are the first AHL club to reach a conference final in its first season since the 2002-03 Binghamton Senators. Hamilton and Texas get their series started Friday at Copps Coliseum.â€¨â€¨
THIS AND THATâ€¨
• Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke kept the Toronto Marlies’ GM job filled on Tuesday. The Leafs retained the services of Dave Nonis, who has been a Burke sidekick dating back to his tenure with the Vancouver Canucks. Nonis, who worked with the Canucks’ AHL operation in Manitoba, took over managing the Marlies after Jeff Jackson departed.â€¨â€¨
• The Ontario League’s Sudbury Wolves named former Syracuse assistant coach Trent Cull as their head coach Tuesday. Cull, a veteran of 435 AHL games as a tough defenseman, earlier served an OHL apprenticeship as an assistant with Guelph prior to his Syracuse stint.â€¨â€¨
• Former and current AHL players are well represented in Germany at the IIHF World Championship. The 16 clubs competing for the title this month boast at least one AHL product each, including 22 former AHL all-stars. Team USA leads all clubs with 19 AHL alumni, with Slovakia (17 alumni) and Canada (16) trailing closely behind. Former AHL coaches Scott Gordon (USA) and Glen Hanlon (Slovakia) are running benches at the annual tournament.â€¨â€¨
• According to the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union, the former home of the Albany River Rats will receive $1.6 million in county-funded upgrades. Included in the plans will be a new scoreboard and ribbon video boards. Albany lost the River Rats to Charlotte, N.C. for next season, but is the rumored frontrunner to land the New Jersey Devils affiliate.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world’s second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiling prospects destined for the next level. It appears every weekend only on TheHockeyNews.com.