And then there were two.
The American League has whittled down its 30-team contingent to a pair of clubs that will battle it out in a somewhat unlikely Calder Cup final. The Binghamton Senators and Houston Aeros will line up to conclude the circuit’s 75th anniversary season.
What makes it so unlikely is the fact both teams missed the playoffs last season and that, while the Aeros put up 98 points in a grueling Western Conference battle, the Senators’ 92 points ranked second-lowest among Eastern Conference teams. The Senators only slipped into the post-season through the league’s division crossover rule (if fifth place in one division has more points than fourth place in the other, the fifth-placed team advances).
Both clubs have stumbled at times this spring, but they’ve also shone brightly. Houston pulled off an impressive first round sweep of a deep and experienced Peoria team and then survived a seven-game endurance test against the dangerous Milwaukee Admirals. Then, rather unexpectedly, the Aeros rolled off three consecutive wins over Hamilton before the Bulldogs replied with three wins of their own to send the Western Conference final to a seventh game.
The Aeros managed to finally put away the Bulldogs, the club Houston also beat in seven games back in 2003 to win the franchise’s first and only Calder Cup.
The Senators’ path to the city’s first Calder Cup final since 1982 was equally arduous. The Manchester Monarchs put the Senators into a 3-1 series deficit in the first round before Binghamton took three consecutive overtime decisions, two of them coming on Manchester ice.
Binghamton then dispatched a Portland club that had finished second overall in the AHL during the regular season to set up a meeting with the equally impressive Charlotte Checkers. The Carolina affiliate had knocked out the two-time defending champion Hershey Bears and then upset the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who had led the AHL with 117 points.
But the really stunning part came when the Senators sent Charlotte home in a rather tidy four-game sweep. Binghamton showed an ability to win either through its offensive firepower or by locking out an opponent defensively. The Senators twice put up seven-goal efforts against stout Checkers goaltender Mike Murphy and also shut out a Charlotte club that had previously lit up a defensively solid Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In all, the Senators have won 11 of their past 13 games.
Veteran Ryan Potulny, a trade deadline acquisition from the Rockford IceHogs, has long been a top-end AHL scorer, but the 26-year-old has found a new gear this post-season. Potulny’s 14 goals and 25 points lead all post-season scorers. Former Aero Corey Locke, the AHL MVP this season, returned from an injury earlier in the playoffs and quickly rounded into form.
Houston, however, utilizes a more balanced approach. Former Minnesota first-rounder Colton Gillies leads the Aeros with seven goals and is joined by a vast cast of scorers that includes veterans Patrick O’Sullivan, Jon DiSalvatore and prospect Casey Wellman. Carson McMillan has only three goals, but two of the tallies have been overtime winners. On the back end, the very impressive duo of Maxime Noreau and Jared Spurgeon supply further offense from a defense corps that also includes veteran Drew Bagnall.
Rookie goaltenders lead each club. Matt Hackett has stumbled at times for Houston, but the Minnesota prospect has a 2.56 goals-against average that included seven games against the offensively gifted Bulldogs. Robin Lehner, 19, who also starred for Sweden this past winter at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, took over for veteran Barry Brust in the first round.
The series begins Friday night in Houston, a setting that supplies an immediate storyline. Seven of Houston’s 12 playoff wins so far have come at the Toyota Center, while Binghamton has run off an 8-1 road record this spring.
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 profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.