June 3, 2014

Mission: Halt the drought

By Mike Miccoli

Niklas Svedberg was hoping to help the Providence Bruins end a 14-year drought for New England teams in the Calder Cup playoffs. (Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Hartford Wolf Pack did it in the 1999-2000 AHL season. Since then, nothing.

The AHL Calder Cup hasn’t called a New England city home in almost 14 years. This year, Atlantic Division champions, the Manchester Monarchs, and Northeast Division champs, Springfield Falcons, finished first and second, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, giving two New England territories another shot at claiming an elusive AHL title. The Providence Bruins finished seventh, rounding out the Northeast teams who will vie for the Calder Cup.

The drought just hasn’t been clinching the Calder Cup, it has been getting there. While the Hartford Wolf Pack was the last New England team to win the championship, it also was the last one to make it to the final.

But we’ve seen a scenario like this year’s before — last season, in fact. The Monarchs and Falcons had impressive seasons by finishing as the top two teams in the East this year, while the Bruins and Falcons held the same distinction last year. Both teams, however, were eliminated in the second round — a clean sweep of the Falcons courtesy of the Syracuse Crunch and four straight wins from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after three straight Providence wins.

The Monarchs were the last team to even make it to the AHL Eastern Conference Finals, back in the 2010 playoffs.

This year could be a different story for the three remaining New England teams in the postseason, and it has everything to do with the successful regular seasons the three teams had.

A New England AHL team is a lock to move into the second round due to the fact that the Falcons and Bruins face off in the first round. The Falcons were able to replicate their success from last season and carry the momentum over, leading to a division title in the 2013-14 AHL season.

“I like what we represent,” Falcons coach Brad Larsen told MassLive.com. “This team has developed a strong identity in how we play. It all has to do with maintaining a high level of compete, and being a team that is hard to play against, a team that plays the same at home and on the road.”

All season long, the Falcons have adopted a scorer-by-committee type of offense. Only one skater, Carter Camper, is in the top 40 in points for the AHL, and he split time between Springfield and its first-round opponent, Providence. While no player on the Falcons scored 20 goals, 12 players had double-digit tallies, proving that Springfield’s depth can catch up with any team.

Going into the second season, the Falcons should have Mike McKenna starting in goal, even though he and Jeremy Smith split the duties in the crease this season. McKenna has been a bit of an AHL journeyman, playing with 10 different teams since the 2005-06 season, but he has put up his best statistical season since 2009-10 when he was with the Lowell Devils. McKenna has been to the postseason twice before but has yet to start more than six games.

Across the ice, the Falcons get a Providence Bruins team that fell short of the expectations set last season when it finished atop the AHL with 50 wins. It was to be expected of course, with some of last year’s top performers on defense, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller, playing if not all, at least the majority of the year in Boston. Factor in injuries to key offensive producers such as Matt Fraser and Nick Johnson, and the back-and-forth year Ryan Spooner had between Boston and Providence, and the P-Bruins’ 40-25-2-9 record seems about right.

It also was the season that rookies staked their claim in Providence.

Alex Khokhlachev might stick out the most due to the hype that surrounds his name and the mere controversy that he was almost traded to the Calgary Flames (along with Bartkowski) for Jarome Iginla at last season’s deadline. The rookie led the Bruins with 21 goals and 36 assists for 57 points in 65 games and finished third among all AHL rookies.

Finishing fifth in the same category and second behind Khokhlachev on the Bruins was Seth Griffith, whose 20 goals and 30 assists in 59 games gave Providence a much-needed boost on the wing with Fraser and Johnson both injured. The two rookie forwards were quickly promoted to the top line, along with Craig Cunningham, the Bruins’ third-leading scorer, giving Providence an extra shot of energy that helped the team clinch a playoff berth.

Not to be forgotten, Malcolm Subban played fantastic in his first season as a pro, backing up last season’s Bastien Award-winning goaltender, Niklas Svedberg. Subban finished fifth among AHL goalies with a 2.31 goals-against average and was seventh with a .920 save percentage.

“Early on, his focus was here and there, including in practice,” P-Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told The Herald News. “I think he’s become more in tune with the habits of a good professional, the value of practice and preparing accordingly.”

Though Subban’s first season was impressive and showed that the goalie can be a viable backup when called upon, it likely will be Svedberg who gets the start for Providence in the playoffs. Svedberg had 25 wins in the 45 games he played this season.

However, it can be argued that the Eastern Conference’s top team faced the most diversity and still finished with an elite record. The Manchester Monarchs started the season with players such as Tyler Toffoli, Linden Vey and Tanner Pearson dominating offensively, and, backed by Martin Jones in goal, who posted a 16-3-3 record and a 2.13 goals-against average. By December, these four stars were regulars with the Los Angeles Kings, the Monarchs’ NHL affiliate. In a season where head coach Mark Morris won his 300th game behind the bench, he was tasked with motivating his players to step up and replace the production left behind by the recent NHL call-ups.

“Wrapping up the Eastern Conference is quite a feat when you consider the obstacles teams are faced with at the AHL level,” Morris told the Union-Leader. It was the Monarchs’ first conference title since the 2004-05 season.

One of those players who stepped up for the Monarchs was Jordan Weal. The Vancouver native scored 23 goals and had 47 assists for 70 points in 76 games. Now the No. 1 center of the Monarchs, Weal will look to build upon his breakout season in Manchester to both help the team win and garner even more attention from a Los Angeles NHL team that might have a spot for him next season.

This season, each of the New England AHL teams in the postseason also has its parent club playing in the NHL playoffs. It does add another element in the potential shifting of rosters due to injuries and possible call-ups that the AHL teams might have to face. It’s another reason why AHL coaches have to be able to think on their feet and why players who are not necessarily in the spotlight now might become crucial for success later. It happened last season with Providence, which had Krug and Bartkowski called up.

The AHL teams from New England have all faced adversity and handled it well enough to still be able to clinch a spot in the postseason. While it has been a successful season thus far, for these three teams, it can’t be truly deemed that unless a championship is in the near future.

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

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