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Calder Cup Finals Preview

by Mark Caswell, Jr.

Jun 6, 2015

What do you call a team that is led by a All-Stars at the positions coach, goaltender, defense, and forward? Or a team that had a Top 10 scoring defenseman on their roster to go along with a team ranking in the Top 5 of goals against this season? Or a team that ranked top three in win percentage in games they scored first in to go along with an undefeated record when they own a lead after two periods?

The answer is simple. You call that team a “Conference Champion”. Or in this case, you’d be wise to use the plural form. The 2015 Calder Cup Finals will feature two teams that can lay claim to each and every one of the above listed facts.

The Comets and Monarchs will meet for the first time ever in Game 1 on Saturday at the Verizon Wireless Arena. Both teams won their respective conferences, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The Monarchs earned an American Hockey League high 109 points during the regular season, which earned them home ice advantage in this series. The Comets finished second in the league with 103 points, good for best in the west.

The series pits the two #1 seeds against each other in the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since the 2000 Calder Cup Finals where the Hartford Wolf Pack defeated the Rochester Americans in 6 games.

Five of the six players named to the AHL’s Second Team All Star roster will square off in this series. The Comets were represented by goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, while the Monarchs had defenseman Colin Miller, and forwards Brian O’Neill and Jordan Weal honored.

The Comets finished the regular season with the most road points (50) in the American Hockey League, while the Monarchs finished with the most home points (61). That trend has continued in the playoffs with the Monarchs owning a perfect 7-0 record at home, and the Comets possessing the best road record (5-3) in the playoffs. Conversely, the Comets were the fourth best home team during the regular season with 53 points, while the Monarchs finished with the fourth best road record with 48 points.

Getting an early lead has proven to be vital to both teams. The Monarchs when scoring first posted a record of 33-4-1-2 (86.3%) in 40 games, while the Comets finished with a 35-5-2-2 (84.1%) record in 44 games. Neither team has a lost a game in regulation if they enter the third period with a lead, with both squads having won 36 games each. The Comets perfect record was marred by a single late season overtime loss, while the Monarchs coughed up two shootout losses after ending the second period with a lead.

Special teams will feature the league’s best regular season power play vs. the league’s seventh best penalty-killing unit. Manchester’s power-play unit converted on 20.7% of their opportunities while the Comets have killed 86.3% of team’s chances. The Monarchs power-play has taken a dip in the playoffs and has only converted on 14% (7 for 50) of their chances. On the other hand, the Comets 18th ranked power play (16.1%) will take on the Monarchs 16th ranked penalty-killing unit (83.6%).

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The West was won in a six-game series against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Riding Jacob Markstrom’s second consecutive elimination game shutout, Cory Conacher’s second period goal would be the difference-maker for the Comets, as thy won the game 2-0 and the series 4-2. Prior to the series vs. the Griffins, the Comets went the distance in series against the Chicago Wolves (five games), and the Oklahoma City Barons (seven games).

The Monarchs have steamrolled their way past their last two opponents after they needed all five games to take out the Portland Pirates in the first round. In the second round, the Monarchs chased the feared Matt Murray, AHL’s Goaltender of the Year, from the game twice en route to a dominating 4-1 series win. In the Eastern Conference Finals the Monarchs swept the Hartford Wolf Pack, and outscored them 18-10 in the process.

forwards
(Lindsay A Mogle/Utica Comets)

Comets logoThe Comets flexed some of their offensive muscle last series and scored 16 goals in six games (2.83 per game), a half goal better than they were through the first two rounds (2.33 goals per game). Like it was during the regular season (40-4-3-0), three goals scored has been the magic number for the Comets in the playoffs. In games they have scored at least three goals the Comets are 6-1-1 this postseason.

The Trade Deadline acquisitions, Sven Baertschi and Cory Conacher, played huge roles for the Comets vs the Griffins. Baertschi’s natural hat trick in Game 4 propelled the Comets to a 4-1 victory. Conacher’s third goal in the past four games ended up as the series-clinching goal in Game 6.

Captain Cal O’Reilly led the way in points (6) for the Comets. He recorded an assist in ever game except Game 5, and had two helpers in Game 2. The Comets center leads all playoff participants with 15 assists.

The Western Conference Champions will once again need their well-balanced offensive attack that featured 13 players (12 forwards, 1 defenseman) who scored double-digit goals this season, which led the American Hockey League, to show up this round.

The Comets fired 2,425 (31.91 per game) shots on goal during the regular season, good for seventh most in the league. They will need to earn every shot they get as Manchester allowed the least amount of shots against (26.11 per game) this season.

 

monarchsTake everything the Comets did offensively, and add just a little bit. Now you have what the Monarchs did this season. Goals? Manchester scored 241 (3.17 per game) compared to the Comets 219 (2.88). Shots for? a 2,445 (32.17 per game) to 2,425 (31.91) edge. Points percentage when scoring first? 86.3% to 84.1%.

The AHL’s Most Valuable Player this past season, Brian O’Neill, led the league in points (80), a healthy 10 points more than the next closest contestant. His counterpart, Jordan Weal, pitched in 69 points, good for third most in the league. The duo will be a pair the Comets must shutdown if they want to have continued success.

All of the Comets focus can’t be locked in on those two. The Monarchs had seven players score 40+ points this season, and nine players score double digit goals in the process. They also had four players score 20+ goals, with two more clocking in with 19 goals.

defensemen
(Lindsay A Mogle/Utica Comets)

Comets logoThe Comets stingy defensive unit was at it once again last series. Grand Rapids potent offense came into the series with the Comets averaging 3.7 goals per game after scoring 37 goals in 10 games. Against the Comets? Just 11 goals in six games, or 1.83 per game. The massive decline in goals per game can be attributed, at least in part, to the Comets defense blocking a big dose of shots, as well as effectively creating an abundance of turnovers.

It is a very offensively talented unit that scored almost 20% of the team’s goals in the regular season. However, the offensive production has not come at the expense of their main duties, as the Comets gave up just 28.51 shots per game, which was the 7th fewest allowed in the league through the course of the regular season.

 

monarchsRemember what we said about the forwards and being just a bit better statistically than the Comets? Same case on defense. While the Comets had the 10th highest scoring defenseman in Bobby Sanguinetti (40 points), the Monarchs owned the third-highest scoring defenseman in Colin Miller (52 points). Shots against? Comets allowed 28.51, compared to the Monarchs 26.11. Goals against? The Comets as a team gave up the fifth-least in the AHL with 2.39 per game. The Monarchs topped that by allowing just 2.32 goals per game, good for 2nd best.

Colin Miller, the AHL’s fastest skater and owner of the all-time hardest shot at the Skills Competition, paces this corp with 52 points (19-33-52).

Averaging a height of 6’2″ as a unit, this will be the biggest defensive corp the Comets will face since they faced off against the Chicago Wolves (6’3″). The Griffins came in at a tick under 6’1″.

 

goaltending
(Utica Comets photo by Lindsay A. Mogle)

Comets logoIf the Comets have an advantage on paper over the Monarchs it is right here, in net. The AHL’s second-best goaltender in the regular season, in terms of goals against average (1.88) and save percentage (.934) resides in Utica, NY. That man, Jacob Markstrom, has been rock solid through the course of the playoffs thus far, and the impressive thing is that he has improved on his stellar regular season numbers. His goals-against-average in the playoffs is a sizzling 1.87.

In games following losses he is a perfect 7-0, with a sensational 0.95 goals against average, and a .964 save percentage. Included in there is a 1-0 Game 7 shutout, the second in the AHL’s history, and first since Johnny Bower did it in the 1953 Finals.

 

monarchsAll-star goaltender Jean-Francois Berube has played every minute of the playoffs thus far for the Monarchs, and has continued his regular season league-leading ways (37 wins) with a record of 11-3.

In the regular season he posted the eighth-best goals against average (2.18), and a .913 save percentage. Both those numbers have taken a dip in the playoffs. His goals against average has inflated to 2.38, while his save percentage has plummeted to .894. His save percentage of .894 is fourth-worst amongst AHL playoff goaltenders this year.

 

 

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(Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)

  1. Shots, Shots, Shots. The Comets will need to keep getting a high number of shots on net to lift the Calder Cup. The Monarchs have done a tremendous job all year of keeping opponent’s shots total low. In fact, they were the best in the league at it. The Comets fired the seventh most shots of anybody in the regular season. If they can get a plethora of shots to Berube it’ll be highly likely they can get to the magic number of three goals a game.
  2. Strike Early. Score first. The Comets are 9-0-2 in the playoffs when they score first. The Monarchs are 0-3 when allowing the first goal, but 11-0 when scoring first. Both teams have been virtually impenetrable  if they have a lead after 40 minutes.
  3. Stop the O’Neill Weal. The Comets need to keep the high-scoring duo of Brian O’Neill, similar to how they kept Pulkkinen in check. Look for Travis Green and company to employ a swarming, hard back-checking defense like he has have all season long.
  4. The 5th Line: Comets fans have made a name for themselves. The past two series I have had fans come up to me and ask if the atmosphere is as crazy as people say it is. The boys on the ice will need everything you got in order to hoist the Calder Cup. The Comets asked that fans #WHITEoutTheAUD for all playoff games. The whiteout serves as a rallying cry, and shows support to the players wearing white on the ice. Add the whiteout intimidation factor in with the ear-splitting noise the Comets faithful brings to the game, and you have a decided edge in favor of the home team. The atmosphere created by the “5th Line” is a unique element, and Utica fans will once again need to make their presence known throughout the playoffs just like they have all season.
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