Round 2 Preview
by Mark Caswell, Jr.May 6, 2015
After both teams won their first round Calder Cup Playoff match-ups, one of these two teams will advance to the American Hockey League’s Western Conference Finals. The Utica Comets are looking to keep the party alive in central New York for a few more weeks, while the Oklahoma City Barons are just looking to stay alive. The Edmonton Oilers’ top minor league affiliate will be moving to Bakersfield, CA once this season comes to an end.
Despite missing the playoffs last season, the Barons’ have made the Conference Finals twice since entering the league in 2010. However, both times they fell short of reaching the Calder Cup Finals.
Utica and Oklahoma City got to the playoffs this year by being two of the league’s top “cardiac” teams. Utica paced the league in one-goal games (43), and wins in one-goal games (24-10-7-2). OK City only played in 33 one-goal games, but 22 of those games needed overtime to settle things. The Barons’ won 14 of those 22 games en route to the 2015 playoffs.
Getting an early jump has proven to be a plus for the Comets. 72% of their points have come in games when they have scored first. Taking it a step further, Utica’s 45 goals allowed in the first period is a league-low. Maintaining a lead has not been a problem either, as the Comets only lost three times in games they have led after the first period (25-2-0-1), and only once in games they led after two periods (36-0-1-0). The Barons gave up the fifth most goals (73) in the first period throughout the regular season, which could give the Comets the window they need to strike early.
The Comets and Barons have played eachother twice this season, with the Comets squeaking out an edge points wise (3-2). Way back on December 2nd the Barons’ edged the Comets 1-0, while the Comets took home a 4-2 victory at The AUD on March 27. All-time the series is split 2-2, with the home team winning every game. The Comets all-time record vs the Barons sits at 2-0-2-0.
On November 20, 2014, the teams’ parent clubs swapped forwards. The Comets acquired center Will Acton in exchange for Kellan Lain. Both players have suffered injuries since the trade, and neither is expected to make an appearance in this series. Examining the trade for this season, the Comets have walked away with the upper-hand. In 45 games since the trade, Acton has recorded 19 points (11-8-19) for the Comets. Lain failed to record a point in two games for the Barons before suffering a wrist injury.
The top-seeded Comets needed all five-games to dispatch of the pesky Chicago Wolves. The series was as tight as it possibly could have been, with only two two-goal leads throughout the entire series, one of which was the final minute of Game 5 after an empty-net goal.
The sixth-seeded Barons were the surprise of the AHL’s first-round, and are the lowest seed remaining in the playoffs, after sweeping their divisional rival San Antonio Rampage. Games 2 and 3 required overtime after Game 1 was a 5-2 blowout. Even more surprising is the Barons lost 9 out of their 12 games vs the Rampage during the regular season.
Everything starts with the captain, Cal O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s 61 points were good for the 14th most in the American Hockey League, while his 51 assists were the second most. 24 of those assists came on the power play which led the league. In the playoffs nothing has changed. In the first round O’Reilly dished out a league-leading seven assists, including six during the final three games.
The additions of Sven Baertschi (7-8-15) and Cory Conacher (7-9-16), along with the emergence of rookie Hunter Shinkaruk (16-15-31) has given Head Coach Travis Green a deep line-up that can score, and luxury of riches on the power play.
The Comets well-balanced offensive attack features 13 players (12 forwards, 1 defenseman) who scored double-digit goals this season, which is the most in the American Hockey League this season.
The late additions of Jake Virtanen, and Jared McCann give the Comets line-up seven total first round picks.
The Barons’ offense, much like the Comets, isn’t built on one or two guys. The AHL’s seventh highest scoring team (224 goals), featured two twenty-goal goal scorers in Andrew Miller (27) and Jason Williams (21), and seven other players with 10+ goals.
The Barons struggled down the stretch and lost 15 out of their last 23 regular season games, including a 4-2 defeat at The AUD. However, the team has a different look than they had during that last visit. Forwards Curtis Hamilton (12-20-32), and Andrew Miller (27-33-60) have since been returned on loan from Edmonton. Neither forward played in the game on March 27th.
Aside from being a very offensively talented unit, they did score almost 20% of the team’s goals, the unit is very stingy on defense. As a team the Comets gave up just 28.51 shots per game, which was the 7th fewest allowed in the league.
The goals allowed? Even better. The 2.39 goals allowed ranks as the fifth best in the league. Playing the hypothetical game, if you take away the two late, meaningless goals during the final game of the year in Adirondack, and the Comets would’ve given up just 2.36 goals per game, good for third best.
The Barons defense did not have the best regular season, but definitely not the worst, as the ranked in the exact middle of the pack, 15th, of goals per game with 2.79. Their 31.72 shots allowed per game ranks as the seventh most allowed in the league. Something the Comets will need to exploit to take the series.
The AHL’s second-best goaltender, in terms of goals against average (1.88) and save percentage (.934) resides in Utica, NY. That man, Jacob Markstrom, has been the horse the Comets have ridden through the course of the playoffs thus far. Markstrom appeared in all five games in the first round, and posted three victories to go along with a 1.97 goals against average.
Markstrom will have to shake-off an old ghost though, as his last AHL playoff appearance saw his San Antonio Rampage get eliminated by the Barons’ in the second round. Ironically enough, Markstrom and the Rampage were eliminated by the Barons after they dispatched the Wolves’ in five games during the first round of the 2012 Calder Cup Playoffs.
After AHL All-Star goaltender Bachman was recalled to the parent club, Broissoit started 25 straight games for the Barons. Bachman was reassigned to the Barons after the Oilers’ season concluded, however it would be Broissoit who would get the nod for the playoffs.
Broissoit won Game 1 and then was yanked in favor of Bachman after yielding three goals in 26 minutes. Anchored by Bachman, the Barons rallied and won the game in OT. The Barons turned to Bachman in Game 3 and were rewarded with a 2-1 OT win.
Clearly, the goaltending situation is up in the air for OK City. The Comets can capitalize and further add confusion to the Barons netminding decisions
- 1. Fire Away. The Comets will win this series if they continue their trend of getting a high amount of shots on net, while limiting the amount the Barons take. The Barons gave up the seventh most amount of shots during the regular season, while the Comets fired the seventh most shots on net. The Law of Probability suggests that more shots = more goals.
- Score Thrice. Utica has scored three goals in 47 regular season games this year and have won 40 of them (85.1%). Scoring early has also been a key to success for the Comets. When the Comets score first, they are 26-10-4-0, and win the game 65% of the time. This trend continued in the playoffs with the Comets going 2-1 in games they both scored at least three times, and scored first.
- WHITEout Effect: The Comets asked that fans WHITEout The AUD for all playoff games, and boy are they off to a hot start. 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. During sellouts at The AUD the Comets won 17 out of 28 games (61%) with the help of their fans.