The Chicago Wolves beat the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for the 2008 Calder Cup, having never met them in the regular season. The teams seemed foreign to each other, but they were more alike than they were different.
Both teams were led by rookie goaltenders, Ondrej Pavelec and John Curry. Both teams had multiple players who had gotten a taste of the NHL that year, which gave them individual confidence. Nine players for Chicago and seven for Wilkes-Barre had seen time in the NHL during the regular season.
And while many like to point to the Wolves leaning on older players, the average ages of the rosters of the two teams during the last game was less than a half a year apart — 25.0 years for the Penguins, versus 25.4 years for the Wolves.
Where did they differ? Chicago’s strength was offense and goaltending, while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was defense and blue-collar workmanship.
Below is a look at some individual prospect performances.
Ondrej Pavelec had some inconsistency early in the playoffs, but was solid in the finals. He played all 24 games in the playoff run — all but 17 minutes — and did not tire. The 20-year-old certainly was in the right mindset heading in.
"I’m so excited for playoffs," he said the last weekend of the regular season. "I think we are ready. I think it’s going to be great."
He said he thought he played his best hockey in February, but "now it’s alright," he said in April. "The D are playing well, that’s very important for me."
In the finals, Penguins captain Nathan Smith praised Pavelec even on a night his team put five past him. "He’s played really well," Smith said. "If you look at our goals tonight, not a lot he can do on any one of them. The way he’s played all series, we’ve had to work for everything we get."
Pavelec finished the playoffs with a 16-8 record, 2.34 GAA and .921 save percentage.
Bryan Little, who spent over half of the regular season in Atlanta, had a good playoffs, but not great. He scored eight goals, which is a solid number, but many were when the momentum of a game was already in the Wolves’ favor. During the finals, he admitted to HF that he needed to be shooting more to play his best. Still, he was the third highest scoring rookie in the playoffs with 13 points in 24 games.
Little centered the second line behind league leader Jason Krog.
One of Little’s best assets is his hockey sense and anticipation, which is one reason why he seems more effective at the NHL level than in the more chaotic AHL.
Brett Sterling struggled in these playoffs, going eight games without a goal, and suffering a foot injury. When he returned from injury, he played on the second line with Little, with whom he had played off and on during the year. It’s significant that the Wolves could get by with just four goals from one of their top goal scorers. Sterling played just 16 out of 24 games and ended with nine points.
Fellow second-year pro Joey Crabb impressed with his grit. Crabb is the kind of player who gets better when the season is on the line. Crabb’s versatility makes him as comfortable on a scoring or checking line and he does a lot of little things that go unnoticed. His skill level is more apparent in simple puck battles and defensive situations than offensive ones.
Jordan LaVallee played on every line throughout the year, and earned a promotion from the fourth the second line when injuries struck in the playoffs. He provided the size on the second line with Little and Sterling and was most effective as a big body around the net. But his offensive production was disappointing — particularly to have the same goal total as defensive defenseman Boris Valabik, especially given LaVallee’s output last year with 7 goals and 1 assist. He was also -2, tied for second worst on the team.
Boris Valabik had the good playoffs that he needed to have to solidify his chance to jump to the NHL next fall. Perhaps as important as winning, the long playoff run gave him a lot of extra ice time to work on mobility. Known for his short fuse, he showed a great deal of restraint in the finals by backing away from altercations. Observers from top to bottom were commenting on it. Valabik also scored three goals, which is as many as he had scored in the past two regular seasons combined.
Arturs Kulda, 19, stepped right in from the OHL and took a roster spot with the Wolves late in the season. Early in the postseason he scored a goal, his first as a pro, which he said he was saving for the playoffs.
Kulda was +12 in the playoffs paired with veteran Joel Kwiatkowski, who was very helpful to the youngsters when he wasn’t recalled to Atlanta due to injuries. The Thrashers hope to retain Kwiatkowski next year as well.
Elsewhere on defense, Nathan Oystrick was the team’s second leading defensive scorer with 11 points, but finished a team-worst -5. Grant Lewis returned from a foot injury, played two games and then was a scratch. Essentially he lost playing time to Kulda.
Black aces who did not see playing time included Chad Denny, Scott Lehman and Tomas Pospisil. Two pro players who had played in the ECHL during the regular season were sent directly home instead of joining the Wolves: Dan Turple, Chad Painchaud and Myles Stoesz.
The Penguins played their best hockey when their backs were to the wall against the Portland Pirates and against Chicago. They played a tight defensive, physical style of game.
The Penguins had important veteran contributions, just like the Wolves.
But they got less help from above as their parent club was also still playing in the Stanley Cup Finals. Winger Tyler Kennedy was eligible to be sent down, but was not assigned.
The group was coached by Todd Richards, an impressive up and coming coach.
Alex Goligoski was the rock on the Penguins blue line. He finished as the second leading scorer in the playoffs behind the Wolves Jason Krog, and did it from the blue line. With 27 points (4 goals, 23 assists), he now has the most points by a defenseman in AHL playoff history. He even saw a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in the middle, though he did not play.
John Curry, 24, was a free agent signed by Pittsburgh last summer out of Boston University. Curry’s numbers in the playoffs weren’t that impressive, with just a .899 save percentage and 2.83 GAA, but according to his coach, he made the stops that mattered and had the confidence of the team.
"We’ve seen it a few times in these playoffs, he’ll come up with a huge save," Richards said. "Seems like he’s done that quite often for us. For a young guy, he’s playing like a much, much older player, more experienced player. He gives our team confidence. Having John back there, guys feel pretty good about that. To me, that’s probably the ultimate compliment when you’re a goaltender."
He played all but 20 minutes of the playoff run, yielding just once to partner David Brown.
Last summer, Curry was signed rather than Penguins draftee Bobby Goepfert. It would be hard to argue with that decision given Curry’s success this year.
ECHL — 2008 Kelly Cup Finals
After Game 2, Cincinnati coach Chuck Weber said "both goalies played like the MVPs of their teams that they’ve been all playoffs."
Cincinnati coach Chuck Weber put a lot of traffic in front of Lalande because as he said "if he sees puck he’s going to save them."
Ryan Donally said of Lalande, "self-admittedly, he’d say he struggled in the first round, and I think that’s a little bit of confidence — he’s a rookie goaltender coming into his first playoffs. But since then, he’s found his game and he’s played unbelievable for us. He’s a big reason why we’re here [in the finals]."
Donally himself never made it back into the lineup from a high ankle sprain. But he had a good season, and may have earned a full-time role in Quad City next year.
The ECHL finals featured 10 players under NHL contract.
Cincinnati had injured fighter Jimmy Bonneau, along with big-bodied Mathieu Aubin and the pesky Ryan Russell — all under contract to the Montreal Canadiens. They also had Ryan Maki (NAS) and Olivier Latendresse (PHO).