AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, April, 2015

By Tony Androckitis
Michael Mersch - Manchester Monarchs

Photo: Manchester Monarchs forward and Los Angeles Kings prospect Michael Mersch is tied for third in scoring in the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs with five goals and three assists in six games (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The American Hockey League’s 2014-15 regular season has ended and the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs are in mid-swing. This month’s AHL notebook will preview the Eastern Conference’s final four teams in the postseason as well as highlight some of the league’s award winners in the East.

The Final Four

There were no real surprises in the first round of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs in the East, with all four of the top seeds advancing into round two.

The Manchester Monarchs – the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season – needed all five games of the first round to eliminate a tough 8th-seeded opponent in the Portland Pirates, who rallied to force Game Five after dropping the first two games of the series.

The most pleasant surprise for the Monarchs in the first round has to be the play of rookie forward Michael Mersch, who carried his strong play down the final stretch of the regular season into the postseason – leading the Monarchs with eight points (5G-3A) in five games. Mersch, the former University of Wisconsin standout, was a point-per-game player at the AHL level in the final 20 games of the regular season and tallied a three-point game (2G-1A) in the deciding Game Five last weekend.

Jordan Weal, a third-year pro, is tied with Mersch for the team’s lead in postseason scoring with five goals. Weal is a guy who has proven that, for the second straight season, he can be a perennial scorer in the AHL with 69 points (20G-49A) in 73 games this season – including a point streak of eight games at the end of the regular season that stretched into the playoffs.

The early postseason success up front by Mersch and Weal hasn’t overshadowed Brian O’Neill, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award this season. O’Neill still has a point-per-game in the postseason with five points (2G-3A) in the first round and is part of a dynamic offensive attack that has more of a 1A-1B system with their top six than an ordinary top line in the AHL.

Ultimately, it will come down to how the Monarchs’ defense and goaltending can hold up in the second round when their offense faces Matt Murray and a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins team that plays a defense-first style and is predicated on shutting the opposing team down.

The 4th-seeded Penguins face the Monarchs in round two after putting forth a dominating three-game sweep of the #5 Syracuse Crunch in the first round. While the Pens are a defense-first team, they put up 14 goals in their three wins and from 10 different skaters. The depth the AHL Penguins have built up with the early exit by Pittsburgh in the NHL creates a matchup problem for any team they will face in this postseason run – their 13th straight year in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

The AHL defense got a big boost after the NHL Penguins’ postseason run came to an end as they re-assigned defensemen Taylor Chorney, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot to an AHL defense that held an offensively potent Syracuse to just three goals in the entire first round series.

The most intriguing late additions to the WBS Penguins were up front in the form of 2014 first round pick Kasperi Kapanen from Finland, and Oskar Sundqvist from Sweden. Both players joined the AHL Penguins after their respective seasons overseas had completed.

Kapanen arrived with a few games left in the regular season and made an immediate impact, tallying his first North American pro goal on the second shift of his AHL debut against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. While he went pointless in his final three regular season games in the AHL, Kapanen regained his scoring touch in the first round of the playoffs playing right wing on a second line with forwards Scott Wilson and Jayson Megna. The 5’11”, 180-pound forward and son of long-time NHL player Sami Kapanen has high-end offensive ability coupled with good skating and vision – a dangerous combo at the AHL level. This postseason run gives him not only a chance to adapt to the smaller rink, but make an impression on the NHL brass who will most definitely be watching the AHL club’s postseason run.

Sundqvist, on the other hand, is a completely different build and type of player than Kapanen but that’s not to say the Penguins’ third round pick in 2012 can’t produce offense in bunches either. Sundqvist is better built for the more physical hockey played in North America, listed at 6’3” and 209 pounds, and plays a solid two-way game that could be a perfect fit for the style of play the AHL Penguins use. Sundqvist could also be an asset on the penalty kill and forecheck but has yet to make his AHL debut, only just recently joining the AHL Pens before their Game Three series-clinching win over Syracuse.

In the end, it will come down to timely scoring and continued strong play in net from rookie Matt Murray if the Pens are to have a legitimate shot at contending for the Calder Cup this season. Murray broke all kinds of records in his rookie season while also earning several of the league’s annual regular season awards. Murray isn’t the kind of player to delve much into stats, but the question remains if he can continue to play at the high level he’s been at since mid-season through the postseason.

While the Penguins had another strong season this year in the AHL, the Hershey Bears rebounded from missing the postseason in 2014 by winning the regular season East Division title in 2015. The 2nd-seeded Bears ousted #7 Worcester in four games in the first round’s best-of-five series with a commanding 10-4 series-clinching win.

Like their East Division rival in Wilkes-Barre, the Bears also predicate themselves as being a strong defensive team with a pair of solid goaltenders in Philipp Grubauer and Pheonix Copley.

Grubauer, the Bears’ #1 goaltender this season, was recalled by the Washington Capitals at the beginning of the Hershey’s first round series but rookie Pheonix Copley backstopped the Bears to their 3-1 series win over Worcester – building off of an impressive rookie season where he went 17-4-3 in the regular season with a 2.17 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and three shutouts. Grubauer was no slouch while with the Capitals in the postseason, either, winning his lone start on April 17th against the New York Islanders for his first NHL postseason win in his first Stanley Cup Playoff start.

While the Bears play tight defensively, they’ve also been able to score just as regularly as they’ve been able to prevent opposing teams’ offenses from generating chances. Every forward who has played in a game for the Bears this postseason has at least one point on the score sheet. Two rookies in particular are stepping up their game at the right time.

Jakub Vrana has just recently joined Hershey after completing his season in Sweden with Linkoping, but has made an immediate impact offensively with five assists in three regular season games and four points (1G-3A) in four AHL playoff games. What Vrana lacks in size – listed at 5’11” – he more than makes up for in the offensive zone with speed and skating ability.

Liam O’Brien is a different player than Vrana, but after an eight point, 45-game rookie season in the AHL, O’Brien already has four points in four playoff games with Hershey this postseason, adding a much-needed secondary scoring touch that is almost necessary for a team looking to make a run at another championship.

Third year pro Cameron Schilling leads the Bears in postseason scoring with five points (2G-3A) in the first round while also logging big minutes and leading all Hershey skaters in plus/minus with a +6 rating through four Calder Cup playoff games.

The Hartford Wolf Pack needed all five games to defeat the Providence Bruins in the first round, but did so with 10 goals from nine different skaters to advance to the conference semifinals against Hershey. Their ability to play in tight, low-scoring games and come out on top will need to continue against the Bears if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Heading into the final month of the season, the Wolf Pack were on the bubble and fighting for a playoff spot. A good final stretch of the regular season coupled with a stumble by Syracuse gave the Wolf Pack the Northeast Division title and the #3 seed in the East – dodging the Penguins in the first round and instead having home ice against the AHL Bruins in round one.

Some late season additions helped Hartford’s push into the postseason, namely Carl Klingberg. Klingberg joined the Wolf Pack after a trade with the Winnipeg Jets organization brought Klingberg to the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate during the NHL trading deadline. Klingberg, a fourth year pro, made an immediate impact with his new team, tallying 11 points (2G-9A) in 13 games with Hartford to conclude the regular season. Klingberg missed Games 3 and 4 but still managed a goal and an assist in three playoff games so far this postseason.

Another Swede who has formed a nice duo with Klingberg and has also stepped up his game is Oscar Lindberg, who followed up a 28-goal sophomore season with three assists in the Wolf Pack’s first round series against Providence. While Lindberg’s play trailed off at the tail end of his rookie season in 2013-14, he’s playing his best hockey at the right time – tallying nearly a goal a game in Hartford’s final 15 games.

Eastern Conference, Penguins’ Murray Steal Spotlight During AHL Awards Week

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that WBS Penguins’ rookie sensation Matt Murray took home several league honors in the final week of the regular season. He led all AHL goaltenders in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts, while also breaking the rookie shutout record and shutout streak record during the season.

Murray was named to both the First Team AHL All-Rookie Team and First Team All-AHL Team, while being awarded the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award (Rookie of the Year) and the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award (Goaltender of the Year). Murray also teamed up with teammate Jeff Zatkoff to earn the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, issued to the goaltending teammates who allow the least goals in the regular season.

The Manchester Monarchs were also prominent in the league’s awards this year. As a team, the Monarchs won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season points champions for the second consecutive season. Their head coach, Mike Stothers, was named the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2014-15 season.

Despite Murray’s outstanding season in net for the Penguins, it was Monarchs forward Brian O’Neill who was named the league’s Les Cunningham Award winner as the AHL MVP this season. O’Neill, a third-year pro formerly of Yale University, led the entire AHL in scoring this season with 80 points (22G-58A) in 71 games.

Other Eastern Conference award winners included Binghamton Senators’ defender Chris Wideman, who was named the Eddie Shore Award winner as the league’s outstanding defenseman. Wideman led all defensemen in scoring with 61 points (19G-42A) in 75 games with the AHL Senators this season. The third-year pro tallied twice as many goals this season as he did last year, while also finishing the season with a +9 rating on a Senators team that allowed more goals than any other team in the AHL, missing the postseason despite leading the entire Eastern Conference in goals for.

Eastern Conference Hot List, April, 2015

1. Michael Mersch, LW – Manchester Monarchs
2014-15 Season Stats: 76GP, 22G-23A, +20, 25 PIM

Mersch has really made strides in his first full season of pro hockey, with 22 of his 45 points on the year coming in his last 19 games – including 10 goals in his final 12 games of the regular season. It seems the Monarchs have found another weapon to add to their arsenal of offensive talent up front. Mersch leads the Monarchs with eight points (5G-3A) in five playoff games this postseason.

2. Oscar Lindberg, C – Hartford Wolf Pack
2014-15 Season Stats: 75GP, 28G-28A, +7, 68 PIM

Hartford’s late surge to claim the Northeast Division was due in large part to the play of Lindberg, who finished the season with points in 14 of his last 15 games including 11 goals in those 15 games and a 12-game point streak. Lindberg has added three assists in five AHL playoff games this year.

3. Joe Whitney, LW – Albany Devils
2014-15 Season Stats: 66GP, 23G-37A, -3, 64 PIM

Whitney finished the season on a tear and was one of the main reasons why Albany made a late push toward the postseason, though they ultimately came up short. Whitney had 16 points (5G-11A) in his last nine games.

4. Tom Kuhnhackl, RW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 72GP, 12G-18A, +10, 19 PIM

The third-year forward, who has been vastly inconsistent amidst several injuries in his pro career, has his confidence at an all-time high after 11 points (5G-6A) in his final nine games of the regular season – including a five-game point streak to begin the month of April.

5. Chase Balisy, LW – St. John’s IceCaps
2014-15 Season Stats: 73GP, 21G-23A, -9, 30 PIM

Balisy finished the year with nine points (6G-3A) in his last eight games, including a five-game point streak to end the season with a goal in each of his last four games.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey