Calder Cup Playoff Qualifying Series, Western Conference
Philadelphia Phantoms (8th seed) vs. Rochester Americans (9th seed)
Phantoms: 33-27-15-5 (86 points, 3rd place in Southern Division)
Americans: 32-30-15-3 (82 points, 2nd place in Central Division)
Season series: Won by Phantoms, 4-2-0
Fans of the Philadelphia Flyers have come to expect a playoff series with the Buffalo Sabres as an annual rite of spring. Since the Flyers’ return to playoff contention in 1994-95, the Sabres have been the team’s most frequent postseason opponent. The two teams have squared off in five of the last seven playoff seasons, with Philadelphia winning three series to Buffalo’s two.
With the Sabres missing the playoffs this season for the first time since 1995-96 (and for just the second time in 14 years), the rivalry has been put on hold. However, a potential preview of future Flyers/Sabres playoff series will be on display at the First Union Spectrum this week, as the teams’ American Hockey League affiliates will do battle in a best-of-three Calder Cup Playoff preliminary series.
Actually, the Philadelphia Phantoms and Rochester Americans are almost as familiar with each other as the Flyers and Sabres are. This series will mark the fourth time in the Phantoms’ six years of existence that these teams will meet in the playoffs. Philadelphia has won two of the three postseason series against Rochester. [Last year, the Phantoms (36-34-5-5) upset the top-seeded Amerks (46-22-9-3), three games to one in the opening round of the playoffs.]
In any previous year, the ninth-seeded Americans would not have made the playoffs. However, with the AHL expanding its playoff format to include a best-of-three preliminary series, one extra team from each of the league’s two conferences now qualifies for postseason admission. Thus, the eighth-seeded Phantoms will battle the Americans for the right to advance to the Western Conference quarterfinals (a best-of-five series) against the top-seeded Syracuse Crunch.
Neither team is an offensive dynamo. In fact, the Phantoms and Americans finished tied for nineteenth place in the AHL in goals scored with 206. Philadelphia scored 103 goals at home this season compared to Rochester’s 97 on the road, so there is no real advantage in numbers there. However, the overall edge does go to the Phantoms because of the team’s late-season additions. The acquisitions of Greg Koehler, Jarrod Skalde and Yves Sarault helped bolster an offense that already included Mark Greig, Mark Freer, Pavel Brendl and offensive defenseman John Slaney. The Amerks’ only real scoring threats are Chris Taylor and Christian Matte. While that duo is capable up putting up some points, the Phantoms simply have more players who can put the puck in the net.
For the second straight season, Phantoms’ defenseman John Slaney won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman. Though he is known as an offensively-minded rearguard, Slaney’s defensive zone play over the past few seasons has been underrated. His presence alone might give Philadelphia the defensive edge in this series. Add steady, physical defenders like future-NHLer Bruno St. Jacques and veteran David Harlock to the equation, and it’s almost a no-brainer. Longtime vet Doug Houda and Doug Janik lead a solid defensive corps for Rochester. The unit gave up only 211 goals this season (the Phantoms allowed 210). Rookie Henrik Tallinder is a good looking young blueliner for the Amerks, but he has not yet been tested in a major pressure situation. He could be a wildcard in this series.
Goaltending: As much as Neil Little means to the Phantoms, Mika Noronen means that much more to the Amerks. He has been named Minor Pro Player of the Year by The Hockey News and Rochester MVP in each of the past two seasons. Little’s numbers this season were excellent (2.02 GAA, .926 SP), but Noronen was the reason Rochester managed to slip into the playoffs. His stats (2.50 GAA, .906 SP) are unimpressive on the surface, but he was the difference maker on a borderline mediocre team. Noronen has done nothing to dispel the notion that he will be a star netminder in the NHL in the near future.
Special Teams: Absolutely no contest here. Special teams play has been the Phantoms’ primary strength all season long. The team finished first in the league in penalty killing efficiency at 87.1 percent and eighth in powerplay proficiency at 17.7 percent. Rochester ranked 18th in penalty killing (82.5 percent) and dead last with the man advantage (10.4 percent). No doubt, special teams play will be a huge factor in this series.
Coaches: Both John Stevens (Phantoms) and Randy Cunneyworth (Rochester) are in their second seasons with their respective clubs. It’s very difficult to say at this point which one is the better coach. Stevens will certainly have the advantage in this series, what with every game being played at the Spectrum. He has proven to be a fine tactician over the course of this season (see the Phantoms’ terrific special teams execution). Cunneyworth can not be fully judged on his team’s performance this year. He simply did not have the players to duplicate the run the Amerks had last season (when the team finished with the best record in the Western Conference, only to be upset by the Phantoms in the first round).
Three Key Factors
1. Home Ice Advantage: With the entire series being played in Philadelphia, the Amerks are going to have to play almost perfect road hockey to have a chance. This Rochester team isn’t known for being particularly patient, disciplined or opportunistic, so that sentiment is quite a stretch.
2. Goaltending: But if great goaltending is a necessary component for success under normal postseason conditions, imagine how important it will be in a best-of-three series. The play of the Phantoms’ Neil Little and Rochester’s Mika Norrenen will ultimately determine the outcome of this series.
3. Special Teams: This goes back to that “opportunistic” thing. The Amerks may not get many powerplay chances in this series, but they’ll have to cash in when they get the opportunity. If Rochester can do so early against the AHL’s top-rated penalty killing team, it may gain a psychological edge. Just don’t bet on it.
Prospects to Watch (Phantoms)
1. Pavel Brendl: After plodding through a disappointing regular season, the enigmatic Czech prospect has a chance to redeem himself in the playoffs. He has the talent to dominate, but does he have the desire?
2. Bruno St. Jacques: Many consider him a lock to make the Flyers roster next season, but the 21-year-old defenseman isn’t about to rest on his laurels. Look for strong, steady performances out of St. Jacques in what may be his final games as a Phantom.
3. Guillaume Lefebvre:The rookie center had a terrific all-around season for the Phantoms. As the year wore on, head coach John Stevens seemed more and more comfortable with using Lefebvre in high-pressure situations. Considering the remarkable maturity of his game, expect that trend to continue here.
Prospects to Watch (Rochester)
1. Mika Noronen: If the Americans are to have any chance of winning this series, he is going to have to be stellar. Should Rochester advance, Noronen will be the reason why. The 22-year-old Finnish netminder is ticketed for success in the NHL.
2. Norm Milley: Already one of the Amerk’s emotional leaders in just his second pro season, Milley is probably the team’s best two-way player. The 22-year-old right winger is a gritty player who has the tools to excel in playoff hockey.
3. Henrik Tallinder: Steady defenseman finished tied for second on the team (w/Milley) in plus/minus rating with a plus-11. Not exceptionally flashy, but gets the job done.
1. John Slaney (Phantoms):A constant threat on the ice, Slaney always keeps the opposition guessing. Deadly on the powerplay, he has also become a much better defensive player than he is given credit for.
2. Chis Taylor (Rochester): The Amerks’ leading scorer has his work cut out for him. He’s going to have to come up huge if his team is to have a chance in this series. Given his talent, however, that’s not a stretch.
3. Mark Greig (Phantoms): If you had the option of using any player on either team in a clutch situation, this is the guy to go with. The Phantoms’ captain plays in all game situations and always seems to come through when the team needs him most.
4. Christian Matte (Rochester):Forms the second half of a formidable offensive threat with Taylor. If the Phantoms can keep this minor league veteran in check, it will leave Rochester with few options.
5. Neil Little (Phantoms): He may not have to match Noronen save-for-save, but Little will certainly have to be sharp against the Amerks’ big guns. Though he’s not typically the type of goaltender that carries a team on his back, Little is still more than capable of stealing a game for the Phantoms here and there.
Prediction: The Phantoms will take the series in two straight
Home ice advantage is much more important in the AHL than in the NHL. The difference that it can make in a playoff series is enormous. That being said, Rochester will have a tough time winning two games in Philly. If the Amerks had a home game in this series, you’d almost have to give them a chance. They don’t, so they’re all but dead in the water. Plus, the Phantoms have been playing very well of late. The team finally seems to be gelling after enduring a plethora of late-season roster moves.