The hottest teams in the AHL collide in a battle for Eastern Conference supremacy as the Hamilton Bulldogs attempt to knock off regular-season champion Bridgeport. To me, this is one of the best conference final match-ups in a long time, featuring two of the most prolific scoring machines the league has to offer.
Led by 26-year-old Brian Swanson, the Bulldogs have averaged nearly four goals a game this playoff year (3.88), tops in the AHL. The Colorado College grad has had a breakout season – notching 34 goals and 39 assists (73 pts) and his productivity has carried over into the playoffs, as he leads the Dogs with six goals and four assists (10 pts). Line mate Jason
Chimera, who led Hamilton in scoring during the regular season (26-51-77), and young Fernando Pisani have each contributed three goals and five assists in the playoffs. Alex Henry and Marc-Andre Bergeron anchor the defense corps, while Marc Lamothe (3-1) and Ty Conkin (4-0) have split the goaltending duties.
Bridgeport is littered with young talent, namely Red Deer native Trent Hunter. The 21-year-old power forward produced a 30-goal campaign this season, and his early performance in the playoffs (1-8-9 in five games) compelled Islander general manager Mike Milbury to recall the former Prince George star when Brad Isbister suffered a hand injury. Former Hobey Baker award winner Jason Krog had his best year as a pro (26-36-62), as did Juraj Kolnik (18-30-48), and both players are 1-2 on the Sound Tiger playoff scoring list. The Bridgeport blue line is as seasoned as any in the league, led by the offensive-oriented Ray Giroux, defensive stalwart Ray Schultz, and the monstrous Branislav Mezei. Regular-season wins leader Rick DiPietro has proven to be everything the scouts made him out to be, posting a 7-1 record and a 1.57 goals-against average in eight playoff outings.
This series is going to be a big test for Bridgeport. After waltzing through the first two rounds against fatigued not to mention inferior – opponents, the Tigers now find themselves facing a team that swept a division winner (Quebec) and handily disposed of one of the most experienced teams in the league (Hartford). The Bulldogs got off to a white-hot start, and after fading to the middle of the pack by mid-season, they have rediscovered the scent at the right time.
Bridgeport, not to be outdone, has been rolling for months. Their playoff train will prove difficult to derail, especially since guys like Trent Hunter, Evgeny Korolev, and Ray Schultz are on their way back to Connecticut after serving as reinforcements during the Islanders playoff surge. Kolnik (7-6-13) and Krog (6-6-12) have been on a murderous pace, and Rick DiPietro has been a rock.
The Sound Tigers are more experienced on the blue line, but Hamilton has the offensive weaponry to counter. This series will come down to goaltending. Hamilton coach Claude Julien has had success platooning Lamothe and Conkin, so expect both to see playing time in this series. However, the 20-year-old DiPietro is on a mission to prove he is NHL material. Coupled with the timely scoring of three solid offensive lines, Bridgeport has what it takes to advance to the Calder Cup finals in their inaugural season.