Wolves and Phantoms face off in AHL finals

By HF Staff

The Chicago Wolves, affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers, and Philadelphia Phantoms, affiliate of the Flyers, will meet in the 2005 Calder Cup finals very evenly matched. Both teams geared up for the playoff run by adding key players to their already strong clubs. Having not faced each other in the regular season, however, it will be a feeling out process to determine how much of the series will be based on abundant skill, or on brawn.

Chicago’s players have more NHL experience than Philadelphia’s, averaging 47 NHL games played to the Phantoms’ 34, but the two teams are about the same age, an average of 25.1 years for Chicago and 24.6 years for Philadelphia. Together the teams boast 10 former first round draft picks.

Offense

The Phantoms are led by 20-year-old rookie Jeff Carter with 19 points in 17 playoff games, while 23-year-old Patrick Sharp is next with 15 points. Carter, who leads playoff goals scored with 12, joined the team when his OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were eliminated, as did Mike Richards of the Kitchener Rangers.

The Wolves do their scoring by committee, with Cory Larose, Derek MacKenzie, Brad Larsen, and Lonny Bohonos tied with 11 points in 14 playoff games. The 23-year-old MacKenzie is also tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +12.

The teams are scoring at a very similar rate in the playoffs, the Wolves with 3.29 goals per game, and the Phantoms with 3.24.

Defense

The Chicago Wolves have rarely been known for their defense, but this year is an exception. With the late-season additions of Los Angeles King Joe Corvo, Florida Panther Jay Bouwmeester, and top defensive prospect Braydon Coburn, the Wolves have put together a very solid blueline. Bouwmeester, along with center Stephen Weiss, is on loan from the San Antonio Rampage.

The Phantoms defense is headlined by Joni Pitkanen, Dennis Seidenberg and John Slaney, all with at least a season of NHL play to their credit. Seidenberg is the scoring leader among defensemen with seven points, while Pitkanen leads the team in plus/minus at +10.

The Wolves have given up just 1.57 goals per game in the playoffs, compared to 2.06 given up by the Phantoms.

Goaltending

The series features two of the best goaltenders in the league, who both happen to be Finnish. In the regular season, Kari Lehtonen, the Atlanta Thrashers top prospect, went 38-17-2 with a 2.72 goals against and a .929 save percentage with the Wolves. Antero Niittymaki was 33-21-4 with a 2.07 goals against and a .924 save percentage with the Phantoms. Both have managed to top themselves in the postseason — Lehtonen with a 1.58 goals against average and .945 save percentage, and Antero Niittymaki with a 1.97 goals against and a .936 save percentage.

Lehtonen would be the youngest starting goaltender to win a Calder Cup since 19-year-old Patrick Roy led the Sherbrooke Canadiens to the title in 1985.

While their pedigrees differ, one the No. 2 overall pick in 2002, the other the 168th pick in 1998, both goaltenders have gotten the job done for their teams, and were selected to the 2005 AHL All-Star game. The meeting of the two netminders will likely result in a low-scoring finals.

With so much riding on goaltending in this series, a look at the backups is in order. Lehtonen is supported by 22-year-old Michael Garnett, who started two games during the West Division final against Cincinnati when Lehtonen’s groin acted up again. In those two games he stopped 67 of 70 shots for a save percentage of .957.

Neil Little, 33, replaced Niittymaki twice in the playoffs as well, but it was only for a total of 24 minutes as Niittymaki regrouped from inconsistent performances. Little stopped all five of the shots he faced, but having seen much less game action this postseason, he would be the rustier of the two if called upon.

Injury report

Aside from the general wear and tear that the playoffs take on a team, and some bumps and bruises from a physical series with Providence, there are no notable injuries on the Phantoms.

The Wolves are now healthy again as well, as they get an injured player back for this series in the form of pest Karl Stewart, who missed six games with concussion-like symptoms.

Intangibles

After a mediocre start to the season, the Wolves have added the pieces one by one and gained momentum along the way. Their 12-2 march through the first three rounds is nothing short of impressive. Finishing off Manitoba in four games, they have had eight days of rest going into the finals.

The Phantoms have played three additional games to get to this point, but are riding high on emotion. Niittymaki, who played backup to Lehtonen on the Finnish national team, has something to prove against his younger rival.

Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Thursday at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL.

Chicago
Wolves
Philadelphia
Phantoms
Playoff record12-212-5
Playoff goals
for/game
3.293.24
Playoff goals
against/game
1.572.06
Regular season
points
105103
Last Calder Cup
championship
20021998
NHL affiliateAtlanta
Thrashers
Philadelphia
Flyers
Average age25.124.6
Youngest playerBraydon
Coburn (20)
Mike
Richards (20)
Oldest playerSteve
Maltais (36)
John
Slaney (33)
Average NHL
games/player
4734
Starting goaltenderKari
Lehtonen (1.58, .945)
Antero
Niittymaki (1.97, .936)
First round picksLehtonen,
Coburn, Bouwmeester, Weiss
Carter,
Richards, Umberger, Pitkanen, Eager, Slaney
Offensive lineup
Maltais - Weiss - Larose
Bohonos - Santala - Vigier
Stewart - MacKenzie - Larsen
Maloney - Simon - Brennan
Sharp
– Carter – Ready
Sim – Richards – Kane
Fedoruk – Umberger – Meloche
Eager/Cote – Stafford – Gratton
Defensive lineup
Bouwmeester - Roche
Corvo - Coburn
Sipotz - Wedderburn 
Meyer
– Pitkanen
Seidenberg – Slaney
Jones – Skolney
Backup goaltenderMichael
Garnett
Neil
Little
Leading scorer4
players tied at 11 points
Jeff
Carter (19 points)
Added since MarchJay
Bouwmeester, Steven Weiss, Braydon Coburn
Jeff
Carter, Mike Richards

Holly Gunning and Al Alven contributed to this article. Copyright Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.