Four teams remain in the AHL Western Conference playoff race that kicks off Thursday in California and in Cleveland.
The two matchups feature teams that met several times in the 2015-16 season, so both series could potentially go the full seven games.
Ontario Reign vs. San Diego Gulls
And it is a series with one of the more bizarre schedules. Due to arena availability, the best-of-seven schedule is a setup as a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1, with Ontario having home ice in games 1, 3, 5, and 7.
It will create some added travel to the series, while it seems to even up the series with San Diego not having to start with back-to-back games in Ontario.
While the schedule is odd, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these teams are meeting with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line. Ontario and San Diego are built in the image of their NHL affiliates, and built to play against each other – it will be physical, it will be nasty, and the team that plays better defense will win.
Both teams also are at full strength after their NHL affiliates were eliminated from the postseason, which has made a significant impact on San Diego.
Chris Wagner also made an impact in the first round when he re-joined San Diego in time for Game 3 against the Texas Stars. Wagner had three points in two games against Texas, adding to an impressive arsenal with Mike Sgarbossa, Nick Ritchie, Chris Mueller, and Joseph Cramarossa.
Mueller is the veteran of the group and sets the table for the young prospects. In the first round, he had a team-high five points and three assists.
The Ontario Reign had the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season, and its stifling defense was at full force in the first round against San Jose, while a trio of rookies provided a spark.
Ontario also has the AHL’s top goalie in Peter Budaj, who was rarely tested in Round 1, but superb when needed.
Grand Rapids Griffins vs. Lake Erie Monsters
Grand Rapids and Lake Erie have had ample time to plan and breakdown for each other after both teams pulled off surprising first-round sweeps.
Grand Rapids swept away Central Division champion Milwaukee in dominant fashion, while Lake Erie easily dismantled Rockford. Both series were expected to be hard-fought affairs, especially in a division that was one of the most difficult during the regular season.
The Grand Rapids Griffins are a streaky team and that could come into play this series. When they are on, they can’t be beat – as evidenced by 13- and 15-game win streaks during the regular season. When they struggle, they struggle mightily and can quickly piece together a losing streak.
The Lake Erie Monsters have been more consistent throughout the season and didn’t have as many ups and downs. The Monsters are a deep team, and they have been clicking since their NHL affiliate, the Columbus Blue Jackets, had their season end before the NHL playoffs began.
Josh Anderson led Lake Erie with four goals and an assist in the first round, while Oliver Bjorkstrand had a goal and an assist. Zach Werenski chipped in nicely from the blue line with two goals and an assist.
Grand Rapids got key contributions from Anthony Mantha (three goals, one assist) and Tyler Bertuzzi (three goals) in the first round, while Martin Frk continued to develop as a playmaker and had three assists.
The Griffins were one of the few teams in the first round to use the same lineup all three games, and that worked well with veteran goalie Tom McCollum, who stopped 91 of 94 shots in the series.
A handful of top NHL prospects had strong showings in the first round, but nonetheless had their seasons come to an end. Below are a handful of noteworthy prospect performances from the opening round of the AHL’s Western Conference playoffs.
Esa Lindell, Texas Stars
One of the Dallas Stars’ top defensive prospects had four points in four games as Texas fell to San Diego in four games. Esa Lindell had two goals and two assists to cap off a season where he earned AHL All-Star honors. Lindell was headed to Russia to join Team Finland for the 2016 IIHF World Championship.
Nikokay Goldobin, San Jose Barracuda
Nikolay Goldobin scored twice as the Barracuda fell to the Ontario Reign in four games. The forward had a strong overall season and has now joined the San Jose Sharks as a ‘black ace’ for the NHL playoffs.
Aaron Dell, San Jose Barracuda
Ontario was simply a better team, but Aaron Dell helped keep San Jose in the series with his strong play through four games. Dell posted a .932 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average as he faced 136 shots in four games. The goalie even dished out a pair of assists in the series.
Tyler Motte, Rockford IceHogs
Tyler Motte got his first taste of professional playoff action as he joined Rockford late in the season and scored twice in a three-game series. Motte led the IceHogs in points as they were swept, and he is now playing with Team USA at the IIHF World Championship.
Vladislav Kamenev, Milwaukee Admirals
Overall, Milwaukee was dominated by Grand Rapids in the first round, but Vladislav Kamenev showed some spark and had a team-high nine shots in the series. The Russian joined Nashville as a practice player after the AHL season came to a close.
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