The Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate) and the Manchester Monarchs (obviously the Los Angeles Kings farm team) spent most of the season duking it out for the #1 overall spot in the league.
Saturday will actually be the first time these two teams see each other! They don't usually play intra-conference due to travel limitations... the AHL being a low budget league, it does everything possible to minimize travel expenses.
We'll break down some important things related to the Calder Cup Final and how it may affect both teams.
Let's start in net.
Jacob Markstrom has an eye-popping .931 sv% and 1.87 GAA through 18 games in the playoffs. That is pretty good for anyone, but especially so for a young goaltender that has struggled mightily to adapt to North American style of play, according to Rhys Jessop of Canucks Army.
Jean-Francois Berube has a less-than-stellar 0.894 sv% and 2.84 GAA. His numbers were almost the worst among starting goalies for the 16 playoff teams.
Markstrom has managed something this season that he's had difficulties with in the past: consistency. It could just be variance or it could be actual growth as a player. Pucks that once leaked through the 6'6 Swedish netminder now stick to him or bounce off him rather than automatically cross the goal line.
Berube has had quite an up and down playoffs so far. He has frequently gotten beat on shots from the slot and allowed some long range shots. It's unreasonable to expect him to stop every shot from the high percentage areas, but given the amount that find their way past him, he's been Not Good.
In many ways, Berube reminds me of Jonathan Quick during last year's playoff run where he'd let in some weird goals then make some incredible saves but for some reason, can't seem to do the same thing every time.
Manchester and Utica finished the regular season as perhaps the AHL's two best defensive teams in the possession department. As of Josh Weissbock's last updated, the Monarchs and Comets were #1 and #2, respectively, in Fenwick (unblocked shots) against.
This is actually a huge improvement for the Monarchs who were kind of middle of the pack in terms of shots for/against last year.
Calder Cup final is between the #1 and #2 possession team. Manchester have been a better and more consistent team— Kevin Flynn (@joshweissbock) June 3, 2015
Why Uti might be afraid of Manchester - they can take solace in that the SoS might be easier in the east pic.twitter.com/xZmbLz1TaX— Kevin Flynn (@joshweissbock) June 3, 2015
(SoS = Strengths of Schedules. Weissbock has a tidbit about that here.)
Utica has allowed two more goals in four more games played than Manchester has during this postseason, which is mostly due to excellence in net as they've allowed an average of 47.25 shots in those four games. Through 18 games, Markstrom has faced 520 shots and allowed 36 goals. Berube, on the other hand, has faced 331 shots in 14 games and allowed 35 goals.
Both teams also have a high flying defenseman who can chip in on offense. For Utica, career AHLer Bobby Sanguinetti finished the regular season tenth among all defenseman in the league with 40 points. Colin Miller was second among all AHL defensemen with 52 points. In 14 postseason games, Miller has one goal and seven assists for eight points. In 18 games, Sanguinetti has three goals and seven assists, giving him 10 points.
Surprisingly, Vincent LoVerde has nine points in the playoffs. I don't think he was ever really thought of an offensive defenseman but he has chipped in with eight assists.
Utica doesn't have really any high end finishers. Cal O'Reilly is a career AHLer who is leading the team in points with 15 assists but has no goals so far in the playoffs. Sven Baertschi, who has seen a lot of time in the NHL with the Calgary Flames and was traded at this year's deadline, is Utica's leading goal scorer with six goals in 16 games played. Utica has averaged 2.38 goals for in 18 games, 43 goals on 642 SOG. So, the Comets aren't going to outshoot their opponent; they're more prone to trying to shut it down defensively and let Markstrom do the rest.
On the other hand, the Monarchs are an incredibly high flying offensive team; they're averaging nearly four goals a game. Their leading scoring is of course, Jordan Weal, followed closely by Michael Mersch and Brian O'Neill, who have 18 and 17 points respectively. Head Coach Mike Stothers has emphasized shooting a lot more with this team, which probably has led to them being such a good offensive team.
Keys For Success
For Utica, it will be to keep Manchester off the board and score early themselves as they are 5-0-2-0 (W-L-OTL-SOL) when leading after the first. But they're 2-2-0-0 when trailing after the first. For the Monarchs, scoring early is even more of a factor; they're a perfect 11-0-0-0 when scoring first.
Defensively, both teams are strong enough that it might come down to goaltending. Manchester is going to lean heavily on Berube who has had his struggles throughout the postseason. The Comets will do the same with Markstrom, who has been nothing short of spectacular thus far. Berube will probably need to outduel Markstrom to give his team a chance to win.
The AHL is generously waiving their typical watch fees for the Calder Cup Final, allowing people to tune in online to the games live. Join us, won't you?
To watch, sign up at AHLlive.com and enter code: CALDERCUP
The puck drops tomorrow at 6:00 Manchester time... that's 3:00 PM Pacific. Be there!