Two weeks after the Memorial Cup was raised in London, Ontario, most North American hockey aficionados are focused on the Stanley Cup battle between New York and Los Angeles. But there is another Cup series just beginning–the AHL Calder Cup. This AHL championship series, between St. John’s and Texas, not only is a great hockey battle in itself, but several excellent NHL prospects are participating. The first game of the series, played tonight at 7:30 pm CDT, is a best of seven to win the Calder Cup.
Let’s take a look at the match-up.
St. John’s Ice Caps
Regular Season Record: 46-23-2-5
Playoff Record: 11-5
NHL Affiliated Franchise: Winnipeg Jets
Top Winnipeg Prospects on the Team:
Michael Hutchinson (G)
Brendan Kichton (D)
Carl Klingberg (LW)
JC Lipon (RW)
Player to Watch: Michael Hutchinson
When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, the Jets relocated their AHL affiliate to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The AHL had been there before, from 1991-2005, when the city was the home of the Toronto Maples Leafs’ minor league team. Although the Leafs’ AHL franchise took part in the post-season several times, St. John’s has never had a Calder Cup champion.
This season, the Ice Caps were struggled at first, 4-6 in the month of October, but down the stretch, they were great. From the period between January 1 to March 14th, St. John’s was 22-7. The win streak basically coincided with goaltender Michael Hutchinson’s take over between the pipes. Hutchinson was excellent during the regular season and has been in net throughout the playoffs, where he has posted three shutouts and a 1.61 GAA and a save percentage of 94.6%.
Most of St. John’s scoring in the playoffs has come from players who have experience. Eight players saw action in the NHL this season, so a high level of play is nothing new to them. In addition to the fact that the Ice Caps have three scoring lines, two defensemen, Will O’Neill and Zach Redmond, are big contributors to the scoreboard. O’Neill is an excellent puck distributor and Redmond has a very good shot.
None of the skaters on the team are NHL top prospects, but they shoot accurately and often. Plus, Hutchinson has kept them in every game. Not only did he post two shutouts against the Ice Caps’ last opponent, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, he had a another earlier against Albany. If Hutchinson continues to play this well, it will be very hard for Texas to beat St. John’s. Between well distributed scoring, the defensemen contributing well to the offense, and an excellent penalty kill, the Stars will have their work cut out for them. The only real weakness that St. John’s has is physicality, or lack thereof. If Texas makes this a very physical series, then it will be difficult for the Ice Caps to play their game.
Regular Season Record: 48-18-3-7
Playoff Record: 11-5
NHL Affiliated Franchise: Dallas Stars
Top Dallas Prospects on the Team:
Jack Campbell (G)
Curtis McKenzie (LW)
Jamie Oleksiak (D)
Brett Ritchie (RW)
Player to Watch: Christian Nystorp
The Stars had the best regular season record in the AHL this year. An excellent all-around team, Texas plays with grit and determination, as much as with skill. Several veteran professional forwards lead the team’s scoring in the post-season, including Mike Hedden and Travis Morin (each with 15 points). Only one blueliner (Derek Meech) is in the top 12 in scoring on the team.
One of the big questions for the Stars will be whether they can score against Hutchinson. An aggressive assault down the ice is what is needed, which Texas is certainly capable of. The Stars work well together and seem to be able to adapt quickly to changing game conditions.
Adaptation will be what is needed, along with a top notch performance from netminder Christopher Nilstorp. The free agent goalie, who signed his first contract with Dallas prior to the 2012-13 season, has been solid for Dallas’s AHL affiliate this season, but he will need to be more than solid to stop the high end offense of St. John’s.
The Stars possess the puck and protect better than any other team in the AHL. And they are capable of wearing down a team, as they did with Toronto in the last round. So, if St. John’s does not take both of the first two games in Texas, the Ice Caps will already be at a disadvantage. If they lose both games in Texas, it will be an almost insurmountable hole for St. John’s.
The series moves from Texas to St. John’s for games three, four and five. The Stars have shown in their first three playoff series that they can and do win on the road, almost as well as do when they are at home. Expect them to come out ready and playing hard.
Over a long series, the Stars’ style of play will be too much for St. John’s. But it will take almost the entire series for the Stars to win the Calder Cup.
Prediction: Texas in six games.
Leslie Treff covers professional and amateur scouting for Hockey Prospectus.
Follow Leslie on Twitter at @HFNYRangers.