Toronto Marlies (1) vs Bridgeport Sound Tigers (4)
Prediction: Toronto in 3
The Marlies were an absolute powerhouse this season, and it looks like the stocked pipeline and the hiring of AGM Kyle Dubas has had an instant impact on the team. The Marlies were the best regular season team in the AHL, posting an insane 54-16-5 record on the year while scoring a league leading 294 goals. They also allowed the second fewest goals in the entire Eastern conference at 191 goals. The combination of solid offense with defense has been the staple of the Marlies this season. They have a multitude of players who can score, like Mark Arcobello, Colin Smith, Nikita Soshnikov, William Nylander, Sam Carrick, and Brendan Leipsic. It is a team that is loaded with talent up and down the lineup. Simply put this is going to be a very rough series for a Bridgeport Sound team that did not exactly burst into the playoffs (4-5-1 last 10). They have some decent scoring depth, but allowed 220 goals against, which is quite a bit for a team that scored 209. Goaltender Christopher Gibson will have his work cut out for him. The Marlies should be able to take this series if they are playing at the top of their game.
Albany Devils (2) vs Utica Comets (3)
Prediction: Albany in 4
This should be a good series that pits offense against defense. Like their parent club, the Albany Devils are not known for high scoring, but more for a stifling defensive game. They allowed the fewest goals against in the league, and the second fewest in the entire AHL. While Yann Danis did not post insane goaltending numbers this year (.908 save percentage) the shot suppressing style of Albany limited his shots faced to 23 a game on average. There are multiple hard hitting, tight checking players that are going to make the Utica forward corp’s life miserable. Last season’s Eastern Conference representative in the finals has decent scoring depth and one of the better puck moving defenseman out there in Jordan Subban, but without the services of a player like Hunter Shinkaruk, traded earlier this season to the Calgary Flames organization, it is hard to imagine they overcome the defensive stalwart that is Albany. In the battle of offense against defense, defense tends to win.
Hershey Bears (1) vs Portland Pirates (4)
Prediction: Hershey in 4
While not quite as startling a mismatch as Toronto and Bridgeport, the high powered Hershey Bears should be able to overtake the Portland Pirates with relative ease in this series. Looking up and down the roster for Hershey, there are threats everywhere. However, despite the talent, head coach Troy Mann has to overcome a similar hurdle of that of the Washington Capitals: Go on a deep run. With a talented roster, Hershey has failed to go on a run since they won the Championship in 2009-10 despite multiple seasons as a top seed. While upset might be a popular narrative, the Pirates simply do not have enough to overcome a strong Hershey team in terms of quality. They could steal a game at home behind the strong goaltending of Mike McKenna, but this one is Hershey’s series to lose.
Providence Bruins (2) vs Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (3)
Prediction: Providence in 3
This is going to be extremely tough for the Baby Pens. Unfortunately with the injury situation in Pittsburgh, the AHL team will be without either their No. 1 OR No. 2 goalies. Marc-Andre Fleury is still day-to-day, thus Zatkoff and Matt Murray remain in Pittsburgh. For Wilkes-Barre you have to hope that they are returned at some point during the playoffs. Providence also came into this series flying extremely high, winning five in a row and seven of their last 10. While the Baby Bruins will still have to deal with a bevy of 20+ goal scorers like Carter Rowney, Dominik Simon, and Dustin Jeffrey, the Bruins bring their own arsenal to the table that not only matches but surpasses that of WBS. That includes rookie Frank Vatrano, who scored an amazing 36 goals in 36 games this year. They are also one of the stingier defensive teams in the Eastern Conference. This is looking like a potentially quick series.
Milwaukee Admirals (1) vs Grand Rapids Griffins (4)
Prediction: Grand Rapids in 5
While the seeding might be a mismatch, Grand Rapids played the Admirals tough this year, taking the season series 5-3. They also shut down the Milwaukee offense and got some excellent goaltending in several of those games. But like most of the year, Grand Rapids was inconsistent in their performances. They remain a fairly balanced team in terms of offense and defense, and have several major players capable of taking over a game like Anthony Mantha. The Griffins also stumbled heavily down the stretch, losing five in a row and seven of their last 10. Nevertheless, if you were to pick a potential upset, it might be here. The Griffins were utterly dominant in some of their wins this season over Milwaukee, and despite the form this feels like a series that could go either way. Milwaukee, a team that scores by committee, are going to need all hands on deck, and solid play from goaltenders Saros and Mazanec, to best their division rivals.
Lake Erie Monsters (2) vs Rockford IceHogs (3)
Prediction: Lake Erie in 5
Like the other Central Divison match-up, this one could be a tightrope. The teams finished close in the standings and Rockford took the 8-game season series 4-3-1. Lake Erie, normally a good defensive team, struggled to limit the IceHogs offense, allowing 2.75 goals per game against Rockford, with four of those games being over three goals. However, Lake Erie seemed to turn it around the last two times the teams played, winning games by 4-2 and 5-1 final scores. Part of the potential turn in form could be credited to the addition of Zach Werenski to an already good defensive group that includes Dillon Heatherington, Justin Falk, and Dean Kukan. While they may have struggled against Rockford during the regular season, the IceHogs are wildly inconsistent, and the Monsters defense should be enough to solidify a second round berth. Ville Pokka, Vince Hinostraza and Mark McNeill will be key for the Icehouse if they want to get an upset in round one.
Ontario Reign (1) vs San Jose Barracuda (4)
Prediction: Ontario in 3
The Reign are the stingiest of stingy defensive teams in the AHL. They allowed a league low 138 goals, and MVP Peter Budaj ended up being one of only three goalies in AHL history to lead the league in shutouts, wins, save percentage, and goals against average on the year. They are a big team, they play responsibly, and they grind their opponents into dust. That being said, the offense can be extremely limited at times, so do not expect a high scoring series. San Jose, which crept into the playoffs on the lowest point percentage, also scores very little, but does not give up much defensively. It should be a defensive chess match that may be headlined by Budaj and in-form Aaron Dell. The Reign also had a stranglehold over the season series with a 9-3-0 record. While Nikolay Goldobin can be a game changer for San Jose, he remains one of the few threats offensively to Ontario. The scoring committee that includes Nic Dowd, Sean Backman, Justin Auger, Adrian Kempe, and Jonny Brodzinski should be able to overwhelm the limited Barracuda depth easily, although they may possibly steal one in San Jose with a performance from Dell.
San Diego Gulls (2) vs Texas Stars (3)
Prediction: Texas in 5
For a portion of the season, the division was chasing the Texas Stars. However, about midway through, the shine started to come off the risky all out offensive play of Texas and they faded back into the pack. San Diego, a big bruising team, ended up going with a slow and steady pace that ended up gaining them home ice advantage. The Gulls are a bruising team that love to play physical and get in your face. While they do not currently have any truly outstanding talent with both Nick Ritchie and Shea Theodore on recalls to the NHL, they still have some worthy threats like Chris Mueller, Brandon Montour, Stefan Noesen, and Ondrej Kase. However, without their big two, this series gets much tighter. The pace of Texas is absolutely maddening, both in a good and bad way. The active defense and all-out skating is a treat to watch, but can leave the Stars looking sloppy and punishable on defense. Nevertheless, over the course of a five game series, the Stars should be able to slowly wear down the big and sometimes slow-footed defense of the Gulls. Look for players like Jason Dickinson, Esa Lindell, and Julius Honka to play big parts of this series if Texas plan on winning. Goaltending and defense could be an Achilles heel, but they do have offensive horses to overcome it. This could be a coin flip series. The Stars lost just once to the Gulls during the regular season to boot.