Well, this extremely disappointing season is finally over and as glad as I was that the Aeros finished .500 - I think it’s a pride thing more than anything – I was equally distraught that they were unable to hang on in San Antonio and win the season finale.
Finishing the season with a win and subsequently climbing out of last place in the West Division by virtue of a tiebreaker would have been one final shining moment in a season that unfortunately had too few.
If you missed the game on 1070 AM KNTH or AHL Live and you only saw the boxscore, you must have been confused. Here was the deal: If the Aeros won in regulation (earning two points and not allowing the Rampage to earn any points) they would have tied the Rampage for points with 82 and also equaled their 35 wins. The next tiebreaker is head-to-head and the Aeros won the season series handily. Thus a win in regulation for the Aeros would have given them a 6th place finish in the division. So when the Rampage scored with 50 seconds left to tie the game, the Aeros decided to pull goaltender Anton Khudobin in hopes of retaking the lead. Click here for a sound bite from Aeros’ head coach Kevin Constantine regarding the thought process.
That’s why the Rampage’s empty-net goal with less than 20 seconds left was the tie-breaking, game-winning marker…a rare situation to say the least.
Anyway, I’m going to dissect this Aeros’ season in much greater detail via some blogs in the coming weeks and there will be plenty of end-of-the-season multimedia features posted on aeros.com in the near future. Hopefully the audio and video interviews we taped will tide you over until later in the off-season when there are actually player signings, etc. to talk about.
In the meantime, here’s a quick preview of the AHL West Division Semi-Finals, which begin tonight with the #4 Milwaukee Admirals in Chicago to take on the #1 Wolves. Game One between the #2 Texas Stars and #3 Rockford Ice Hogs is Friday from the Cedar Park Center.
#4 Milwaukee Admirals vs. #1 Chicago Wolves
The Wolves are back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus to take on the Admirals who have made eight consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearances. On the surface, this looks like a rout since the Wolves were clearly the best team in the division after they started 1-5-0-0 and replaced their coaching staff with current coaches Don Lever and Ron Wilson (both were members of the 2007 Calder Cup Champion Hamilton Bulldogs). Remember, the Wolves’ management tried to add some grit / toughness to their lineup prior to the Clear Day deadline in early March, knowing that they couldn’t afford to get pushed around by a team like the Admirals come playoff time. We’ll find out pretty quickly if those added pieces (Greg Stewart, Craig Weller, etc.) have made a difference – meaning the Wolves won’t just be a regular season juggernaut, but that they’ll actually have what it takes to make a run in the postseason. The loss of power forward Hugh Jessiman in the regular season’s final weekend plus the fact the Nashville Predators (Admirals’ NHL affiliate) won’t be sending any reinforcements since they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs will keep the Admirals from making this a long series. I think the Admirals win a game in Bradley Center and that’s it. However, just to stay “on the fence”, here’s how the Admirals can upset the Wolves: WIN TONIGHT. Take Game One by shelling Wolves’ starting goaltender Peter Mannino and make Don Lever put former Admiral Drew MacIntyre in the net for Game Two. Then you’re in the Wolves’ collective heads – potentially – and you can try to make it a long series. Still, my pick remains the same: Wolves in 5.
For an insider’s look, here’s what Jason Shaver, broadcaster for the Wolves, responded with when asked to provide the following:
Biggest Strength: “Leadership and experience – 18 players on the Wolves playoff roster have won a college, junior or professional championship.”
Biggest Weakness: “Line chemistry and D pairings. The lineup has been in flux for the past four weeks with injuries and call ups. Now everyone is back, will they be able pick up where they left off?”
Difference-Making Intangible: “If Goaltending of Mannino or MacIntyre can get hot, the Wolves should be in good shape.”
Milwaukee broadcaster Aaron Sims:
Biggest Strength: Milwaukee's size and strength. The Admirals want to get the puck deep and bang some bodies en route to the net.
Biggest Weakness: Aside from lack of playoff experience compared to Chicago, is the lack of speed. Milwaukee needs to follow its systems to great detail or else Chicago could skate them out of the rink.
Difference-Making Intangible: The fact the Admirals had a better road record than it did at home. Being the visiting team throughout the playoffs, the knowledge that it played so well away from the Bradley Center could be a nice confidence boost.
#3 Rockford IceHogs vs. #2 Texas Stars
As the regular season was in its final weeks and this match-up looked more and more likely, I was intrigued to see who would own home ice in this series. To me, the Rockford MetroCentre is a difficult place to play although the Ice Hogs are just 3-4 at home in the last two postseasons, so what do I know? Seriously though, the Ice Hogs are in the playoffs over teams like the Aeros, Rampage and Rivermen mainly because they never had any really poor stretches (read: consistency) and they went 26-12-1-1 at home this season. So I think it’s a huge advantage for the Stars to have home ice in what should be a long series. The Stars won six of the eight meetings between the two sides and with the addition of Jamie Benn, the Stars finally have a legitimate, dynamic force up front. If you’re curious Benn had 22 goals with their parent club, the Dallas Stars as a rookie this year. Aeros’ head coach Kevin Constantine really likes how the Stars are built – solid goaltending and veteran blue-liners coupled with a great penalty kill, which probably means they’ll be in every game. The Stars aren’t the healthiest team in the AHL right now, but they should have everyone back (read: Matt Beaudoin) by late in the first round or early in the West Division Finals should they advance. Stars’ first-year head coach Glen Gulutzan has prior playoff experience in the ECHL, advancing as far as the Kelly Cup Finals in 2008. I think the Ice Hogs are a talented offensive group and they certainly have veteran goaltending in Corey Crawford, but the Stars play a solid team game and they capitalize on the few offensive chances they get (fewest shots per game in the AHL at 26.8). My pick: Stars in 6.
Texas Stars broadcaster Josh Fisher:
Biggest Strength: Defense, veteran blue-liners (Hutchinson, Jancevski, Fortunus etc.), goaltending (Krahn, Climie)
Biggest Weakness: Playing from behind (Texas posted one comeback win all season when trailing after two periods), goalie playoff experience
Difference Making Intangible: Character - Texas hasn't had a set scoring leader relying on a team scoring effort and it'll be that way for the Stars to be successfull in the playoffs. Jamie Benn - anytime one of the top NHL rookies joins your team, you immediately get better.
Rockford IceHogs broadcaster Mike Peck with his response:
Biggest Strength: Balanced Offense-Six different players on this year's IceHogs team had 40 or more points and ten different skaters had 30 or more.
Biggest Weakness: Power Play-Ranked 24th in the league in 2009-10 with a 15.2% conversion rate and just 13.4% on the road.
Difference Making Intangible: The IceHogs were very good in tight games in 2009-10 as they had a record of 23-8-3-3 in one-goal games, a .702 winning percentage.
At the end of the day, I’d be very surprised if either Chicago, Texas or Hamilton doesn’t come out of the Western Conference. My sleeper team in the Western Conference: the Manitoba Moose because goaltender Corey Schenider is legit – maybe the best in the league. He can steal a game or two in a long series and if Moose get past Hamilton, they are headed to at least the third round
More to come as the playoffs move along…
- Aero Joe