After a roller-coaster regular season that saw two teams fold before Christmas and two division races decided by one point or less, the ECHL's Kelly Cup Playoffs are set to get under way Thursday.
Leading the pack is Malcolm Cameron's Florida Everblades, who finished with a league-best 49 wins and 103 points. Also back in the playoffs are last year's champion, the Cincinnati Cyclones, who beat out the Trenton Devils for the North Division title by just one victory in a tiebreaker.
In the National Conference, the Alaska Aces finished with the best record at 45-24-3. They finished ahead of the Idaho Steelheads (44-24-4) for the West Division crown by just one point. Both teams completed the regular season by winning seven of their last 10 games.
Playing their first season in the ECHL, the Ontario Reign -- guided by former Reading Royals coach Karl Taylor -- won the Pacific Division title with 82 points (38-29-6). The only team to miss the playoffs in the National Conference was the Phoenix RoadRunners, who will not be returning to the league next season.
With that in mind, here are NHL.com's first-round predictions:
North Division Semifinals (Best-of-7)
No. 1 Cincinnati vs. No. 4 Wheeling
The Cyclones begin their championship defense against the Nailers, who finished the regular season just one point ahead of Johnstown for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North.
Cincinnati won the last three meetings and is 2-3-0 at home and 5-6-0 overall in the season series, while Wheeling was 3-1-1 on the road and 6-3-2 overall. The Nailers have a couple of tremendous young talents in Bryan Ewing (ECHL Rookie of the Year) and Jordan Morrison (74 points in 63 games). Ewing scored 12 goals against the Cyclones this season.
Barret Ehgoetz led the Cyclones against Wheeling with 6 goals and 14 points, while T.J. McElroy and Mark Van Guilder each had 9 assists and 12 points. Ryan Nie went 3-0-0 against the Nailers, but his goals-against average was 3.89. Wheeling's David Brown went 3-1-0 with a 2.52 GAA.
Prediction: Cincinnati in 6
No. 2 Trenton vs. No. 3 Elmira
The T-Devils nearly won the incredibly tight division, falling just one win short. Trenton, which has home-ice advantage in this series, went 6-6-1 against the Jackals this season.
Eric Castonguay led the T-Devils with 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) while defenseman Ryan Gunderson had a team-high 12 assists and 13 points. Benoit Doucet led the Jackals against Trenton with 5 goals and 11 points. Under coach Steve Martinson, Elmira has reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons after joining the ECHL as an expansion team in 2007.
In all likelihood, this series will be decided between the pipes. Gerald Coleman has been strong since arriving in New Jersey's capital city in late November and went 5-2-0 with a 2.42 GAA against the Jackals. Meanwhile, Michael Teslak was 3-3-0 with a 3.20 GAA against Trenton.
Prediction: Trenton in 7
South Division Semifinals (Best-of-7)
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 Gwinnett
Making the playoffs is nothing new to the Everblades, who have accomplished the feat in each of their 11 seasons in the ECHL. However, a league championship has eluded them each and every time.
Veteran forward Kevin Baker had a sensational season for Florida, as he scored 57 goals for the first-place squad. Sixteen of those tallies came against the Gladiators, who finished the season four games below the .500 mark (31-35-6).
Jordan Fox was solid against Florida this season, as he tallied 7 assists and 10 points. But Gwinnett won just four of 14 meetings against the Everblades during the regular season, and the playoffs won't be any different.
Prediction: Florida in 5
No. 2 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Charlotte
Both teams are rich in history. The Stingrays have reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs a league record 15 times in 16 seasons and have won more postseason games than any other ECHL franchise (61), while the Checkers are 12-for-16 and reached the conference finals in 2005.
The Stingrays won the last four meetings and were 10-5-1 (6-2-1 on the road) against Charlotte. Michael Dubuc paced South Carolina with 15 points in eight games, while Jonathan Boutin went 3-1-0 with a 1.93 GAA.
Charlotte's Mike Bayrack had 11 assists and 15 points against South Carolina. In the goaltending department, Maxime Daigneault went 4-4-0 with a 2.76 GAA, while Jeff Jakaitis came away with two wins in eight appearances and posted a 3.28 GAA.
Prediction: South Carolina in 6
Pacific Division Semifinals (Best-of-7)
No. 1 Ontario vs. No. 4 Stockton
Ontario coach Karl Taylor has experienced the Kelly Cup Playoffs before, as he guided Reading to the postseason three times in four years. His Reign went 6-3-1 against Stockton this season and 4-0-0 on the road.
But the Thunder improved dramatically under Matt Thomas, who replaced Chris Cihocki after the Fresno Falcons folded in December. Thomas has never missed the playoffs in his five seasons as a head coach.
Geoff Walker paced Ontario with 8 points in nine games against Stockton, while Jeff Zatkoff went 2-2-1 with a 2.36 GAA. Ryan Huddy -- son of former NHL player Charlie Huddy -- had 10 points (7 assists) in eight games against the Reign. Andrew Perugini went 3-4-1 with a 2.59 GAA for Stockton.
Prediction: Stockton in 7
No. 2 Las Vegas vs. No. 3 Bakersfield
Las Vegas has reached the postseason for the fourth consecutive year and the fifth time in six years. After an extremely slow start, Bakersfield went 20-10-3 after the All-Star break to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
The Wranglers have lost to the eventual Kelly Cup winner the four times that they have reached the postseason -- Idaho in 2004 and 2007, Alaska in 2006 and Cincinnati in last year's Kelly Cup Final. The Condors won the final two meetings between the teams during the regular season but finished 4-5-0.
Wranglers forward Adam Miller had 5 goals and 9 points against Las Vegas, while Bakersfield's Mark Derlago had 5 goals and 10 points in the season series.
In goal, Las Vegas' John DeCaro went 2-0-0 with a minuscule 1.00 GAA against Bakersfield, while Glenn Fisher was 1-1-0 with a 4.00 GAA. Bakersfield's Yutaka Fukufuji, who has played in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, went 2-3-0 with a 3.95 GAA against the Wranglers.
Prediction: Las Vegas in 6
West Division Semifinals (Best-of-7)
No. 1 Alaska vs. No. 4 Utah
You could make the case that Kevin Colley's first trip to the Kelly Cup Playoffs as a head coach couldn't be any tougher. Colley, who guided the Grizzlies to a record of 32-30-10 in his first season, will have to find a way to win games at Sullivan Arena, one of the toughest buildings in the league for opponents.
Keith McCambridge's Aces finished first in the division for the fourth time in the last five seasons and atop the National Conference for the third time. Alaska has advanced at least one round every year, reaching the conference finals in 2005 and 2007 and winning the Kelly Cup in 2006. Utah advanced to the conference finals a year ago, helping Jason Christie land an assistant coaching job with the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League.
The Aces went 7-2-0 in nine games against the Grizzlies, and took all five meetings on home ice. On the flip side, Utah tallied just four of a possible 18 points against Alaska.
Cam Keith led Alaska in games against the Grizzlies with 10 points, while Utah's Vladimir Nikiforov had a goal and 7 assists. Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, the ECHL's Goaltender of the Year, went 6-1-0 with a 1.86 GAA and 3 shutouts against Utah.
Prediction: Alaska in 4
No. 2 Idaho vs. No. 3 Victoria
Former New York Islanders forward Derek Laxdal enjoyed yet another solid season behind Idaho's bench, as the Steelheads finished second in the West and reached the postseason for a sixth straight year. In seven meetings against the Salmon Kings, Idaho went 6-1-0.
Meanwhile, Victoria is making its third straight postseason appearance. Veteran forward Wes Goldie had 48 goals in 72 games for the Salmon Kings, while Todd Ford posted 17 wins and four shutouts.
Bryan McGregor paced the Steelheads against Victoria with 8 goals and 13 points, while defenseman Darrell Hay, who was a member of both of Idaho's Kelly Cup winners (2004, 2007), had 5 assists and 7 points.
Idaho rookie Matt Climie, who won his NHL debut with the Dallas Stars on April 4, went 4-1-0 with a 1.98 GAA against Victoria, while Rejean Beauchemin won both of his starts and posted a 3.00 GAA.
Prediction: Idaho in 6
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