A postseason that began with the 16 most prolific teams in the American Hockey League has been narrowed down to two, as the Texas Stars and St. John's IceCaps will play for the league's highest honor in the 2014 Calder Cup Finals beginning Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET at Cedar Park Center in Cedar Park, Texas.
The regular-season champion Stars, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars, ousted the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, while the Winnipeg Jets' affiliate in St. John's took down the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins) in six games to win the Eastern Conference crown.
This series will be the first-ever between the Stars and IceCaps. Texas had an impressive 106 points during the regular season to earn the AHL's Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy and the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs. St. John's had the third-highest point total in the Eastern Conference with 99.
Second-year Stars coach Willie Desjardins and third-year IceCaps bench leader Keith McCambridge are following numerous NHL coaches whose resumes include trips to the Calder Cup Finals. Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper won an AHL championship with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012, defeating a Marlies team led by current Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins. The Minnesota Wild's Mike Yeo, the Anaheim Ducks' Bruce Boudreau and the Montreal Canadiens' Michel Therrien are also among 16 NHL coaches who were Calder Cup finalists during their AHL tenures.
The teams' rosters feature some of the NHL's hottest prospects at the AHL level. Texas rookies Brendan Ranford, Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie, the AHL's rookie of the year for 2013-14, have each made a significant impact that has continued into the postseason. Left wing Mike Hedden, in his third season with the Stars, has 15 points in the playoffs and is tied with league MVP Travis Morin for first on the team in postseason scoring. After scoring 47 points (12-35-47) during the regular season, center Justin Dowling has improved that pace with 11 points in nine playoff games.
Second-year defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who was selected by Dallas with the 14th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, skated in seven games with the NHL Stars this season while notching 23 points (five goals, 18 assists) in 69 games with Texas. Center Radek Faksa, 20, the Stars' first pick (No. 13) in 2012, joined Texas at the end of the regular season after his junior season ended and has four goals during the Stars' playoff run.
The IceCaps' success can be largely attributed to their depth at both ends of the ice. Forwards Eric O'Dell, Patrice Cormier, Carl Klingberg and John Albert were all recalled to Winnipeg at various points this season while maintaining impressive numbers at the AHL level. O'Dell has been key for St. John's during the playoffs, tying for the league lead with nine playoff goals through three rounds.
On defense, Brenden Kichton, who was named to the 2014 AHL All-Rookie Team, had 48 points during 76 regular-season games and has six points in the playoffs. Will O'Neill, who has been with St. John's since its inaugural season, has been a force this postseason with 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in as many appearances. Zach Redmond, who skated in 10 games for Winnipeg this season, has 11 points (two goals, nine assists) through 16 playoff games.
Defenseman Josh Morrissey, 19, the Jets' first choice (No. 13) in the 2013 draft, joined the IceCaps after his junior season and has eight points (two goals, six assists) in 15 games during his Calder Cup Playoffs debut.
Stars goaltender Cristopher Nilstorp will oppose the IceCaps' Michael Hutchinson. Nilstrop is 9-4-0, with a 2.14 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in the postseason. Hutchinson, who made his NHL debut with Winnipeg in 2013-14 (2-1-0, 1.64 GAA, .943 save percentage), counters with an 11-5-0 record, 1.61 GAA, and .946 save percentage in 16 postseason games.
As the top-two teams battle in what is sure to be an outstanding series, the AHL's elite prospects will work to join a plethora of Calder Cup champions that have gone on to become NHL stars, including Jeff Carter (Los Angeles Kings), Tyler Johnson (Tampa Bay Lightning), Patrick Sharp (Chicago Blackhawks), Carey Price (Canadiens), Robin Lehner (Ottawa Senators) and Gustav Nyquist (Detroit Red Wings).
Game 1 will air live on NHL Network in the U.S. and on Leafs TV, and will also be heard on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio. Full broadcast information can be found here.
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