While the Hurricanes may not have been able to defend their championship this season, there may yet be reason for the organization to celebrate this offseason.
That’s not even counting the gold medals won by Mike Commodore, Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Justin Williams with Canada at the IIHF World Championship, but rather the strong play of two of the Hurricanes’ affiliate teams – the Florida Everblades of the ECHL and the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.
After a successful regular season in which they finished second in the ECHL’s American Conference, the Everblades have made it all the way to the conference finals, where they find themselves down 3-2 as of Wednesday. Their opponent, the Dayton Bombers, was the team that edged them out for the regular-season conference title.
While most of the Hurricanes’ senior prospects play in Albany of the American Hockey League, the two players on the Everblades under contract with the Hurricanes are playing extremely vital roles in the team’s playoff run.
Goaltender Craig Kowalski, whose six days with the Hurricanes this season weren’t enough to get any game action but were still enough to appear in the annual team photo and nearly win the players’ NCAA men’s basketball pool, has been one of the top goalies in the ECHL all season.
His .918 save percentage during the regular season was good enough for fourth in the league, while the .926 marker he has posted through the playoffs thus far is only one point below the .927 sported by the Idaho Steelheads’ Steve Silverthorn for the lead among goaltenders who have played more than four games.
Incidentally, fellow Hurricanes prospect Kevin Nastiuk had a better save percentage than Kowalski while on loan to the Las Vegas Wranglers, but played in only four games.
Although Kowalski has been in the NHL with the Hurricanes on a few separate occasions, including the Hurricanes 2006 Stanley Cup run, the 2000 seventh-round draft pick has never seen playing time in the NHL.
Forward Vince Bellissimo, who has been playing with the Everblades since the Hurricanes signed him as a free agent prior to the 2005-06 season, has enjoyed similar success. With 20 points in just 14 games, he is tied for first in playoff scoring. This comes after a regular season where he posted 72 points in 56 games.
The Everblades, who have never won an ECHL title, will attempt to stay alive and force game seven by beating Dayton at home on Thursday. The winner will advance to play the ECHL's best team during the regular season, the Steelheads, in the Kelly Cup Finals.
While the Plymouth Whalers, a junior team in the Ontario Hockey League, are not a traditional affiliate in the sense that the Hurricanes cannot choose to have prospects and draft picks play with them, they, like the Hurricanes, are owned by Peter Karmanos. This connection has led several former Whalers players to eventually end up as Hurricanes, as was the case with Justin Williams, Chad LaRose and Jesse Boulerice.
The Whalers are already champions, as they won the OHL by beating Marc and Jared Staal’s Sudbury Wolves team in six games. However, they still have plenty to play for as they have advanced to the Memorial Cup, which pits the winners of the three Canadian junior hockey divisions, the OHL, QMJHL and WHL, along with a host team in a tournament to determine the overall national champion.
In this case, the Whalers will be matched up with the Lewison MAINEiacs (QMJHL), Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL) and the host Vancouver Giants. The tournament begins in a round-robin format before the single-elimination playoffs begin.
The Whalers, whose first and only appearance in the Memorial Cup came in 1995 when they were still the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, begin this year’s quest against Vancouver on Friday.
All Whalers games during the Memorial Cup can be seen live on their Web site, www.plymouthwhalers.com.