The final four teams in the in the Calder Cup Playoffs are set, but it took an eventful spring for them to get there.
The American Hockey League's postseason second round featured two Game 7s, a near rally from a 3-0 deficit and a long, physical slog series between two Southern California rivals that included two overtime games.
The final spot in the conference final was clinched Monday when the Toronto Marlies, who are chasing the first Calder Cup for a Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate since 1982, scored three third-period goals in a Game 7 win over the Albany Devils.
Marlies forward Richard Clune put the series away with a tie-breaking goal in the final minutes of Game 7, giving Toronto a 4-3 victory. Albany had rallied with a 4-1 win in Game 6 and held a 2-1 third-period lead in Game 7 before Toronto came back. The Marlies have reached the conference final three times in the past five seasons.
This season they will play the Hershey Bears, who endured a seven-game struggle with archrival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Travis Boyd ended Game 7 and the series on a goal 10:57 into overtime.
Against the Marlies, the Bears will see a familiar face on the opposing blue line. Marlies defenseman Connor Carrick, who is tied for the AHL playoff scoring lead with 14 points (six goals, eight assists), spent most of the season with Hershey before he was traded by the Washington Capitals along with Brooks Laich to the Maple Leafs prior to the NHL Trade Deadline in February for Daniel Winnik and a fifth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Hershey goaltender Justin Peters will face a Toronto offense that scored 25 goals in seven games against Albany, which was the second-best defensive team in the AHL during the regular season. Peters, who has played in 80 NHL games, has a 7-4 playoff record, a 1.78 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. The Marlies' 3.80 goals per game top all playoff teams, and their power play ranks third.
In the West, the Lake Erie Monsters will play the defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign.
Lake Erie took a 3-0 series lead against the Grand Rapids Griffins and led 4-1 lead in Game 4, but Grand Rapids stormed back to win 5-4. The Griffins won 6-1 in Game 5 and took a 2-0 lead in Game 6, but Lake Erie chipped away and tied the game early in the third period. In overtime, 18-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets with the eighth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, ended the series with an overtime goal. Werenski is tied for fourth in playoff scoring with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in nine games and has found a home on one of the best blue lines in the AHL.
Ontario, which was locked in a season-long struggle with the San Diego Gulls, needed five games to move on.
Veteran goaltender Peter Budaj, the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award winner as the AHL's most outstanding goaltender this season, has a 1.73 GAA in the postseason to lead all goaltenders. Ontario has allowed 1.89 goals per game in the playoffs, best in the AHL.
AROUND THE AHL
The AHL has conditionally approved the relocation of the Springfield Falcons to Tucson, Ariz. The Arizona Coyotes affiliate is expected to begin play next season…The AHL will consider a proposal to relocate the Portland Pirates, the affiliate of the Florida Panthers, to Springfield, Mass. next week…Benoit Groulx will replace Rob Zettler as coach of the Syracuse Crunch. Dan Lambert, an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres this season, will take over for Randy Cunneyworth with the Rochester Americans. There have been six coaching changes since the end of the regular season.