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AHL Notebook: Western Conference Final foes have similar looks

Grand Rapids, San Jose built around strong prospects, proven veterans, puck-possession style of play

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

Grand Rapids and San Jose are getting a look at mirror-image versions of themselves during the Western Conference Final of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Each team tore through the American Hockey League this season. San Jose, the American Hockey League affiliate of the San Jose Sharks, finished first in the Pacific Division and had the second-best points percentage in the league at .699 (95 points in 68 games), just behind the .704 (107 points in 76 games) of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh Penguins). Grand Rapids (Detroit Red Wings) had the sixth-best points percentage at .658 and had 100 points to finish second in the Central Division behind Chicago (St Louis Blues), which had 101 points.

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1 after the teams split the first two games in San Jose; Grand Rapids won 3-1 in Game 1, then San Jose won 4-2 in Game 2. Grand Rapids, which is 4-0 at home during the postseason, will host Games 3-5 starting Wednesday.

"I know our guys get fired up to play at home," coach Todd Nelson told the Grand Rapids website after Game 2.

Each team is loaded with prospects and a strong collection of proven veterans, and it plays modern-day hockey centered on puck possession, mobile defensemen, a strong forecheck and a power play that can punish undisciplined opponents.

The Red Wings not qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs ensured a strong playoff roster for Grand Rapids, which swept Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) in three games in the best-of-5 first round and then defeated Chicago in five games in the best-of-7 second round.

San Jose defeated Stockton (Calgary Flames) in five games in the first round after taking a 2-0 series lead, and then defeated San Diego (Anaheim Ducks) in five games in the second round.

Early in the first round San Jose added forwards Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen from the Sharks. Meier, who had 14 goals in 33 AHL games, and Sorensen, who had 17 goals in 43 games, joined a deep group of forwards that include Ryan Carpenter, the leading AHL playoff scorer with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 12 games.

Those forwards are joined by perhaps the top group of defensemen in the AHL. Led by Tim Heed, Joakim Ryan and Julius Bergman, San Jose defensemen have 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) in 12 games. Joining them are rookie Nick DeSimone, who has five points (one goal, four assists) in 11 playoff games after signing with the Sharks on March 30, and Mirco Mueller, a first-round selection (No. 18) by the Sharks in the 2013 NHL Draft, in his third pro season.

Grand Rapids leads the AHL with 3.90 goals per game during the playoffs, while San Jose is third at 3.33 goals per game. Each team can control play for long stretches. San Jose is averaging an AHL-best 37.4 shots on goal per game during the playoffs and had 20 shots in the first period of Game 2 against Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is third with an average of 34.8 shots per game.

The power play has helped energize Grand Rapids. After finishing first in the regular season at 24.4 percent, it's second during the postseason at 22.7 percent.

Forward Tyler Bertuzzi, a second-round pick (No. 58) by the Red Wings in the 2013 NHL Draft, is tied for the Grand Rapids scoring lead with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 10 games. AHL veteran Ben Street, 30, also has 11 points (three goals, eight assists).

A blend of prospects and veterans give Nelson strong forward depth. Rookie Evgeny Svechnikov, the 19th pick of the 2015 draft, has nine playoff points (three goals, six assists) in 10 games after he had 20 goals in 74 games during the regular season. Mitch Callahan, Matt Ford, Matt Lorito, Tomas Nosek and Eric Tangradi also have been offensive contributors.

San Jose also has a strong power play, which was seen in Game 2 when it went 3-for-5. It's third in the playoffs at 22.0 percent.

Goaltender Troy Grosenick, the Baz Bastien Award winner as the top AHL goaltender in the regular season, continues to excel for San Jose during the postseason. He is 8-4 with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in 12 games.

Jared Coreau has been strong in goal for Grand Rapids, going 8-2 with a 2.53 GAA and .915 save percentage in 10 games.

Each team has the chance to take control of a tight series in Game 3.

"We had a big opportunity that was lost," Ford told the Grand Rapids website after Game 2. "I think before coming out here if you had said we could have the split and home-ice advantage going home for three straight in Grand Rapids, I think we would take that."

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

Providence (Boston Bruins) and Syracuse (Tampa Bay Lightning) resume the Eastern Conference Final with Game 3 in Syracuse on Wednesday. The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1 after Syracuse won 6-3 in Game 1 and Providence took Game 2 2-1 in overtime.

Syracuse is 6-0 at home during the playoffs and has outscored opponents 27-13. Syracuse defeated Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs) four times at home in winning their second-round series in seven games.

Providence rookie forwards Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen are tied for the team lead with six playoff goals. Heinen leads Providence with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 14 games.

 

AROUND THE AHL

 

The Arizona Coyotes named Steve Sullivan general manager for Tucson on May 18. Sullivan had spent the past three seasons in player development roles with the Coyotes. He replaces Doug Soetaert. Tucson finished sixth in the Pacific Division with 66 points, 11 behind fourth-place Stockton for the final playoff spot in the division. … The Coyotes hired former Tucson captain Craig Cunningham as a pro scout on Wednesday. … The Chicago Blackhawks hired Jeremy Colliton as coach for Rockford on May 18. Colliton, 32, had spent the previous four seasons coaching in Sweden. … The New York Rangers named Chris Drury general manager of Hartford on May 16, replacing Jim Schoenfeld. The organization also fired coach Ken Gernander.

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