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ECHL: And the winners are?

by Brian Compton /

ECHL Rookie of the Year David Desharnais leads the top-seeded Cincinnati Cyclones against the Johnstown Chiefs in the North Division Semifinals.
It’s only been five days since the Kelly Cup Playoffs got underway, and, already, the American Conference Champions from a season ago have been eliminated.

After an impressive run to the finals in 2007, the Dayton Bombers saw their season end Tuesday night, when the Johnstown Chiefs completed a two-game sweep in the best-of-three North Division Quarterfinals. The Chiefs move on to face the Cincinnati Cyclones, who won 55 games during the regular season and tied the Texas Wildcatters for the most points in the ECHL (115).

Here are our first-round predictions:

American Conference

North Division Semifinals (best-of-7)

No. 1 Cincinnati Cyclones vs. No. 4 Johnstown Chiefs

Cyclones coach Chuck Weber – who was named ECHL Coach of the Year on Tuesday – made another strong case for a head job in the American Hockey League, as Cincinnati enjoyed one of the finest regular seasons in ECHL history. Between ECHL Rookie of the Year David Desharnais (106 points, plus-38) and stay-at-home defenseman Chad Starling (plus-48), the Cyclones seem primed to go on a serious run. The key could be the return of goaltender Cedrick Desjardins (16-4-2, 1.92 GAA, five shutouts), who is currently with AHL Hamilton. Until then, Maxime Daigneault (11-3-0, 2.62 GAA) is likely to get the call.

Cincinnati in 5

North Division Semifinals (best-of-7)

No. 2 Elmira Jackals vs. No. 3 Reading Royals

Given his track record, nobody should have been surprised by the success Steve Martinson had this season with the Jackals, their first in the ECHL. Under Martinson’s guidance, Elmira finished second in the North Division with 41 wins and 89 points. Certainly, Martinson will be relying on rookie sensations Benoit Doucet (31-52-83) and Pierre-Luc Faubert (31-45-76) to carry their regular-season success into the playoffs. Reading coach Karl Taylor did another tremendous job in 2007-08 despite numerous call-ups and injuries. He’ll need some stellar goaltending from rookie Danny Taylor, who spent the majority of the season with AHL Manchester.

Prediction: Elmira in 7

South Division Quarterfinals (best-of 5)

No. 1 Texas Wildcatters vs. No. 8 Mississippi Sea Wolves

Just like Cincinnati, Texas (52-9-11) came within one point of tying the 2001-02 Louisiana Ice Gators for the most points in regular-season history (116). Led by veteran forward John McNabb (32-50-82, plus-20) and rookie goalie Anton Khudobin (20-1-4, 1.98 GAA, .934 save percentage), Malcolm Cameron’s Wildcatters were the cream of the South Division this season. They’ll face a Mississippi franchise that returned to the ECHL after missing the past two campaigns due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Sea Wolves managed to go 4-8-1 against Texas during the regular season, but the Wildcatters have already taken the first two games of this series on home ice and are a win away from advancing to the next round.

Prediction: Texas in 3

South Division Quarterfinals
(best-of 5)

No. 2 South Carolina Stingrays vs. No. 7 Augusta Lynx

In his first season as a head coach, South Carolina’s Jared Bednar watched his team overcome a sluggish start to win 12 consecutive games from Nov. 28-Dec. 31. The Stingrays are hot again, having won their final seven contests of the regular season. Player to watch for the Stingrays is left wing Trent Campbell, who racked up 49 points (22 goals, 27 assists) in 57 games with a phenomenal plus-26 rating. Augusta heads into the postseason with two rookie goaltenders – Bobby Goepfert and J.P. Lavasseur. Goepfert, a Long Island native, won 16 games and posted a .912 save percentage for the Lynx in 33 appearances. He made 28 saves Thursday night to lead Augusta to a 5-2 win in Game 1.

Prediction: South Carolina in 5

South Division Quarterfinals
(best-of 5)

No. 3 Gwinnett Gladiators vs. No. 6 Charlotte Checkers

The Gladiators saw a four-point improvement in the standings from a season ago, but finished third in the South behind Texas and South Carolina. Brad Schell, last season’s ECHL MVP, rejoined the club in February after suffering a back injury during an AHL tryout in September. Between Schell and leading scorer Jeff Campbell (26 goals, 65 assists), the Checkers’ defense – led by 28-year-old Kenton Smith (31 points, plus-14) – will be awfully busy. Goaltender Chris Holt, a sixth-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2003, had a .915 save percentage in 32 games for Charlotte, which closed out the regular season by losing seven of its last eight games. Gwinnett won the first two games of this series by a combined score of 8-1 and can close it out tomorrow night in Charlotte.

Prediction: Gwinnett in 3

South Division Quarterfinals
(best-of 5)

No. 4 Florida Everblades vs. No. 5 Columbia Inferno

Take a picture of the 2007-08 standings, because it’s rare when Gerry Fleming’s Everblades finish in fourth place. It’s been five years since Florida has finished any lower than third in its division, but that doesn’t mean the Everblades can’t go on a run when you consider they’ve reached at least the semifinals of this tournament in three of the last four years. Kudos to veteran forward Ernie Hartlieb, who appeared in all 72 regular-season games for Florida and notched 65 points and a plus-22 rating. Jeff Miles led the way for Columbia, tallying 29 goals and 76 points. It will be interesting to see if Inferno coach Troy Mann splits time in net between four-year pro Todd Ford and rookie Jeff Jakaitis. Ford got the start Wednesday night in Game 1 and made 25 saves in Columbia’s 3-2 overtime win.
Prediction: Florida in 4

Las Vegas Goaltender Daniel Manzato and the  top-seeded Wranglers meet the Stockton Thunder in the National Conference Quarterfinals.
National Conference Quarterfinals (Best-of-7)

No. 1 Las Vegas Wranglers vs. No. 8 Stockton Thunder

Las Vegas powered its way through an extremely tough conference this season and became the first franchise in ECHL history to record 100 points in three consecutive years. With a nice combination of veterans (Peter Ferraro, Shawn Limpright, Jason Jozsa) and youngsters (Ryan Donally, Daniel Manzato), the Wranglers are determined to get over the hump and win their first Kelly Cup. Hard to fathom, but they’ve yet to even reach the conference finals despite all their regular-season success.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 4

National Conference Quarterfinals

No. 2 Victoria Salmon Kings vs. No. 7 Bakersfield Condors

Mark Morrison’s first full season as Victoria’s head coach was a smashing success, as the Salmon Kings outlasted Idaho and Alaska in what turned out to be a heated division race in the West. Goaltending had a lot to do with that, as 22-year-old Julien Ellis – a Vancouver Canucks’ prospect – won 24 games for the Salmon Kings. Victoria will need Kiel McLeod back from AHL Albany to go on a serious run, but the 6-foot-6 power forward is on the River Rats’ clear-day roster, which is not a good sign. Bakersfield won seven of its last 10 regular-season games and won Game 1 of this series in overtime on Thursday night behind 39 saves from Yutaka Fukufuji.

Prediction: Victoria in 6

National Conference Quarterfinals

No. 3 Fresno Falcons vs. No. 6 Utah Grizzlies

Matt Thomas usually builds his teams for the playoffs, and this season is no different in Fresno. While some of his old friends from his days in Atlantic City remain (Luke Curtin, Jake Moreland, Josh Prudden) remain, there’s some new blood in the mix as well. Oren Eizenman had a terrific rookie campaign (27 goals, 39 assists, plus-12), while defenseman Daryl Marcoux – a Princeton University product – was a plus-18. Jason Christie was hit hard by transaction wire this season, but the Grizzlies have the majority of their core back for the postseason. Game 1 will take place Sunday night in Fresno.

Prediction: Fresno in 7

National Conference Quarterfinals

No. 4 Idaho Steelheads vs. No. 5 Alaska Aces

The defending champion Steelheads came within a point of winning the West Division and finished just three ahead of the Aces, who enjoyed a tremendous second half of the season. Like any other playoff series, this one will boil down to goaltending, and Idaho has plenty of it. 2007 Kelly Cup Finals MVP Steve Silverthorn is back in Idaho after spending much of the season with AHL Iowa. If he gets on a roll, look out. He’ll certainly be busy in this series, as Alaska has a high-powered attack led by rookie Josh Soares, who had 81 points in just 61 games. The Aces impressively won the first two games of this season on the road and are determined to wrap this up at what will be a raucous Sullivan Arena.

Alaska in 5

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