It seems appropriate that the conclusion to the American Hockey League's 80th season will feature a Calder Cup Finals played in two of its most historic locations.
The Hershey Bears, seeking their fourth Calder Cup championship in 11 seasons, will face the Lake Erie Monsters, who are in their first season as the Columbus Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate. Game 1 is in Hershey on Wednesday.
It is the 23rd appearance in the Calder Cup Finals for Hershey, which has won 11 championships. The Bears and Washington Capitals began their affiliation in 2005, becoming a model relationship along the way.
The Hershey-Washington affiliation has served as the blueprint for geographical proximity that in recent seasons has become a key consideration when an NHL team chooses its AHL affiliate. The Monsters play in Cleveland, two hours north of Columbus; the Blue Jackets' affiliate was based in Springfield, Mass., through the 2014-15 season.
It is Lake Erie's first appearance in the Calder Cup Finals. However, its predecessor, the Cleveland Barons, won nine AHL championships between 1939 and 1964. Perhaps the top pro team outside of the NHL in the Original Six era, Barons alumni include Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower and forward Fred Glover, whose 520 goals rank second in AHL history.
The Hershey-Lake Erie series will the first Calder Cup Finals in Cleveland since 1966. Three of the Barons' championships came against the Bears, in 1941, 1945 and 1954.
However, each team offers plenty of present-day intrigue as well.
The Monsters are the first Columbus affiliate to reach the AHL championship after storming through the Western Conference playoffs. They swept Rockford, defeated Grand Rapids in six games, and eliminated defending Calder Cup champion Ontario in a methodical four-game sweep. In all, Lake Erie has won 20 of its past 24 games.
Defenseman Zach Werenski, the eighth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, found a spot on the Lake Erie blue line late in the regular season and has exceeded the considerable hype that accompanied his arrival. The 18-year-old headlines a deep defense that includes NHL veterans Steve Eminger and Justin Falk, as well as Jaime Sifers, Dean Kukan and rookie Dillon Heatherington.
Lake Erie forward Lukas Sedlak continues to make his case for the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the league's most valuable player in the postseason. His eight playoff goals lead the league.
Lake Erie coach Jared Bednar turned to goaltender Anton Forsberg in Game 5 against Grand Rapids after Joonas Korpisalo struggled. Forsberg has repaid Bednar's faith, going 5-0 with a 1.30 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.
Bednar can mix and match lines to his advantage, thanks to significant forward depth. The Monsters' 3.54 goals per game in the postseason lead the league. Sedlak has 18 goals in his past 23 games, and Josh Anderson has 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 13 playoff games. T.J. Tynan, Michael Chaput and Daniel Zaar, whose 21 goals led Lake Erie in the regular season, are additional offensive weapons. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alex Broadhurst, captain Ryan Craig and two NHL first-round picks, Sonny Milano (No. 16 in 2014) and Kerby Rychel (No. 19 in 2013), also are options.
The Lake Erie power play has clicked as well, ranking second in the postseason.
The Atlantic Division champion Bears also have opened eyes in the playoffs. They knocked out the regular-season champion Toronto Marlies in five games in the Eastern Conference final.
At forward, Hershey is led by veteran Chris Bourque, who won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL's most valuable player after his 80 points led the league. Carter Camper has six goals in 17 playoff games after scoring nine in the regular season, and rookie Jakub Vrana, the 13th pick in the 2014 draft, has seven playoff goals to lead Hershey.
The experienced Aaron Ness and rookies Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and Tyler Lewington provide Bears coach Troy Mann with a capable blue line.
Goalie Justin Peters, who has played in 80 NHL games in his career, has received most of the postseason playing time for Hershey. He shut down Toronto's dangerous offense and has a 1.95 GAA and a .929 save percentage in the playoffs. Dan Ellis is his backup.
In a season that featured 11 affiliation and/or location changes, the AHL's first West Coast presence and a deep crop of rookies, Hershey and Lake Erie will mix in some league tradition and history in what should be a very competitive end to its 80th season.
AROUND THE AHL
Two teams that had a coaching vacancy filled it. Winnipeg Jets assistant Pascal Vincent will replace Keith McCambridge as coach of the Manitoba Moose. NHL veteran Ulf Samuelsson has left his role as an assistant with the New York Rangers to become the new coach of the Charlotte Checkers. … Ron Rolston will not coach the Arizona Coyotes' new Tucson affiliate. He was coach of their affiliate in Springfield last season. …The Providence Bruins will need a new coach after Bruce Cassidy took an assistant role with the Boston Bruins.