The American Hockey League's Calder Cup Playoffs had mostly gone as expected, at least until the third round arrived.
After a 114-point season, the third-best in AHL history, the Toronto Marlies find themselves in trouble against the Hershey Bears in the Eastern Conference Final.
An arena-scheduling conflict put the Marlies in Hershey for the first two games of the series against the lower-seeded Bears. The Bears, whose first two series against the Portland Pirates and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins each went to their limit, have quickly put the Marlies in a hole.
Hershey won 3-1 in Game 1, limiting Toronto to 20 shots. The Marlies rallied in Game 2 with 41 shots on goal, but Hershey forward Carter Camper scored in a 3-2 overtime win.
Bears goalie Justin Peters, who has played 80 NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals, continues to excel. He had 38 saves in Game 2 and is 9-4 in the playoffs. Among goalies who have played more than four playoff games, he has an AHL-best .938 save percentage and 1.72 goals-against average.
Toronto dominated early in Game 2, outshooting Hershey 27-7 in the first two periods, but Peters managed to carry a 2-2 tie into the third period against an offense that led the AHL in regular-season scoring with 3.87 goals per game and was first in playoff scoring going into the series.
Hershey also improved its discipline. Leading the AHL with 59 shorthanded situations going into the series, the Bears have limited the Marlies to four power-play opportunities in the series, killing all of them.
Despite the Marlies' predicament, they remain hopeful for several reasons; they lost three straight games once during the regular season.
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe also has several lineup options at his disposal thanks to his team's remarkable depth. After Game 1, Keefe inserted forward Colin Smith (20 regular-season goals) for rookie center Frederik Gauthier, a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Reliable forward Sam Carrick (16 regular-season goals) replaced promising rookie Tobias Lindberg. Veteran forward Matt Frattin remains available too.
Several Marlies scorers have yet to get hot. Carrick, Mark Arcobello, William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic and Ben Smith combined for 100 regular-season goals, but have totaled nine goals in the playoffs. Some combination of those players finding more luck around the net is needed and statistically likely based on their past performance.
The series resumes Wednesday at Ricoh Coliseum, where Toronto tied the Albany Devils for the AHL lead with 27 regular-season home wins. If the series goes seven games, four of the final five games will be in Toronto.
In the Western Conference, the Lake Erie Monsters continue their excellent run through the playoffs. Monsters coach Jared Bednar decided to replace goalie Joonas Korpisalo with Anton Forsberg to start the Western Conference Final against the defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign.
Bednar's move paid off. Forsberg had a pair of 27-save games at Ontario to lead Lake Erie to a 2-0 series lead. The Lake Erie offense continued its well-balanced ways, and six different players have scored in the series against Ontario's Peter Budaj, the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award winner as the AHL's most outstanding goalie, and the AHL's top-ranked defense.
The series moves to Cleveland for the next three games.
Two AHL teams will have new homes next season.
The Arizona Coyotes have relocated the Springfield Falcons to Tucson, Ariz. The yet-to-be-named team will play in the 6,700-seat Tucson Convention Center, two hours from Gila River Arena. Tucson will play in the Pacific Division and the team is the sixth in the AHL to have relocated to the West Coast since last season.
Florida Panthers prospects will also have a new AHL locale. The AHL approved the sale of the Portland Pirates to Springfield, Mass. on Monday. The move ensures that the city continues its run of AHL hockey dating back to 1954.
AROUND THE AHL
Several AHL players are off to Europe next season…Albany forward Brian O'Neill, the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL's most valuable player in 2014-15, has elected to head to Europe. He signed a contract with Jokerit Helsinki of the Kontinental Hockey League…Milwaukee Admirals defenseman Taylor Aronson will skate for Lada Togliatti in the KHL…Fellow Milwaukee defenseman Kristian Nakyva will be with Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League…Ben Youds, a defenseman with the Providence Bruins, has signed with Leksands in the SHL…Also heading to Sweden is veteran NHL forward Daniel Paille, who finished the season with the Hartford Wolf Pack…Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Jake Guentzel, who leads all AHL rookies in playoff scoring, has signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Guentzel, 21, was a third-round pick by Pittsburgh in the 2013 NHL Draft and joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton late in the regular season from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.