The tone could well be set early at the steamy Toyota Center tonight.
And Binghamton Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst surely wants his team to be the one dictating the pace when the Calder Cup Finals open in Houston against the Aeros (8:30 p.m., team1200.com, ahllive.com).
But in the wake of an eight-day layoff since completing a sweep of the Charlotte Checkers, the B-Sens' bench boss isn't quite sure what to expect against the Aeros, who needed seven games before finally subduing the Hamilton Bulldogs on Tuesday evening. But Kleinendorst knows it could go a long way toward determining the eventual champion.
"I really don't know," Kleinendorst told the Team 1200 when asked how his team will emerge from the lengthy layoff.
"For me, I really think the first period (tonight) may be as important of a period as we’re going to play," he said. "Game 1s for me are huge. They’re part of trying to get the jump on the series. You don’t have to win Game 1, but it sure make it’s easier if you can get that first one."
So far in these American Hockey League playoffs, 10 of 14 series have been won by the team taking the opener. But both the B-Sens and Aeros have broken that trend once apiece. And Binghamton, in particular, has been defying the odds for nearly two months, just by getting to this point.
"It’s important, but it doesn’t mean you have to win Game 1," said Kleinendorst. "We lost Game 1 (in the opening round against Manchester) and came back and won the series. I don’t really know what to expect, but what I’m just trying to do is make sure we’re as prepared as we can be going into (tonight). Then we’re just going to play and see what it gets us."
That playoff-opening loss in Manchester, N.H., it should be noted, was the last time the B-Sens dropped a road game in this post-season. They've won eight straight away from home since then, one shy of an AHL playoff record. It won't be easy to extend that streak tonight at the Toyota Center, where the Aeros drew more than 6,000 fans for Game 7 against Hamilton. Bigger numbers are expected for the championship series.
"The crowds have been unbelievable," Aeros coach Mike Yeo told the Houston Chronicle
. "The excitement level, the energy they brought to the game and the life they brought to our players was just incredible."
Both teams enter the finals firing on all cylinders and playing their best hockey of the season.
"I take a look at our roster right now and if we can play the way we’ve continued to play, it’s awfully hard for teams to figure out which line they need to shut down," said Kleinendorst. "We’ve got a lot going our way right now. But at the end of the day, the one thing I tell my guys is we get what we deserve. When we play well and we deserve to win, it’s amazing to me how often we win. Just like on nights when we make mistakes and we’re not quite as good as we need to be, we struggle and we lose hockey games. But for me, I’ll put our best 60 minutes up against anybody’s best 60 right now and I like our chances.
"The beauty for me is that it’s hard for me to find passengers in all of this. I can’t really find anybody that has underperformed. I think we’re getting a lot out of everybody. It’s just a fun time of the year to be playing."
Naturally, you'll hear the same kind of sentiment from the Houston camp.
"We have grown so much over the last few weeks," Aeros captain Joe DiSalvatore said after scoring the series-winning goal against Hamilton. "Everyone has bought into the process of maturing as both people and as athletes. You could see all of that come together in the last 20 minutes of (Tuesday's) game. We put in all that extra time throughout the year for a moment like that. That is why this team is so special."
Kleinendorst might use the same word to describe his team's entire post-season run.
"You’ve got to have the right guys and I think Tim and Bryan Murray (the Ottawa Senators' assistant general manager and GM, respectively) have done a wonderful job in giving me that. We’ve had a little bit of luck along the way. There was a penalty shot in overtime against Manchester in Game 6. Robin Lehner
makes a big save. If that puck ends up in the net, we’re not talking right now.
"But having said that, we deserve to be here. We’ve played awfully well. The guys have done a great job. Now we’re just one game at a time away from (winning) a Calder Cup. That’s the way we need to approach it."Around the boards
Tonight's opener matches a pair of rookie goaltenders — Binghamton's Robin Lehner
, 19, who makes his 14th straight playoff start, against Houston's Matt Hackett, 21, who'll suit up for his 19th game of this season. Three of the last four Calder Cup champs were backstopped by rookie netminders: Michael Neuvirth, Hershey, 2010; Ondrej Pavelec, Chicago, 2009, and Carey Price, Hamilton, 2007. The latter team also included current B-Sens forward Corey Locke and defenceman Andre Benoit ... Blueliner Patrick Wiercioch
isn't quite 100 per cent, Kleinendorst said, so Bobby Raymond draws into the lineup for tonight's opener ... The B-Sens are reporting that fewer than 500 tickets remain for Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals, set for Wednesday at Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton (7:05 p.m., Team 1200, ahllive.com). Game 4, set for next Friday, is a virtual sellout at the 4,710-seat rink, which last saw Calder Cup Finals hockey back in 2003.