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Familiar foes square off in AHL's Eastern final

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Kaspars Daugavins and the Binghamton Senators squared off against the Charlotte Checkers eight times during the regular season. Now they meet again in the Eastern Conference final (Just Sports Photography).

Familiarity, it's been said, breeds contempt.

If that's indeed the case, then it shouldn't take much to ratchet up the intensity level between the Binghamton Senators and Charlotte Checkers, who face off in Game 1 of the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference final tonight (7:05 p.m., Team 1200, at Time Warner Cable Arena in the North Carolina capital.

As East Division mates, the primary affiliates of the Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes squared off eight times during the regular season, with the B-Sens earning a slight 4-3-1 series edge. The two teams went their separate ways during the Calder Cup playoffs to this point, with fifth-place Binghamton crossing over into the Atlantic Division for the first two rounds.

However, the teams' path to this point was eerily similar. The B-Sens took down the Atlantic's top two teams — the Manchester Monarchs and division-winning Portland Pirates — to reach their first Eastern Conference final since 2003. Meanwhile, Charlotte ousted the two-time defending champion Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who owned the AHL's top regular-season record, to complete a most surprising conference final matchup.

All that being said, there should be little in the way of mystery between the teams. That's especially new for the B-Sens during this playoff run. They'd faced Manchester and Portland only twice apiece before the post-season. Not so with the Checkers.

"Everybody knows that team well," Binghamton forward Kaspars Daugavins told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. "We've played them, what, eight times this year? Everybody knows what they have here (but) I don't think anyone's focusing on 'this is Charlotte, we have to play like this.' We're going to go and play our game. We don't care how they play. As long as we manage our game plan, we'll be fine."

Not that facing a familiar foe makes the chore any easier. B-Sens head coach Kurt Kleinendorst looks at what the Checkers have accomplished so far in their first season — the 'Canes were previously affiliated with the Albany River Rats — and knows his team is in for a battle.

"They're just very underrated," he told the Press & Sun-Bulletin. "I thought they were one of the better teams (in the AHL) all year long and if you take a look at who they beat up to this point — Hershey and Wilkes-Barre — they're (not) a bad team if they could win those two series. I thought all year long they were very good."

Added Binghamton captain Ryan Keller: "Maybe it's a little bit easier to prepare for them, but we also know what we're getting into. This time of year, you can almost throw systems out the window. It just comes down to who executes the best."

And the B-Sens have been at their best on the road so far in this magical playoff run, posting a 6-1 record away from Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena against the Monarchs and Pirates. The latter had lost only eight games at home all season but went 0-3 in the Atlantic final against Binghamton at its Cumberland County Civic Center.

Needless to say, it's a formula for success the B-Sens would like to see continue.

"That's our goal right now, to go there and try to take one, maybe two games if we can and come back to our home ice and play well," said Binghamton's Ryan Potulny, who leads the Calder Cup playoffs in goals (10) and points (19). "When we play on the road, we keep it simple ... then our offence takes over and we're a complete team."

Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final goes Friday night in Charlotte (7:05 p.m., Team 1200, Then the series shifts to Binghamton for the next three games, set for next Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday (all 7:05 p.m., Team 1200,

Around the boards

Rookie defenceman Eric Gryba, who's been sidelined since the end of March with a high ankle sprain, will make his return to the Binghamton lineup tonight. He was paired with Mark Borowiecki in today's pre-game skate ... Robin Lehner (7-2) makes his 10th straight playoff start for the B-Sens tonight, with Mike Murphy (7-3) getting the nod for Charlotte. It's Lehner's first look at the Checkers — Barry Brust started all eight regular-season games for the B-Sens ... Binghamton is the first fifth-place finisher to reach an AHL conference final since 2001, when Hershey was swept by Wilkes-Barre ... Only one Binghamton AHL team has ever played for the Calder Cup and it was almost 30 years ago, when the old Whalers dropped the championship series to the New Brunswick Hawks in 1981-82.

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