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2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs Preview

 

Breaking down all eight Division Semifinal matchups

With the 2016-17 ECHL regular season in the rear view mirror, 16 teams now set their sights on capturing the league’s ultimate prize. The 2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs are set to begin on Wednesday night, kicking off a grueling two month journey that will ultimately crown the ECHL’s latest champion.

A new year brings a new look for the ECHL’s second season, with the first two rounds of the playoffs being played entirely within each of the league’s four Divisions. The top four teams from each Division qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs, with the top seed playing the fourth seed in the Division Semifinals, and the second seed hosting the third in best-of-seven series. With the different format in place, the first round features a number of fierce rivals squaring off right out of the gate.

The Toledo Walleye own the top overall seed after clinching their second Brabham Cup (ECHL regular season champions) in three years last Saturday, while the Mountain Division champion Allen Americans eye their third straight Kelly Cup title. In the East, the Florida Everblades and Adirondack Thunder enter the postseason after winning their respective divisions.

Though the Indy Fuel did not qualify for the Kelly Cup Playoffs, IndyFuelHockey.com took a look at all of the Division Semifinal matchups heading into the first week of the postseason. The Patrick J. Kelly Cup was first awarded at the end of the 1996-97 season, and is named after one of the league’s founders and current Commissioner Emeritus.

 

FULL CONFERENCE QUARTERFINAL SCHEDULE

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division Semifinals

Kalamazoo Wings (4th Seed, 38-30-1-3, 80 Points)
vs. Toledo Walleye (1st Seed, 51-17-2-2, 106 Points)

Game 1: Friday, April 14 at Toledo

2016-17 Season Series: Kalamazoo (4-5-0-1 vs. TOL), Toledo (6-3-0-1 vs. KAL)

Fuel Record vs.: Kalamazoo (2-2-0-0), Toledo (1-4-0-0)

Breakdown: The ECHL’s top team from the regular season draws a challenging first round opponent, as the Brabham Cup-winning Toledo Walleye meet the Kalamazoo Wings in the first of two Central Division Semifinal matchups. Entering the postseason as the top seed in their conference for the second-consecutive season, the Walleye are looking to avoid a first-round exit like they suffered last spring, when the 8th seeded Reading Royals upset Toledo in seven games. Posing a serious threat to the regular season champions will be a Kalamazoo club that was among the league’s hottest teams in the second half. The Wings used a 27-13-1-0 record since New Year’s Eve to catapult the Tulsa Oilers into playoff positioning, winning three of their last five games against Toledo.

Aided by the trickle-down from the Detroit Red Wings missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Walleye enter the postseason with a loaded roster, with nearly all of their AHL-contracted players back in the fold. A.J. Jenks and Kyle Bonis each returned from their AHL loans last week, joining All-ECHL Second Team forward Shane Berschbach and All-Rookie forwards Tyson and Tylor Spink – giving Toledo’s top scoring offense a full repertoire of weapons to rely on. Sporting the league’s best defense as well from the regular season, Toledo Coach Dan Watson will likely give the reins to fellow All-ECHL Second Team goaltender Jake Paterson for Game 1 on Friday. Paterson’s 34 wins led all ECHL netminders this season, while his 2.28 GAA and .918 SV% both ranked in the top five league wide. Making matters even more difficult for Kalamazoo, the Walleye led the league in both special teams categories, operating at a terrifying 25.1% on the power play while finishing a stingy 86.8% on the penalty kill.

The Wings are led by the offensive trio of Justin Taylor, Peter Schneider and Lane Scheidl. Schneider enters the playoffs with perhaps the hottest stick in the series, tallying 15 goals and 24 assists over his final 17 games, earning ECHL Player of the Month honors for March. Defensemen Blake Kessel and Eric Kattelus provide a scoring touch from the back end, while coach Nick Bootland has two solid goaltenders to choose from in Nick Riopel and veteran Joel Martin. Making their fourth-consecutive Kelly Cup Playoff appearance, Kalamazoo is trying to break a string of three straight first round exits, bowing out to the South Carolina Stingrays in five games.

Quad City Mallards (3rd Seed, 40-28-2-2, 84 Points)
vs. Fort Wayne Komets (2nd Seed, 45-19-6-2, 98 Points)

Game 1: Friday, April 14 at Fort Wayne

2016-17 Season Series: Quad City (4-8-0-0 vs. FW), Fort Wayne (8-2-1-1 vs. QC)

Fuel Record vs.: Quad City (3-5-0-2), Fort Wayne (1-5-1-2)

Breakdown: It is difficult to find first round opponents that are more familiar with one another than the Fort Wayne Komets and Quad City Mallards. The two clubs battled each other 12 times over the course of the season, including a home and home series last weekend, which the Komets swept 5-3 and 6-1. Fort Wayne controlled the 2016-17 series against the Mallards, picking up points in 10 of 12, though Quad City won four straight games leading into the season-ending doubleheader.

The Komets return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the fourth year in a row, making it into at least the second round in each prior appearance. In 2016, Fort Wayne defeated Cincinnati and Utah before falling to the eventual Kelly Cup Champion Allen Americans in the Western Conference Finals in a five game series. Gary Graham’s club returns to the postseason with much of the core intact from last year’s group, led up front by Kyle Thomas, Shawn Szydlowski and ECHL All-Rookie Team member Mike Cazzola. Veteran goaltender Pat Nagle figures to get the nod between the pipes for Game 1 for the Komets, though Garrett Bartus provides a reliable alternate option, finishing the regular season with a 21-7-1 record and four shutouts.

Quad City looks to avoid its second straight first round exit from the Kelly Cup Playoffs, after drawing the regular season champion Missouri Mavericks a year ago. The Mallards are looking to shake off a recent skid heading into Game 1, having lost four of their last five games. Another team that used a strong second half to shoot up the Central Division standings, Quad City skated to a 21-21-1-2 mark after handing the coaching duties to Phil Axtell on Jan. 20. A well-rounded offensive team, the Mallards boast five skaters with over 50 points, with Chris Francis and Justin Kovacs leading the way with 60 points apiece. Goaltenders C.J. Motte and Adam Vay split the club’s puck-stopping duties over the regular season, and will probably each see time early on against the Komets.

Mountain Division Semifinals

Utah Grizzlies (4th Seed, 36-29-5-2, 79 Points)
vs. Allen Americans (1st Seed, 49-17-4-2, 104 Points)

Game 1: Wednesday, April 12 at Allen

2016-17 Season Series: Utah (0-2-1-1 vs. ALN), Allen (4-0-0-0 vs. COL)

Fuel Record vs.: Utah (Did Not Play), Allen (0-5-1-0)

Breakdown: While Toledo may enter the Kelly Cup Playoffs as the top overall seed, the odds-on favorite to win it all come June may be the team that did the same each of the last two seasons. The back-to-back defending ECHL champion Allen Americans are poised for another deep run, hosting the Utah Grizzlies in the Mountain Division Semifinals. The two clubs only squared off four times this season, and haven’t seen each other since December 31, an 8-4 Allen victory.

The Americans enter the postseason the hottest team in the ECHL, winning each of their final eight games and picking up points in 16 straight (15-0-1-0) – the second-longest streak in the league this season. Allen claimed the Mountain Division title after trailing the Colorado Eagles for much of the season, coming up just two points shy of catching Toledo for the Brabham Cup. Head Coach Steve Martinson once again fields a team that is just as effective scoring goals as it is preventing them, with the Americans trailing only the Walleye in both team offense (4.08 goals per game) and defense (2.82 goals allowed per game).

Allen accounts for half of the All-ECHL First Team roster, with perennial scoring champion Chad Costello, defenseman David Makowski and goaltender Riley Gill all earning league recognition. Costello’s 122 points finished 34 ahead of second place in the ECHL scoring race, while his linemates Gregor Hanson and Spencer Asuchak each returned from their AHL recalls over the last few weeks. On the back end, defenseman Joel Chouinard led the entire circuit with a +47 rating over the regular season, and Gill finished either first or second in wins (32, 2nd), goals against average (2.22, 2nd), save percentage (.935, 1st) and shutouts (7, T-1st).

While sporting the lowest point total of any playoff team, the Grizzlies enter the postseason playing some of their best hockey of the season. Utah won seven of their last eight games to beat out the Missouri Mavericks and Alaska Aces for the final spot in the Mountain Division. Eric Bradford led the Grizzlies offensive attack with 63 points, while rookie goaltender Kevin Boyle carried the load down the stretch for Tim Branham’s team.

Idaho Steelheads (3rd Seed, 43-22-5-2, 93 Points)
vs. Colorado Eagles (2nd Seed, 47-20-2-3, 99 points)

Game 1: Friday, April 14 at Colorado

2016-17 Season Series: Idaho (6-4-0-1 vs. COL), Colorado (5-5-0-1 vs. IDH)

Fuel Record vs.: Idaho (Did Not Play), Colorado (Did Not Play)

Breakdown: In what promises to be one of the most competitive series in the opening round, the Colorado Eagles clash with the Idaho Steelheads. The Mountain Division rivals met 11 times this season, with Idaho holding a slight advantage with 13 points to Colorado’s 11. The Steelheads will be making their first trip back to Budweiser Events Center since early December, as each of the final six games in the season series took place in Boise.

The Eagles are looking to make it out of the first round for the first time, despite qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. However, this year’s Colorado team is poised to take the next step, posting its best regular season since joining the ECHL in 2011-12, winning a staggering 17 consecutive games from Jan. 25 to March 3. Coach Aaron Schneekloth’s group finished five points behind the Americans in the division standings, stumbling a bit down the stretch in losing five of their last seven games.

Finishing the season in the top five in both goals for and goals against per game, Colorado matched Allen with three players selected to the All-ECHL First Team. 2016 Kelly Cup Champion Casey Pierro-Zabotel finished second in league scoring with 88 points in his first season with the Eagles, while Matt Garbowski and Luke Salazar finished eighth and ninth respectively in the point race. Adding to Colorado’s firepower, First-Team defenseman Matt Register led all blueliners with 64 points, with Jake Marto ranking third with 56. In net the Eagles will likely look to Kent Simpson, after starting goaltender Clarke Saunders was loaned to AHL San Jose on March 27.

Looking for the first-round upset are the Steelheads, who are in the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the 14th consecutive season – the longest active streak in the league. Idaho finished the season with a 19-6-0-0 mark in their final 25 contests including two wins in a three-game homestand against the Eagles from March 29 – April 1. A team that can stand up against Colorado’s potent offense, the Steelheads ranked third in team defense (2.86 goals against per game) and second on the penalty kill (85.8%).

One could argue that the strongest facet of coach Neil Graham’s squad is its two-headed goaltending monster of first-year Landon Bow and former Eagle Branden Komm. The two netminders shared duties all season long, each finishing 2016-17 with 19 wins and three shutouts. Bow earned a spot on the ECHL All-Rookie team, leading the league with a 2.08 GAA and finishing behind Riley Gill with a .933 SV%. Not to be outdone, Komm has two shutouts in his last three starts.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

North Division Semifinals

Manchester Monarchs (4th Seed, 37-24-7-4, 85 Points)
vs. Adirondack Thunder (1st Seed, 41-20-7-4, 93 Points)

Game 1: Friday, April 14 at Manchester

2016-17 Season Series: Manchester (6-8-0-1 vs. ADK), Adirondack (9-4-2-0 vs. MCH)

Fuel Record vs.: Manchester (Did Not Play), Adirondack (Did Not Play)

Breakdown: Bitter rivals again face off in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, as the Adirondack Thunder take on the Manchester Monarchs. The matchup is a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, when the Thunder defeated the Monarchs four games to one before losing to the South Carolina Stingrays in the Conference Semifinals. The two teams saw each other a total of 15 times over the regular season, with the Thunder winning the season series 9-6. Home ice wasn’t particularly important between the two clubs, with the road team winning nine of the 15 games. The Monarchs will hope that trend continues into the postseason, as a scheduling conflict at SNHU Arena will prevent Manchester from playing a full complement of home games if the series were to go the distance. Games 1 and 2 are scheduled in New Hampshire, before shifting to Glens Falls Civic Center for the remainder of the series.

Adirondack used a 10-0-1-0 finish to claim the top spot in an ultra-tight North Division, where only 12 points separate first from fourth place at the end of the season. The league’s fourth-highest scoring offense (3.69 goals per game) is led by forwards Peter MacArthur, James Henry and rookie Brian Ward, whose 27 goals lead the team. The Thunder are the second-best shot suppression team in the ECHL, allowing opponents only 28.1 shots per game. In net, J.P. Anderson figures to get the nod from coach Cail McLean, finishing in league’s top five in both GAA (2.47, 4th) and SV% (.918, T-4th). Anderson started 10 of his team’s last 11 games, winning ECHL Goalie of the Month honors in March.

After starting the season strong with a 26-10-2-2 mark through Jan. 22, the Monarchs only managed 11 wins from their last 32 games, sliding down to the fourth seed in the North. Manchester will have to start the playoffs without two of their top four point-getters this season; leading scorer Matt Leitner (Springfield) and Quentin Shore (Ontario) are both on AHL recall as of Tuesday afternoon. With those two gone, pressure will be on Joe Diamond and Daniel Doremus to provide offense, while a pair of rookie netminders in Jack Flinn and Charles Williams hold down the fort from the back end.

Brampton Beast (3rd Seed, 40-24-3-5, 88 Points)
vs. Reading Royals (2nd Seed, 41-25-4-2, 88 Points)

Game 1: Thursday, April 13 at Reading

2016-17 Season Series: Brampton (2-1-0-0 vs. REA), Reading (1-1-1-0 vs. BRM)

Fuel Record vs.: Brampton (0-5-0-0), Reading (0-2-0-0)

Breakdown: A postseason mainstay takes on a club making their Kelly Cup Playoffs debut as the Reading Royals meet the Brampton Beast in one of the most evenly-matched first round series. After finishing in a dead heat with 88 points apiece, the Royals picked up home-ice advantage with one more win in their record than Beast. The two clubs only crossed paths three times this season, with Brampton winning twice, once in overtime.

Reading gained points in seven of their final eight games (5-1-2-0) to secure their eighth-consecutive playoff berth. The Royals were one goal shy of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, suffering an overtime loss in Game 7 to the Wheeling Nailers after knocking off top-seeded Toledo in the first round. Forward Robbie Czarnik leads Reading with 63 points, while 2015-16 Rookie of the Year Matt Willows enjoyed a strong sophomore campaign with 58 points. A well-rounded group, Reading boasts four players with a +20 rating or better. An interesting dynamic to watch is behind the bench, as former assistant coach Kirk MacDonald was promoted to Interim Head Coach on April 3, after long time coach Larry Courville was relieved of his duties.

Reading’s first test comes in the form of the ECHL’s most improved team from a year ago. Following a last place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16, Brampton improved by 31 points to earn the franchise’s first-ever Kelly Cup Playoff berth. Owning the eighth-best offense in the league at 3.65 goals a game, the Beast are led by the duo of David Vallorani and David Pacan. The two forwards finished fifth and sixth respectively in the league scoring race with 83 and 82 points apiece, with Pacan tying Florida’s Brendan O’Donnell for the ECHL goal-scoring lead with 41. In net, coach Colin Chaulk will lean on rookie Andrew D’Agostini, with starting goaltender Zachary Fucale on loan to AHL St. John’s.

South Division Semifinals

Orlando Solar Bears (4th Seed, 36-26-7-3, 82 Points)
vs. Florida Everblades (1st Seed, 46-21-2-3, 97 Points)

Game 1: Wednesday, April 12 at Florida

2016-17  Season Series:  Orlando (4-9-1-0 vs. FLA), Florida (10-4-0-0 vs. ORL)

Fuel Record vs.: Orlando (Did Not Play), Florida (Did Not Play)

Breakdown: The first of two in-state rivalries making up the South Division Semifinals, the top-seeded Florida Everblades square off against the Orlando Solar Bears. The Sunshine State foes are meeting for the second time in the Kelly Cup Playoffs, with Florida downing the Solar Bears four games to two in the 2015 South Division Semifinals. The Everblades won the season series against Orlando, winning 10 of the 14 games in the season series – including a 10-0 throttling on Saturday in Estero.

Earning the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference with 97 points, Florida is looking to bounce back from a disappointing playoff run last year, where they fell to the eventual Kelly Cup Finalist Wheeling Nailers in the first round. One of the ECHL’s most dominant teams in the first two-thirds of the season, the Everblades started the year on a 10-0-1-0 run and were 33-9-2-3 as of Feb. 16. Six different 20-goal scorers helped make Florida the league’s third best offensive team, led by forwards Brant Harris and Brendan O’Donnell, who tied for the league lead with 41 goals. Anthony Peters and rookie Alex Nedeljkovic will compete for playing time in net, with the former carrying the bulk of the load through the regular season.

Orlando returns to the postseason after just beating out the Cincinnati Cyclones for the fourth and final spot in the South Division. The Solar Bears have yet to win a playoff series, falling in 2014 to Cincinnati and in 2015 to the Everblades. Forward Eric Faille paces this year’s Orlando club with 7o points, while trade deadline acquisition Justin Buzzeo leads the team with 44 assists. Keeping other teams from scoring has been a shortcoming for the Solar Bears this year, who finished 2016-17 22nd in team defense  (3.58 goals allowed per game) and 26th on the penalty kill (75.9%).

South Carolina Stingrays (3rd Seed, 40-28-3-1, 84 Points)
vs. Greenville Swamp Rabbits (2nd Seed, 40-26-5-1, 86 Points)

Game 1: Thursday, April 13 at Greenville

2016-17 Season Series:  South Carolina (9-2-3-0 vs. GRN), Greenville (5-7-1-1 vs. SC)

Fuel Record vs.: South Carolina (1-0-0-0), Greenville (1-1-0-0)

Breakdown: The battle for South Carolina begins Thursday as the Greenville Swamp Rabbits take on the South Carolina Stingrays in the South Division Semifinals. While the Swamp Rabbits own home ice advantage, the Stingrays have won nine of 14 games against their in-state rival this season – including four out of six games in Greenville. The two teams played each other tight down the stretch, with four of their last five meetings extending past regulation time.

Greenville makes its return to the Kelly Cup Playoffs after advancing to the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to Cincinnati in six games. The Swamp Rabbits skated to a 22-11-3-1 record in the second half to earn their spot in a tight South Division race. Forwards Angelo Miceli, Brandon Alderson and rookie Ahti Oksanen lead Greenville offensively, while defenseman Joe Houk added 47 points from the back end. Averaging 3.50 goals against per game this season, the Swamp Rabbits will need strong play from their goaltending tandem of Jeff Malcolm and Mackenzie Skapski to advance.

While the Swamp Rabbits are making their first playoff appearance in three years, South Carolina has made it to at least the Conference Finals each of the last two seasons. The Stingrays were a win away from the Kelly Cup in 2015, before falling in seven games to the Wheeling Nailers last spring. Veteran forward Rob Flick led South Carolina with 63 points in the regular season, while captain Joe Devin returns to the postseason where he chipped in 16 points last year, including three game-winning goals. In net, the Stingrays will depend on Parker Milner, who appeared in 14 of his team’s final 16 games, posting a 10-3-1-0 record.