THE CALDER CUP SETUP
It’s inexperience versus experience as the Manitoba Moose and Hershey Bears prepare to face off in the Calder Cup Finals when the American Hockey League’s 73rd championship begins Saturday in Winnipeg.
This is the first time in almost a decade that the best regular-season teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences will meet in the finals; the Moose were awarded the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s 2008-09 regular season points champion, they nipped the Bears by one point.
These teams have never met before in the playoffs and they didn’t even collide this season so head-to-head there isn’t any recent history to build off of.
The Moose, who have never been to the Calder Cup finals, are led offensively by a dynamite top line of 2008 Calder Cup winner Jason Krog, journeyman Jason Jaffray and youngster Michael Grabner. All three are in the top 15 in playoff scoring and have combined for 20 goals and 24 assists in 46 games.
Manitoba’s offensive depth includes contributions from Guillaume Desbiens, Mike Keane, Mark Cullen, Alex Bolduc and Raymond Sawada, among others, who have all chipped in with timely goals this post-season.
Defensively it’s the same characters that helped the Moose win the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for allowing the fewest goals this season that have continued to thwart the opposition in the playoffs.
Nolan Baumgartner, Mark Fistric, Maxime Fortunus and Shaun Heshka are the big names, with Nathan McIver also working into the line-up now and again.
Between the pipes it’s all Cory Schneider all the time for Manitoba and the 2008-09 winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender has yet to disappoint.
Schneider hasn’t stolen any games for the Moose to this point, but he’s been rock steady and oober reliable and with Manitoba’s firepower upfront, that’s been just what the doctor ordered.
A trip to the Calder Cup Finals is nothing new to the Hershey Bears, the farm team of the Washington Capitals, as this is their third appearance in the last four years and 21st in team history.
The Bears, who joined the AHL in 1938 and are the AHL’s longest-existing team, won it all in 2005-06 giving the franchise nine Calder Cup Championships.
This year’s edition is led by the likes of 2008-09 AHL MVP and regular-season scoring champion Alexandre Giroux, youngster Chris Bourque and former Carolina Hurricanes centre Keith Aucoin; all three players are in the top seven in playoff scoring.
Former Canucks and Moose defenceman Bryan Helmer is the veteran leading the defence, he’s followed by on-again off-again NHLer Staffan Kronwall and six-year Bears mainstay Dean Arsene.
Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth has played unbelievably well for Hershey, he’s allowed one more goal than Schneider but has three shutouts and his save percentage is a pinch higher.
Overall, the Moose and Bears are tied in playoff goals with 52, while Manitoba has given up 33 goals against to Hershey’s 35.
When it comes to special teams the only distinct advantage is in penalty killing where the Moose sit third overall stopping the opposition 87% of the time to Hershey’s 12th ranked, 78% kill.
On the power play the Bears are fourth overall at 20% with Manitoba just behind them at 19%.
And finally, a Hershey Bears believe it or not: between 1932 and 1936, the Bears were known as the B’ars and the Chocolate B’ars, before they decided on Bears in 1936. Good choice.