In beating the Pacific Division winning Bakersfield Condors by a score of 6-2 Monday night the San Diego Gulls punched their ticket to the AHL Calder Cup Conference Finals, and a date with the Vegas Golden Knights affiliate Chicago Wolves.
The Gulls did not look quite as convincing in their eventual series win as they had against the San Jose Barracuda, given they were facing a team that was missing two of their leading point producers in Cooper Marody and Kailer Yamamoto. They also experienced some hardship of their own as Max Jones was lost to an upper body (likely a concussion) injury when he was cross checked in the face during action in Game 4, after already losing Josh Mahura to an upper body injury earlier in the series.
The Gulls now face - with all due respect to the Barracuda and Condors - a much more difficult opponent. Chicago matches up well against San Diego in all facets of the game but as I have found by focusing and breaking down the numbers position by position - the Gulls actually have a slight edge.
Starting on offense - among the congested top seven scoring race in the AHL Postseason thus far the Gulls have eight players, while Chicago have five. Sam Carrick and Adam Cracknell are tied for second in scoring with 12 points each while Sam Steel is tied with four other players for fourth with ten points. Curtis McKenzie, Ty McGinn and Tomas Hyka all come in for the Wolves tied at sixth with eight points, a total also shared with Ben Street. Highly touted 2017 6th overall pick Cody Glass and veteran Daniel Carr are tied with eleven other players for seventh with seven points, including Justin Kloos and Andy Welinski.
I was initially concerned with how the Wolves scoring ability might match that of the Gulls - given that thus far this postseason it has been the Gulls’ depth of talent at forward that has given them the edge over either less talented or depleted by injury competition.
Daniel Carr finished tied for third overall in regular season AHL scoring with 71 points in 52 games, his 1.37 points per game was tops in the league for players that participated in 50 games or more. He won the Les Cunningham award for the AHL’s most valuable player but was sidelined with injury for the final 18 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He only recently returned to the Wolves line-up for their second round series against Iowa. His 1.17 points per game in the postseason thus far indicates he is picking up right where he left off. If the Gulls want to shutdown at least a large part of the Chicago offense, they need to contain Carr.
Curtis McKenzie, Tye McGinn and Tomas Hyka co-lead the team in scoring and are doing it across three separate lines. Hyka has been playing with Carr and Glass of late, while the veteran McKenzie has been placed on a the Wolves’ own version of the Gulls “vet line” with T.J Tynan and Keegan Kolesar (not quite a vet but plays that style). McGinn was hot in the first series against Grand Rapids, totaling six points in five games but has only the two assists across the six game series with Iowa since then. The “Vet line” or namely McKenzie on the other hand has been hot: the former Texas Star has five points in his last three games including a hat trick in an important game five victory. Another name to keep an eye on up front is Stefan Matteau who has three points in the last two games.
But of all the lines that San Diego will need to key in on, it is the Carr line. Hyka has two points in the last two games, as does Glass and Carr has two. The majority of the Wolves offense will go through this line.
As already stated, Chicago offers the most depth of opposition at forward that the Gulls have faced so far. Being able to roll four formidable lines and get key contributions from one if not all on a nightly basis is a core strength for San Diego. The most recent line shake-up not only clinched the series. It presented some very real match-up problems for the Wolves.
With Carrick, Cracknell and Comtois on the one line you have the best part of the Gulls hottest weapons. I would not be surprised to see them go head to head with the Carr line in the series.
By swapping Sherwood down to the speed line with De Leo and Kloos, you get three brilliant penalty killers that love to force turnovers and the speed to counter attack at will. Kloos and De Leo were red-hot in round one against the Barracuda - netting four points each respectively, but they completely cooled off against the Condors, getting just the four points between them. The hope presented by the addition of Sherwood to the line did mean a two point night for Kloos and a goal for De Leo. If that line can get hot it would be a huge boon for San Diego.
Sam Steel is Sam Steel, he will put up points no matter what line you put him on. The 20-year old rookie has only gone scoreless in three games these playoffs, and has had multi-point nights across another three. Matching him with fellow play-maker Kevin Roy and assigning Matt Berry to be a banger and give them space to create was another smart move by Eakins. They did not get on the board in that final Game 6 victory, but they looked like they were clicking.
Finally the new Kossila line. It has been a very down year for the fourth-year Finnish pro, and one was starting to wonder if we would ever see the old Kalle again. Then Eakins reunited him with Corey Tropp on a line with Ben Street, and the phenom seems to finally be back. His goal-line angle shot for the Gulls’ first goal in Game 6 was pure Kalle. Seemingly impossible, but he does it with style. Street and Kossila had four points each in the Bakersfield series while Tropp had just the two but the veteran winger has been making the kind of smart plays away from the puck that help his team win games.
I was initially speculating that Chicago would have the edge on offense specifically due to how much of a beast Carr was in the regular season, but given how San Diego seems to have fared better and more consistently among their forwards in the playoffs, I am going to give the edge here to the Gulls.
The Wolves have arguably the best offensive pairing in the AHL postseason in Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud. They each share a six point haul in 11 games, tied for third overall in scoring for blue liners. Curiously (and Jake will start having a minor fit right now) Whitecloud is a league worst -10 and I know, I know, that doesn’t say much, but it also paints a picture of the kind of game style the Wolves play. I guess what I am saying is, I haven't seen them play that much, but I am assuming they try to play a similar run-and-gun style to their parent club Golden Knights.
The Wolves also have some other notable names on the blue line including 2012 fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart. The BC native has had a rough start to his career - moving through three clubs in five seasons - but he has undeniable talent. So far this post season he has two points in 10 games.
Jake Bischoff is an interesting case. Originally an Islanders 7th round pick, the 6-1 left-shooting defensemen was packaged in a deal with Grabovski, a 2017 first round pick (Erik Brannstrom) and a 2019 2nd round pick all so that the Golden Knights wouldn’t select one of Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Josh Bailey, Ryan Strome (lol) or Calvin de Haan. But I digress. The Islander cast-off is having a fairly strong postseason campaign, scoring four points in 11 games thus far and a +5 - best on the team.
AHL journeyman Zac Leslie (Gulls fans will remember him from his Reign days) and ECHL signing Kevin Lough round out the blue line.
Andy Welinski leads the Gulls from the blue line and is tied for 2nd in scoring among defenders with the Marlies talented rookie Rasmus Sandin. The now-eliminated Evan Bouchard was the leading scorer with eight points in eight games.
Jacob Larsson (who I have noted multiple times in my post game notes on the last two game recaps over at defendthenest,com) is having a heck of a post-season. He has elevated his play to that of a reliable first pairing defender and (again I know its a dubious stat) he leads all blue liners with a +10, tied for third overall among skaters. He has five points in ten games and is looking like he can only get better.
Simon Benoit, Jaycob Megna, Trevor Murphy and Jake Dotchin all come in with two points each though Dotchin is likely to still be a healthy scratch given how well Sieloff played the last two games.
Again I have not watched enough of the Wolves to make a conclusive call on who has the edge here, but given the Wolves are dressing an ECHL signing on the third pairing I am going to give San Diego the slight advantage, with the added bonus of potentially getting Mahura or even Guhle back from injury during the series to add an overall boost.
2012 2nd round pick Oscar Dansk is the definitive number one in net for the Wolves, and he has posted a stellar 2.28 GAA and a stunning 0.912 SV% in nine games going 6-3-0. The equally talented but far more experienced Max Lagace has seen action twice and posted a more brutal 4.00 GAA and 0.849 SV%. Dansk is ninth in SV% and eitgh in GAA; he has seen the third most shots at 239 total while making 218 saves.
Jeff Glass has been credited with all ten of the Gulls starts despite coming in relief of Kevin Boyle in Game 2 who had to leave the game after taking multiple knees to the head. He has a career high (when playing ten or more games) 2.25 GAA and a sparkling 0.920 SV%. He is sixth overall in SV% and just ahead of Dansk in GAA at seventh overall. He has seen the second most shots in the postseason thus far at 300 while making 276 saves. Perhaps most crucially is that after the 7.07 GAA blow out of Game 3, he has bounced back with three straight games of 2.00 or less GAA and an average 0.931 SV%. The veteran net-minder is locked in and even though Kevin Boyle is healthy again, it does not look like he is willing to give up the net so soon.
The numbers are more in favor of San Diego, but given the overall pedigree of the two net-minders that Chicago possesses. I will call this one even with perhaps a slight edge to the Wolves.
The Wolves have the sixth best Power Play in the post season, clicking at 21.4% and scoring nine power play goals thus far. Worryingly, they have the second highest among power play opportunities with 42 power plays awarded over their 11 game span. Their penalty kill sits ninth overall at 79.3%, allowing six power play goals against while also netting two short handed tallies. They have been shorthanded 29 times - good for sixth overall.
The Gulls’ man advantage is fourth overall in the post season, scoring at 25% and netting eight goals. They have been awarded 32 opportunities with the extra man - fifth in the league and have allowed the one short handed goal. Their penalty kill is seventh overall, killing at a 83.3% rate and scoring the one short handed goal for. The Gulls have been shorthanded just once more than Chicago with 30.
Again the numbers are skewed more toward San Diego but the fact that Chicago gets so many power play opportunities is definitely a concern. The Gulls’ penalty kill will need to be more consistently dominant like they showed they could be against the Condors if they hope to win this series. I am calling this even.
I had massive initial misgivings about the Gulls chances before writing this piece, but the numbers that San Diego have quietly put up en route to storming to the Conference Finals have surprised me so much that I now believe they have the personnel, attitude and belief in themselves to do this.
Gulls in six.
Mahura has been missing since Game 1 of the Condors series. He was sat for the remainder of the third period after he took a hard hit up high by the stanchion along the boards. He has been deemed day to day with an upper body injury.
Jones has been playing through more than a few bumps, including a tweaked leg suffered in the Barracuda series. He is currently out with an upper body injury that is likely a concussion suffered when he was cross checked in the face by the Condors Keegan Lowe when he went to the net after a shot off the face-off. There has been no futher update other than he is day to day.
Terry is at week six of his six to nine week prognosis after a fracture suffered when he blocked a shot in the Ducks second to last game of the season. Eric Stephens updated that he would have the moon-boot off this past weekend, and it would likely be another three weeks from there, so we are not likely to see Terry until at least the Calder Cup finals if the Gulls make it that far.