The Albany Devils will open the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs by battling the 4th seeded St. John’s IceCaps. These two teams did not meet during the 2013-14 AHL season. They have met four times while based in their current cities with all four meetings taking place during the 2012-13 AHL campaign.
The Devils will be entering the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak. At the Times Union Center, the Devils have also won five in a row and picked up at least one point in the Capital District in a staggering thirteen games to end the season. The Devils won 24 of their 34 games at the Times Union Center this season.
The IceCaps will be entering the postseason with a winning streak of their own. They have won three in a row and five of their last seven games overall. From the middle of February through mid-March the IceCaps won nine games in a row and thirteen of fourteen games before they briefly cooled off.
2012-13 Albany Devils vs. St. John’s IceCaps Meetings
The Devils fell in three of their four meetings during the 2012-13 season. They played back-to-back games on November 16 and 17 at the Mile One Centre in St. John’s. The IceCaps defeated the Devils 4-3 in a shootout in their first meeting but the Devils responded with a 5-3 victory the following night behind Darcy Zajac’s two goals.
The IceCaps took both games on Albany ice. In their first match-up at the Times Union Center they shut the Devils out 1-0 on November 30 as goaltender Eddie Pasquale turned aside all 24 shots he faced. In their last meeting of the season on March 27, St. John’s defeated the Devils 4-2. Brandon Burlon and Joe Whitney picked up the goals.
The only current Devils that faced the IceCaps with Albany last season and registered points are Burlon (1G, 2A), Raman Hrabarenka (1A), Adam Larsson (1G, 2A), Harri Pesonen (2A), Mike Sislo (1A), Mattias Tedenby (1A), Whitney (1G, 1A) and Darcy Zajac (2G). Keith Kinkaid appeared in just one of the four games and stopped 26 of 29 shots in the November 16th shootout loss.
The A-Devils Last Five Games of 2013-14
Following a three-game winless streak, the Devils won their final five games of the 2013-14 campaign. In the first of three straight at the Times Union Center, Kinkaid made 22 saves as the Devils defeated the Bridgeport Sound Tigers 2-1 on April 11. Darcy Zajac scored both goals for the Devils.
The next night Kinkaid stopped 18 of 19 shots during the game and four of five in the shootout in the Devils 2-1 victory over the Providence Bruins. Pesonen scored Albany’s lone goal during regulation.
In their final game of the three-in-three weekend, the Devils cruised to a 4-0 shutdown of the Syracuse Crunch. Scott Wedgewood stopped all 20 shots the Crunch threw his way, Reid Boucher scored two goals, Pesonen had three assists, and Reece Scarlett had a goal and an assist to lead Albany to a weekend sweep.
In their penultimate goal of the season, the Devils defeated the Portland Pirates in their final road contest. Kinkaid turned aside 20 of 22 shots during the game. Boucher and Dan Kelly scored for Albany during regulation and Sislo scored the deciding goal in the shootout. With the victory Albany clinched a playoff berth.
The Devils wrapped up the season on home ice with a victory over the Springfield Falcons. Five different Devils (Burlon, Whitney, Pesonen, Scott Timmins, David Wohlberg) scored goals.
The A-Devils topped the Springfield Falcons in their season finale 5-2.
This Season is Different
There is a much different atmosphere around Albany these days. The A-Devils not only will be playing hockey beyond their season finale for the first since 2010 but a New Jersey Devils-affiliated team in Albany will be dropping the puck for postseason play for the first since 2000. With a much different roster than last season’s edition the A-Devils have the depth and the confidence up front and on defense to make a deep run for the Calder Cup this spring.
Reid Boucher and Joe Whitney Lead the Albany Forwards
Boucher, who also added two NHL goals to his resume this season for the New Jersey Devils, ended the season tied for 2nd on the team with 22 goals and finished 5th on the team in points with 38. Rookie Kelly Zajac, who only played in 16 AHL games the last two seasons combined, finished this season 2nd in points with 44 including a team-leading 32 helpers. Timmins, in his first season with the Devils organization, centered the Devils top line for most of the year and finished 4th in points with 39 and finished 3rd in assists with 26. Rod Pelley, in his first season back in the organization since the 2011-12 season, captained the team and put up 13 goals and 7 assists.
A pair of old stalwarts at forward also had magical seasons for the A-Devils. Sislo, who also made his NHL debut this season by playing in 14 games with the parent club, scored a career-high 23 goals during the 2013-14 AHL season. He had previously scored 21 goals combined in his AHL career. He also broke his previous career-high in points by picking up 41 points this season. Whitney also had his best season as an A-Devil by scoring 53 points, 22 of which were goals with 31 assists. Like Sislo, Whitney made his NHL debut this season for New Jersey (Jan. 24).
Pesonen played in every game but one for Albany and scored 15 goals with 21 assists and led all forwards with a +/- of +13. Tim Sestito picked up 27 points in 51 games and also spent some time in the NHL this season. Stefan Matteau, in his rookie season with Albany, scored 13 goals with a matching 13 assists.
Eric Gelinas, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill: Old Familiar Faces on Defense Return From New Jersey
Albany will have a strong blue line presence during the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs. Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill spent most of the season with New Jersey but will be suiting up for Albany this spring. Merrill notched 10 points in 15 games for the A-Devils and Gelinas picked up a goal and 4 assists and finished +6 in 13 games. In the NHL, Merrill picked up 11 points in 52 games while Gelinas provided a major offensive boost from the New Jersey backend by scoring 29 points, 7 of which were goals. Five of his seven goals came on the power play and this will be a major factor this spring for Albany.
Jon Merrill will be relied upon heavily to lead the Albany defense this postseason.
Another top defenseman for Albany will be Larsson. He only played in 26 games for New Jersey and struggled early in the season. Then he began to exude confidence when paired with Gelinas and the two immediately provided a steady defensive pairing for New Jersey. However, Larsson suffered a lower body injury against the San Jose Sharks on November 23 and when he was eligible to return the organization had him play in Albany. Larsson scored 19 points and finished +2 in 33 games for Albany before briefly returning to New Jersey for the end of their 2013-14 season.
Beyond the NHL-caliber defensemen are a group of Albany defenders that are an excellent complement to the blue line. Seth Helgeson played in 75 of Albany’s 76 games this season and finished with a +12. Kelly appeared in 71 games and was tied for 2nd on defense with 14 assists with a +/- of +13. Corbin McPherson finished with a team-high +/-, +16. He appeared in 69 games and helped the Albany offense with 10 helpers. Rookie defenseman Reece Scarlett also made a grand entrance into the organization. He played in 48 games and notched 20 points with 6 goals and 14 assists. He finished +11. Hrabarenka played in 48 games for Albany and led all Albany defensemen with 21 points. He had an eight-game point streak earlier in the season. Burlon also provided a steady veteran presence with 54 games played in his third season with the club. Alexander Urbom also returned to the organization after being claimed off waivers from Washington in January 8. In 35 games with the A-Devils he picked up a goal and ten assists. Eight of his eleven points came in the last two months of the season.
Reece Scarlett opens the scoring against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on December 10, 2013, with a blue line blast:
Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood: The Puck Stops Here
Between the pipes both goaltenders finished the season strong. After losing the starting job to Wedgewood in March, Kinkaid finally ended his horrific slump once he got another string of starts in goal. In Kinkaid’s last five games of the season he did not allow more than two goals in any game and won three of the five contests. He is riding a personal three-game winning streak entering the playoffs and finished with a record during the season of 24-13-5. He finished with career highs in wins (24), shutouts (4), GAA (2.29), and save percentage (0.912).
Wedgewood, in his first season in the AHL, finished with a 16-14-3 record. He also picked up four shutouts and finished with a GAA of 2.39 and a save percentage of 0.899. He enters the postseason having won seven of his last nine decisions and secured three of his shutouts during this stretch. He was in net for the Devils season finale against the Springfield Falcons and stopped 20 of 22 shots to pick up the victory.
Their First Round Opponent: St. John’s IceCaps
Like Albany, St. John’s is getting hot at the right time. In their final home game of the season, the IceCaps crushed the Hartford Wolf Pack 6-2 on April 13. John Albert, the IceCaps leading goal scorer with 28 goals, picked up a pair. Defenseman Zach Redmond added three assists and net minder Tyler Beskorowany stopped 28 of 30 shots.
Jerome Samson scored a goal and added three assists as the IceCaps demolished the Worcester Sharks 6-0 five days later. Michael Hutchinson stopped all 20 shots he faced for his third shutout of the season.
The IceCaps ended their season with a 5-4 victory over the Pirates. They rallied from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 during the game. Josh Lunden scored two goals for St. John’s including the game-winner and Hutchinson made 27 saves.
The Albany defense will have their hands full with the St. John’s offense. The IceCaps had nine players score at least 40 points while only three Devils eclipsed the mark. Only Whitney scored at least 50 points (53) for Albany while four IceCaps exceeded the 50-point plateau. Jason Jaffrey was the IceCaps leading scorer with 59 points. He also led the team with 41 assists. Of the 21 St. John’s skaters that appeared in at least 30 games 17 finished with a positive +/-, led by defenseman Ben Chiarot’s +29. Four IceCaps players had higher than a +16, which McPherson had to lead Albany. Rookie defenseman Brenden Kichton led all defensemen with 10 goals, 38 assists, and 48 points. He had a +/- of +8. Redmond, another top defenseman for St. John’s, had a +19 rating and chipped in 6 goals and 19 assists.
In the crease, Pasquale was the IceCaps starter until he was lost for the season in early February. In his place, Hutchinson took over the top spot in net and on the season had a record of 17-5-1 with a 0.923 save percentage and a GAA of 2.30. He enters the Calder Cup Playoffs having won ten of his last eleven starts. He picked up a pair of shutouts during that stretch and had three total blankings on the season.
Beskorowany had a record of 7-2-2 this season for St. John’s. He had a GAA of 2.20 and a save percentage of 0.932. He also enters the playoffs with a mini hot streak as he won three of his final four starts.
The Keys to Advancing to the Second Round for the Albany Devils:
1) The first key for the Albany Devils is simple but complex: win both home games. If the Devils take both games at the Times Union Center, where they have dominated their opponents this season, then they have to win just one game on the road where they won just 16 of 38 games this season, a stark contrast from their home record. St. John’s was not as dominant on home ice as Albany but picked up two points in 23 of their 38 home contests.
2) Chemistry is vital for the A-Devils in this series. Most of the IceCaps have played together for long stretches in the AHL this season. Sestito and Sislo are returning to Albany after spending the dog days of March with the parent club. New Jersey has loaned Merrill and Gelinas to Albany after they played most of the season in Newark. Gelinas and Larsson did excel together as a pair with New Jersey early in the season. While all three are NHL-caliber defensemen, Albany’s chemistry on the blue line, because of the depth in the organization, earned them a playoff berth. On paper the addition of Merill and Gelinas to an already strong group gives the Devils a huge advantage. On the ice, the result is yet to be determined.
3) The third key is goaltending. Kinkaid struggled down the stretch but seemed to have found his game entering the playoffs. Hutchinson has allowed more than two goals just three times in his last eleven starts, ten of which are victories. If the Devils defense continues to live up to their NHL standard, they won’t allow quality shots to reach Kinkaid. If the chemistry experiment fails, Kinkaid must be ready to bail the Devils out and possibly steal the series.
4) The Eric Gelinas Power Play Factor. Neither team’s special teams are overly dominant. On the power-play, the Devils ranked 21st with a scoring rate of 16.2%. The IceCaps finished 13th with 18.1%. The Devils sit 14th in penalty killing with an 82.7% success rate and the IceCaps finished the season 9th in PK with a success rate of 83.5%. Enter Gelinas. He was a key cog of the New Jersey power-play with his blistering slap shot from the blue line. He scored five of New Jersey’s 47 PPG. His five goals were second on the team amongst defensemen (Marek Zidlicky had eight PPG). His 17 power-play points was tied for second on the team (Zidlicky had 18). His only goal with the A-Devils this season, coincidentally, was a power-play goal.
Prediction: Albany Devils in 4.
The Devils and IceCaps are set to open their best-of-five Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series on Friday, April 25 at the Times Union Center. The Devils will be home for Games 1 and 2 before heading north to the Mile One Centre for Game 3 and if necessary, Games 4 and 5. For the complete schedule, be sure to visit the Albany Devils website, www.thealbanydevils.com.
Leo is in his second year with THW. He covers the 3-Time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils and the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League. You can follow Leo on Twitter, @LeoScaglioneJr.