AHL Playoffs: Rookies in the Spotlight
The AHL playoffs kick off tonight and the league is ripe with goaltending intrigue, including lots of rookies jumping into the fray carrying the bulk of the load, which will be a real test of their mettle.
In other match-ups, wily veterans will look to make a case for their next contract, while the unlucky goalies are packing their bags and heading home. Let’s take a look at the match-ups and stories we’ll be keeping an eye on as the post-season gets underway.
Rookies vs. Rookies
It was the year of the rookie among AHL goalies, with many sticking at the top of the stats for good portions of the season. So it shouldn’t be surprising that several playoff teams will be relying on the youngsters to hold down the fort in the post-season.
Matt Hackett (Houston) vs. Jake Allen (Peoria)
With the Minnesota Wild trading Anton Khudobin to Boston at the deadline, 21-year-old Hackett has been entrusted with the keys to the crease for the Aeros. While at the other end of the ice, the more experienced Ben Bishop is out with a groin injury, so the first round could potentially fall entirely to young Allen.
To add further intrigue, because of arena availability, the teams are playing 3-in-3 in Peoria next week, so the back-ups (Josh Tordjman for Houston and Beau Erickson for Peoria) may come into play.
Richard Bachman (Texas) vs. Jeremy Smith (Milwaukee)
Bachman was supposed to back up Brent Krahn this season, but the elder goalie played only 12 games due to injury. Bachman took the reigns and had a very un-rookie-like season with consistent, poised play night in and night out.
Smith beat out Chet Pickard for the #2 spot with the Admirals and with All-Star Mark Dekanich out with a high ankle sprain, he’s been a steady go-to guy putting up good numbers in his 28 games.
Rookies vs. Vets
Martin Jones (Manchester) vs. Barry Brust (Binghamton)
Though rookie Jones has split time with Jeff Zatkoff, he’s put himself on the radar with consistently great play in 39 games. Zatkoff gets the start Thursday, but Jones should get some playing time and a chance to prove he’s the real deal.
Brust, on the other hand, returns to the arena where he began his AHL career in 05-06 in the Kings organization. He’s the clear starter for Bingo and has the experience and confidence and trust from his team to keep him steady behind the sometimes-porous Senators defense.
Eddie Lack (Manitoba) vs. Jason Bacashihua and John Grahame (Lake Erie)
After wasting away in Lake Erie for three seasons, it was expected that Tyler Weiman would use a fresh start in Manitoba to take command of the crease, while rookie Lack was brought along slowly. Instead, Lack was a revelation behind the Moose and earned the majority of the starts, though coach Claude Noel trusts both goalies to step up when needed.
Meanwhile, the most experienced tandem in the AHL has backstopped a phoenix-like rise for Lake Erie. With years of AHL, NHL and KHL experience, the 35-year-old Grahame won’t be rattled, nor will Bacashihua, who, after paying his dues while getting no games in Hershey’s cup run last season, should finally get a chance at some glory.
Other stories worth watching
Dov Grumet-Morris (Connecticut)
The Whale will face Portland (Jhonas Enroth and David Leggio), just squeaking into the playoffs after losing starter Chad Johnson to the NHL in February. In four years, Grumet-Morris had played 27 AHL games for 5 different teams, but has taken the majority of the starts for the Whale since February and put up very good numbers in the process. This could be his chance to put the suitcase away and earn a full time AHL gig.
Brad Thiessen and John Curry (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton)
You can’t swing a dead cat in WBS without hitting a really good goalie. The Norfolk Admirals and sophomore starter Dustin Tokarski (backed by rookie Jaroslav Janus) have their hands full with these two goalies who jointly won the Harry “Haps” Holmes Award for the team with the lowest GAA.
When you run across a team that can win that award and get the puck in the net regularly, that’s the team you don’t want to meet in Round 1. It’s a great test for Tokarski, though, who has made steady progress in his first two pro seasons.
Drew MacIntyre (Hamilton)
A crowded net in Chicago left MacIntyre getting only a smattering of starts, but after a trade to Montreal at the end of February to replace injured Curtis Sanford, he’s already played more games for Hamilton than he did all season for Chicago. And with seriously good numbers.
He won’t admit to satisfaction in seeing Chicago not make the playoffs, but no question he’s grateful to be back in a starting role.
Braden Holtby (Hershey)
Holtby has proven he’s got NHL-caliber stuff, but there may be even more pressure in Hershey to follow in Michal Neuvirth’s Calder Cup-winning footsteps as the team goes for the three-peat. They start the playoffs against the Charlotte Checkers and rookie Mike Murphy and Justin Pogge and all eyes will be on Holtby, but he should be well used to that by now.
On the outside, looking in
Leland Irving (Abbotsford)
In spite of having a career season with 8 shutouts, winning 9 of 11 shootouts, and a workhorse-like 61 games, the Heat couldn’t get over the hump to slip into that last spot in the North Division. on how patient he’s having to be to get his shot in the Calgary organization.