STOCKTON, Calif. – The Calder Cup Pacific Division Final features two juggernauts playing some great hockey at the best time of the year.
The Stockton Heat saw themselves at the top of the AHL standings virtually all season (until the final day) while the Colorado Eagles went on a 7-3 tear to finish the season, and neither team has lost a game yet in these playoffs.
In a hyper-competitive Pacific Division, both of these teams have legitimate aspirations for the Calder Cup, but only one can advance to the Western Conference Finals to play the winner of the Chicago/Milwaukee series. Who is going to come away with the edge in a matchup of two western contenders?
Final Regular Season Records:
Stockton: 45-16-5-2 (1st in Pacific)
Colorado: 39-22-4-3 (3rd in Pacific)
How They Got Here:
The top-seeded Stockton Heat were the only team to receive a first-round bye in the Pacific Division bracket. With the Bakersfield Condors advancing as the lowest seed, the Heat were able to make short work of the series. They cleaned out the Condors by the scores of 3-1, 3-2, and 6-4 en route to the 3-0 sweep to advance to the Pacific Final.
Seeded third, the Eagles beat the sixth seed Henderson Silver Knights 2-0 and were rewarded with the high-powered Ontario Reign. The Eagles turned in an offensive showcase on the Reign, putting up 20 goals in their clean 3-0 sweep of the second-seeded juggernaut by scores of 10-1, 5-4, and 5-2 to punch their ticket to the Pacific Final.
Game 1 – Monday, May 23 – Colorado at STOCKTON – 6:30 PST
Game 2 – Tuesday, May 24 – Colorado at STOCKTON – 6:30 PST
Game 3 – Friday, May 27 – Stockton at COLORADO -7:05 MST
*Game 4 – Sunday, May 29 – Stockton at COLORADO – 7:05 MST
*Game 5 – Tuesday, May 31 – Stockton at COLORADO – 7:05 MST
Season Series Recap:
Stockton took the series by the record of 5-3 in the regular season. These teams have gone at one another with every conceivable hockey game – their last matchup on March 30th was a tightly contested, tight-checking affair that ended in a 2-1 Colorado win. The game before that? Stockton put up double digits in a 10-3 victory. That lopsided score helped push the Stockton scoring advantage in this series to 32-23, but the series was much closer than that differential would have you believe.
Four of the eight games were decided by a single goal, with Stockton taking both of the games that went into overtime. The other 4 were decided by three or more, giving the impression that when one team took advantage, they refused to give that advantage up. With such a wild discrepancy in the way these games played out, how could anyone say which way this series will go?
How Stockton Wins:
Counter attack. Colorado loves to fly high and take chances, but those chances come at a risk. The Heat cannot risk getting caught up in odd-man chances running back and forth – instead, they should look to try and catch the Eagles cheating for extra offense before turning the jets loose the other way. They’ve shown this season to be able to take advantage of the Eagles going the other way, and they’ll need to turn more of that defense into offense in this series.
Dustin Wolf needs to be the best goalie in the league that he has been all year. The recipient of the Aldege ‘Baz’ Bastien Memorial Award this season has to be every bit of that confident backstop in the face of a high flying Eagles attack that ran roughshod over the netminders of the Ontario Reign.
Be versatile on the power play. Colorado is running their penalty kill at a 95% clip at the moment, which is absolutely absurd considering their opponents last round in the Reign sported the top power play in the regular season, including the AHL’s MVP in TJ Tynan. Stockton’s opportunities on the man advantage have to be willing to change their looks and move away from something that isn’t getting through instead of repeatedly banging their heads on the wall when it doesn’t. Shift players around if needed, and don’t be afraid to try something new – but don’t be careless; the Eagles have already scored three shorthanded goals this postseason.
Respond to adversity. Henderson didn’t have the roster to match up. Ontario was rattled in Game 1 and couldn’t hang the rest of the way against Colorado. Stockton has the roster to match and the coaching and goaltending to battle through when the ice gets tilted against them. There will be times where the Heat just needs to escape and live to fight the next shift. If Colorado punches you in the mouth, punch back twice as hard.
Win at home. The Heat made the rather puzzling decision to take the first two home games of the series and then play three straight in Colorado despite having the better record. The Heat are 24-5-5 on home ice, which lends to their confidence to take that early lead in the series and hope for a steal on the road. Against a Colorado team that’s feeling it right now, however, giving them the extra home game could be quite dangerous. Stockton can’t afford to make the trip to Loveland tied 1-1. They need to take care of business on home ice.
How Colorado Wins:
Play with pace. The Eagles were able to control the puck and the flow of the game against the Ontario Reign, and they need to match that energy in this series. Easier said than done against a Stockton team that’s going to flood the neutral zone, but who picked Colorado to sweep the Semifinal before Game 1? The Eagles have the talent to get it done.
Special Teams. With a power play cashing in 31% of the time this postseason and a penalty kill that’s scored three goals and given up one power-play goal, it’s no secret that when there’s a man in the box the Eagles turn it on. It’s a unit by committee as well – seven different Eagles have recorded a power-play goal and all hands have gotten in on the penalty-killing that uses the extra ice to counter when they see fit. Colorado will have to take advantage of every whistle and every opportunity; 5-on-5 play won’t be enough against a team as complete as the Heat.
Justus Annunen needs to match the Wolf. Stat for stat, Annunen (2.11 GAA, .933 save %) has outperformed Wolf (2.33, .926) in the small sample size of this postseason. Obviously, Wolf has the larger body of work going for him this season, but Annunen’s risen his game to match the moment and should be expected to do so in this series. He doesn’t even need to outplay Wolf – the discrepancy in the statistics is only off by a couple of shots at the end of the day, and Colorado should expect Wolf to elevate in the moment as well. Annunen simply needs to keep it at the same level – if he starts to creep back towards that 3 GAA in the regular season, it could spell an early exit for Colorado.
Attack in waves. Kiefer Sherwood and Dylan Sikura will get the rightful attention for their All-Star status, but to get past the Heat it’s going to take an effort from the depth pieces. Players like Jean-Luc Foudy and Alex Beaucage will need to continue to play at the level they have, and key contributions from Ryan Wagner in all three zones will have to keep the Heat on their heels. If Stockton is allowed to breathe and to counter, the Eagles won’t be able to work their possession game to their favor. All hands on deck for this series.
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