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Friday, May 18, 2007

Well matched pairs fight for shot at Calder Cup; Hamilton a second city on another lake

The Hamilton Bulldogs, Chicago Wolves, Manchester Monarchs and Hershey Bears have entered into the final four of the American Hockey League championships. The Calder Cup is just eight wins away from one of these teams. Tonight the Wolves start a best of seven series against the Bulldogs. The winner plays the Eastern Conference winner for the Calder Cup.

Hamilton, a large industrial suburb or a small industrial city, on the shore of Lake Ontario lies within the marketing reach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Much like the Chicago Wolves compete against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Bulldogs compete against the marketing muscle of the Maple Leafs and the Marlies.

In addition, the city is also close to Buffalo, New York and its final four team, the Sabres.

So, if Chicago has a second city complex, and the Wolves are the fan favorites, perhaps the Bulldogs have a second city complex and are the fan favorites too? Well, not if the attendance in the playoffs is any indication. From a playoff low on Mothers Day of just 1,703, the average attendance for Bulldog playoff hockey has only averaged 2,459. In comparison, the Wolves have attracted an average of 3,671 to the playoffs.

Perhaps it’s the lack of home ice victories in the playoffs. The Bulldogs took six games to finish the Rochester Americans, taking two of the three games at home, including the final. In the series against the Manitoba Moose, the Bulldogs defeated the Moose only once at home, out of three games.

The parent club of the Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens, did not send goaltender Jaroslav Halak back to rejoin the Bulldogs at the end of the regular season. Instead, the Hamilton team has started rookie Carey Price in net every game. Price, was drafted by the Habs in the first round, fifth pick overall, in 2005. Although he only played 12 games in the regular season, he has been outstanding in goal for the Bulldogs, marking a shutout in his first game against the Amerks, and posting a 2.19 GAA for the playoffs. His GAA and his saves have actually improved during the playoffs, to 1.98 GAA and a 93.9 percent save from a 2.39 GAA and a 91.7 percent save in April.

In comparison, Michael Garnett has recorded a 2.24 GAA and a 91.9 percent save record in the post-season.

At most, Price has given up four goals in a game against the Amerks twice, posting one win. Against the Manitoba Moose he only allowed 12 goals. He is the real deal. He will probably not play in the AHL for long.

The backup goalie for the Bulldogs is Yanis Danis. Danis played only one game in the regular season against the Wolves, March 3rd. He won the game 6-3 against Fred Brathwaite, stopping 26 pucks.

The Bulldogs are sporting many of the same players, otherwise. Corey Locke, who scored twice against the Wolves in the regular season, is leading the team in points with 14 and in goals scored with seven. Fourteen other players have registered at least four points for the team. However, Ajay Baines has hurt the Wolves before with two goals and five shots. Cory Urquhart has put five shots on the Wolves goal, good for a point this year. Matt D’Agostini has put two shots on goal and received two assists. And Mikhail Grobovski has a goal, several assists and seven shots on goal.

Now the line that includes Grabovski, Duncan Milroy and D’Agostini has played hot and cold during the playoffs. The Hamilton coach said, during the Amerks series, that the line needed to step up. However, the scoring line that includes Locke has often scored with defensemen assisting, especially Mathieu Biron.

Andrei Kostitsyn was out with a groin injury. He is skating with the team and may make the series. His brother joined the team from juniors. Sergei Kostitsyn played for the London Knights of the OHL before joining the Canadiens organization. J.P Cote is out with an ankle injury and is not expected back for the series. The team has enforcer Zack Stortini playing. He had a key goal in the first game against the Americans.

The junior Habs power play has been roughly the same as the Wolves. The Bulldogs have had 58 attempts and ten goals, or 17.2 percent. The Wolves have had 65 attempts and 11 goals, 16.9 percent. Also matching up well is the penalty kill. The Bulldogs notching 84.7 percent on the PK, versus 87.5 for the Wolves. The Bulldogs were in two overtime games in the post season and won both.

The Bulldogs have allowed 27 goals against in their two divisional series, defeating their opponents by a margin of nine goals. The Wolves have allowed 22 goals against, defeating their opponents by a margin of 19 goals. Seven of the 12 post season games played by the Bulldogs have been won by one goal. Two empty net goals increase that to nine games decided in close contests. The Bulldogs took five of them. In contrast, only three of the games Chicago has played were that close. A May 3rd game with two empty net goals would add that to the total. Chicago won three of those four games.

The two teams only played four games in the regular season. Hamilton had a point in each game, winning both games in Chicago. They have never met in the post-season before. Hamilton has been to the Calder Cup finals twice before, in 1997 and in 2003. In the ten meetings between the two teams prior to this season the Wolves have won six and lost four.

Expect the Bulldogs to take a non-physical approach. The team stays out of the penalty box. They like to use speed. They have a hot goalie. Expect the series to go to six or seven games. Although it appears the Wolves have an edge, it is a thin edge depending on scoring and a stronger defense. Home ice does not appear to be an asset for the Bulldogs, with a home record of 3-3 versus an away record of 5-1. The Wolves have done well on home ice in the playoffs, with a record of 4-1 at home and 4-1 away. The Bulldogs appear to have a stronger man in the net.

Drop the puck!

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