Before I dig into the series preview I want to mention the biggest change in the Kelly Cup playoffs this season. All series will be best of five series rather than best of seven. It makes for a condensed, fast paced playoffs that will be completed in no more than 26 days from start to finish. I remember Steve Martinson telling me many years ago the best teams win seven games series but that is not always the case in five game series. The opening game in a five game series is critical with the winner of that game winning the series close to 70% of the time. There is not much time to get things turned around if a team gets off to a bad start in a five game series.
– #1 seed Allen (45-23-3-1) enters the series as the favorite against the #4 seed Utah (35-26-5-6). Allen finished the regular season on a six game win streak to overtake Wichita for the top spot. Utah lost four of its last six games including two of three at home to end the season.
– Allen and Utah are very familiar with each other having played 18 times during the regular season with Allen having a record of 10-6-1-1 against the Grizzlies. However, late in the season Utah beat Allen six of eight times including three of four in the last series in Utah which was two weeks ago.
– Like several teams in the playoffs the Americans will not have home ice advantage though they are the #1 seed, because of arena availability. This could prove critical since Allen’s points percentage at home during the regular season was the best in the conference (.764) but the road record was ranked #3 at .542. Allen gets two midweek games (tonight and Wednesday) and then will travel to Utah for the final three games (if necessary) on Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will be quick with five games in seven days with the winner decided no later than Monday.
– There is not a lot of room for error in a five game series so a fast start is imperative. Utah and Allen had a combined record when scoring first during the regular season of 55-16-4-1. In the 18 head to head games between these teams the team that scored first won 13 times (72%).
– With five games in seven days with travel to Utah included depth at the goalie position will be important. Allen has opted to have three goalies on the playoff roster and they have all played great with save percentages ranging from .917 to .927. While Jake Paterson has earned the top spot you can expect Allen to share the load. I would expect the two veterans (Paterson and C.J. Motte) to get the majority of the starts in the playoffs. The Americans enter the playoffs with the best trio of goalies in the league and are protected against injuries over the teams opting to have just two goalies on the playoff roster. Utah also has three goalies on the playoff roster with Parker Gahagen, who spent most of the year in the AHL the top goalie with a .929 save percentage.Iin the 17 games he played for Utah this season, his record was 10-4-1-0. Look for Gahagen to be the workhorse for Utah in this series.
– Special teams will be a key factor in the series and staying out of the penalty box (unless you take someone with you) will be important for both teams. Allen has the #2 ranked power play (20.5%) while Utah is ranked #7 (16.8%). In the 18 head to head games each team scored 12 power play goals. Overall penalty kill stats favor Utah slightly (84.2% vs 81.7%). Shorthanded goals could be a factor in the series as these are two of the best at creating offense while killing penalties. Utah scored 12 shorthanded goals in the regular season but allowed 10. Allen had 11 shorthanded goals but allowed a league low of three. Corey Mackin and Utah’s Travis Barron tied for the ECHL lead in shorthanded goals with five.
– Odds are you could see an overtime game in this series. One third (6-18) of the head to head games during the regular season went extra time with Allen winning four of the six. Overtime is different in the playoffs with no limit on how long it takes to break a tie. Allen was 5-3 in overtimes during the regular season while Utah was 4-5.
– Allen got a big boost when Steve Martinson got Tyler Sheehy to return to Allen last week. Tyler looked better each game as he played himself into game shape in the last three games of the regular season. Since the beginning of last season (2019-20) Sheehy leads all ECHL players in points per game (minimum 40 games) averaging 1.33 points per game and .89 assists per game. Tyler could be a difference maker in this series.
– There is no doubt Allen’s fate in this series will require the best tandem of defensemen in the league (Les Lancaster and Matt Register) to lead the way. Matt Register is the ECHL’s all time playoff leader in games played (124) assists (69) and is second in points (94). Matt has three Kelly Cup rings and has a history of coming up big in the playoffs. Les Lancaster has had the best season by a defenseman in the last 20 years. These two players will have a lot to say both offensively and defensively how deep Allen goes in the playoffs. Register and Lancaster had more points (116) in the regular season than Utah’s top two forwards (99 points).
– In addition to adding Tyler Sheehy and C.J. Motte to the roster recently Allen could get Sam Laberge (out since May 21) and Colby McAuley (out since April 25) back for this series. Two physical two way players with skill. They would be a big boost for the Americans.
– You can’t talk about playoff hockey without mentioning the success coach Steve Martinson brings to the table. Championships in 10 of 25 seasons including four straight in Allen. There has been a dry spell the last few years with no playoffs last season, missing the playoffs in 2019 and exits in the first round (2018) and second round (2017). Martinson is as motivated as ever to do well in the playoffs after a regular season when so many obstacles were put in his way. I will always remember this quote from a player from the championship seasons, “Coach Martinson has a way of getting more out of his players in the playoffs than they think they are capable of giving. That is what makes him an outstanding coach.”
“I keep saying this and it is so important with a young team, just play your game and don’t try and do too much. Approach it like any other game. Trying to do too much is not smart hockey.”
“Jake Paterson will get the start in goal.”
“Colby McAuley and Sam Laberge will be in the lineup which will add two skilled and physical players.”
“We got a big bonus with Tyler Sheehy coming back. He led the league in average points per game last season and can do the same in the playoffs.”
“They way Sam Ruopp and Terrance Amorosa have been playing as a top defensive pair it will give me flexibility on how I utilize Les Lancaster.”
– Here is a preview of this series written by Matthew Harding from The Sin Bin: https://thesinbin.net/western-conference-semifinal-preview-1-allen-americans-vs-4-utah-grizzlies/
– Checkout this link with a series preview on all four first round series. Don’t forget to click on the “series matchup sheet” tab to get even more info like Allen is 7-0 overall in overtime games in the ECHL playoffs: https://www.echl.com/en/news/2021/6/conference-semifinals-preview-2021-kelly-cup-playoffs
– If Allen doesn’t win the Kelly Cup there are plenty of former Americans players that might including Jake Hildebrand and Kyle Neuber (Florida), Zach Pochiro, Nick Boka and Justin Kapelmaster (Fort Wayne), Frank DiChiara (Greenville) and Evan Weninger (Wichita).
– I was asked what Allen’s all time record is in the month of June. It is not a big sample with a few games in 2015 and 2016 in the ECHL playoffs and then the end of the regular season just finished. The answer is the Americans all time record in the month of June is 10-3.
– The referees, who will be working as a tandem in the playoffs after working alone in the ECHL all season, will be Casey Terreri (#14) and Alex Normandin (#26). Both worked Allen games during the regular season. In a series in Rapid City back in January, Terreri had a game where he called just four penalties for eight minutes and in the same series had a game where he called 72 minutes in penalties in the second period. A typical Allen vs Rapid City series.