It took them long enough to make it official, but the Connecticut Whale will be returning to the American Hockey League playoffs this spring.
With an overtime win against the Manchester Monarchs on Friday and a 1-0 shutout of the Hershey Bears on Sunday, the Whale went two for three on an Easter holiday weekend that saw them finalizing a season-long bid at making the playoffs.
What’s left to be decided is the seed the team will enter the playoffs at.
The Whale currently sit three points behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for first place in the Northeast Division. With both teams having three games left to play, absolutely nothing is set in stone. The Sound Tigers will spend their final week facing the Providence Bruins and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins twice. The Whale, on the other hand, will tackle the Portland Pirates, the Monarchs and the Syracuse Crunch – three of the handful of teams left battling for the conference’s three final playoff spots. It’s safe to say that as the NHL gears up for its playoffs on Wednesday, it will be a wild week the AHL.
The importance of winning the division is simple. If the playoffs started today, the Whale and the Sound Tigers would be embedded in a first round tangle. The two teams have played a number of physical and even games this season. No, a seven game series between these two Connecticut rivals wouldn’t exactly be on the same level as the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, but the end result could be quite similar.
A home ice advantage in the AHL doesn’t always carry the same punch as it does in the NHL. Hartford and Bridgeport might both see a couple thousand fans show up for games. But the point remains: most teams feel more comfortable playing at home. With that, these final three games become important.
Before looking too far in advance, it must be said that things could change even further. The Whale trail the fifth place Hershey Bears by four points and lead the seventh place Crunch by four points. It would take a combination of a hot streak or a disaster from these three teams to mix things up even more, which is why it looks more and more likely that the Whale will take on their Nutmeg state rivals in the first round of this spring’s playoffs.
Moving into the playoffs, consistency becomes important for coach Ken Gernander’s squad. Lately Gernander hasn’t been able to find a hot scoring line to stick with. He’s appropriately used the team’s ritual end of the season youthful insurgence to try and shake up his lines and spark key players like Casey Wellman, Kris Newbury and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. So far, it hasn’t happened. Newcomers Christian Thomas and Marek Hrivik have had their opportunities to play alongside the Whale’s leading scorer, but nothing has produced.
That said, the team only allowed one goal in its two victories this weekend. Chad Johnson and Cameron Talbot both turned in steady games that allowed the Whale to get by with only scoring three goals in those wins. But it’s not certain that this would carry them very far in the playoffs. A hot goaltender can steal a series, but it remains to be seen if either Johnson or Talbot can play as hot as the Whale would need them to play if they continue to not score enough goals.
It will be interesting to see how Gernander works his lines in the final three Whale games this week. Might he return to a conventional top line of his best scorers, or will be continue to work in the fresh faces like Thomas and Hrivik, or grinders like Jordan Owens and Tommy Grant, to create more depth in his offense. Whatever it is, it’s imperative that things get figured out before the Whale head into its chase for the Calder Cup later this month.