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AHL grads battling for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2016 Stanley Cup Final is set with the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks ready to face off for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 85 percent of the players involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

On the Eastern Conference champion Penguins, 23 of the 25 players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including five who appeared in the league earlier this season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Goaltender Matt Murray’s rapid journey from unheralded rookie to the Stanley Cup Final blazed through Wilkes-Barre over the last 18 months, where he was 45-20-4 with a 1.81 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and 16 shutouts in 72 AHL appearances.

Last season, Murray was named both the AHL’s outstanding rookie (Dudley “Red” Garrett Award) and outstanding goalie (Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award), and set an AHL record for longest shutout streak by a goaltender at 304:11. This year, he played 31 games (20-9-1) before earning a permanent spot on Pittsburgh’s roster and was voted a Second Team AHL All-Star after finishing second in the league in both GAA (2.10) and save percentage (.931).

Bryan Rust, whose two goals in Game 7 against Tampa Bay helped propel Pittsburgh into the Stanley Cup Final, played 16 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season (3g, 3a). As a rookie with the AHL Penguins in 2014-15, Rust scored 13 goals and added 14 assists just 45 contests.

Conor Sheary racked up 36 points (7g, 29a) in 30 games with Wilkes-Barre this season after scoring 20 goals (and adding 25 assists) in 58 games as a rookie in 2014-15. Sheary was a prolific postseason scorer for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, notching 11 goals and 12 assists for 23 points in 23 games over the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.

Tom Kuhnhackl tallied seven goals and eight assists in 23 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2015-16, and Derrick Pouliot totaled six goals and 17 assists with a plus-15 rating in 37 AHL games with the Pens this year.

Another Wilkes-Barre call-up this season was Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan, who was promoted on Dec. 12 after leading the AHL Penguins to a record of 18-5-0-0 over their first 23 games. Sullivan is one of four former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coaches currently running NHL benches (Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma, John Hynes).

Former AHL All-Stars on Pittsburgh’s roster include Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Brian Dumoulin, Ben Lovejoy and Eric Fehr, who will be looking to become the 128th player ever to win both the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup in their careers.

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On the other side, the Western Conference champion Sharks — the parent club of the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda — boast 18 AHL graduates, including 11 who came through their AHL system.

Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns — the top three scorers in the entire NHL this postseason — are all American Hockey League alumni. Couture put up 53 points in 42 games and was an AHL All-Star as a rookie with the Worcester Sharks in 2009-10 before graduating to San Jose.

Pavelski tore up the AHL during his brief stay in 2006-07, notching 26 points in 16 games and earning AHL Rookie of the Month honors in October 2006.

Burns, a Norris Trophy finalist as the NHL’s outstanding defenseman this season, spent the 2004-05 campaign in the AHL with Houston and tallied 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points in 73 games.

Sharks forward Joel Ward spent three full seasons in the AHL (2005-08) with Houston, and Martin Jones, whose 12 wins and three shutouts this postseason both lead the NHL, made 158 appearances over four AHL seasons with Manchester and went 84-57-10 with 12 shutouts. Jones and defenseman Justin Braun both played in the AHL All-Star Classic as rookies in 2010-11.

The 2016 Stanley Cup Final gets underway on Monday night at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Founded in 1936 and now with franchises in 30 cities across North America, the American Hockey League serves as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, executives and broadcasters of all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and for the 15th year in a row, more than 6 million fans have attended AHL games in 2015-16.

The AHL’s 2016 Calder Cup Finals get underway Wednesday, with the Hershey Bears taking on the Lake Erie Monsters.