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Best postseason ever?

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    The field of 20 has been whittled down to eight, and in three short weeks the Calder Cup 2004 Playoffs have proven to be as memorable a postseason as the AHL has seen in recent history.

    They say that nothing in sports compares to overtime playoff hockey. If that’s true, AHL fans have been treated to an endless display of gut-wrenching, nail-biting action. Through May 2, an incredible 17 overtime games (of 60 overall) have been played in the Calder Cup Playoffs, accounting for 264 minutes and 47 seconds of sudden-death hockey.

    The AHL record for overtime games in a single postseason is 21, set back in 2001.

    Hartford’s Jozef Balej has twice played the role of OT hero this spring, scoring the winner in the Wolf Pack’s double-overtime Game 3 victory at Portland, and then finding the net just 12 seconds into OT in Game 3 at Worcester.

    Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Konstantin Koltsov and Rochester’s Norm Milley joined an exclusive club of just nine players all-time to score in sudden-death overtime of a Game 7 in the Calder Cup Playoffs. (Three Game Sevens before 1960 were decided in a full 10-minute overtime period.) Both wins came on the road, and capped their teams’ comebacks from 3-1 series deficits, just the 11th and 12th times that has happened in 68 years of AHL postseason play.

    Game 7 between the Penguins and Bridgeport was also the record-setting fifth overtime game in that series alone. The Sound Tigers raced to a 2-0 series lead with a pair of OT wins on home ice, but the Pens answered in the extra session in Games 3 and 5 before the winner-take-all finale.

    Rochester and Syracuse staged an epic seven-game battle in the North Division semis, adding another chapter to a 10-year-old rivalry that has now hit the ice 127 times since 1994. Needing three straight wins to take the series, the Amerks cruised to a 6-0 victory in Game 5, held on for a see-saw 7-5 decision in Game 6 and squandering three separate leads before prevailing in overtime of Game 7.

    We’ve also already seen two of the 12 longest games ever played in the American Hockey League. On Apr. 22, Brendan Brooks scored exactly six minutes into the third overtime period to give Worcester a 4-3 win at Manchester in a pivotal Game 5; the IceCats would win the series two nights later. And on Apr. 28, B.J. Abel’s goal at 13:02 of the third OT lifted Philadelphia over Norfolk in Game 4; the Phantoms would also win the series in six.

    The Mighty Ducks nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in AHL playoff history, pushing regular-season champion Milwaukee to a Game 7 of their West Division semifinal. The Ducks had never won a playoff series before this spring, and put up an impressive fight despite finishing 30 points behind the Admirals in the regular season.

    More rivalries are on tap for the division finals. Hartford already has a 3-0 lead over Worcester in the teams’ third playoff meeting in seven years; the Wolf Pack are 11-4 all-time in playoff games against the IceCats.

    In the East Division, in-state foes Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre face off again; the Penguins ousted the Phantoms in 2001 en route to the Calder Cup Final.

    Over in the North, Rochester meets Hamilton in the postseason for the third time in six years. The Bulldogs have won six of their last eight playoff series, but lost to the Amerks in both 1999 and 2000.

    And out West, lakeshore rivals Milwaukee and Chicago square off in a best-of-seven series. The franchises met in the 1998 and 2001 postseasons over in the old IHL.

    There are still three series left to win before someone can hoist the Calder Cup over their heads in victory, and it’s sure to be an unforgettable ride to the finish.