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Making history, one way or another

May 23, 2011

Only two other teams in the 75-year history of the American Hockey League have been in the position that the Hamilton Bulldogs are in, heading into Tuesday’s Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.

Of course, only two other teams in the 75-year history of the American Hockey League have been in the Houston Aeros’ shoes too.

The Bulldogs have become the third AHL club ever to force a Game 7 after losing the first three games of a series.

If they’re relying on history, Hamilton can point to the fact that both of those teams – the 1960 Rochester Americans and the 1989 Adirondack Red Wings – successfully completed the comeback.

Houston, however, would note that both of those teams had the luxury of playing Game 7 at home. The Bulldogs have to try to seal the deal on enemy ice, at Houston’s Toyota Center (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, ahllive.com).

Those series in ’60 and ’89 have one other thing in common with this Houston-Hamilton showdown: a berth in the Calder Cup Finals was on the line.

In 1960, the Rochester Americans were still a fledgling franchise, in their fourth season of play in the AHL. Only four clubs in the seven-team league qualified for the playoffs that spring, so the Amerks’ first-round meeting with the Cleveland Barons amounted to a league semifinal series.

After leading the league in both offense and defense in the 1959-60 regular season, Rochester was considered a heavy favorite to win the series. But the Barons stunned the Americans in the first two games of the series at the Rochester War Memorial, winning a pair of defensive battles by 2-0 and 2-1 scores. A 7-5 decision back home in Game 3 put Cleveland on the verge of an upset.

Former Barons defenseman Steve Kraftcheck, a future AHL Hall of Famer who was now Rochester’s player/coach, guided his club into the win column with a 5-3 victory in Game 4. The Amerks took Game 5 at home, 4-1, then evened the series with another 5-3 win back in Cleveland. With all the momentum and none of the pressure, Rochester finished off the comeback with a 4-1 victory in front of 7,762 home fans.

It would be nearly three decades before another team matched the Amerks’ feat. And it would play out about 240 miles down the New York State Thruway in Glens Falls, N.Y., where the Adirondack Red Wings and Hershey Bears locked in an epic battle with a trip to the 1989 Calder Cup Finals at stake.

Adirondack, which had already won two Calder Cups in the decade, skated to the Southern Division title with a 100-point regular season which would go down as the best showing in the franchise’s 20-year history. Led by future AHL Hall of Famer John Paddock behind the bench, Hershey was the defending AHL champions, following a 12-game sweep of the rest of the league in the 1988 postseason.

The Bears jumped out to a 3-0 series lead on the strength of three close wins, taking 4-3 and 5-3 decisions on the road before eking out a 1-0 win back at Hersheypark Arena in Game 3. After their perfect run the previous spring and their five-game ouster of Utica in the division semifinals, Hershey now had wins in 19 of its previous 20 playoff games.

For Red Wings head coach Bill Dineen, there was something familiar about the position his team was in. Dineen was one of the leading scorers on the 1960 Cleveland squad that had coughed up that same 3-0 series lead to Rochester.

Facing the prospect of being swept, Adirondack built a four-goal lead in Game 4 and held on for a 6-3 road win, but the Bears were still leading three games to one. Then came the dramatics.

A Brent Fedyk power-play goal in overtime of Game 5 in Glens Falls gave the Red Wings a 3-2 victory. Back in Hershey, Glenn Merkosky snapped a 2-2 tie with 2:29 left in regulation of Game 6 and then added an empty-netter for a 4-2 Adirondack win. The series was tied.

A crowd of 6,106 stuffed into the 4,700-seat Glens Falls Civic Center for Game 7 and was treated to a classic goaltending duel between the Red Wings’ Sam St. Laurent and the Bears’ Mark Laforest. Murray Eaves, who had 118 points in the regular season, scored for Adirondack 4:44 into the game. Brian Dobbin tied it for Hershey midway through the second period. And finally at 10:31 of overtime, 21-year-old Red Wings rookie Adam Graves threw a shot on net that eluded Laforest and finished off one of the most exciting series in AHL history.

Rochester and Adirondack had different follow-ups to their 0-3 comebacks. After rallying past Cleveland, the Americans faced Springfield in the Calder Cup Finals and lost in five games; it would be the first of three consecutive championships won by the Indians. The Red Wings, on the other hand, carried the momentum of their dethroning of the Bears into the Finals and knocked off the New Haven Nighthawks, four games to one, for their third championship in nine years.

History has already been made in the 2011 Western Conference Finals, just by virtue of Hamilton pushing the series to a Game 7. How history remembers the Bulldogs and Aeros, however, will be determined on Tuesday night.