AHL grads set to battle for Stanley Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals are set with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins preparing to battle for the National Hockey League’s championship, and more than 80 percent of the players involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

On the Western Conference champion Blackhawks, 18 of the 23 players to be penciled into the lineup so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including 11 who played in Chicago’s system. Goaltender Corey Crawford, who is 12-5 with a 1.74 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in 17 playoff games for Chicago, spent five full seasons in the AHL with the Blackhawks’ affiliates in Norfolk and Rockford from 2005-10, winning at least 22 games each year and compiling a record of 135-98-13 with eight shutouts.

Duncan Keith played two AHL seasons in Norfolk (2003-05) before becoming one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and Bryan Bickell, whose eight goals are tied for the Blackhawks team playoff lead, played 228 AHL games over four seasons with Norfolk (2006-07) and Rockford (2007-10).

Five Blackhawks spent time with the Rockford IceHogs earlier this season, including Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and former first-round draft pick Nick Leddy.

Patrick Sharp, one of three former AHL All-Stars on Chicago’s roster, skated three seasons with the Philadelphia Phantoms (2002-05), and tallied 21 points in 21 postseason games as they won the Calder Cup in 2005.

The Blackhawks are led by head coach Joel Quenneville, a former player, assistant coach and head coach in the American Hockey League. Hawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen is also a former player and assistant in the AHL.

On the other side, the Eastern Conference champion Bruins boast 20 AHL graduates among their 24 players to have dressed for game action in the playoffs, including six former AHL All-Stars and two Calder Cup champions.

Defensemen Torey Krug, who has four goals and two assists in nine playoff games with Boston, and Matt Bartkowski, with two points in seven playoff games, both joined the B’s in the second round of these playoffs after spending most of the 2012-13 season with Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence. Krug notched 13 goals and 32 assists in 63 regular-season games and added 0-3-3 in seven Calder Cup Playoff matches before his recall, while Bartkowski tallied 3-21-24 in 56 regular-season games and 0-5-5 in five playoff contests this season for the P-Bruins.

Boston’s leading playoff scorer, David Krejci, was a 31-goal scorer with the Providence Bruins as a rookie in 2006-07. Krejci is one of nine B’s playoff performers to have developed in Providence, a list that also includes 2005 AHL All-Star Patrice Bergeron, 2009 Eddie Shore Award winner Johnny Boychuk (AHL outstanding defenseman), Brad Marchand and Adam McQuaid.

Tuukka Rask, who has a 1.75 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage to go with his 12-4 record this spring, appeared in 102 regular-season games with Providence during his first two pro seasons (2007-09), going 60-33-6 with five shutouts and earning a trip to the 2008 AHL All-Star Classic.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara appeared in the 1998 AHL All-Star Game as a rookie defenseman in the New York Islanders’ organization, and fellow defenseman Dennis Seidenberg won a Calder Cup title in 2005 with the Philadelphia Phantoms, where he was teammates with Chicago’s Patrick Sharp. Kaspars Daugavins won the Calder Cup with the Binghamton Senators in 2011; Rich Peverley reached the 2006 Calder Cup Finals as a rookie with the Milwaukee Admirals; and Andrew Ference, a 2001 AHL All-Star in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, appeared in the Calder Cup Finals with the Penguins that spring.

Boston head coach Claude Julien guided the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs from 2000 until his promotion to the Montreal Canadiens midway through the 2002-03 campaign. Julien shared AHL coach of the year honors that season with Geoff Ward, who took over that Bulldogs upon Julien’s promotion and is now his assistant coach in Boston. Under Ward that year, the Bulldogs reached the 2003 Calder Cup Finals before losing in a Game 7.

Current Boston assistant Doug Jarvis succeeded Ward as head coach in Hamilton and spent two seasons (2003-05) at the helm of the Bulldogs, and assistant Doug Houda was a defenseman on the 1996 Calder Cup champion Rochester Americans and also played in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals. And Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli spent seven seasons with the Ottawa Senators, where his responsibilities included overseeing their AHL affiliate in Binghamton.

The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals get underway on Wednesday night at the United Center in Chicago.

In operation since 1936, the AHL continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 87 percent of all of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and nearly 350 players skated in both the AHL and the NHL during the 2012-13 season alone.

The AHL’s own championship series, the Calder Cup Finals, is pitting the Syracuse Crunch (top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning) against the Grand Rapids Griffins (top affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings). Live streaming of the entire Calder Cup Finals is available free from AHL Live at www.ahllive.com, continuing with Game 3 on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET).