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AHL graduates to battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2009 Stanley Cup Finals are set with the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins preparing to battle for the second consecutive spring, and nearly 75 percent of the players, coaches and managers involved are graduates of the American Hockey League.

The Eastern Conference champion Penguins are led by head coach Dan Bylsma, who was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the

AHL on Feb. 15 and led Pittsburgh to an 18-3-4 regular-season record before getting past Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina in the playoffs. Bylsma, who served as Wilkes-Barre’s assistant coach during the AHL Pens’ run to the Calder Cup Finals in 2008, is the first head coach ever to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in the same season he was promoted from the AHL. 09stanleycupfinals.jpg

Eighteen of the 22 Pittsburgh players to skate in a game so far this postseason are AHL alumni, including defenseman Alex Goligoski, who set an AHL record for a defenseman with 28 points in 23 games during Wilkes-Barre’s run to the Calder Cup Finals last spring. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who brings a 12-5 record with a 2.62 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage into the Stanley Cup Finals, reached the AHL’s 2004 title series with Wilkes-Barre, a squad that also featured current Pittsburgh teammates Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik. Assistant coach Mike Yeo was behind the AHL Pens’ bench as an assistant in 2004, and Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero helped construct the Milwaukee Admirals team that defeated Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in those Finals.

Chris Kunitz was an AHL All-Star as a rookie in 2004, and veteran Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar has his name on the Calder Cup as a member of the 1994 Portland Pirates, who in the Finals defeated a Moncton club that featured a 23-year-old forward named Dan Bylsma. Additionally, Philippe Boucher is in a league final for the first time since playing for Rochester in the AHL’s 1993 championship series, and Pittsburgh assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald was a 30-goal scorer and won a Calder Cup for the Springfield Indians in 1990.

The Western Conference champion Red Wings feature 17 AHL graduates among their 25 players to have taken the ice this postseason, including former AHL All-Stars Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Niklas Kronwall, Derek Meech and Jonathan Ericsson. Hudler and Filppula were the Grand Rapids Griffins’ top two scorers en route to a conference finals appearance in the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs, while Meech and fellow Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda were also members of that Griffins squad.

Darren Helm, who scored the overtime series-clincher against Chicago on Wednesday, registered 37 points for Grand Rapids in 2008-09 after leading the club in rookie scoring with 31 points last season. 2009 AHL All-Rookie forward Justin Abdelkader and first-year North American pro Ville Leino join Helm and veteran Chris Chelios as members of the Red Wings’ current playoff squad who also suited up for the Griffins this year.

Detroit forward Kirk Maltby won a Calder Cup as a first-year pro with the Cape Breton Oilers in 1993, the same year that goaltender Chris Osgood made his professional postseason debut as a member of the Adirondack Red Wings. Fellow netminder Ty Conklin reached the 2003 Calder Cup Finals as a second-year pro with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, who is making his third Stanley Cup Finals appearance in seven years, began his professional coaching career with the AHL’s Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and led the team to consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearances (2001-02), including a franchise-record 95 points in the 2000-01 campaign. General manager Ken Holland reached the 1982 Calder Cup Finals as a goaltender for the Binghamton Whalers and was an honorary captain at the 2008 AHL All-Star Classic.

The 2009 Stanley Cup Finals get underway on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

In operation since 1936, the AHL continues to serve as the top development league for all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 84 percent of today’s NHL players are American Hockey League graduates, and this season marks the eighth consecutive year in which more than 6 million fans have attended AHL games across North America.

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