And then there were four…

cc09.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Only four teams remain in the hunt for the 2009 Calder Cup championship after second-round action wrapped up this week.

The Hershey Bears faced a 3-2 series deficit before rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth posted back-to-back shutouts, including a 3-0 win in Tuesday’s Game 7, to oust the defending Eastern Conference champion Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. With an offense led by league MVP Alexandre Giroux (5-7-12), Chris Bourque (2-10-12) and Keith Aucoin (2-9-11), the Bears are four wins away from capturing their third Richard F. Canning Trophy in the last four years.

In the Eastern Conference Finals the Bears will battle the Providence Bruins, who recovered from a brief scare to capture the Atlantic Division playoff crown in six games over Worcester. Sparked by three-time AHL All-Star Martin St. Pierre (5-8-13) and AHL rookie playoff scoring leader Brad Marchand (6-6-12), Providence has won eight of its last 10 contests and is in the conference finals for the fifth time in 11 years.

After finishing first overall in the regular season, the Manitoba Moose have rolled to an 8-2 mark in the playoffs and bring a seven-game winning streak into the Western Conference Finals after their second-round sweep of Grand Rapids. The Moose have been paced by last year’s Calder Cup Playoffs MVP Jason Krog (4-7-11), three-time 20-goal scorer Jason Jaffray (6-3-9) and 2009 Baz Bastien Award winner Cory Schneider (8-2, 1.69, .936), and are in the conference finals for the second time since joining the AHL in 2001-02.

Manitoba will battle it out with the Houston Aeros for the Robert W. Clarke Trophy, which goes to the Western Conference playoff champions. The Aeros, who finished third in the West Division with fewer wins (38) than any other playoff qualifier, have already upset Peoria and Milwaukee with Game 7 road wins in each series. Former Calder Cup champion Corey Locke leads the AHL in postseason goals (9) and points (15), and Anton Khudobin (8-6, 2.48, .911) has shined for Houston despite having just five career regular-season wins on his AHL resume.

The conference finals get underway with Game 1’s in Winnipeg on Friday and in Hershey on Saturday.

DIVISION FINAL NOTES … Houston is the seventh team in the last six years to reach the AHL’s final four after finishing third or lower in its division in the regular season (WBS 2004, Rochester 2004, Providence 2005, Manitoba 2005, Hamilton 2007, Portland 2008)… The 2009 Aeros are the third team ever to win two Game 7’s on the road in the same postseason, following Houston in 2003 and Wilkes-Barre in 2004… Hershey’s Michal Neuvirth became the eighth goaltender in league history to record a Game 7 shutout, and the first to post goose-eggs in Games 6 and 7 of the same series… The Bears-Penguins series was just the fourth in AHL history to feature seven wins by the home team… Each of Milwaukee’s six postseason ousters since 2003 have occurred on home ice… Providence has won eight straight games with a chance to eliminate an opponent since their last loss in 2000… The Game 1 winner has won eight of 12 series this postseason; the Game 2 winner is 10-2.

Conference Finals Series Previews: Eastern || Western

Eastern Conference Finals – Series “M” (best-of-7)
E1-Hershey Bears vs. A2-Providence Bruins
Game 1 – Sat., May 16 – Providence at Hershey, 7:00
Game 2 – Sun., May 17 – Providence at Hershey, 5:00
Game 3 – Fri., May 22 – Hershey at Providence, 7:05
Game 4 – Sun., May 24 – Hershey at Providence, 7:05
*Game 5 – Mon., May 25 – Hershey at Providence, 4:05
*Game 6 – Wed., May 27 – Providence at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 7 – Thu., May 28 – Providence at Hershey, 7:00

Western Conference Finals – Series “N” (best-of-7)
N1-Manitoba Moose vs. W3-Houston Aeros
Game 1 – Fri., May 15 – Houston at Manitoba, 8:30
Game 2 – Sat., May 16 – Houston at Manitoba, 8:30
Game 3 – Mon., May 18 – Manitoba at Houston, 8:05
Game 4 – Wed., May 20 – Manitoba at Houston, 8:05
*Game 5 – Fri., May 22 – Manitoba at Houston, 8:35
*Game 6 – Mon., May 25 – Houston at Manitoba, 8:30
*Game 7 – Wed., May 27 – Houston at Manitoba, 8:30

*if necessary… All times Eastern