Conference final previews

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Four teams eyeing their first championship will face off in the American Hockey League’s conference finals for the right to advance and play for the 2013 Calder Cup title.

Lower seeds won all four conference semifinal series, highlighted by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ historic performance – becoming just the third team in the 77-year history of the American Hockey League to win a series after losing the first three games. The Penguins outscored regular-season champion Providence 14-1 from the second period of Game 4 on (despite being outshot 133-86), and goaltender Brad Thiessen stopped 177 of 181 Bruins shots (0.70, .978) after taking over in Game 2 to lead the comeback.

Bidding for their fourth trip to the Calder Cup Finals (2001, 2004, 2008), the Penguins will meet the Syracuse Crunch for the Eastern Conference championship. Syracuse dispatched Springfield in four straight in the second round, improving to 7-0 this postseason. Going back to last year’s Calder Cup run in Norfolk, Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliates have now won 17 consecutive playoff games and have earned four consecutive series sweeps.

In the West, the Grand Rapids Griffins reached the league semifinals for the third time in its AHL history and the first time since 2006, eliminating the defending conference champions from Toronto in six games. Grand Rapids had six players average at least a point per game during the second-round win over the Marlies, led by Tomas Tatar with five goals and seven points.

Grand Rapids will take on the Oklahoma City Barons, conference finalists for the second consecutive spring. The Barons took out top-seeded Texas in five games in the conference semifinals, outscoring the Stars 16-4 over the final three games. Averaging 4.20 goals per game while allowing 2.20 per game in the postseason, the Barons boast four of the AHL’s top 12 playoff scorers and six skaters with a plus/minus rating of plus-10 or better.

CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL NOTES … Both conference finals feature a 3-versus-5 matchup… With Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre facing off for the Eastern Conference crown, the East Division will be represented in the Calder Cup Finals for the 10th consecutive season… Either Grand Rapids or Oklahoma City will become the eighth different Western Conference champion in the last eight years, following Toronto, Houston, Texas, Manitoba, Chicago, Hamilton and Milwaukee… This year’s conference finalists all rank among the AHL’s top five in both scoring and defense this postseason… Oklahoma City (Edmonton) makes it seven consecutive seasons with at least one affiliate of a Canadian NHL team in the AHL conference finals… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton leads the AHL in power-play efficiency (25.5 percent), and also enters the third round with 20 consecutive successful penalty kills… Oklahoma City’s Mark Arcobello scored at least one goal in each of the Barons’ five second-round games vs. Texas (6-2-8)… Arcobello, Syracuse’s Tyler Johnson (5-3-8) and Ondrej Palat (1-7-8), Wilkes-Barre’s Trevor Smith (4-4-8) and Providence’s Chris Bourque (2-6-8) tied for the second-round scoring lead… Five shutouts were recorded in the conference semifinals, but there were also 10 times in which a team scored at least five goals in a game.

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