Conference semifinal previews

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … After an exciting opening round of the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs, eight teams remain in the hunt for the American Hockey League’s championship as the best-of-seven conference semifinals prepare to get underway in Cedar Park, Texas, tonight.

The final piece of the second-round puzzle fell into place Wednesday when the Providence Bruins held on for a 3-2 win over the Hershey Bears at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, becoming just the third team in AHL history to win a best-of-five series after losing the first two games on home ice.

The AHL’s regular-season points champions, Providence moves on to face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the Eastern Conference semis. Wilkes-Barre won its first-round series with Binghamton in three straight – all by identical 3-2 scores – clinching the series on Riley Holzapfel’s tiebreaking goal with 1:18 left in Game 3. The Penguins, who have now won seven straight playoff games from the Senators going back to 2005, are into the second round for the ninth time in the last 10 years.

The East’s second seed, the Springfield Falcons, worked overtime to eliminate Manchester in four evenly matched games. The Falcons’ three OT goals were the difference in a series in which all but 8:18 of the more than 277 minutes played were contested with the teams tied or separated by just one goal.

Springfield gets Syracuse in the second round after the Crunch knocked off Portland in three straight, rallying from 3-1 deficits in Game 1 and in Game 3 before winning both in overtime. While it was Syracuse’s first series victory since 2008, the sweep ran Tampa Bay affiliates’ playoff winning streak to 13 games, going back to Norfolk’s 10-0 run to close out last postseason.

In the Western Conference, #5 Oklahoma City was the only lower seed to move on, ousting Charlotte by winning Games 4 and 5 on the road by a combined score of 14-3. The Barons, averaging a league-best 4.6 goals per game in the first round, will meet top-seeded Texas after the Stars got past Milwaukee in a taut defensive series that saw Texas score just seven goals but allow only five (including one empty-netter).

And in the other West semifinal, division winners Toronto and Grand Rapids face off for the right to play for the conference championship. The Marlies are rested after finishing off a three-game sweep of Rochester on May 1, while the Griffins went the distance with Houston before a 7-0 win in Game 5, matching the largest margin ever in a winner-take-all Calder Cup Playoff game.

CONFERENCE QUARTERFINAL NOTES … Three of the cities in this year’s conference semifinals – Providence, Springfield and Syracuse – also had teams that participated in the first Calder Cup Playoffs back in 1937 (Providence Reds, Springfield Indians, Syracuse Stars)… The Providence Bruins are the only second-round team that has won a Calder Cup in its history… Four remaining head coaches – Springfield’s Brad Larsen, Syracuse’s Rob Zettler, Texas’s Willie Desjardins and Grand Rapids’ Jeff Blashill – are AHL rookies… There were 10 overtime games played in the opening round, including three that ended series, and 17 of 32 games were decided by a single goal… Toronto became just the fifth team in AHL history to sweep the same opponent in consecutive postseasons… Good news for Springfield: the last three teams to eliminate Manchester from the playoffs went on to win the Calder Cup (Hershey, Binghamton, Norfolk).

Download previews here (PDF)