The Keystone State has been a cornerstone state for the American Hockey League since the league was formed in 1936, when two founding members – the Philadelphia Ramblers and the Pittsburgh Hornets – played within Pennsylvania’s borders.
Since then, teams from the commonwealth have claimed a total of 14 AHL titles and made 35 Finals series appearances, including an impressive run that began in 2004 and will continue this weekend when the last few miles on the road to the Calder Cup once again travel through Pennsylvania.
The AHL realigned to a four-division format and returned to a divisional playoff structure prior to the 2003-04 season and the league’s three Pennsylvania constituents – the Hershey Bears, the Philadelphia Phantoms and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – were united in the East Division along with Albany, Binghamton, Bridgeport and Norfolk. That year, the Penguins finished third in the East with a rather ordinary 34-28-10-8 mark but peaked at the right time. Wilkes-Barre won three rounds, including Game 7 overtime wins at Bridgeport and Hartford, before falling to Milwaukee in the Calder Cup Finals.
In 2004-05, the NHL’s lockout provided the AHL with arguably its deepest talent pool ever. Philadelphia did not win the regular-season division title, but the Phantoms got through Norfolk, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Providence before sweeping Chicago to win their second Calder Cup title. Among the players getting their names engraved on the Cup that spring were Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, R.J. Umberger, Joni Pitkanen, Dennis Seidenberg, Ben Eager, Randy Jones and Antero Niittymaki.
Hershey failed to qualify for the postseason in 2004 and 2005, but with a new affiliate in the Washington Capitals and a new head coach in Bruce Boudreau, the Bears were primed for a return from hibernation. Hershey swept through the first two rounds of the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs and claimed the Eastern Conference championship on an Eric Fehr overtime goal in Game 7 vs. Portland. That Bears club not only went on to win the franchise’s ninth Calder Cup with a six-game decision over Milwaukee, it gave valuable postseason experience to young Capitals prospects like Mike Green, Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, Brooks Laich, Jeff Schultz and Boyd Gordon.
Hershey led the league with 114 points during the 2006-07 regular season and took care of Albany, Wilkes-Barre and Manchester in the playoffs, tying an AHL record for consecutive series wins with seven. But the Bears’ hopes for a title repeat were extinguished by Hamilton in the Finals.
The Penguins returned to carry the Pennsylvania flag in 2007-08, winning the division and defeating in-state rivals Hershey and Philadelphia before outlasting Portland in a seven-game conference final. Playing for the Calder Cup for the third time in eight years, Wilkes-Barre fell just short again, staving off elimination twice before falling to Chicago in six games.
And so it is that 2009 marks the sixth consecutive year that a team from Pennsylvania is competing in the Calder Cup Finals as the Hershey Bears battle the Manitoba Moose. Game 1 is set for Saturday night in Winnipeg, and the series will shift to PA for Games 3, 4 and (if necessary) 5 beginning June 6.