Pressure continuing to build on road to Calder Cup

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

Pressure. Who can handle it?

No matter who ends up lifting the Calder Cup later this month, each of the 23 American Hockey League clubs that qualified to battle this spring will all have something in common.

Win or lose, they all will have sampled that sort of high-pressure hockey that only the postseason, elimination games, and some of the most elite competition in the league can bring.

Now the Laval Rocket and Springfield Thunderbirds will face an all-new level of pressure tonight in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals (7 ET, AHLTV).

Learning how to corral that Calder Cup Playoff pressure is a significant part of the AHL development experience. National Hockey League front offices stress that point. AHL head coaches devote considerable attention to the challenge.

Three teams had to face Stockton Heat standout netminder Dustin Wolf and attempt to find a way to overcome him. Three opponents had to match up against the Chicago Wolves’ relentless offensive attack. Visiting teams had to venture into the sold-out Place Bell and test Laval in three different series. Three more times, a playoff club had to handle the Thunderbirds’ grinding, uncompromising forwards.

And each of those 23 playoff teams will have done so with some of hockey’s best young talent blended with savvy, elite AHL veterans all competing just one step away from the NHL. A strong Calder Cup Playoff performance can often be a player’s final AHL effort before moving on to full-time NHL work.

With the Calder Cup Playoff field now down to three teams, that crucible of pressure will only intensify. After tonight, that group will be cut to two.

Last night Chicago managed to fight off the stubborn Heat in the Western Conference Finals, pulling out a 3-0 win to claim the Robert W. Clarke Trophy as Western Conference champions. In doing so, the Wolves avoided the specter of a Game 7 against an opponent that finished second overall in the AHL’s regular season. They have moved within four wins of the Calder Cup.

Tonight’s Laval-Springfield winner at MassMutual Center will earn a trip to Chicago to meet the Wolves.

These opportunities can be all too rare as well.

“There’s not one guy in that room sitting there saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to be [deep in the Calder Cup Playoffs] next year,” Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky said before meeting Stockton. “You’re not guaranteed a chance to do it again next year. You’re not guaranteed a chance to do it in five years.

“Embrace the moment. Embrace the experience.”

The Rocket know pressure; whether they like it or not, they have become rather familiar with managing that tension. They have battled back from four different series deficits this postseason, including three times against the Thunderbirds. They went into Syracuse for a winner-take-all Game 5 in the division semifinals, fell behind 2-0, and rallied to advance. They eliminated Rochester with a triple-overtime win in the division finals. And they staved off elimination on Monday with a 5-1 win over Springfield in Game 6.

While the Thunderbirds’ postseason began with back-to-back series sweeps against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Charlotte, those series included a wild 7-6 win over the Penguins in which Springfield had trailed by three goals, and a dramatic Game 2 win over the Checkers in which they scored twice in the final 3:05 of regulation. This round, each of their three wins has been countered by the Rocket, and three of the first six games have required overtime.

Composure. Managing a crowd ― be it the energy produced by home fans or the challenge of entering a visiting sold-out building. Avoiding penalty trouble. Absorbing and following through with a game plan. Both clubs have hammered those themes throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.

“There are so many things that happen through a playoff series, game, shift, you name it,” Thunderbirds forward Matthew Peca after his overtime goal won Game 1 of this series. “You’re going to go through some adversity.”

Peca went to the 2017 Calder Cup Finals when he was with Syracuse.

Warsofsky knows, too. He has been down this path before having served as an assistant coach when the Charlotte Checkers won the 2019 Calder Cup. Charlotte did not escape those tests of adversity, either, losing Game 1 at home in both the conference finals against Toronto and the Calder Cup Finals against Chicago.

This spring, Warsofsky’s Wolves suffered a tough Game 3 setback in the Central Division Finals against Milwaukee. They also had to shake off back-to-back overtime losses at Stockton before finally closing out the series in Game 6.

“We knew adversity was going to hit,” Warsofsky said. “That was our chance to experience the mental toughness and the fortitude to push through it.

“I think that it’s huge for all of our players whether they get to play in the National Hockey League or not. It’s just something in life. Not everything’s going to go your way. Life’s going to throw you a couple curveballs.

“How do you respond to it?”