Tight West Finals to reach climax in Game 7

A berth in the Calder Cup Finals will be up for grabs on Wednesday night when Texas visits Hamilton for Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. As the clubs prepare for one last battle, this series has been every bit as close as the 3-3 deadlock would indicate.

The Bulldogs (2.28 goals allowed per game) and Stars (2.48) ranked first and third, respectively, in the AHL in defense during the regular season, and of the six tilts played in this series, Texas’ 5-4 victory in Game 3 stands as the only contest in which the winner scored more than three goals.

Four of the first six games have required overtime to decide, and the only exceptions – Games 2 and 5 – were decided by two- and three-goal margins, respectively.

Coming off a Game 7 win at Chicago in the division finals, the Stars dropped the first two games of this series in Hamilton before rebounding to capture a pair of overtime victories back at Cedar Park Center.

After being pushed to the brink of elimination with a 3-0 loss at home in Saturday’s Game 5, the Stars traveled back to Ontario, battled back from a pair of one-goal deficits in Game 6 on Monday, and eventually won it by a 3-2 count when Aaron Gagnon scored with 1:28 to go in the first overtime.

In an odd stat considering how tightly the series has played out, Texas finds itself in a winner-take-all Game 7 despite having led for only 18:19 worth of hockey in the series – out of 386:11 played – with all of that time occurring during its 5-4 overtime victory in Game 3.

The Stars did not lead in either Games 1 or 2, did not hold a lead in Games 4 and 6 until ending those contests in overtime, and were blanked by a 3-0 count in Game 5.

The Stars’ offense this postseason has been primarily tied to the fortunes of rookie Jamie Benn, but even more so against Hamilton. Texas shows 13 goals as a team this round, and the 20-year-old Benn has been involved in eight of them, scoring five and assisting on three others.

For its part, Hamilton was one goal away from securing its fourth Calder Cup Finals appearance – and second in four years – as overtime played out in Monday’s Game 6. Instead, the North Division-champion Bulldogs, who fell to 3-3 in extra-session contests this postseason, will now face elimination for the first time in Game 7.

“I thought we deserved to win the game, especially in overtime, but they’re a hard team to beat,” Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher told the Hamilton Spectator following Game 6. “This is the fourth overtime game against them in six games and I wouldn’t be surprised if the seventh game goes to overtime, too.

“We worked all season long to get the final two games back at home, to have two shots at it and out boys better be up to it because we have the biggest challenge of the year coming up.”

In an interesting twist, both starting goaltenders in this series began the postseason on the bench. Texas’ Matt Climie, who helped Houston to the conference finals a year ago, was thrust into action when Brent Krahn suffered a concussion late in the last round, and Climie made an AHL playoff-high 51 saves in Game 6 on Monday.

Hamilton’s Curtis Sanford, meanwhile, started out playing second fiddle to Second Team AHL All-Star Cedrick Desjardins. But Sanford, who missed the last month of the regular season to injury, was tabbed by Boucher for Game 5 of the division finals vs. Abbotsford on May 8, and the 10th-year pro has stayed between the pipes ever since.

The Bulldogs will receive a boost for Game 7 with the return from the NHL of forward Ben Maxwell and defenseman P.K. Subban following the Montreal Canadiens’ elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday night.

Subban, a member of the AHL’s All-Rookie and First All-Star Teams during the regular season, led all Hamilton scorers with nine points (3-6-9) in a six-game opening-round ouster of Manitoba before he was summoned by the Canadiens, for whom he averaged over 20 minutes of ice time in 14 NHL playoff contests.

A second-year pro, Maxwell contributed 44 points (16-28-44) in 57 regular-season appearances for Hamilton in 2009-10 after totaling 22 goals and 38 assists as a rookie last year.

That duo should help bolster a Hamilton offense which has been led of late by David Desharnais (9-13-22) and Brock Trotter (8-10-18), the club’s top two scorers during the regular season.

The Stars are just one round removed from winning a Game 7 on enemy territory, and a repeat performance will make them the first team to reach the Calder Cup Finals in their inaugural AHL season since Bridgeport and Chicago both did so in 2002.

Eastern Conference champion Hershey awaits the winner of Wednesday’s showdown, and if Hamilton prevails, the Bears will have an opportunity to avenge their five-game loss to the Bulldogs in the 2007 Calder Cup Finals.

In addition to regular coverage on AHL Live, Game 7 will be televised locally in Hamilton on Cable 14, and satellite radio listeners can catch the action on the NHL Home Ice channel (XM 204, Sirius 208).