It took a while to find out who they'd be playing, but the Binghamton Senators have had a few days now to get ready for the opponents for this year's Calder Cup Final series, the Houston Aeros.
The Aeros, NHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, had all they could handle in their last series against the Hamilton Bulldogs. Despite taking a quick 3-0 series lead against Hamilton, the Aeros allowed the Bulldogs to claw back into the series and eventually force a seventh and deciding game. Houston ended up on the winning side, and earned their shot for the AHL's ultimate prize.
In the regular season, Houston finished second in the West Division with a record of 46-28-6, good enough for 98 points and home-ice advantage in this series (although, considering the B-Sens' 8-1 record away from Binghamton, 'home ice advantage' may be a misnomer from the Aeros' perspective). The Aeros finished with 240 goals for and allowed 212 goals, and in the playoffs have scored 53 goals and allowed 51. Houston started off the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Peoria Rivermen, but took seven games to win their second- and third-round series against the Milwaukee Admirals and Hamilton Bulldogs, respectively.
During the regular season, forward Jon DiSalvatore was the Aeros leader in points with 61 (28 goals, 33 assists) while playing in all 80 AHL games and Patrick O'Sullivan made a splash in the 36 games he played with Houston, finishing fourth in scoring with 48 points (19 goals, 29 assists) and leads the team in playoff scoring with 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists). During their series against Hamilton, Houston won all four games by one goal, and have only once won by a margin of three goals or more.
Let's take a closer look at the series, on a position-by-position basis:
Wild prospect Colton Gillies leads the Aeros in goals with seven, but other than him and Chad Rau, no other Aeros player has more than five goals. Houston hasn't been winning games by blowing out their opponents; they've mostly been eking by on minimal offence, and that's demonstrated in their fairly low scoring totals.
But is that enough to beat a team with the AHL playoffs leading scorer (Ryan Potulny) as well as three more in the league's top seven (Ryan Keller [third], Kaspars Daugavins [fifth], and Zack Smith [seventh])? It certainly won't be easy. The Senators have had a run-and-gun offense through the playoffs, and they've been remarkably resilient when down in games. Binghamton has scored, on average, over a goal more per game than Houston (the Senators have 67 goals in 17 games, an average of 3.97 goals per game, compared compared to just 53 in 18 games for the Aeros, an average of 2.94 per game), and that kind of difference can add up over a series.
Egde: Binghamton. Binghamton's offense is stacked, to put it bluntly. Three offensive scoring lines with one checking line, and if one line isn't producing on a given night, another is usually there to pick up the slack.
Binghamton has allowed only 49 goals to Houston's 51 and Binghamton's most successful series, the Eastern Division Final against Charlotte, was also the first where their defense started getting to full health. Jared Cowen has four points in just five games since joining the team, and Eric Gryba and Patrick Wiercioch have both returned from injury. They join a D-corps with the top scoring defenceman in the league, Andre Benoit,
Maxim Noreau leads Aeros defensemen in points, with 11P (2G, 9A), and Jared Spurgeon leads the team in plus/minus with a plus-6. Houston's PK is pretty strong, but is still worse than Binghamton's (although just 0.1% worse).
Edge: Binghamton. The defense faced plenty of adversity early in the playoffs, but as it's becoming more healthy, it's becoming more impressive. Even if injuries resurface on the blue line, Binghamton's depth at defense can hardly be rivaled.
Matt Hackett, son of former NHLer Jeff Hackett, has played all 18 games for Houston in playoffs, and he has a 2.56 GAA and a .898 Sv%. The 77th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Hackett was Houston's number one goaltender during the regular season going 23-16-4 with a 2.37 GAA and saving 91.6 per cent of shots he faced. He has one shutout in the playoffs.
Robin Lehner, who has been on a short leash in the playoffs, may not have as much ice time as Hackett, but Hackett has only made five more saves than Lehner. In 355 less minutes, Lehner has a better save percentage at .932 and a better goals against average at 2.41. Lehner also has two shutouts so far.
Edge: Binghamton. Lehner has been stronger through the playoffs so far, and has shown a remarkable resiliency through it. Even if Lehner falters, though, the Senators have a strong backup with Barry Brust on the bench.
Game 1 – Fri., May 27 – Binghamton at Houston, 8:35
Game 2 – Sat., May 28 – Binghamton at Houston, 8:35
Game 3 – Wed., June 1 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05
Game 4 – Fri., June 3 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05
*Game 5 – Sat., June 4 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05
*Game 6 – Tue., June 7 – Binghamton at Houston, 8:05
*Game 7 – Thu., June 9 – Binghamton at Houston, 8:05