ELMIRA JACKALS (38-25-3-4) 83 Points. Second Place in the Atlantic Division, Fifth in the Eastern Conference
THE WEEK THAT WAS (2-2-0-0)
March 22: Elmira 5, Fort Wayne 2
March 23: Elmira 2, Fort Wayne 1 (SO)
March 24: Trenton 8, Elmira 2
March 27: Wheeling 6, Elmira 2
Chaz Johnson: Johnson made his triumphant return to Elmira this season, after bouncing around between various ECHL teams since he left the Jackals in 2009-10. Johnson's had to battle his fair share of injury troubles this season, including a freak accident in a Jackals pre-season game in which he took a puck off an unprotected part of his pinky finger, and the impact caused his bone to pierce through his skin as well as some nerve damage. He missed the first four weeks of the season, and has had some other nagging issues as the year has gone on. However, now that he's been consistently healthy (knock on wood) for the last few weeks, his game is starting to amp back up. Johnson is a power forward, make no mistake about it. The good news for the Jackals is that he's been playing like one over the last week. He has two goals and one assist for Elmira in the Jackals last four games, and has ramped up his overall goal out-put to twelve on the year. Johnson gives the Jackals a big body who has skill with the puck on his stick that can plant himself in front of the net on the power play and wreak havoc for opponents. He's not afraid to drop the gloves or throw the big hit either, and his game has really started to come full circle since the Jackals hit mid-March. He's a guy they'll definitely want to have clicking on all cylinders come playoff time, and all signs point to that being the case as of now.
Ian Keserich: If you look at Keserich's numbers, you probably think him being listed as one of the upstart Jackals in recent games is a mistake. However, there's a lot more to Keserich's situation than the goaltender's numbers over the last few games. This is a guy who hadn't found a permanent ECHL home since 2008-09 with Johnstown (yes, the team that inspired the movie Slap Shot). He'd been bouncing around the CHL between US cities like Tulsa, Memphis, Wichita, and Colorado before signing with the Jackals in mid-January of this season. And, like a true underdog story, Keserich has made the most of his opportunity. He's gone 7-3-0-1 in 11 starts for Elmira this season, posting a stellar .926 save percentage. When I spoke with Head Coach Dwight Mullins last week, I asked him if he'd decided on a playoff starter yet, assuming it would be Maxime Clermont (the only player on the Jackals roster with an NHL deal). He said he was happy with Clermont, but was very non-committal on the whole situation. Through the last week, it's been easy to see why. Keserich back-stopped the Jackals to a shootout win on Saturday night at First Arena, and despite taking the loss in the Jackals' defeat at the hands of Wheeling on Wednesday night, Keserich made 36 saves in a losing effort. Mullins has had both Keserich and Clermont splitting games down the stretch, so it will be interesting to see who gets the nod in a week when the playoffs arrive.
March 29: Jackals vs. Trenton - The Trenton Titans are mathematically eliminated from the ECHL playoff picture, and have been for some time now, but that didn't stop them from running over a tired Jackals team on Sunday afternoon at First Arena. And, it's fair to believe that Elmira will have that drubbing fresh on their minds when the two sides meet again on Friday night in the Jackals' final regular season home game. The Jackals are still jockeying for playoff position in the Eastern Conference with their eyes on home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. If Elmira wants to have a chance to start round one at First Arena, they get this win Friday night - it's that simple.
March 30: Jackals at Reading - The Jackals wrap up the 2012-13 regular season in Reading, PA against the Royals. Elmira can't catch the Royals in the standings, as Reading wrapped up the Atlantic Division title and the number one overall seed last week, but they can make a statement heading into the postseason. If the Jackals do fall in to that 4-5 matchup in round one - as many expect they will - a first round victory would set up a second round series with Reading, something I think anyone who has a pulse on this rivalry would be excited about. Again though, this game is far more important for Elmira, who will be looking to lock-up the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
First off, rejoice Silver Seven, the Elmira Jackals are in the Kelly Cup Playoffs! Now is when it gets interesting. As of today, Elmira trails the Florida Everblades in the Eastern Conference standings by two points, with each team having two games remaining. Florida seemingly has the edge here, because they finish up with back-to-back games against the Orlando Solar Bears who, despite their ridiculous name, are far out of the playoff picture and probably have mailed this season in. If the Everblades win both games, they will be locked into the East's fourth seed and have home ice in the first round. If Florida splits in any way, shape or form with Orlando (OTL, SOL, Regulation L), then things get interesting if the Jackals win their final two. Because Elmira has more regulation wins than Florida at the present (38 to 37), they would hold the tie-breaker should the two teams finish tied at season's end. That would give them the fourth seed.
The wild thing about this upcoming final stretch is that the Jackals could conceivably fall as far as seventh in the Eastern Conference if they lose their final two games in regulation. Both South Carolina and Greenville have 80 points to the Jackals' 83, and Greenville has three games left, while South Carolina plays two more times before their regular season is over. The two sides actually go head to head for a back-to-back this Thursday and Friday, before Greenville finishes up against Gwinnett on Saturday. So, as confusing as that all sounds, by Saturday night the Jackals will know both their seeding and their playoff opponent.
For my money: Elmira will be the East's fifth seed, and will be flying down to Florida next week to open their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the defending Kelly Cup Champs.
I'll have a full preview of the match-up next week!