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Belleville Playoff Primer

A deep look into everything you need to know as Belleville and Rochester kick off the first round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs.

Valerie Wutti / Freestyle Photography

It’s here. It’s finally here.

The Belleville Senators have officially made the Calder Cup Playoffs after two straight seasons in which they should have made it, but didn’t due to COVID.

While everyone would’ve preferred to see the Laval Rocket lose on Saturday, locking Belleville into the third position in the North and avoiding the first round play-in, getting to see playoff hockey at CAA Arena is going to be welcomed by the hometown faithful.

Let’s dive in and take a look at how the BSens match up against the Rochester Americans in their upcoming best-of-three series.

Team Comparison

The Numbers

Let’s kick things off with a team-to-team comparison, investigating how well the BSens did relative to the Amerks through their respective 72 game campaigns.

Belleville vs. Rochester

Head-to-Head Belleville Senators Rochester Americans
Head-to-Head Belleville Senators Rochester Americans
Category # Rank # Rank
Record 40-28-4 13th 37-29-10 16th
Goals For 219 17th 254 3rd
Goals Against 218 13th 270 30th
Powerplay % 19% 19th 23.50% 3rd
Penalty Kill % 82.80% 6th 79.50% 22nd
Corsi % (5v5 SVA) 47.9 21st 47 27th
xGF % (5v5 SVA) 46.99 24th 46 26th

The most glaring comparison right off the bat is how potent the Rochester offense has been this year. When it comes to putting pucks in the net, the Amerks did it better than almost anyone in the league. The big surprise is how a team could be so high in the standings when it comes to goal scoring but barely squeak into the postseason. The answer is simple. While they’ve got the high flying offense, their play in their own end leaves much to be desired.

This is the big difference, in my opinion, between Belleville and Rochester in this three game play-in. Rochester can score with the best of them but Belleville’s defensive structure and goaltending is much stronger - they were 13th in goals against league wide while Rochester was 30th.

Belleville is also a relatively average team when it comes to discipline, sitting 14th in penalty minutes. This is good news for the BSens as they’ll need to stay out of the box with how efficient Rochester’s powerplay has been this year. On the other end, the Amerks spent a little more time in the box this year (9th), so Belleville will look to take advantage of a few extra advantages in this category.

Head To Head

Over the course of the season, these two clubs have met up on eight occasions. On the season series, Belleville came out the victor with a 5-2-1 record against the Amerks.

ROC vs. BEL Head to Head

Date Score Winner
Date Score Winner
Oct 27 7-3 Belleville
Nov 3 4-3 Rochester
Jan 14 4-3 Belleville (SO)
Jan 15 6-5 Belleville (OT)
Mar 4 3-2 Rochester (OT)
Mar 5 6-5 Belleville
Apr 9 6-2 Rochester
Apr 15 2-1 Belleville

What’s interesting here is that in all but two of the games, it’s been incredibly close. With two games requiring overtime, one requiring a shootout and six games decided by just one goal, the season series was far closer than Belleville’s solid record makes it seem.

Thanks to Sean O’Brien’s data viz work, we’ve got some extra data and probabilities we can review ahead of puck drop this week. O’Brien has Belleville as the ever so slight favourites in this series, here’s hoping his math checks out.

Player Comparison

Here’s where things get really interesting. Both teams have a few stand outs at varying positions, making it difficult to determine how this series will shake out.

Forwards

If there’s one place Rochester has the upper hand, without a doubt, it’s up front. If you combine the stats of the two teams into one big list and sort by points per game for the forwards, you’ll quickly see the difference.

As you can see, Rochester’s forwards make up the top eight in this series and 10 of the top 15. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the Amerks ranked 3rd compared to Belleville’s 17th in goal scoring. While it’s not a surprise, it’ll certainly be a concern.

While Rochester does have the upper hand up front, Belleville did make a few moves that bring some intrigue to their own forward group.

When Ridly Greig briefly played in Belleville last year while he waited for the WHL to get back under way, he was a stand out forward for Mann. He was able to contribute three points in seven games as an 18 year old. I’d expect him to slot right into the lineup without much hesitation after lighting the WHL on fire this year with 63 points in just 39 games.

Tyler Boucher brings some size and intrigue of his own, as he’s a bit of an unknown commodity having a rocky season splitting time between the NCAA and OHL. We haven’t really seen what Boucher is capable of yet, so all eyes will be on how he contributes to Belleville, if he makes his way into the lineup.

Defenseman

On the offensive side of the puck, Rochester has four of the top five spots locked down however Belleville does make things a little more interesting with a more balanced offensive performance.

On the other end of things, however, is where Belleville starts to shine a bit brighter than Rochester. When we look at the teams even strength goals for percentage (EV GF%) - a measurement of the percentage of even-strength goals scored by the player’s team while the player was on the ice - Belleville comes out on top.

Now, there’s a disclaimer for this data. The site I use for advanced analytics at the AHL level (Pick224.com) doesn’t have data from the tail end of the season, so this isn’t a fulsome look at this particular metric. That being said, the data above is from 30+ games worth of information for these players, so we can project that over the season and assume it’s accurate enough to state that the BSens blueline is strong in ensuring their team is scoring at even strength.

According to Sean O’Brien’s work on player value, the Amerks only have one defender who’s depth chart value equates that of a first pairing rearguard - Ethan Prow. Four of the defenders who have played for them this season are labelled as third pairing players, while another five are replacement level.

For Belleville, things are a little more favourable. Unfortunately, with Del Zotto turning down the offer to play for a Calder Cup, they’ve lost their top defender. That being said, Lassi Thomson comes in as a first pairing defender with Dillon Heatherington having second pair value. Interestingly, Jacob Bernard-Docker has third pairing volume according to this model. From the looks of it, it’s likely that his lack of offensive production is a relatively large contributor to that value.

Goalies

This is the category where Belleville runs away with things. For the Amerks, they’ll likely have Aaron Dell in the starters crease for game one - although Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen could very well get some games as well. Dell played fewer games this season - 22 compared to 35 - but that’s partly because he spent time in the NHL. During his time in the minors, Dell posted a 2.91 GAA and 0.909 SV%, besting Luukkonen in both categories.

At the other end of the ice, Belleville’s “worse” goalie, Mads Søgaard, had a better GAA (2.86) and a comparable save percentage (0.908) to Rochester’s best netminder while Filip Gustavsson’s AHL performance this year makes Dell and Luukkonen look like they’ve got a lot of work to do. His 2.50 GAA and 0.915 SV% make him the clear best option at both ends of the rink in this series.

Above and beyond a solid season, Gustavsson’s play of late appears to have elevated. Closing out Belleville’s season, he posted a 0.955 SV% in his final four starts while also putting up a 0.919 SV% in three starts for Ottawa during the month of April.

All signs point to Gustavsson being the starter for Belleville in this series and his strong play will surely give Belleville every chance to move beyond the play-in.

X Factors

Let’s take a quick look at three X Factors which could either make or break their team’s chances of moving forward in the pursuit of the Calder Cup.

Rochester’s Young Guns

As mentioned, Rochester’s forward group has been quite impressive this season. What’s been even more impressive is that the three names at the top of the points per game list are Jack Quinn, Peyton Krebs and JJ Peterka - all of whom are 22 years old or younger. The question here is if they can continue their goalscoring and offensive prowess when things get serious.

Ahead of them, these three young stars will either step up to the plate when the stakes are high or they’ll crumble under the pressure of their first big test in the world of professional hockey.

Belleville’s Blueline

While the BSens won’t see Michael Del Zotto rejoin the team, after declining the offer to participate in the AHL playoffs, Belleville’s blueline is still a very strong group. They don’t necessarily stand out on the scoresheet, but the likes of Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Jonathan Aspirot and Dillon Heatherington make a strong top four at the AHL level. With Maxence Guenette, Zac Leslie and Colby Williams rounding things out, this is an opportunity to show that Troy Mann’s defensive structure is capable of halting Rochester’s fierce offensive attack.

Dell vs. Gustavsson

Looking at the numbers, Gustavsson’s season has been far more impressive than that of Dell. While that’s the case, the latter has one thing the former doesn’t: experience.

The 32 year old Dell has 95 starts to his name in the AHL over five seasons plus 126 NHL games under his belt, as well. Over that time, Dell has a (slight) winning record in both leagues. On top of that, Dell has played in both the AHL and NHL playoffs before - albeit, in only a handful of games.

From his play thus far, I think we can still assume Gustavsson will come out of this series as the better goaltender but, going back to Rochester’s forward group, he’s going to have a tall task in shutting down the high flying Amerks.

My Predictions

As someone who’s followed the Belleville Senators very closely for years, I’ll try my best to take off the rose coloured glasses for this activity.

Series Outcome: Belleville wins 2-1

I believe Belleville will take this series, but will require three games to do so.

I think the depth of Belleville’s group - in both skill and experience - will be what helps them come out on top against this Amerks roster. At the top of the roster, Rochester has the edge, and we can’t discount that which is why I’m predicting a full three games. With Gustavsson in net, however, I feel confident that they’ll be able to hold off the Rochester attack long enough to come out victorious.

Series Stars: Gustavsson (BEL), Quinn (ROC), Lodin (BEL)

For the Americans, one of - but not both - JJ Peterka or Jack Quinn is going to put their foot on the gas and drive the offense in this series. If you’re making me pick, I’m going to say it’s Quinn. You can’t look past his 1.36 points per game as an AHL rookie and see him slowing down any time soon. Quinn scored eight goals and added four assists for a total of 12 points in eight games against Belleville this season.

For the BSens, Filip Gustavsson is going to steal the show and ensure Rochester’s torrid offense is cooled down. Also, Viktor Lodin is going to continue showing us what he’s made of at the AHL level. After not recording a point in his first two professional games on this side of the Atlantic, Lodin has eight points in eight games since - including a goal and two assists in Belleville’s final two matches of the year.