Every Atlantic Division team’s greatest minor-league season
Editor’s note: Throughout November, Pucks and Recreation looks back on each NHL franchise’s most memorable season within the minor-league ranks alone. We split our capsules by division, beginning this week with the Atlantic Division. All statistics are according to the Internet Hockey Database.
Other Bruins affiliates, including some in New England, had previously won their league title. But the 1998-99 Providence team was the first to do so with the parent club’s nickname, and went on an historic tear in the process.
The 1997-98 Providence Bruins had plummeted to last place in the collective 18-team AHL standings. But under first-year coach and former captain Peter Laviolette, they surged to an unprecedented 120 points the next year.
Among other regular-season records, the P-Bruins scored 10 goals in a single period and went on a 16-game unbeaten streak. In the playoffs, they lost only four games, with the Fredericton Canadiens taking two in the Eastern Conference Final.
At its own Civic Center, Providence was a perfect 10-0 in the 1999 postseason. The P-Bruins would clinch the Calder Cup there in Game 5 with a 5-1 win over the Rochester Americans.
Since starting the most geographically logical partnership before their 10th anniversary season, the Sabres have seen Rochester hoist three Calder Cups. Those 1983, 1987 and 1996 runs are hard to single out, even based on each team’s on-ice impression.
But all are superseded by the first minor-league victory in Sabres history. In 1972-73, the Cincinnati Swords dominated the AHL to the tune of a 54-17-5 record and 113 points. With first place in the West Division, they eliminated Richmond and dumped Virginia in six games apiece, setting a final date with a fellow titan from Nova Scotia.
With coach-of-the-year Floyd Smith’s guidance, the Swords bested the Voyageurs in six games for the title. Smith was promoted a year later, and would take the parent club to its first Stanley Cup Final.
The Grand Rapids Griffins have twice won the Calder Cup in this decade. As with the Amerks-Sabres dynamic, it is hard to overlook any championship an affiliate within the same state/region wins. But it is also hard to single out 2012-13 or 2016-17 over the other.
Regardless, long before they brought their prospects back to Michigan, the Red Wings saw two affiliates win a title in the same year. Just below the state border in Ohio, the Toledo Storm finished first in the ECHL’s West Division and parlayed that seed to the 1993 Riley Cup.
At the time, while its primary Triple-A affiliate was the AHL’s Adirondack Red Wings, Detroit also had links to the IHL’s storied Fort Wayne Komets. As it happened, the Komets would win their final Turner Cup at that level that year.
If that were not enough, Fort Wayne went a spotless 12-0 in that 1993 postseason. The Central Division champions would sweep the Cleveland Lumberjacks, Atlanta Knights and regular-season champion San Diego Gulls.
Like the parent club, Panthers affiliates have had to settle for small, sparse triumphs in the franchise’s first quarter-century. The closest the minor-league system got to a banner year was with two shared affiliates.
In 2006-07, the Panthers were splitting Rochester with the Sabres as their AHL base. With that mixed roster of prospects, the Amerks went a solid 48-30-2 in the regular season. They would lose their best-of-seven first-round series, 4-2, albeit to the eventual champion Hamilton Bulldogs.
One level lower, the Florida Everblades were honing Hurricanes and Panthers hopefuls alike. They translated their 44-22-6 record (first in the Southern Division) to an appearance in the ECHL’s American Conference Final. But the upset-minded Dayton Bombers won a back-and-forth thriller, taking a 3-1 decision in Game 7.
If sheer results are any indication, repeating a Calder Cup championship is a taller order than defending the Stanley Cup. Since the 1980s, the Islanders, Oilers, Penguins and Red Wings have combined for seven back-to-back sets.
Conversely, only the 1990-91 Springfield Indians and 2009-10 Hershey Bears have done the same in the AHL. Of those two teams, only the Bears pulled that feat with the same NHL affiliate in both seasons.
But in 1977, the Nova Scotia Voyaguers flexed a testament to Montreal’s enviable organizational depth. Just like the parent club, they would retain their crown from 1976. In addition, they set the tone by winning 52 regular-season games and racking up a league-best 110 points.
Other than Binghamton’s 2011 Calder Cup victory, the Senators have not have much to cheer about at the top minor-league level. But in 1994-95, their second AHL affiliate in Prince Edward Island had a strong finish. In the organization’s third year of operations, those Senators finished first in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the 16-team AHL as a whole.
Meanwhile, in the Double-A ranks, the Thunder Bay Senators kept rolling through the Colonial League. In defense of the Colonial Cup, Thunder Bay cracked 100 points in the 1994-95 regular season. It was enough to give them first place and a bye into the playoffs.
Meeting the Saginaw Wheels in the opening round, the Sens ran up a 36-21 score in a 4-1 series victory. For the title, they showed their resilience after an overtime loss in Game 3 put them behind the Muskegon Fury. They would take 1-0 and 3-1 squeakers on the road, then clinch the repeat in Game 6, 8-4, back home.
Tampa Bay: 2011-12
In their final year as the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals all but mimicked the aforementioned 1998-99 P-Bruins. With 28 consecutive victories to close the regular season, they shattered records across all of professional hockey.
That tear, which eclipsed an 18-game streak by the old IHL’s Peoria Rivermen, gave them 113 points. No other AHL club broke triple digits in that column.
In the subsequent playoffs, the Admirals went 15-3, sweeping both the Eastern Conference and Calder Cup Finals. Their 6-1 championship clincher over the Toronto Marlies tied Game 1 of the third round for their most lopsided win of the spring.
That June 9 triumph was not the year’s only champagne shower in the Bolts family. Two-and-half weeks prior, the ECHL’s Florida Everblades clinched their first Kelly Cup. At the time, the Everblades were in their second of three years as a joint Tampa Bay-Carolina partner.
Amidst the parent team’s ongoing Stanley Cup drought, the Maple Leafs have savored a few minor-league triumphs. The 1969-70 Buffalo Bisons and 1981-82 New Brunswick Hawks both claimed the Calder Cup with Toronto ties.
But based on location and performance, nothing has been a sweeter Stanley Cup alternative than last year’s Marlies ride. Like two other teams on this list, the 2017-18 Marlies convincingly steamrolled to both the regular-season and playoff crown. With 112 points, they eclipsed the first runner-up in the AHL standings by eight.
The fourth-place Utica Comets nearly derailed Toronto in the best-of-five division semifinals. But after a 4-0 triumph in the rubber match, the Marlies went on to sweep Syracuse and Lehigh Valley.
Facing the Texas Stars in the championship, they ran into another back-and-forth challenge. Every Toronto win was followed by a Texas win, setting up another do-or-die date at Ricoh Coliseum.
But as they did in the Round 1 finale, the Marlies cruised in Game 7. Mason Marchment’s last-minute first-period goal proved the clincher in a 6-1 romp.