The Greatest

Greatest Central Division minor-league seasons

Every NHL organization’s greatest minor-league season: Central Division Chicago Wolves
While minor-league teams from other cities have won championships within the Blackhawks family, the Chicago Wolves won a couple of Calder Cups during their affiliation with another current NHL Central Division franchise. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Wolves)

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, continuing this week with the Central Division. All statistics are according to the Internet Hockey Database.

Chicago: 1989-90
Coached by Darryl Sutter and backstopped by Jimmy Waite and Darren Pang, the Indianapolis Ice had their best IHL season out of 11 in their first as the Blackhawks development team.

With 114 points, Indianapolis finished first in the West Division and second to the defending champion Muskegon Lumberjacks overall. Brian Noonan, who later played three full seasons for the Blackhawks, led the charge with 40 goals and 76 points in 56 appearances.

The same essential core group, also coached by Sutter, had finished a distant second to Muskegon as the Saginaw Hawks the previous year. Given their stature, they fell out of the 1989 playoffs prematurely, losing the East Division semifinal to Fort Wayne.

But under a new name in a new city slightly closer to home, the Baby Blackhawks found redemption in the new decade. They took five games apiece to win the two best-of-seven division rounds, including one against the St. Louis’ partner from Peoria.

Meeting Muskegon in the Turner Cup Final, the Ice turned a titanic card into a one-sided scoresheet. They ran up an aggregate 17-9 scoring advantage in a four-game sweep.

Colorado/Quebec: 1996-97
As a secondary Quebec Nordiques affiliate, and one shared with Pittsburgh, the Muskegon Lumberjacks won the Turner Cup in 1986. Four years later, the Greensboro Monarchs won the ECHL championship as a joint Quebec/Minnesota North Stars club.

It was not until after moving to Denver that the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise got its exclusive imprint on a minor-league title. One year after winning the Stanley Cup and acquiring the Hershey Bears, the Avs watched their new affiliate raise the Calder Cup.

Led by future Colorado coach Bob Hartley, the Bears finished second in the overall AHL standings. As it happened, the Mid-Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia Phantoms, who had just succeeded Hershey as the Flyers farm base, were the only team with a better record.

But when it mattered most, the up-and-coming Avalanche rolled. After facing elimination, they pulled the second-round upset, claiming a 3-2 Game 7 victory at the storied Spectrum.

Following another seven-game thriller against Springfield, the Bears ousted the Hamilton Bulldogs in a five-game final. Future Avalanche regular Eric Messier logged 11 points in nine playoff outings.

Dallas/Minnesota: 2013-14
Maybe if the Stars were already in Texas by that time, the Fort Worth Texans’ Central League title in 1978 would have prevailed here. As it is, the 2014 Texas Stars’ Calder Cup run is the only Dallas/Minnesota minor-league title by an intrastate affiliate.

In their fifth year since moving from Iowa, the Baby Stars racked up an AHL-best 106 points. After going 5-0 at home through the first two playoff rounds, they slipped to start their conference final against Toronto. But upon taking a 2-1 series lead, they never trailed again, ultimately running away with Game 7, 6-2.

To start the Cup final, the St. John’s IceCaps would split the first two games in Texas. But the Stars won three straight overtime games on the road, clinching the title. Leading scorer Travis Morin matched his regular-season radiance, adding the playoff MVP award to his regular-season MVP and point-production trophies.

Minnesota: 2002-03
The Wild’s third season of operation saw their fortunes fall together like they never have before or since. And there was so much more to it than the big club’s unlikely run to the NHL’s Western Conference final.

With 104 points, the AHL’s Houston Aeros finished first in the West Division and second in the conference. While the parent club’s unlikely push prevented any would-be reinforcement, coach Todd McLellan’s team kept asserting itself.

A sweep of Milwaukee and a six-game ouster of Norfolk set up a conference final against first-place Grand Rapids. After building a 3-1 lead, then losing back-to-back overtime games, the Aeros regrouped and stole Game 7, 2-1.

From there they took another rubber match on the road, blanking the Hamilton Bulldogs, 3-0, to win the Calder Cup.

Down in the ECHL, the Louisiana Ice Gators went 40-20-12 to finish first in the Southwest Division. But after they swept Arkansas in the best-of-five first round, their playoff translation stopped with a sweep by Mississippi.

Nashville: 2003-04
At their inception, the Predators adopted a defending champion, with the Hampton Roads Admirals having won the 1998 Kelly Cup.

In the two decades since, Nashville partners have combined for four more banners. The Rockford IceHogs won the 2007 Colonial Cup in their final year as a UHL franchise. Over the three seasons that followed, the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones claimed two more Kelly Cups for the organization.

But being one step closer to the top level, the Milwaukee Admirals’ only Calder Cup eclipses those three runs. Backstopped by veteran goalie Wade Flaherty, the Predators’ only IHL/AHL affiliate posted a league-best 102 points in 2003-04.

The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks nearly derailed the Admirals in the best-of-seven first round, taking a commanding 3-2 lead. But Milwaukee regrouped to win 6-3 and 5-1 decisions at home. From there, the Ads ousted the rival Wolves in six games and the Rochester Americans in five.

Ironically, the final series continued the pattern of every round decreasing in length by a game. The Admirals alternated overtime wins with blowouts, finishing their sweep of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with a 7-2 drubbing.

St. Louis: 1990-91
Following their aforementioned first-round fall to the Ice, the Rivermen had their own redemption in 1991. With the help of Nelson Emerson, Kelly Chase and Guy Hebert, they surged to a league-leading 121 points.

Hebert split the goaltending duties with Tom Draper in the playoffs. Meanwhile, after being one of four Rivermen with triple-digit regular-season points, Emerson was one of three with 20 in the postseason.

Tested by Milwaukee, Phoenix and Fort Wayne, Peoria prevailed in six, seven and six games, respectively. When they vanquished the Komets, they delivered their storied brand’s last championship in the Triple-A ranks. Since then, another version of the Riverman and the Alaska Aces have combined for three Kelly Cups under Blues custody.

Winnipeg/Atlanta: 2001-02
In the final year of the IHL, the Thrashers’ affiliate in Orlando vanquished the Chicago Wolves for the Turner Cup. But when the league folded a month later, the Solar Bears were not among the teams switching to the AHL.

In an ironic twist, Atlanta fell back on the Wolves as its new affiliate for the 2001-02 season. With many of the same personnel as the 2000-01 Solar Bears, Chicago effectively made the Triple-A Thrashers back-to-back AHL champions.

After a middling regular season, the Wolves needed to pass a best-of-three preliminary round just to reach the 16-team Calder Cup bracket. But after ousting Cincinnati, Grand Rapids and Syracuse in do-or-die matches, they regained the franchise’s familiar IHL dominance. Atlanta’s top prospects knocked off Houston and Bridgeport in five games apiece for the conference and league crown, respectively.

Meanwhile, another new Atlanta affiliate had its own banner debut in the family. After three years of independence, the Greenville Grrrowl operated as both a Thrashers and Boston Bruins ECHL affiliate. That new roster would raise the 2002 Kelly Cup.

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