Greatest minor-league seasons for Metro Division teams
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 Metropolitan Division. All statistics are according to the Internet Hockey Database.
After winning the 1990 Calder Cup as an Islanders affiliate, the Springfield Indians hung up their banner on the heels of a switch. The storied AHL brand was back with the WHA/NHL franchise that once borrowed their building.
Besides sweetening their repeat bid by playing before an overlapping fan base, the 1990-91 Indians were a surefire force. With 96 points, they finished first in the seven-team Northern Division and second in the AHL overall.
After escaping Game 7 of the opening round with a 6-3 win over Fredericton, Springfield breezed by Moncton in Round 2. This meant facing the regular-season champion Rochester Americans — an affiliate of Hartford’s Adams Division rival from Buffalo — in the final.
Dropping the first two games on the road would only prove to add a dimension of drama to the journey. The Indians bounced back at home with 5-1 and 2-1 wins, then stole a 6-3 runaway from Rochester.
With a chance to clinch back at the Springfield Civic Center, they claimed a 5-3 victory in Game 6. Goaltender Kay Whitmore, who would seize Hartford’s starting job the next season, collected the tournament MVP award.
North of the state border, the Kalamazoo Wings went 38-28-6 in the regular season as the Blue Jackets’ ECHL affiliate. But the franchise’s first campaign with a fellow Ohio team as its AHL partner would be the real story.
In their ninth season overall, the Lake Erie Monsters attained a franchise-best 97 points in 2015-16. Following up on that in the playoffs, they won the city of Cleveland’s first Calder Cup since 1964.
The game that completed their run and a sweep of the Hershey Bears drew the largest indoor home crowd in the history of the Blue Jackets organization. (Only the 2010 AHL Outdoor Classic, hosted by the Syracuse Crunch, sold more tickets.) On tournament MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand’s overtime goal, Lake Erie clinched before 19,665 fans with a 1-0 victory.
Coincidentally, the Monsters’ co-tenant, the NBA’s Cavaliers, would win the city’s first major-league sports title since 1964 nine days later.
New Jersey/Colorado/Kansas City: 1994-95
Only two minor-league teams have won a championship under full or partial Devils auspices. Between the 1983-84 Maine Mariners and the 1994-95 Albany River Rats, the latter campaign wins out as the more memorable. Proximity to the parent club and dominant performances are the deciding factors.
While New Jersey was on its way to its first Stanley Cup in a lockout-shortened season, Albany breezed its way to the AHL crown. It swept intrastate rival Adirondack in the first round, then halted a Providence comeback to earn a semifinal bye.
After the Fredericton Canadiens earned the other final ticket, fresher legs prevailed. The River Rats eked out back-to-back 4-3 wins at home, then took a commanding lead with a 4-1 road triumph.
Appropriately, a playoff that saw goaltenders Mike Dunham and Corey Schwab share MVP honors culminated in a Game 4 shutout. The 3-0 victory finished a 12-2 tear through the postseason, which punctuated a league-best 109-point regular season.
NY Islanders: 1995-96
In the fall of 1995, the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks were coming off a third-round appearance in the ECHL playoffs. The IHL’s Utah (nee Denver) Grizzlies were preparing to defend the Turner Cup.
While the Islanders debuted a soon-to-be retracted new fashion statement on Long Island, the rest of the family kept up appearances in their respective win columns. The Tiger Sharks surged from 79 points the year prior to 90 in 1995-96. They would then match their previous postseason success, once more falling one round short of the final.
Meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain region, the Isles’ most promising prospects attained 102 points. Although 20 points behind Las Vegas for first in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies regained the edge in the spring.
After edging Kansas City and Peoria in do-or-die matches, Utah upset the Thunder in six games for the Western Conference title. In the subsequent Turner Cup Final, they proved more battle-tested than Orlando, claiming three overtime victories in a four-game sweep.
NY Rangers: 1999-00
Other Blueshirt partners, like the 1969-70 Buffalo Bisons and 1977-78 Toledo Goaldiggers, have won championships at the top minor-league level. But neither of those teams had many, if any, true Rangers fans in proximity to enjoy the run.
Conversely, by their third season in one-time Whaler territory, the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack had become unmistakable Ranger relatives. The 1999-00 season began with New York hosting Boston in an exhibition at the Hartford Civic Center. After the last cuts at training camp, the Pack’s core group had select games syndicated on the MSG Network while rolling to the regular-season title.
In their post-season follow-up, they edged rival Springfield in a best-of-five set, then trounced Worcester, four games to one. The Eastern Conference Final yielded a defending Calder Cup champion Providence team. After falling behind in the series, 3-1, the Wolf Pack rebounded and won Game 7 in overtime.
From there, Hartford raised three upper hands on Rochester before sealing the Cup with a 4-1 win in Game 6.
While Flyers fans have waited 43 years and counting for another Stanley Cup, they are practically spoiled with Calder Cups. Various AHL affiliates have combined for five championships in the last four decades.
But the latest had the distinction of occurring in the Flyers’ home arena and right after a Kelly Cup for the same organization. During the NHL’s season-long 2004-05 lockout, several up-and-coming Flyers played for the AHL’s Phantoms at or next door to the Wachovia Center. Meanwhile, for the only time in their seven-year ECHL partnership with Trenton, the Flyers had sole custody of the Titans.
Across the state border, the Titans lost a tiebreaker with Reading for first in their division. But in the postseason’s best-of-five division final, Trenton ousted the Royals in four games. From there, they took a combined 13 games to edge Alaska and Florida en route to the Kelly Cup.
Back home, the Phantoms also finished second in their division, but never faced the first-place Binghamton Senators. Instead they beat the team that beat the Sens, the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, in five games in the second round.
After dumping Providence in the conference final, they took a commanding lead over Chicago with three straight one-goal wins. In Game 4 at the Flyers’ house, the Phantoms finished off the Wolves with a convincing 5-2 triumph.
The franchise that inspired Slap Shot accounted for the Penguins’ most recent minor-league championship by an intrastate affiliate. In addition, another Pennsylvania franchise with Pittsburgh ties at the time went to the second round in defense of another title.
The AHL’s Hershey Bears had won the 1974 Calder Cup in their third of six years with the Pens. Despite falling to the last playoff spot the next year, they upset the Richmond Robins in a thrilling seven-game first round. They would fall in five games to New Haven in the semifinals, but the story of the year was elsewhere.
In the Double-A ranks, the North American League’s Johnstown Jets functioned as Pittsburgh’s secondary affiliate for one season. Led by top scorer Steve Carlson (88 points), his brothers and Dave Hanson, they delivered the Lockhart Cup.
Four years after Flyers affiliates nabbed the Calder and Kelly Cup, the Capitals’ clubs would match the double take.
Among other prospects, goaltender Michal Neuvirth saw regular-season action for both Hershey (49-23-8) and the South Carolina Stingrays (42-23-6). He posted two shutouts in 13 regular-season appearances for the ECHL team. He also went 2-1-0 in five outings for the big club in Washington.
Otherwise, Neuvirth was a Bear for the bulk of a banner campaign, playing every game in the Calder Cup tournament. His performance would culminate in both a championship and playoff MVP honors.
Meanwhile, the ECHL’s equivalent trophies went to the Stingrays and Neuvirth’s ECHL successor, James Reimer.