We’ve been operating off the grid over here at CycWords but with the Kelly Cup Playoffs well underway, We figured it was long overdue for us to weigh in.

The 1st round match-up between the Cyclones and the South Carolina Stingrays had all the makings of an instant classic. The story lines were numerous, the headliner, of course, being the previous playoff history between the 2 Teams. When all was said and done the series met every expectation, going 5 games, with 3 games, including the 5th and decisive game, going to overtime. Sure, it was a bit stressful but once it was over; as a fan of the game…wow, what a series.

– With Robert Mayer still on duty in Hamilton, the Cyclones were forced to ride Jeremy Smith. He didn’t disappoint, eventually out dueling ECHL Goaltender of the Year Todd Ford. Jeremy had a solid regular season showing his potential and why he was a 2nd round draft pick, but if someone would have told me that he was going to play to that potential in his first professional playoff series, I’m not sure I would have believed them but I’m glad that’s how it’s working out.

– A quick note on Todd Ford. He’s a solid net minder for sure, but how the heck does he win the ECHL Goaltender of the Year award over Idaho’s Richard Bachman? Bachman played more games, had a better gaa and sv%, and posted 3 more shutout performances  than Ford. Who votes on these things?

– The FNG’s continue to impress. Ortiz has wheels and a serious cannon of a shot. Heidinger has proven to be a heady player regularly being in the right place at the right time. While the two, have been in and out of the line up, they have proven to be capable additions.

***

If the 1st round match up with the Stingrays had me worried, it’s safe to say the 2nd round series against Charlotte had me mortified. The Checkers possessed speed and skill on par with South Carolina but had the one thing that the Cyclones have struggled with all season; size. While this is one of the largest Cyclones teams in the Chuck Weber era and they look very similar to Charlotte on paper, Charlotte’s game was simply bigger and more physical. If there were any areas in which the Cyclones topped the Checkers it was goaltending and, as the series went on, coaching.

As far as the goaltending went, the Cyclones were still riding the back of Jeremy Smith while the Checkers went with Ryan Munce. Smith, who was a big question mark as a rookie going into the playoffs for the first time as a pro, continued to be the story and would ultimately be considered the MVP of the series. Munce, on the other hand, was Ryan Munce. I remember Munce vaguely from his time with Reading and Johnstown in 06-07 and Mississippi in 07-08, 08-09. My impressions haven’t really changed. He’s a solid net minder overall and can be great when he puts his mind to it, but has a tendency to be lethargic, relying on his defense almost too much on the weak side of the play. Not to mention he has a dismal record against the Cyclones (3-6, with one “no decision” as he was pulled after giving up 2 goals on 3 shots in just 2:51).

As the series wore on, it was clear that the Cyclones had an advantage behind the bench. Charlotte’s game plan never really changed; score in transition, forecheck hard and most importantly, be physical. It worked for them all season why change now right? It didn’t look like the Boys were going to be able to skate with the Checkers for 60 minutes each night, especially of the series went deep so it appeared early on that the game plan was to play defensively and capitalize on opportunities to keep the game close for the 1st 30 to 40 minutes then turn up the pressure late. It worked in game 1 and 3 but after having the Checkers squarely in their sights in game 4, only to have it get away from them before they knew it, it seemed like Chuck mixed it up a bit for the rest of the series. For games 5-7, the boys came out flying early on and it seemed to catch Charlotte off guard. Whether the Charlotte coach was unwilling or unable to change his strategy (the Checkers did score 1st in every game but game 7) it was clear that the slight tweak in strategy by the Cyclones changed the entire feel of the series.

– The officiating came under fire more than ever in this series. I’m not going to claim that there is any type of conspiracy because the boys certainly aren’t saints but there is one thing I want to touch on. The ECHL is officiated by one referee, so there are going to be legitimate penalties missed, but the referee should never miss a call when the infraction happens within a 20ft radius of the puck and the referee should always have the corner of his eye on the bench area during changes and after goals. Also, the whole notion of “it’s the playoffs so we’re going to let them play” is BS. When the NHL came back after the lockout with a new set of rules to limit interference to speed the game up, it was adopted by the minor leagues including the ECHL. More and more, I’m noticing that during the playoffs referees are letting things go that would have been a penalty during the regular season. If the rule book states that it’s a penalty, call it, if not it defeats the purpose of the rule changes. For example, during the regular season, if a player finished a check with his hands high in the other players face it was called roughing. During this series, most Charlotte checks involved finishing high and it wasn’t called. Adding fuel to the fire is this little nugget; during the regular season the Cyclones were the 3rd least penalized team (1138pims), Charlotte was the 3rd most penalized team (1554pims). Now suddenly the Cyclones (202pims) are the 2nd most penalized team in the League, trailing only Utah (272pims). Charlotte is 3rd with 192pims. Perhaps the outcome of the series had something to do with karma…..

– Welcome back Mark Van Guilder! On Monday night he was playing a Game 7 for the Milwaukee Admirals in Chicago, 24 hours later he was in Charlotte, North Carolina playing in a game 6. That Game didn’t go so well, but Wednesday night’s Game 7 saw MVG net both Cyclone goals for the victory. Good Form!

***

The Cyclones will now face the Reading Royals. The two Teams only played 3 times this season with the Cyclones taking the regular season series 2-1. During the regular season the Royals played a very skilled game, but got most, if not all of their scoring from their top line. In playoffs, they appear to be a little deeper with 6 players averaging 1 point per game or more. After their top 6 it drops off quite a bit. The Cyclones on the other hand look like they have for most of the regular season, with everyone contributing, but no one running away as the hands on stat leader.

– Special teams could decide this series. The Royals power play is firing at 21.4% and if the Cyclones continue to skate short handed, the series could be over before we know it. On the flip side, Reading is the least penalized team left in the playoffs so it’s imperative the Cyclones get their power play to convert when they get the opportunity.

– Reading’s goalie Matt Dalton has played well posting a 2.88gaa and a .922sv% but I give the edge to Jeremy Smith who is a few points lower on the sv% at .918 but has the better gaa at 2.45.

– I only saw the Royals play twice this season and they reminded me of the 08-09 Wheeling Nailer. They have good speed, a lot of skill and like the transition game. Chuck had a great game plan to stifle Wheeling last season, so I’m guessing he’ll have something up his sleeve to slow down the Royals.

– The schedule for the Conference finals leaves a bit to be desired. After back to back games this Friday and Saturday, the Teams will travel to Reading for game 3 on Tuesday (5/4). The Teams won’t play again until Saturday (5/8). If needed Game 5 will be Sunday (5/9) in Reading with games 6 and 7 in Cincinnati on Tuesday (5/11) and Wednesday (5/12). The layoff between games 3 and 4 is a rough one for the boys, it’s not quite long enough to head home but a little too long to be away from home.

***

A few other playoffs notes:

– Curtis Sanford was dressed and backing up Cederick Desjardins tonight (4/29). My guess is Robert Mayer could be returned soon. The net is Jeremy’s to lose, but it will be nice to have a capable goalie ready in the wings for a change.

– As I’m sure most are aware of this by now but the the Cyclones have won every odd numbered game played and lost every even numbered game. If you’re going to have a pattern that’s t the one you want.

– Hammer dropped this little nugget the other night during the broadcast; the Checkers are the 3rd team the Cyclones have knocked out of the Kelly Cup Playoffs for the final time…ever. In 07, the Cyclones swept the Toledo Storm into hiatus. In 2008, it was the Johnstown Chiefs (although we didn’t know it would be the Chiefs last playoff game at the time). Charlotte will be leaving the ECHL for the AHL ranks next season on a sour note, losing their last Kelly Cup playoff series.

– Over in the National Conference, the Brabham Cup winning Idaho Steelheads are taking on the Stockton Thunder. I’ll be doing a bit of research as the series progress to get a handle on those potential match ups. Should the Cyclones get passed Reading, wouldn’t a match up against Stockton make for an interesting story line (the Cyclones franchise that first took the ice back in 1990 is now the Stockton Thunder)

-Mike-

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