The AFHL Stanley Cup chase begins
You won't find any true bracket-busters in the first ever AFHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
There are 8 teams in the hunt for the silver chalice, and from top to bottom every club can make a case that it can skate off with the AFHL's biggest prize.
Going into the final week of the regular season, three teams were battling for the last playoff spot. Deer Park clinched that spot late Sunday night finishing the season with just a few more points than Lexington and St. John's.
"It's been quite a year" said Chiefs goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "We feel now that finally we got in, we can start over here hopefully and try to do something."
They aren't alone.
The Oshawa City Leafs finished the season strong with only one loss in their last 11 matchups. They beat Edmonton in the final week of the regular season to put them a couple of points ahead of London Mustangs and Hollywood Stars atop the League Standings. They are going into the playoffs with the No. 3 seed.
"I think this is a very open year in the AFHL for a number of teams to win the Cup," Oshawa City Leafs coach Earl McNeill said. "The most important reason is because the rules aren't going to change in the post-season. It will be the same hockey, called by the same rules."
The Fort Drum Killers also fought much of the season just to qualify for the playoffs. The early free agent addition of right winger Chris Stewart after the Killers started slowly made all the difference. He's posted 55 points while playing on the Killers top line with Mikko Koivu and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Fort Drum is going into the playoffs with the 7th seed and will face the No. 2 Vancouver Heroes in the first round.
Other matchups in the playoffs incude No. 1 Buffalo and No. 8 Deer Park, along with No. 3 Hollywood versus No. 6 Manhattan. The remaining series is No. 5 London against No. 4 Oshawa City.
The Hollywood Stars are a story in themselves as they get set to face the Manhattan Supermen in the opening round.
Martin Brodeur has been everything Hollywood hoped he'd be when the club drafted him with their first round pick in the AFHL inaugural draft. Brodeur is among the league's best goaltenders with 37 wins, .913 SV%, 2.36 GAA, and 7 shutouts.
Goaltending is always key in the playoffs but more so this year with many clubs featuring the league's best: Ryan Miller (Heroes), Roberto Luongo (Supermen), Martin Brodeur (Stars), Jonas Hiller (Mustangs), Evgeni Nabokov (Leafs), Henrik Lundqvist (Chiefs), and Miikka Kiprusoff (Killers).
"Really every team going in thinks they have a shot," Buffalo captain Sidney Crosby said. "Whoever ends up to be in the Stanley Cup final, it really wouldn't surprise me."
The first place Buffalo Phantoms are putting their trust in Craig Anderson and Jose Theodore, who have been splitting the starting role in net all season long. They will face Deer Park and one of the best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, who helped the American Conference come from behind and win the All-Star Game this year against the Canadian Conference.
The Vancouver Heroes can scare any team. They enter as the hottest team in the league with the one goalie that clearly stands out above the rest. Ryan Miller is a league leader with a 2.16 GAA and .931 SV%.
"We know that the key to win championships... you've got to have good goaltending, and you've got to score points on offense, which we've been doing consistently these past few weeks" Heroes' Henrik Sedin said.
The London Mustangs emerged as legit contenders after they traded for Zach Parise a few weeks prior to the Trade Deadline. They've got a well-balanced offense and a solid goaltender in between the pipes. With Jonas Hiller in goal having himself a career year, the Mustangs could make a run at the Cup.
That is if they can oust Oshawa City in the first round.
"Whoever is the team that gets things going the quickest and playing together and plays the right way, is going to have success," Mustangs forward Rick Nash said. "I don't think it really matters what you did in the regular season."