The last time the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs was seven years and one city ago, when Justin Braun patrolled the Worcester Sharks’ blueline shortly after playing his final game for UMass.
Tonight at the SAP Center, the San Jose Barracuda make their first appearance in the second round since the team moved westward. They open a seven-game series against the division rival San Diego Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks’ top affiliate.
On paper, the San Jose and San Diego are very evenly matched. Only four points separated the Barracuda and Gulls in the Pacific Division this season, as each team won 43 games, including five against one another.
Both also needed all five games of their first round series, as the Barracuda and Gulls emerged victorious on Monday over the Stockton Heat and Ontario Reigh, respectively.
Just as he has all postseason, Ryan Carpenter led the way for the Barracuda on Monday. The 26-year-old scored the shorthanded game-winner in overtime, and leads San Jose and the AHL this postseason with four goals and seven points.
The Gulls’ leading scorer, Nic Kerdiles, isn’t far off of Carpenter. The 2012 second-round pick scored six points in San Diego’s opening series, including three points in the decisive Game 5.
UPDATE (2:09 PM PST): The Gulls will be without their leading scorer tonight, as the Ducks recalled Kerdiles this morning.
The series offers a tantalizing matchup in the crease between the Barracuda’s Troy Grosenick, winner of the Baz Bastien award as the AHL’s best goaltender, and Jhonas Enroth, holder of the AHL’s second-best save percentage (.945) this postseason.
Grosenick’s been inconsistent this season against the Gulls. He’s posted a .914 SV% and three shutouts in ten starts against San Diego, but also allowed four or more goals in four of those starts.
Enroth, on the other hand, has been very good in limited action against San Jose. He stopped 56 of 59 shots that he faced against the Barracuda.
Because of the nature of the AHL’s playoff format, it’s pretty important for the Barracuda to win both of their games at home this weekend. Unlike the NHL, Games 3-5 are held at the lower seeded team’s rink, meaning the Gulls would put themselves in position to potentially advance to the next round on home ice if they split (or win both of) the first two games in San Jose.
Perhaps most intriguingly, neither the Barracuda nor the Gulls have advanced out of the second round. In fact, the Sharks have never had an affiliate last more than two rounds, and a series win would ensure head coach Roy Sommer’s first appearance in a conference final. A Ducks affiliate hasn’t done it since 2008, when the Portland Pirates held that designation.
Sommer called Monday’s win “the biggest game” he’s ever coached in. A win tonight in Game 1, though, will get him a step closer to surpassing it.