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Calgary Begins Round 2 in the Yukon

by Matt Burch | May 1, 2017, 9:54 PM ET

Yes, the first time ever.  Like ever, ever.  Even back in the St. Louis Roughnecks days.  In fact I don't think GM Burch has won more than two games in a series.  How unlikely is it, then, that Acadia - first overall in the season's pre (almost) season power rankings and heavy favorites going in - would surrender to Calgary their first series win?  My money is on not very likely.  Even this reporter had Acadia winning in four games.  After game 1, that seemed very possible if not likely.

 

How they got this far

To be perfectly honest, the Mustangs were no slouches in the inaugural power rankings, reeling in the 3rd overall spot just behind the aforementioned Golden Bears, and the Las Vegas Aces, who just so happen to be the only squad to get through round 1 quicker than the Mustangs.  But, performance is everything, and based on those rankings the Golden Bears, Aces, and Mustangs underperformed, losing ground to upstart franchises like the Norsemen, Revolution, Huskies, and Fire Ants.  That said, an "underachievement" of 101-104 points is not a bad thing.

The season saw a slow, unspectacular, but steady pace for the Mustangs.  They had their bad streaks, but, for the most part, Coach Winnfield kept the squad in line, never falling below the 6th overall spot in the Canadian Conference at any point in the season.  Scoring, however, remains an issue, even into the playoffs.

It has, admittedly, been a down year for offense around the entire league, and the Mustangs were no exception to that rule.  Patrick Kane, who was rumored to be shopped around the league during one of the team's slumps, mustered a meager 62 points this season.  Compared to the previous season's total of 86, many expected Kane to repeat or match that performance since these are his prime years.

But the problems weren't just with Kane.  Mark Scheifele saw his point total hold steady despite increased ice time and playing with better linemates.  Evgeny Kuznetsov played his first full season, but seemed happier playing a checking, defensive game than putting the puck in the opposing team's net.

The two biggest culprits in the offense's stagnation this season should probably go to former consistent 20-goal man Andrew Shaw, and the much-maligned and hapless forward, Jussi Jokinen.  Shaw has the distinction of being the only player to play in the pros right out of the 2012 draft, and since then he has been a quality second to third line producer, as well as a pest to the other team.  This season he remained a pest, but saw his production drop significantly to a paltry four goals in 81 games.  One would have thought that, after his point-per-game achievement in five games against Acadia last season in the playoffs, that Shaw's production was possibly on the upswing.

Then comes Jussi Jokinen.  The "Juicey" era was not exactly the most productive of relationships.  After nabbing him up in free agency last season for a respective price of 3.9 million over two years, the expectation was that he would be a quality defensive presence at forward with the ability to pass and take faceoffs when called upon.  Jokinen's first season didn't light the world on fire, but his defensive play wasn't half bad, mustering a -1 on a team that had trouble keeping the puck out of the net. 2016-2017, however, saw everything slip in Jussi's game.  Whether it was about being underpaid, or perhaps coach Winnfield didn't know how to use him, Jokinen just did not deliver anything that was expected.  This season was far better for the team, defensively, having most of the forwards positive in the plus/minus column.  Jussi, however, was the only forward that had a double-digit negative stat.  The scratches came, as did the fourth line play.  Jokinen was even tried on defense when Mark Stuart was injured, but nothing clicked.  At the trade deadline, GM Burch pulled the trigger on a trade that saw Jokinen go to Nova Scotia in exchange for winger and former first overall pick, Rick Nash plus a 6th round pick.  This was more of a "what do I have to lose" move, considering Jokinen was being outplayed by lesser players and not earning a spot on in the lineup.

With a little hindsight, it hasn't paid huge dividends for the Mustangs, but it has been better than it was.  Rick Nash only had one goal and eight points in twenty-one games with the Mustangs, but overall provided a more stable defensive game, as well as a respected voice in the locker room.  Jokinen, on the other hand, inexplicably went on a tear with the Schooners, scoring in twenty games almost what he managed in sixty with Calgary, plus having three goals and five points in six games in the playoffs against the Norsemen.  To say he was integral in Nova Scotia's final push to the playoffs might be an understatement.

Moving on.  The Mustangs didn't stumble into the playoffs like they did last season with captain Mark Giordano doubling as a coach.  Nor did they dominate like they did two seasons ago with Al MacInnis as coach and Tyler Bozak, Matt Read, and Justin Williams hooking up for one of the most productive lines in league history.  This season saw a plethora of one goal games, whether on the winning or losing side (I lost track, it was somewhere around 60-70% of the games this season and all of the playoff games with Acadia), which was obviously the result of new coach Jules Winnfield's no nonsense, shut-em-down style.  It mostly worked during the season, and playing all of those close games appeared to pay off in the playoffs.

The first round was one for the ages, at least in Calgary.  Every game was close, with three games going to overtime.  Game one saw a heartwrenching goal from Acadia's Chris Kreider in the final 23 seconds of the third period.  The feeling from the fans were tense.  The the siren song of "here we go again" was definitely tempting.  But the Mustangs were cool and calm, most of all goaltender Ben Bishop.  

At the risk of speaking hyperbolically, Ben Bishop absolutely stole this series.  No Bishop, then little to no chance of a second round for the Mustangs.  He saw a lot of rubber against Acadia, and he stopped most of it.  At the end of the series, even Acadia GM Guy Flaming gave him respect, Tweeting out hours after the final game, "Early favourite for MVP has to be Ben Bishop."  With a .953 save percentage and 1.25 GAA through five games, it's hard to disagree.

This just goes hand in hand with the unexpected nature of this run.  Bishop has always been a decent goaltender during the regular season, but in the playoffs around Cow-gary he has been less than stellar.  Granted, he hasn't played many games, but to give you an idea he had barely a .900 save percentage in the playoffs before this year.

Round 2

Next, the Mustangs fire it up again for their first ever playoff meeting with the Whitehorse Huskies.  The Huskies are an original team, and have long been a tough opponent for the Mustangs.  Honestly, the way the Mustangs played this season, they might have preferred the Commissioner trophy winning Norsemen over the Huskies, but the Mustangs also went winless against the Golden Bears this regular season, so clearly history is just history.

One thing is for sure, the Mustangs will need to muster more offense if they hope to keep this run alive.  Giordano can't score all the points, and they can't expect Bishop to be a brick wall every night.  Stars like Patrick Kane, Henrik Zetterberg, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash, and Mark Scheifele have got to step it up offensively or this may be an early second round exit for a team that fought so hard to get past round one.

 

Youngsters

After the regular season ended and we had a better idea of the pool of young talent in the Mustangs' organization, the top ten prospects list was updated, and it surprisingly looks like there might be some defensive help coming for Calgary:

1.  Nikolaj Ehlers - Winger - Expected to be a regular on the pro team next season, if not now in the playoffs.

2.  Brett Pesce - Defenseman - Stay-at-home defenseman who is also expected to be a regular next season, however he might have to step up after the recent injury to Michal Rozsival.

3.  Janne Kuokkanen - Forward - Intelligent winger drafted this past year in the 2nd round.  Didn't wow anyone, but had steady production for his first season across the pond.  Could have used a better WJC showing, but Team Finland was horrible all the way around.

4.  Paul Ladue - Defenseman - Might be another season away, but will definitely be a mainstay on the minor league team next year.

5.  Matthew Benning - Defenseman - Another late bloomer who could challenge for a spot next season but will likely be on the farm team.

6.  Bryan Rust - Winger - Little ball of energy could push for a spot in the bottom six next season.  I hear he's pretty good in the playoffs, too.

7.  Dmitry Sokolov - Winger - Russian winger who can score goals at an amazing rate in juniors on a bad team, definitely improved his stock this year with 48 goals in 64 games.

8.  Lucas Wallmark - Center - Sound center who could be a mainstay bottom 6 player one day.  

9.  Alex Nedejkovic - Goalie - Huge tumble for a goaltender GM Burch went out of his way to trade for and draft.  Nedes looked like a big game goaltender in junior and the WJC, but has shown himself to be rather pedestrian in his post-junior career.  Goalies develop late, however, and Nedes has always shown himself to have a mind for the pro game, so no sense in giving up on him yet.  Who knows, maybe the commish will make the pads smaller for bigger goalies and give a littler goalie like Alex a chance?  It could happen!

10. Nicholas Caamano - Winger - Caamano was seen as a surprise this season.  I believe he was the youngest player in his draft class, if not one of the youngest, and exceeded all expectations as a low 4th round selection.  He finished third on the Flint Firebirds in scoring with 64 points in 67 games.  We'll have to see what his plans are for next year before we can project when he's expected to pull on the red and white.

 

That's the Calgary Mustangs latest.  Check back in for more, either after or during the rest of the playoffs! 

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