Morning skates don't carry much more importance than the one Manchester rookie forward Kyle Clifford went through with the Monarchs on May 7.
Coach Mark Morris was in a tight spot with no room for a wrong move. He needed more size and skill up front, and Clifford (6-foot-2, 208 pounds) fit the bill on both counts. Trouble was, Clifford had just joined the team from his junior season with Barrie of the OHL. The morning workout was Morris' only chance to evaluate him before deciding whether to dress him against Worcester in Game 6 of the Atlantic Division finals that night.
"He made a few nifty plays around the net that a few guys here might be challenged to make," Morris said. "He had a lot of jump in his step and a strong stick. He provided a pretty good picture as to how he might do in a game."
It was enough for Morris to give Clifford, 19, some ice time that really mattered. He dressed Clifford for the series-clinching win against Worcester and hasn't second-guessed himself since.
Clifford got his first pro point with an assist in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Hershey on May 12, and picked up another in Game 2 on May 15.
"I didn't really expect to get into any games, maybe have a little bit of a sniff," Clifford said. "The first game, I was feeling a little bit of frogs, or butterflies, in the pit of my stomach. But being around the guys makes you comfortable. You have to come to play here, or else you are not going to do very well."
Clifford, a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2009 Entry Draft, has a keen sense of his responsibilities. Besides scoring 28 goals and 57 points for Barrie this season, he also picked up 111 penalty minutes. After Manchester fell behind Hershey 2-0 in Game 1, he took it upon himself to try to fire up the Monarchs by scrapping with the Bears' Steve Pinizzotto.
"Every player on the team has a role. I try to bring what I can to the table," he said.
Unless he makes the Kings, Clifford likely will return to Barrie in 2010-11. He will do so, though, with a plate full of valuable leftovers from his stretch in Manchester.
"Playoffs (in the AHL) is a whole different story. The compete level is a lot higher," Clifford said. "I feel more comfortable every day I'm here. Physically, I think I can keep up with these guys. I'm going to take what I learn from here and bring it to my junior team next year."
Bears' Wellar thinks big -- Now that Hershey defenseman Patrick Wellar has learned to play as big as his body suggests he should, he's finally getting a chance to play for a bigger prize.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Wellar has had an apprenticeship that's been long, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. The sixth-year pro has yo-yoed between the AHL and ECHL in each of those seasons, getting large tastes of the higher league, but never playing physically enough to see the job through there from start to finish.
"I've learned what it takes for a player like myself to be successful. I got away from it. I wasn't playing to my size," he said. "In juniors I was a stay at home, tough defenseman. In the ECHL, I was a decent player. But if you want to get to the next level, a player like me is a guy who is always there for his teammates. I wasn't doing that enough in my three years in St. Louis (with Peoria and Alaska). For so long, I tried to make this level. I had no one to blame but myself."
The lesson still took a little while longer to settle in Wellar's head this season. He began the year in Hershey, was sent down to South Carolina and then worked his way back to the Bears. Once he got things all sorted out, Wellar came through with 1 goal, 11 assists and 136 penalty minutes in 47 games for Hershey.
"I really enjoy what I do. I was able to fit in here in Hershey because we're a skilled team. My role is pretty simple," he said. "One of the reasons I've been able to stay here in Hershey and become a bit of a fixture is that I'm willing to back up my teammates. I consider myself having the best seat in the house. Keep it simple, give the forwards the puck and watch them work."
That light clicking on has given Wellar, 26, a chance to grow his collection of championships. He already has bookend hardware after winning a Kelly Cup with Alaska in 2005-06 and another with South Carolina last season.
"For sure, that would be a dream come true in a dream season," he said. "Once you get a taste, nothing else will really satisfy. The bond that grows when you win something together, I tell you, there's no better feeling on the planet."
"Playoffs (in the AHL) is a whole different story. The compete level is a lot higher. I feel more comfortable every day I'm here. Physically, I think I can keep up with these guys. I'm going to take what I learn from here and bring it to my junior team next year." -- Kyle CliffordSeeing the world -- Since the 2003-04 season, Houston Aeros forward Jean-Michel Daoust has played in the QMJHL, the CIS, the LNAH, the UHL, the ECHL and the AHL.
He's been smart about his travels, saying he's picked up something from everywhere he's been. What he finally got last week for the first time was the most important thing so far -- a two-way deal with the Minnesota Wild.
"I've played pretty much in every league in North America," said Daoust, 26. "I've been around for a while. But I've still got a lot to learn. I don't consider myself a major veteran. I was working hard. That (NHL deal) was my goal."
The 5-foot-7 Daoust, who began this season on a tryout contract with Houston, led the Aeros with 55 points (21-34) in 78 games during his first year with the team.
"I had a pretty good year this year. I played with some good players," he said. "I learned a lot from them. I proved I can play in the AHL. That's a major part of that."
Around the AHL -- Bears forward Alexandre Giroux's goal against Manchester in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals May 17 was the 47th postseason goal of his AHL career, putting him alone in fifth place in that category. He also has 92 career playoff points, moving him into a tie for sixth place all-time. ... Hershey now is 5-1 in overtime during the 2010 playoffs. The 1996 Saint John Flames and the 2004 Milwaukee Admirals hold the record with six extra-session wins in a single postseason. ... The crowd of 10,726 that attended Game 2 of the Hershey-Manchester series in the Giant Center was the largest crowd for a game in the Calder Cup conference finals since the AHL moved to two conferences in 1995-96. ... Hershey's 1-0 shutout at the hands of Monarchs goalie Jonathan Bernier in Game 4 May 18 was the Bears' first blanking since a 5-0 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Feb. 13. ...Texas' Jamie Benn already has recorded a 5-point (3-2) and a 4-point (2-2) effort in games during these playoffs after no member of the Stars registered as many as four points in a game during the regular season. ... Good news for Hershey and Hamilton: In the AHL's conference finals round, the Game 1 winner has gone on to win 13 of 14 series over the last seven postseasons; the one exception in that span occurred last spring, when Hershey eliminated Providence in five games after falling in the series opener. ... Five consecutive Western Conference finals have begun with one team taking a 2-0 series lead, since Milwaukee and Rochester split the first two games of their 2004 matchup. ... Of the 17 overtime games played during the AHL playoffs, 10 have been decided within the first five minutes of extra play.