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Binghamton Senators, Houston Aeros set to do battle in AHL's Calder Cup final

HOUSTON - The Binghamton Senators barely got out of the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs.

Now, the Ottawa Senators' minor league affiliate is just four wins away from glory.

The Baby Sens' magical playoff run has taken them from the brink of playoff defeat to a date with the Houston Aeros in the Calder Cup final, which gets underway Friday.

Binghamton came back from a 3-1 opening-round deficit to defeat the Manchester Monarchs in seven games, taking Games 5, 6 and 7 in overtime, with the last two coming on the road.

"I think any time you get this far, you have conquered some of what it takes to win in a seven-game series," Binghamton head coach Kurt Kleinendorst said Thursday. "The way we approach it is that we cannot win a series in Game 1.

"Coming out and playing the best we can play and playing to the best of our potential, and when we do that, we normally have success. We play for 60 minutes, and if we do that, generally things go our way. It's when we don't play up to our potential when we lose hockey games."

The Senators defeated the Portland Pirates 4-2 in the Atlantic Division championship series before sweeping Charlotte 4-0 to win the AHL's Eastern Conference.

Kleinendorst doesn't consider his team's run a fluke, adding the NHL club's firesale in the leadup to the trade deadline ravaged his roster at the tail end of the regular season.

"I always felt that we were going to scratch and claw to get into the playoffs, but once we got in, we knew these guys were going to come back," he said. "It took the first round for us to get everyone acclimated and identify roles for everybody, and we started to find our game a little bit in the last couple rounds."

Heading into Game 1 against the Aeros, the AHL farm team of the Minnesota Wild, the Senators will still be considered an underdog. Houston swept Peoria in the first round before knocking out Milwaukee in the West Division final 4-3.

The Aeros nearly blew a 3-0 lead against Hamilton in the Western Conference final, but they regrouped and took Game 7 of the series 4-3.

Kleinendorst's team has had a long break, but he says his staff has done everything to keep Binghamton mentally and physically prepared.

Still, he probably won't have an idea of where his team stands until after the first period Friday.

"I don't think any coach can say that if you sit for nine days at this time of the year that you're real comfortable when the puck drops about what you are going to see," Kleinendorst said. "We might be just fine, and we may not be just fine. I don't really know that."

Binghamton has been led by Ryan Potulny (14 goals, 11 assists) and Ryan Keller (eight goals, 14 assists), while Kaspars Daugavins and Bobby Butler both have 10 goals.

As a team, the Sens have scored 67 goals in 17 playoff games and have the power play clicking at 20 per cent.

The Aeros, meanwhile, have relied on defence. Colton Gillies leads Houston with seven goals in the post-season, while Chad Rau has six. Robbie Earl, Casey Wellman and Jon DiSalvatore, who scored the series clinching goal against Hamilton, each have five.

Between the pipes for Houston has been rookie Matt Hackett, who has a 12-6 record with one shutout and a 2.56 goals-against average in the playoffs.

Barry Brust started in goal for the Sens to start the playoffs, but after falling behind 3-1 in the first round, Robin Lehner, who spent a good amount of time in Ottawa this season, was handed the reigns. He's responded with a 10-2 record, two shutouts and a 2.41 goals-against average.

Kleinendorst says the teams match up well and is expecting a tough series.

"There's only way that we play really," he said. "We look at the neutral zone as being sacred. We carry it through the neutral zone and get it deep. The keys for us is that we get it deep. I like our forwards matched up against anybody, and that's really been the formula that we have used to this point.

"We have four lines that are on right now and guys that are capably of scoring on every line. We are three deep, but again, we know what they've done in Houston. They are a good team, they are awfully well coached, and it's not going to be easy."