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04/18/2012 3:47 PM

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Rockford, Ill.- The 2012 Calder Cup playoffs kick off tonight with first-round matchups set for 16 teams to continue a championship pursuit that began last October.

The Western Conference bracket is spearheaded by the Oklahoma City Barons, who have paced the pack for nearly the entire season. They won a West Division that saw four of five teams clinch postseason births.

Sneaking into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season was the Houston Aeros, the defending Western Conference champions. Houston is the only team from last year’s Calder Cup playoffs “final four” to return to the “second season.”

Here is a preview of the four series in the Western Conference:

Western Conference Quarterfinals – Series “E” (best-of-5)
1-Oklahoma City Barons vs. 8-Houston Aeros

The Barons come into the series as heavy favorites as the top team in the Western Conference and second-best team in the entire American Hockey League, having finished the year with 99 points. In goal they start the winner of the 2011-12 Aldege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award, Yann Danis.

Houston won their last two games of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs as they try to defend their Western Conference crown. Second-year goaltender Matt Hackett backstopped the Aeros to points in seven of their last nine games.

Oklahoma City won seven of the eight regular season meetings against Houston and earned a point in the other contest.

Game 1 – Thu., Apr. 19 – Oklahoma City at Houston, 8:05
Game 2 – Fri., Apr. 20 – Oklahoma City at Houston, 8:35
Game 3 – Sun., Apr. 22 – Houston at Oklahoma City, 8:00
*Game 4 – Tue., Apr. 24 – Houston at Oklahoma City, 8:00
*Game 5 – Wed., Apr. 25 – Houston at Oklahoma City, 8:00

Western Conference Quarterfinals – Series “F” (best-of-5)
2-Toronto Marlies vs. 7-Rochester Americans

Toronto and Rochester lock horns in a series between the North Division playoff teams. The Marlies have the AHL’s top penalty kill (88.1%) and one of the top goaltenders in Ben Scrivens, who led the league in goals against average (2.07) during the regular season.

Rochester used a 13-5-4-1 run over their final 23 games, including a 4-0-2-0 streak over their last six, to vault into the seventh spot in the West. Their 224 goals for during the regular season pace the eight Western conference playoff teams.

The Marlies and Americans met ten times this season with Toronto winning seven, but every contest was decided by one goal.

Game 1 – Thu., Apr. 19 – Rochester at Toronto, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 21 – Rochester at Toronto, 3:00
Game 3 – Mon., Apr. 23 – Toronto at Rochester, 7:05
*Game 4 – Wed., Apr. 25 – Toronto at Rochester, 7:05
*Game 5 – Sat., Apr. 28 – Rochester at Toronto, 3:00

Western Conference Quarterfinals – Series “G” (best-of-5)
3-Chicago Wolves vs. 6-San Antonio Rampage

The Wolves started the year 2-6, but clawed back to win the Midwest Division with 91 points. Chicago will make their 15th postseason run in 18 seasons, and will do so with one of the top goaltending tandems in the AHL. Eddie Lack and Matt Climie combined for a 2.54 goals against average this season, good for fifth best in the league.

San Antonio is back in the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Rampage rattled off eight wins in their final 12 games to secure the postseason berth.

The Rampage beat the Wolves in each of the four regular season meetings this season, with all four tilts being one-goal games.

Game 1 – Thu., Apr. 19 – Chicago at San Antonio, 8:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 21 – Chicago at San Antonio, 8:00
Game 3 – Tue., Apr. 24 – San Antonio at Chicago, 8:00
*Game 4 – Wed., Apr. 25 – San Antonio at Chicago, 8:00
*Game 5 – Fri., Apr. 27 – San Antonio at Chicago, 8:30

Western Conference Quarterfinals – Series “H” (best-of-5)
4-Abbotsford Heat vs. 5-Milwaukee Admirals

The Abbotsford Heat are going into this year’s Calder Cup playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the entire American Hockey League. The Heat won seven in a row to close out the campaign and earned points in their last nine games (8-0-0-1).

From January 28 to April 8, the Milwaukee Admirals were on the outside looking in at the Western Conference playoff picture. But the Ads claimed 23 out of a possible 32 points to finish the year, and earned their league best 10th consecutive postseason berth.

Both clubs boast one of the AHL’s top-20 point-producers. Abbotsford’s Krys Kolanos was 14th in scoring with 61 points (30g-31a) in just 47 games, while Chris Mueller paced Milwaukee with 60 points (32g-28a) in 73 contests. The Ads went 3-0-0-1 against the Heat in the season set.

Game 1 – Fri., Apr. 20 – Abbotsford at Milwaukee, 8:00
Game 2 – Sun., Apr. 22 – Abbotsford at Milwaukee, 6:00
Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 25 – Milwaukee at Abbotsford, 10:00
*Game 4 – Fri., Apr. 27 – Milwaukee at Abbotsford, 10:00
*Game 5 – Sat., Apr. 28 – Milwaukee at Abbotsford, 10:00