For fans of the Nashville Predators organization, hockey in the month of June is a rare treat. It was last tasted by Nashville’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, in 2006 and never reached by the Predators themselves. However, just a shade under 300 miles north of the Music City, the Cincinnati Cyclones are quite accustomed to long runs in the playoffs.
The Predators ECHL affiliate since August of 2007, the Cyclones have found themselves in the Kelly Cup Finals three times in the near-seven year span. Only once in the same span have they been held from the playoffs (2011-2012) or eliminated prior to the Kelly Cup Conference Finals (2010-2011, 1st Round Loss).
Now, tied with the Alaska Aces heading into Saturday’s Game 5 of the Finals, three prospects from the Predators organization find themselves two wins away from an ECHL championship. It would be Cincinnati’s third in six years if they can pull it off, joining only the South Carolina Stingrays and Hampton Roads Admirals as a three-time winner of the Kelly Cup.
“The playoffs are definitely a long journey. It’s important to take it one game at a time and I think we’ve done a good job of that. We have Game Five here tomorrow night, it’s obviously huge. We’ll regroup, enjoy this one for an hour, and get back here tomorrow,” said Predators prospect Zach Budish.
Each drafted in consecutive years of each other, Zach Budish, Taylor Aronson, and Josh Shalla are all integral parts of Cincinnati’s efforts in bringing the Kelly Cup back to the Queen City. All three have spent time in Milwaukee in either of the past two seasons.
Shalla, a fourth round selection for the Predators in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, leads all Cyclones in goal scoring, registering his 11th of the post-season during Friday night’s Game 4 against the Aces. While notching 17 points (11g, 6a) in the playoffs so far and 30 points (14g, 16a) in the regular season for Cincinnati, Shalla couldn’t quite find his scoring touch in the AHL.
While with the Admirals, Shalla only collected four points (2g, 2a) in his 26 games this season.
“I get a lot more opportunities to find the puck [in Cincinnati]. When I’m in Milwaukee, I’m kind of lower on the line-up. It’s understandable, you have to work your way up. Here I’ve gotten the ice-time, I’ve got to be that go-to guy, I have that confidence. Hopefully next year I can stick up there and work my way up the lineup and get back on a roll,” said Shalla.
Budish, a University of Minnesota graduate and 2009 second round draft selection for Nashville, is only two years removed from his college days as a Golden Gopher. However, two knee injuries, a football injury in 2009 and a moped accident in 2010 (one to each knee), have hampered the hulking winger.
Standing at 6’3” and around 214 pounds, Budish has the size and playmaking abilities to go far in his career. However, it’s yet to be known if Budish can ever live up to his true potential.
“I’ve played three seasons straight with no injuries whatsoever. I’m fortunate that the doctors I had took care of my knees. It was a grind to get back. There are long recoveries with ACL’s, six to nine months. It took a lot of mental toughness and support from friends, family, coaches, teammates, and support groups. I feel blessed to be healthy and out playing again,” said Budish.
Aronson, the youngest of the three Predators prospects and nearly four years removed from his third round draft selection in the 2010 draft, is a stalwart on the blue line for the Cyclones. Already in his third season for Cincinnati, the former Portland Winterhawks defenseman has registered over 160 games with the Cyclones in both the regular season and post-season. While his size and stature may not be the largest for a defenseman, he’s found his groove in his time with Cincinnati.
With potentially three games remaining in the Kelly Cup Finals, Cincinnati will try to sweep their homestand and capture the Cup in six games. If they can roll their momentum through tomorrow night’s Game Five into a Cup-clinching scenario on Monday evening, they’ll have a chance to do just that.
Without the work from Nashville’s trio of prospects, however, I’d be hard-pressed to say that the Cyclones would be in the current position they are in.
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