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3 teams in hunt for Atlantic crown

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Six years ago, the Hartford Wolf Pack overtook the first-place Portland Pirates during the second week in March, held on to win the division title and eventually raised the Calder Cup. With the Pack in pursuit and Manchester not far behind them, Portland has six weeks to prevent history from repeating.

Three division races currently have three points or fewer separating the top two clubs. In the Atlantic, the Pirates, with nine wins in their last 11 games, continue to own the best record at 38-15-5-3 (84 points), but the Wolf Pack, 13-1-0-1 in their last 15 games, have closed the gap and sit at 37-16-2-6 (82 points). Hartford can pull into a flat-footed tie when Portland visits the Civic Center this Wednesday night.

Despite two trips to the Calder Cup Finals (including a championship in 1994) and two seasons surpassing 100 points, the Pirates have never won a division title. Now, in its first season as the top affiliate of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Portland has its sights set on a first-place finish. Rookie Ryan Shannon and second-year pro Dustin Penner (currently on NHL recall to the Ducks) continue to lead the team in scoring, and Anaheim looked to shore up the Pirates’ crease with last week’s acquisition of veteran goaltender Jani Hurme.

Only once in their first eight seasons have the Wolf Pack finished lower than second in their division, and even just a .500 mark down the stretch here would give Hartford its third straight 100-point campaign. The Pack, division champions in 2000 and 2004, boast a league-high five players with at least 20 goals in 2005-06, led by Alexandre Giroux with 29 and Jarkko Immonen and rookie Nigel Dawes with 28 each. Hartford enters the week on a six-game winning streak, including five consecutive wins in come-from-behind fashion.

Manchester, which staged its own fight for first with the Wolf Pack in 2004-05, has fallen eight points off the Pirates’ pace with five losses in their last seven outings. But the Monarchs play 12 of their final 18 games at the Verizon Wireless Arena, where they are 17-7-2-2 so far this season, and 10 of their final 18 games against teams currently out of the postseason picture. Brad Smyth, a member of that Calder Cup-winning Hartford team in 1999-2000, leads the Monarchs in goals (27), assists (36), points (63) and plus/minus (+17), while 2006 AHL All-Star Jeff Tambellini ranks third among all league rookies in scoring with 56 points in 56 games.

YOUNG BARONS HIT TRIFECTA … The Cleveland Barons have become the first AHL team in five years to have three different rookies with at least 20 goals in the same season.

Josh Hennessy and Mike Iggulden both scored their 20th goals of the year on Saturday night, as the Barons snapped a 10-game home winless streak with a 4-1 victory over Hamilton. Steve Bernier, currently on NHL recall to the parent San Jose Sharks, also has 20 goals with the Barons this season.

The last AHL team to accomplish the feat was the 2000-01 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, led by Toby Petersen (26), Milan Kraft (21) and Eric Meloche (20).

CLEAR DAY SET … Clear Day for the 2005-06 season is set for Monday, March 13. Each AHL member club is required to submit their Clear Day list to the league office by 3:00 p.m. ET on that day.

Only those 22 players listed on a team’s Clear Day roster are eligible to compete in the remainder of the AHL regular season and in the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs, unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension. Teams may also add signed junior players or players on amateur tryout contracts after Clear Day, but only once their respective junior or college seasons are complete.

HELPING HANDMike Smith recorded three assists, tying a single-game AHL record for a goaltender, and also made 35 saves in Iowa’s 6-1 win at Peoria on Friday night. Smith, a fourth-year pro, has now been credited with 11 assists in 113 career AHL games, including six this season.

Rochester’s Lynn Zimmerman (1972-73), Hershey’s Jim Weaver (1977-78) and Utica’s Martin Brodeur (1992-93) are the only other AHL goaltenders to register three assists in one game.

ETC.

  • Rem Murray, who skated in 54 games for Houston this season in coming back from cervical dystonia, a serious nerve disorder in his neck, signed with the Edmonton Oilers over the weekend and made his NHL return on Sunday
  • His 11-game goal-scoring streak ended on Friday, but Syracuse’s Mark Hartigan still has a point in 13 straight contests (12g, 11a) and 31 of his last 32 (29g, 29a)
  • Donald MacLean set a Grand Rapids franchise record with his 47th goal of the season on Sunday evening
  • Mika Noronen, who led Rochester to the Calder Cup Final in 2000, made two starts for the Amerks on a conditioning assignment last week
  • Scott Barney, Billy Tibbetts and Kip Miller have each recorded a point in seven straight games for Chicago
  • Milwaukee’s Greg Classen recorded three goals and an assist in a 6-4 win in Peoria on Saturday; Gavin Morgan did the same for the Rivermen on Sunday, in a 5-2 win at Omaha
  • Nick Tarnasky scored all three Springfield goals in a 3-2 overtime win at Bridgeport on Saturday
  • Jeff Hamilton then scored both Sound Tigers goals in Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win over Norfolk, which is now 4-3-2-1 with one game left on its 11-game, 18-day road trip
  • David LeNeveu made 44 saves in San Antonio’s 4-2 win over Houston on Sunday, marking the ninth time in his last 16 games he has faced at least 40 shots (5-4-0)
  • Hershey shooters are 3-for-25 in the Bears’ last six shootouts, and have been shut out five times
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won its team-record 40th game of the season on Saturday night.