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AHL Weekly: Bears pick up where they left off

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Coming off their league-record 10th Calder Cup championship last June, the Hershey Bears have started the 2009-10 campaign with a surge as they seek to become the first team since the 1990-91 Springfield Indians to successfully defend the AHL title.

Guided by rookie head coach Mark French, an assistant to Bob Woods on last season’s championship squad, the Bears are 3-1-0-0 out of the gate, good for six points and the top spot in the new-look East Division. Hershey has outscored opponents 15-4 through its first four games, including an 8-1 win at Binghamton on Oct. 10. And after finishing with the AHL’s last-ranked penalty kill a season ago, the Bears are a perfect 17-for-17 in man-down situations to begin the new campaign.

Nineteen players on the Bears’ opening-day roster were members of last year’s Cup-winning team, including reigning AHL MVP Alexandre Giroux, who has started the season on a four-game scoring streak (3-4-7); third-year pro Andrew Gordon, who began his own four-game scoring run with a hat trick on opening night vs. Norfolk and leads all AHL scorers with eight points (4-4-8) thus far; and Keith Aucoin, who shows five points (1-4-5) in four games after ranking second overall to Giroux with 96 points a season ago, the veteran’s fourth top-10 finish this decade.

Kyle Wilson, who has begun his professional career with three straight 20-goal seasons for the Bears, sports two goals and three points in the early going this year. Darren Reid has already notched two goals in three contests, matching his output from a 38-game stint with the Bears last season. Forwards Oskar Osala, Francois Bouchard, Mathieu Perreault and Steve Pinizzotto all return after making strong contributions to Hershey as rookies in 2008-09. And Boyd Kane, who captained the Bears to the 2006 Calder Cup title, has returned to Chocolatetown after three years in the Philadelphia organization.

Nineteen-year-old rookie defenseman John Carlson, a first-round draft pick by Washington in 2008, has four assists in the early going after making his pro debut for Hershey during last spring’s playoff run. Karl Alzner, drafted fifth overall by the Capitals in 2007, returns to the Bears’ blue line after splitting his rookie campaign between Hershey and Washington.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who took home the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs, is back in the fold after missing the season’s first two weeks to injury. Rookie Braden Holtby stopped 87 of 90 shots (1.01, .967) in the first three starts of his pro career, and former first-round draft pick Jason Bacashihua picked up the win in his Hershey debut on Saturday.

The Bears will play eight of their next 11 games on the road, a stretch that begins this weekend with visits to division rivals Adirondack on Friday and Binghamton on Saturday.

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SOUND TIGERS OFF TO QUICK START IN ATLANTIC … The Bridgeport Sound Tigers have jumped out to a 4-0-0-0 start for a league-best eight points, making them the only team in the AHL yet to lose a game on the young season.

The Sound Tigers, who shifted from the East Division to the eight-team Atlantic Division this year, have certainly had to work for their victories. All four wins have been by a one-goal margin, with two overtime victories and a shootout win on home ice and a 2-1 regulation victory at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre on Saturday night.

2008-09 AHL All-Rookie goaltender Nathan Lawson made his season debut on Saturday against the Penguins and earned the victory by stopping 35 of 36 shots. Returnees Trevor Smith (3-1-4), Sean Bentivoglio (2-2-4) and Tyler Haskins (1-3-4) lead the Sound Tigers’ offense with four points apiece, while newcomer Greg Mauldin scored his first two goals, including the overtime winner, against his former club in Bridgeport’s 3-2 triumph over Binghamton on Monday afternoon.

ROSTER REVIEW … The 29 AHL team rosters submitted to the league office on opening day included 714 players, from Ahnelov (San Antonio’s Jonas) to Zubov (Binghamton’s Ilya). The average age of an AHL player to start the 2009-10 season was 24 years and 4 months.

The youngest player in the league is 18-year-old forward Tomas Tatar of the Grand Rapids Griffins. A second-round draft pick by the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, Tatar (born Dec. 1, 1990) has yet to see game action. The junior-most player to skate in an AHL game thus far this season is Manchester’s Andrei Loktionov, the 19-year-old forward who recorded a hat trick in his debut at Albany on Oct. 3. That game featured the two youngest rosters in the AHL, with the River Rats (22 years, 9 months) on average two months younger than the Monarchs (22 years, 11 months).

All told, there were 285 American Hockey League players (39.9 percent) who were 22 years old and under as of Oct. 2, and 463 (64.8 percent) under the age of 25.

ETC. … With his winners in Abbotsford over the weekend, San Antonio defenseman Sean Sullivan became the first AHL player to score overtime goals in consecutive games since Chicago’s Brett Sterling on Dec. 22 and Dec. 27, 2007, and the first to do it on back-to-back nights since Jon Sim for Philadelphia on Nov. 20-21, 2004… The Heat scored three shorthanded goals in their two-game set with the Rampage… San Antonio, which is off to a 3-0-1-0 start in the West Division, did not collect its third win of the 2008-09 campaign until Dec. 4… Norfolk goaltender Dustin Tokarski, a 20-year-old rookie, pitched a 26-save shutout for his first professional win in Saturday’s 2-0 triumph over Manchester… Worcester rookie Brandon Mashinter has taken three shots on goal this season and scored on each one of them… Curtis Sanford’s 38-save performance in a 3-0 win over Rockford on Friday marked the second straight year that Hamilton opened its home schedule with a shutout; Marc Denis made 27 saves in a 2-0 blanking of Hartford last season… Alex Foster notched his 100th point in a Toronto Marlies uniform with an assist on Sunday vs. Rockford… Hershey’s 3-0 victory at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday marked the Bears’ third straight shutout of the Penguins, including Games 6 and 7 of the 2009 East Division Finals… After dropping a 6-3 decision to Manchester on opening night, Albany outscored Portland and Rochester by a combined 11-3 in taking a pair of wins last weekend… Providence scored seven of its nine goals on the power play in three games over the weekend, posting a 7-for-17 (41.2 percent) mark with the man advantage… Hartford’s 7-3 win over Springfield on Saturday night improved the Wolf Pack to 16-2-0-2 in their last 20 home games vs. the Falcons.