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AHL Weekly: Players angle for All-Star spots

WEEKLY RELEASE #13

AHL standings || Scores and schedules || League leaders

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross is now less than a month away, and players across the American Hockey League are making strong bids to see their name listed when the event’s rosters are unveiled.

Through this Sunday night, Jan. 9, fans logging on at theahl.com and facebook.com/theahl can help determine which players will be bound for Hershey for this year’s showcase, to be held on Jan. 30-31 in Hershey. The 2011 AHL All-Star Classic Fan Balloting presented by Reebok will determine the starting lineups for the event, and a committee of AHL coaches will help complete the rosters. After utilizing a PlanetUSA vs. Canadian format in the All-Star Classic for the past 14 years, the AHL is commemorating its 75th anniversary season by pitting a team of Eastern Conference All-Stars against their Western Conference counterparts this year, a format that was last used in the very AHL All-Star Game back in 1942.

Bidding to make his fourth straight appearance in the AHL’s midseason classic – and fifth overall – Binghamton’s Corey Locke currently leads the AHL with 46 points (11-35-46) in 34 games for the Senators. Locke is already the league’s career scorer leader in All-Star Games with nine points, including a four-goal performance in 2009.

Other Eastern Conference forwards looking for return trips to the All-Star Classic include Worcester’s Jonathan Cheechoo, who was an All-Star as a rookie in 2001; Hershey’s Andrew Gordon and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Dustin Jeffrey, who were Canadian All-Star teammates in 2010; and Portland’s Mark Mancari, an All-Star in 2008 and 2009. Among potential Western Conference returnees, Chicago’s Jason Krog (2008) and Darren Haydar (2003, ’07) are both among the AHL’s top scorers; Houston defenseman Maxim Noreau is making a case for his second straight All-Star berth; and San Antonio’s Garrett Stafford is tied for second among AHL blueliners with 26 points as he tries for his first All-Star nod since being selected as a first-year pro in 2004.

The AHL’s top seven rookie scorers to date all hail from the Eastern Conference, and that doesn’t even include former second-round draft pick Luke Adam of Portland, who shows 22 points in 20 games for the Pirates but has also appeared in 13 NHL tilts for parent-club Buffalo. AHL rookie scoring leader Rhett Rakhshani is coming off a 16-point showing in 11 December contests to help Bridgeport back into the thick of the postseason race. Rakhshani, Binghamton’s Bobby Butler, Connecticut’s Mats Zuccarello, Charlotte’s Zac Dalpe and Adirondack defenseman Erik Gustafsson have all earned NHL recalls on the strength of their outstanding starts.

A fourth-year pro coming off a career-best 37-goal, 78-point effort in 2009-10, Charlotte’s Jerome Samson is angling for his first AHL All-Star berth with a team-high 18 goals and 36 points through 35 games. A host of Western Conference standouts are also bidding for their first trips to the Classic, including Hamilton’s top duo of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, both of whom are on NHL recall to Montreal, and former second-round draft pick Michal Repik from Rochester, who has appeared in eight NHL games for Florida this year.

Among the Western Conference rookies eyeing All-Star berths are Manitoba’s Bill Sweatt and Cody Hodgson, Peoria’s Phil McRae, Lake Erie forward Mark Olver, and defensemen Brendan Smith of Grand Rapids and Jeff Petry from Oklahoma City.

There is no shortage of solid goaltending options in either conference. Peoria rookie Jake Allen leads the AHL with a 1.60 goals-against average, a .950 save percentage and five shutouts while posting a 13-3-0 record in 16 appearances. The top-ranked netminder in the Eastern Conference is Manchester’s Martin Jones, the Reebok/AHL Rookie of the Month for December whose numbers (13-2-0, 1.60, .948) nearly match Allen’s. Others bidding for the six available goaltender slots include Hershey’s Braden Holtby, Bridgeport’s Kevin Poulin, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Brad Thiessen and John Curry in the Eastern Conference; and Hamilton’s Curtis Sanford, Mark Dekanich from Milwaukee, Abbotsford’s Leland Irving and rookies Eddie Lack of Manitoba and Richard Bachman from Texas in the West, none of whom have ever played in an AHL All-Star Classic before.

HYNES HEADED TO HERSHEY … Head coach John Hynes of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins has earned a spot as one of the two co-coaches of the Western Conference All-Star team for the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross. Hynes officially clinched the honor on Saturday night when the Penguins locked up the best points percentage in the Eastern Conference as of the pre-determined deadline, the end of play on Sunday, Jan. 9. Wilkes-Barre begins the new week at 26-8-0-0 (.765), good for 52 points and the top spot in the entire AHL. Hynes is in his first season as Penguins bench boss after spending one year as the club’s assistant under Todd Reirden.

The head coach whose team has the best points percentage in the Western Conference at the deadline will join Hynes as co-coach of the Western All-Star squad. That race is currently led by Peoria’s Jared Bednar (.671), with San Antonio’s Ray Edwards (.653), Texas’ Glen Gulutzan (.639), Hamilton’s Randy Cunneyworth (.625), Milwaukee’s Lane Lambert (.622) and Manitoba’s Claude Noel (.618) all still in the hunt. By virtue of Hershey’s 2010 Calder Cup championship, Bears head coach Mark French and assistant coach Troy Mann will guide the Eastern Conference All-Stars later this month.

BOY, OH BOYD … While top scorers David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty along with a fifth-ranked defense have deservedly received much of the attention for Hamilton’s first-half success, Dustin Boyd has made an immediate impact since joining the Bulldogs’ lineup in mid-December. Boyd arrived from the parent Montreal Canadiens in time for Hamilton’s match at Oklahoma City on Dec. 17 and proceeded to score a goal in each of his first seven games, totaling 10 goals in that span before finally being held scoreless by Lake Erie on Saturday.

Boyd’s seven-game goal-scoring streak is the AHL’s longest such run in nearly two years, since an eight-game streak by Milwaukee’s Patric Hornqvist from Feb. 24 to Mar. 11, 2009. An AHL All-Star as a rookie in 2007, Boyd has already catapulted himself into a tie with Desharnais for second overall on the club in goals, trailing only Pacioretty’s 17.

ETC.Alexandre Giroux (129 points), Keith Aucoin (122), David Desharnais (119), Jerome Samson (95) and Andrew Gordon (90) were the AHL’s top five scorers (regular season and playoffs) during calendar year 2010… Adirondack’s Greg Moore, a two-time 20-goal scorer, enjoyed a four-game goal-scoring run from Dec. 28 to Jan. 1 after going his first 32 games this year without registering a goal… Oklahoma City’s Linus Omark, fresh off an eight-game NHL stint in Edmonton, recorded five points (1-4-5) in two games on the weekend… Late penalties cost Portland in three straight games last week, as former Pirate Tim Kennedy scored consecutive overtime power-play goals for Connecticut on Wednesday and Friday and Matt Irwin’s power-play strike with 3.3 seconds left in regulation gave Worcester a 3-2 win on Sunday… Rookie Peter LeBlanc shows 11 points (6-4-10) and two game-winning goals in 10 outings since joining Rockford’s lineup on Dec. 8… Hershey goaltender Braden Holtby blanked two of the AHL’s top five offenses in consecutive appearances last week, making 25 saves vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Thursday and 22 stops vs. Norfolk on Sunday… Trevor Smith scored four times in Syracuse’s 5-3 win at Albany on Sunday, the fifth four-goal game ever by a Crunch skater and the fourth against an Albany team… After suffering back-to-back shutouts on Dec. 28 and 29, Syracuse closed a stretch of five games in six nights with three straight road wins over the weekend… Springfield’s penalty-killing unit has been a perfect 19-for-19 over its last five contests… Texas fell to 6-6-0-0 on Nov. 6 following its fourth straight loss, but is 15-5-2-2 in 24 games since… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is the only AHL squad yet to suffer an overtime or shootout loss this season… Following Saturday’s 2-0 victory at Van Andel Arena, Peoria has now won 10 straight games over Grand Rapids since dropping a 4-1 decision to the Griffins on Dec. 5, 2009… The Rivermen are now 22-0-0-0 when allowing two goals or less and 0-10-2-1 when surrendering three or more… New Year’s Eve featured continuous AHL action across 11 games for more than 10 hours, starting with the first puck drop in Bridgeport at 1:07 p.m. ET and ending at the final horn in Abbotsford at 11:14 p.m. ET.