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AHL Weekly: Races heating up

WEEKLY RELEASE #24

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Hershey and Hamilton are in, but the rest of the American Hockey League still has its sights set on the 14 remaining berths in the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs as the circuit’s 74th regular season enters its final month.

The last four weeks of 2009-10 will feature compelling races for postseason spots as well as individual honors throughout the league. Come Apr. 11, the top four finishers in each division will qualify for postseason play, with one possible exception: if the fifth-place team in the Atlantic Division finishes with more points than the fourth-place team in the East Division, it would cross over and compete in the East Division playoffs.

Hershey dropped consecutive games last weekend for the first time since Nov. 21-25, but the Bears (50-13-0-3) are still within reach of the league’s all-time records for wins (57) and points (124) in a single season. Hershey remains led by the duo of Keith Aucoin (32-54-86) and Alexandre Giroux (36-49-85), who are on pace to become the first players in AHL history to finish as the league’s top two scorers in back-to-back seasons. Hershey is one point away from clinching the East Division title, while Albany, with a boost from Jerome Samson and his 11 goals and eight assists in his last 12 games, has solidified its hold on second place, earning points in seven straight contests (5-0-0-2).

In the Atlantic, Worcester has opened up a six-point lead on second-place Portland while featuring three of the premier rookie performers in the AHL in Logan Couture (20-34-54), Benn Ferriero (19-29-48) and Alex Stalock, whose 35 wins have tied Corey Hirsch (35-4-5 for Binghamton, 1992-93) for the most victories ever by a rookie goalie. Led by their own rookie standout in Tyler Ennis (20-41-61), the Pirates are in good position to earn their third consecutive playoff berth, something the franchise has not done since qualifying for four straight playoffs from 1994-97.

Only 12 points separate the next 10 teams in the Eastern Conference, with only four other playoff spots available. Boosted by standout Jonathan Bernier (26-18-5, 2.08, .937) and his league-leading eight shutouts, Manchester is tied with Lowell for third in the Atlantic at 76 points. Norfolk has hit a three-game winless skid, but the Admirals (74 points) are still three points up on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (71) for the East Division’s third and final guaranteed berth. Trevor Smith is on a six-game scoring streak (2-6-8) for Bridgeport (73), which has won a season-high five in a row to maintain a two-point edge on Wilkes-Barre for the crossover spot in the East. Perennial playoff entrants Hartford (67) and Providence (66) are fighting to stay in the race, along with Adirondack (65), Syracuse (64) and Binghamton (64).

Hamilton goaltenders Cedrick Desjardins (1.93) and Curtis Sanford (2.07) are bidding to become the first teammates since Hartford’s Steve Valiquette and Jason LaBarbera in 2004-05 to finish one-two in the AHL in goals-against average, as the North-leading Bulldogs close in on their first division title since 2004. Rochester, led by top-10 scorer Jamie Johnson (23-39-62) and rookie netminder Alexander Salak, sits tied for second with Abbotsford as the Amerks look to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Riding the play of reigning AHL goaltender of the year Cory Schneider, defending conference champion Manitoba has a five-point lead on Lake Erie (67 points) for fourth place in the North. The Monsters, bidding for their first-ever trip to the playoffs, also have an eye on the rear-view mirror with Toronto (65) and Grand Rapids (62) both surging to get back in the race.

And in the West Division, Chicago sits in the driver’s seat with 90 points, led by 2008 Calder Cup champions Jason Krog (13-54-67) and Brett Sterling (34-22-56) and by goaltender Peter Mannino (22-3-0, 2.09, .927). A stellar 24-8-1-1 home record has Rockford (86 points) in second place, while Texas (81) has won six of its last eight to open up a four-point lead on fourth-place Milwaukee (77). San Antonio (73), Peoria (70) and Houston (68) remain alive in a competitive division which features points percentages of .500 or better for all seven clubs.

THE EXPERIENCE IS CLEAR … The Clear Day lists submitted last week feature 62 players who have won a Calder Cup championship in their careers, including 23 members of last year’s Hershey Bears title team:

Andy Delmore, ABB (1998)
Staffan Kronwall, ABB (2009)
Oskar Osala, ALB (2009)
Drew Bannister, BNG (2000)
Mark Wotton, BRI (2006)
Matt Anderson, CHI (2008)
Joey Crabb, CHI (2008)
Kevin Doell, CHI (2008)
Jason Krog, CHI (2008)
Arturs Kulda, CHI (2008)
Nathan Oystrick, CHI (2008)
Brian Sipotz, CHI (2008)
Brett Sterling, CHI (2008)
Andre Benoit, HAM (2007)
Corey Locke, HFD (2007)
Karl Alzner, HER (2009)
Greg Amadio, HER (2009)
Keith Aucoin, HER (2009)
Jay Beagle, HER (2009)
Francois Bouchard, HER (2009)
Chris Bourque, HER (’06, ’09)
John Carlson, HER (2009)
Sean Collins, HER (2009)
Alexandre Giroux, HER (2009)
Andrew Gordon, HER (2009)
Bryan Helmer, HER (’95, ’09)
Andrew Joudrey, HER (2009)
Boyd Kane, HER (’05, ’06)
Grant Lewis, HER (2008)
Patrick McNeill, HER (2009)
Michal Neuvirth, HER (2009)
Mathieu Perreault, HER (2009)
Steve Pinizzotto, HER (2009)
Kyle Wilson, HER (2009)
Duncan Milroy, HOU (2007)
Brian Fahey, LE (2008)
John Grahame, LE (1999)
Darren Haydar, LE (’04, ’08)
Louis Robitaille, LOW (2006)
Guillaume Desbiens, MTB (2008)
Daren Machesney, MTB (2009)
Lawrence Nycholat, MTB (2006)
Marty Murray, MIL (2001)
Derek Armstrong, PEO (2000)
Joe DiPenta, POR (2002)
Kyle Wanvig, POR (2003)
Graham Mink, RCH (’06, ’09)
Mark Cullen, RFD (2003)
Jeff Hoggan, SA (2003)
Francis Lessard, SA (2002)
Dean Arsene, SPR (’06, ’09)
Kip Brennan, SPR (2009)
Jared Aulin, SYR (2006)
Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman, SYR (’08)
Derek MacKenzie, SYR (2002)
Andrew Hutchinson, TEX (2004)
Dan Jancevski, TEX (2007)
Landon Wilson, TEX (1999)
Andre Deveaux, TOR (2008)
Deryk Engelland, WBS (2006)
Wyatt Smith, WBS (2004)
Danny Groulx, WOR (2007)

Additionally, eight AHL head coaches – Abbotsford’s Jim Playfair, Binghamton’s Don Nachbaur, Chicago’s Don Lever, Hartford’s Ken Gernander, Hershey’s Mark French, Milwaukee’s Lane Lambert, Toronto’s Dallas Eakins and Worcester’s Roy Sommer – have won Calder Cups as players, head coaches and/or assistant coaches.

There are also nine AHL players on Clear Day lists who have won Stanley Cups in their careers: Chicago’s Chris Chelios (1986, 2002, 2008); Grand Rapids’ Brad May (2007) and Darren Helm (2008); Hartford’s Anders Eriksson (1998); Lake Erie’s John Grahame (2004); Manitoba’s Mike Keane (1993, 1996, 1999); Portland’s Joe DiPenta (2007); Rockford’s Jassen Cullimore (2004); and Texas’s Andrew Hutchinson (2006).

Links
AHL standings
Scores and schedules
League leaders

TURNSTILES KEEP SPINNING … The games mean even more this time of year, and AHL fans are responding by checking out their favorite teams at their local arenas. More than 208,000 fans attended 35 games over the weekend, and league-wide attendance is up from what it was through 980 games a season ago.

Providence drew 10,110 fans for its Friday night game vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the largest crowd at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center since Mar. 30, 2007. On Saturday, 15,253 fans packed the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, the Admirals’ fourth-largest crowd since joining the AHL in 2001, while 10,148 took in the Chicago Wolves’ game at Allstate Arena and a sellout crowd of 6,862 was inside the Cedar Park Center in Texas. Nearly 18,000 fans took in Manitoba’s two-game weekend set vs. Rockford at the MTS Centre, and 9,614 fans watched Houston battle Peoria at the Toyota Center on Friday.

ETC.Justin Abdelkader has a point in 10 of his last 11 games (7-7-14) for Grand Rapids, whose current five-game points streak (3-0-1-1) marks its longest since reeling off nine straight wins from Oct. 23 to Nov. 13… Joey MacDonald made 40 saves in Toronto’s 3-0 win at Chicago on Friday, ending the Wolves’ 16-game home points streak (15-0-0-1) and becoming the 21st goaltender in AHL history with 20 career shutouts… Worcester’s Andrew Desjardins racked up a career-high four points (2-2-4) in the Sharks’ 6-2 win over Hershey on Sunday… Springfield completed a sweep of its two-game season series with league-leading Hershey with a 5-4 shootout win on Saturday… Falcons netminder Jean-Philippe Levasseur stopped all six Bears attempts in Saturday’s shootout, then went 5-for-5 against Portland on Sunday… Bridgeport goaltenders Scott Munroe and Nathan Lawson combined to stop all 10 Norfolk shootout attempts last weekend as the Sound Tigers eked out a pair of road wins over the Admirals… Chicago goaltender Peter Mannino has won 14 straight decisions since a 3-1 loss at Hamilton on Jan. 6… David Spina’s hat trick on Mar. 9 vs. Peoria marked the first three-goal effort by a San Antonio player since Spina turned the trick against Lake Erie on Jan. 1, 2009… Division leaders Hershey (4.27), Worcester (3.50), Chicago (3.39) and Hamilton (3.31) are also the league’s top four teams in goals scored per game… Rockford has won six straight home games since a 3-2 loss to Milwaukee on Feb. 13… This Sunday’s game between Abbotsford and Toronto will air live (1:00 ET) from Ricoh Coliseum on CBC in Canada and on NHL Network in the United States.