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AHL Weekly: Rockford on the rise

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Rockford IceHogs started slow out of the gate in their third American Hockey League season, battling injuries and an offense still trying to find its identity. But in recent weeks, the IceHogs have steadily climbed in the standings on the strength of balanced scoring and steady goaltending.

Rockford heads into the final week of January riding a three-game winning streak and a seven-game points streak (6-0-0-1), the longest active run in the AHL. Under the direction of second-year head coach Bill Peters, Rockford checks in at 26-18-2-3 overall, good for second place in the tight West Division and one point back of Milwaukee for first. The ’Hogs are an impressive 16-6-1-1 on home ice and have been fast starters, scoring the first goal in 30 of their 49 games to date.

The IceHogs lost each of their top three scorers from the 2008-09 squad, but newcomer Mark Cullen has picked up much of the offensive load. A Calder Cup champion as a rookie with Houston in 2003 and a finalist with Manitoba a year ago, Cullen paces the IceHogs with 42 points (16-26-42) in 49 games and made his first AHL All-Star appearance last week. Bracken Kearns, who also joined Rockford during the offseason, has already posted an AHL career-high 36 points in 49 games, and his 10 goals are two shy of the career-best 12 that he scored for Norfolk last year.

After ranking second in the AHL with 39 goals for Quad City a season ago, Kyle Greentree scored just once in his first 11 games with Rockford, but he has since regained his stroke and he now leads the team with 17 goals in 41 outings. Jack Skille, drafted seventh overall by the parent Chicago Blackhawks in 2005, shows 15 goals, 18 assists and 33 points in 38 games, and the third-year pro is on pace to set career highs in all three categories.

The supporting cast on offense features second-year forward Pete MacArthur (3-18-21), third-year pros Evan Brophey (8-9-17) and Rob Klinkhammer (7-10-17), and veteran first-year ’Hogs Matt Keith (9-7-16) and Danny Bois (6-9-15).

Rockford’s roster features just three first-year pros among its regulars. Brian Connelly, a 23-year-old product of Colorado College, ranks fourth among AHL rookie defensemen with 24 points (3-21-24) while playing all 49 games, and his plus-13 rating is tied for the team lead. Forward Akim Aliu was a second-round draft choice by the Blackhawks in 2007, and defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin was a second-rounder in 2006.

Corey Crawford, whose 121 career AHL wins are the most among active goaltenders in the league, missed nearly two months of the season to injury but is 5-1-1 since returning and 10-8-2 (2.56, .915) for the season. In his first full AHL season, Joe Fallon shouldered the load in Crawford’s absence and shows a 12-9-1 mark (2.66, .910) in 24 appearances overall.

In the middle of a West Division logjam that sees the top six teams separated by just eight points, the IceHogs return to action on Wednesday when they host North-leading Hamilton.

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NORFOLK STARTS TRIP RIGHT … The Norfolk Admirals ended the first half of the season with losses in nine of 11, with a coaching change, and with a seven-game road trip looming on the other side of the All-Star break. But the club began the journey with three wins in as many days last weekend, marking their first sweep of a three-in-three stretch since Dec. 15-17, 2006.

New skipper Jim Johnson steered the Admirals to a 3-2 win at Springfield on Friday before knocking off the top two teams in the Atlantic Division in Manchester and Lowell. Norfolk, which joins first-place Hershey as the only East Division teams above .500 on the road this season (12-11-2-0), finds itself just two points out of third place as it concludes its trip with a stretch of four games in five days, visiting Hartford, Springfield, Adirondack and Bridgeport this week.

FAN-TASTIC TURNOUT IN CLEVELAND … One of the largest crowds in the AHL’s 74-year history witnessed a thriller at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Friday night as the hometown Lake Erie Monsters pulled out a 5-4 overtime win over the Texas Stars in front of 18,626 fans.

It was the fifth-largest regular-season crowd in league annals and the sixth-largest overall. Among games played in AHL arenas, it ranked second only to the turnout of 20,672 spectators at the Greensboro Coliseum for a Carolina Monarchs game on Jan. 18, 1997.

Total attendance for 34 weekend games was 208,166 league-wide, an average of 6,122 per game.

GRIN AND BEAR IT … Hershey’s offense continued its torrid pace over the weekend, as the Bears defeated Manitoba by scores of 8-3 and 8-2 at Giant Center to earn a four-game season series sweep of the team they defeated in the 2009 Calder Cup Finals. Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux extended their scoring streaks to 13 games each, combining for 51 points in that stretch.

An AHL team has scored at least eight goals in a game on six occasions this season, and the Bears are responsible for five of those efforts. (Grand Rapids defeated Lake Erie, 8-6, on Nov. 8.) Hershey’s offense averages 4.20 goals scored per game – nearly one full goal higher than any other team in the league – and for good measure the Bears rank first in defense as well, allowing just 2.27 goals per game.

ETC. … Albany defenseman Casey Borer made his season debut in Saturday’s 3-2 win at Adirondack, playing his first game since the Feb. 19, 2009, team bus crash on the Massachusetts Turnpike… Chicago’s Tim Stapleton has 6-8-14 and a plus-9 rating during his current seven-game scoring streak… Chicago goaltender Peter Mannino has surrendered two or fewer goals in each of his last eight appearances (7-1-0, 1.37, .956)… Wolves forward Brett Sterling has registered a point in an AHL season-high 11 consecutive road games (11-6-17)… Tim Sestito has scored 11 of his 14 goals this season on the road for Lowell, which has set a franchise record with its current five-game winning streak away from Tsongas Arena… Ending a 105-game drought, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Nate Guenin scored his first goal since Mar. 28, 2008, in the Penguins’ 6-3 win at Syracuse on Friday… Toronto’s Christian Hanson registered his third three-plus-point effort of the season (1-2-3) in Saturday’s 5-3 win over Hamilton… Peoria rookie Aaron Palushaj has just three regulation goals this season but is 5-for-7 in shootouts… Held without a goal over his first 31 games, Lake Erie rookie Justin Mercier has six goals in eight games since: two-goal efforts on Jan. 2 at Hamilton, Jan. 3 at Grand Rapids and Jan. 22 vs. Texas… Houston’s road power-play efficiency jumped from 10th in the league (16.9 percent) to second (22.9 percent) thanks to an 8-for-13 showing during the Aeros’ two-game weekend sweep in Abbotsford… Syracuse is 5-1-0-1 in its last seven road games after beginning 3-14-2-1 away from home… Texas has surrendered just one power-play goal in its last 10 games (29-for-30, 96.7 percent)… Manchester outscored Hartford 19-4 in winning all four meetings at the Verizon Wireless Arena this season… Bridgeport has scored either two or three goals in each of its last 16 games, going 7-7-1-1 over that span.