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AHL Weekly: Second half ready to roll

AHL WEEKLY RELEASE #16

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The AHL All-Stars have departed Portland, and with the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic now in the rear-view mirror, the American Hockey League will resume its 74th season on Friday night as the race to the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs begins to ratchet up in intensity.

Fresh off their 2009 championship, the Hershey Bears have torn up the AHL so far this season and currently lead the league with a mark of 32-9-0-2 (66 points). The Bears average the most goals per game (4.02) and the fewest goals allowed per contest (2.26), and feature the AHL’s top two scorers in Keith Aucoin (22-33-55) and Alexandre Giroux (20-31-51). Seeking to become the first repeat Calder Cup champion since the 1990-91 Springfield Indians, Hershey is firmly ensconced atop the East Division with a 16-point lead over the rest of the field.

The River Rats (23-16-2-2, 50 points), bidding for a return to the postseason following a one-year absence, have a fairly comfortable eight-point cushion in second place. The rest of the East Division sees just six points separating Adirondack (42), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (42), Binghamton (38), Syracuse (38) and Norfolk (36) coming out of the All-Star break.

Manchester has set the pace in the Atlantic Division all season and hit the break at 26-13-1-4 for 57 points. But Worcester (26-14-1-2, 55 points) and Lowell (25-16-3-1, 54 points) are putting pressure on the Monarchs’ lead; the Sharks show an 18-4-1-1 mark since Nov. 21, while the Devils are 11-5-0-1 in their last 17 games and are bidding for their first-ever postseason nod. Perennial playoff entrant Hartford (49 points) is tied with Portland for fourth in the Atlantic, with Bridgeport (47), Providence (43) and Springfield (38) lurking on the outside of the playoff picture.

The West Division is the AHL’s tightest at the All-Star break, as the top six teams are separated by just seven points. Defending division champion Milwaukee (54 points) has ridden a 6-1-0-0 surge to first place, while Rockford (53 points) is 4-0-0-1 in its last five contests to climb into second place. Texas (52 points) – which had led the West for most of the year – has fallen to third, and fourth-place Chicago (50 points) takes a six-game winning streak into the second half. Peoria (48) and Houston (47) sit just outside a playoff spot, while San Antonio (41) is still within striking distance.

Despite a four-game winless streak, Hamilton has the Western Conference’s best record and holds a seven-point edge atop the North Division at 26-11-3-4 (59 points). Second-place Rochester (52) recovered from a rough stretch in December and early January to win three straight games prior to the break, and Manitoba – last season’s regular-season points champions – is right behind the Amerks with 51 points. Abbotsford (48) is 5-2-1-0 in its last eight outings; resurgent Lake Erie (44) has climbed back to .500 by taking points in 12 of 15; and recent division winners Grand Rapids (43) and Toronto (37) still have their sights set on a postseason run.

The AHL’s regular season resumes in full force this weekend with 13 games on Friday and 14 more on Saturday.

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CROSSOVER SKINNY … The AHL’s 2010 Calder Cup Playoff format calls for the top four teams in each division to qualify, with one possible exception: Since a league-high eight teams reside in the Atlantic Division, the fifth-place team in the Atlantic will cross over and compete in the East Division playoffs if it finishes with more points than the fourth-place club in the East.

Further, if that fifth-place Atlantic squad ends up with more points than the East’s third-place club, the Atlantic team would square off with the East’s second-place team in round one, and the East’s third-place club would draw the East Division champion.

RIDING THE WAVE … Hershey’s Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux are not only the top two overall scorers in the AHL, they also each bring impressive scoring streaks into the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule.

Both forwards have a point in 11 straight games for the Bears, the longest scoring streaks in the league this season. Aucoin shows 8-15-23 totals during his scoring streak, while Giroux – who put up five points (3-2-5) in last Friday’s 10-4 win at Albany – is 9-9-18 during his 11-game surge.

ALL-STARS MOVING UP … Just two days after the conclusion of the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic, three participants in the event have been recalled to the National Hockey League. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Dustin Jeffrey, Bridgeport defenseman Dustin Kohn and Hershey defenseman John Carlson were all summoned by their parent clubs on Thursday.

Jeffrey, who tallied a goal and two assists during Canada’s four-goal rally in the third period of Tuesday’s AHL All-Star Game, appeared in 14 games for Pittsburgh as a rookie last season. Kohn, a third-year pro and former second-round draft choice, is looking to skate in his first career NHL game for the N.Y. Islanders. And Carlson has earned his third recall of the season by Washington, where he has played five games to date.

ETC. … AHL teams combined to score 232 goals in 35 games last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, an average of 6.63 goals per contest… Springfield’s Chad Wiseman set an AHL season high with six points (4-2-6) in a 6-3 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday, the most in an AHL game since Jiri Tlusty put up six for Toronto on Mar. 4, 2009… Worcester rookie Logan Couture tallied game-winning goals on back-to-back days last weekend and has a league-leading eight game-winners on the season… Lowell defenseman Rob Davison, who entered the season with five goals in 402 career AHL and NHL games, has scored four times for the Devils this year, and all four have been game-winners… Chicago defenseman Arturs Kulda leads the league with his plus-29 rating, and has been even or better in 27 of his 29 games played under coaches Don Lever and Ron Wilson… Milwaukee’s Chris Mueller posted five points (3-2-5), including his first two career multiple-point showings, and a plus-5 rating in the Admirals’ pair of victories at Manitoba last weekend… Under the direction of new head coach Jim Johnson, Norfolk embarks on a seven-game Northeast road trip this weekend with games in Springfield, Manchester and Lowell… Hershey has a net total of just seven goals against while shorthanded this season, allowing a league-low 17 power-play goals and scoring 10 shorties… Beginning Friday, Syracuse will play 23 of its final 37 games on home ice… Last year’s Calder Cup finalists clash for their second two-game set of the month when Manitoba visits Hershey this weekend; the Bears captured a pair of wins in Winnipeg on Jan. 8-9… Teams that score first this season pick up at least one standings point 76 percent of the time (444-120-29-32).