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AHL Weekly: Untying the playoff knot

WEEKLY RELEASE #25

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … With just three weeks left to play in the 2009-10 regular season, the race for Calder Cup Playoff berths and positioning in the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be a battle to the finish, with five teams separated by just three points and a crossover rule adding further intrigue to the various scenarios.

League-leading Hershey (109 points) clinched the East Division title on Friday for the second year in a row and third time in four seasons, and is closing in on the regular-season conference crown. Worcester (91) is setting the pace in the Atlantic Division and could punch its playoff ticket by this weekend, while Portland (88) and Albany (84) also appear bound for the postseason dance. Beyond those four clubs, however, the situation is far from certain, and head-to-head clashes down the stretch could go a long way toward determining how the conference finally shakes out on Apr. 11.

At season’s end, the top four teams from the Atlantic and the top three in the East Division will qualify for the playoffs, and the conference’s eighth spot will go to whichever has more points between the Atlantic’s fifth-place team and the East’s fourth-place club. As it stands now, Lowell (80 points), Manchester (79) and Bridgeport (78) would be in from the Atlantic, with the Sound Tigers crossing over to the East based on owning a better record than Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (77). Norfolk (78) currently holds down third place in the East but is just one point away from falling out of the playoffs entirely.

In Bridgeport, Trevor Smith has a point in eight of his last nine games (2-8-10) and recent acquisition Mike Radja has three goals and four assists in eight games since joining the Sound Tigers, who enter the week with a 7-0-1-0 mark in their last eight contests. Bridgeport is eyeing an even higher finish in the Atlantic, with three games left against Manchester and two more meetings with Lowell, the two teams directly above them in the standings. The Devils, who play seven of their final nine games on home ice, have won six of eight from Manchester on the year with two more home dates left against the Monarchs, including this Wednesday night.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was nine points out of a playoff spot on Feb. 12, but the Penguins have gone 13-3-1-1 since to pull within a point of Norfolk and Bridgeport for a playoff berth. Defenseman Chris Lee (1-7-8 in his last seven games) and forwards Chris Conner (2-4-6 in his last four) and Dustin Jeffrey (3-7-10 in his last 10) have sparked the Penguins’ recent surge, as Wilkes-Barre bids to make its eighth consecutive playoff appearance.

Norfolk, which held a seven-point cushion for third place heading into March, has fallen back into the logjam with a 3-3-0-2 showing in the month thus far, but the Admirals are coming off a two-game home-ice sweep of Adirondack last weekend. Norfolk’s top line of Adam Hall, Ryan Craig and rookie Dana Tyrell combined for 15 points (7-8-15) and a plus-17 rating on the weekend, while Tyrell has racked up 23 points (7-16-23) in his last 18 outings. The third-place battle between the Admirals and Penguins could largely be decided on the ice, as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton makes its first of three remaining trips to Norfolk on Wednesday.

Binghamton has put together a 9-2-1-0 surge in its last 12 games, putting the Senators back to within striking distance of a playoff spot. The B-Sens (70 points) sit eight points behind Bridgeport and Norfolk for the final two available berths, while Providence (71), Hartford (69), Adirondack (68) and Syracuse (66) are also trying to keep their slim playoff hopes alive in the final weeks.

HOLT OUT OF THE BLUE … Binghamton’s Chris Holt etched his name in the AHL record books on Friday night when he became the 10th goaltender in league history to score a goal. Holt’s empty-net tally capped a 4-2 Senators victory over Rochester at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena.

Remarkably, the Americans have been involved in five of the AHL’s 10 goalie goals, beginning with the first one by Darcy Wakaluk in 1987. Robb Stauber also scored a goal for the Amerks in 1995, and Rochester was on the receiving end of goals by Springfield’s Paul Cohen in 1992 and Syracuse’s Christian Bronsard in 1999.

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TAYLOR HITS 500 … Rochester Americans forward Chris Taylor became the newest member of the American Hockey League’s 500-point club on Saturday night when he registered a goal and an assist in the Amerks’ 5-4 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

An 18-year veteran who has skated for Rochester (1999-2006, ’09-10), the Providence Bruins (1998-99) and the Capital District Islanders (1992-93), Taylor now shows 154 goals and 346 assists for 500 points in 535 career AHL games. The 38-year-old native of Stratford, Ont., has also played 149 career NHL contests with the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. Taylor becomes 80th AHL player in league history to reach the 500-point plateau and the fifth this season alone, following Providence’s Trent Whitfield, Hershey’s Alexandre Giroux and Bryan Helmer, and Chicago’s Jason Krog.

MANY HAPPY DEBUTSJordan Eberle, a first-round draft pick (No. 22) by the Edmonton Oilers in 2008, suited up for Springfield following a 106-point showing for Regina (WHL) and registered three goals and three assists in three games on the weekend, including a goal in all three contests. Eberle, who also joined the Falcons at the end of last season, now shows 15 points (6-9-15) in just 12 career AHL games to date.

Fellow 19-year-old Jordan Schroeder – drafted 22nd overall by Vancouver in 2009 – turned pro out of the University of Minnesota and scored two goals in his AHL debut on Sunday, helping Manitoba to a 4-0 win over Grand Rapids. Winnipeg native Kevin Clark finished his senior season at Alaska-Anchorage and made his pro debut in the same game, scoring a goal for the Moose as well. Carter Hutton, coming off a four-year career at UMass-Lowell, made his pro debut with Adirondack on Saturday at Norfolk and then earned his first victory with 35 saves on Sunday, ending Hershey’s home winning streak at an AHL-record 24 games.

Jesse Blacker, a second-round pick by Toronto in 2009, recorded an assist in his pro debut for the Marlies on Saturday afternoon, and Logan MacMillan, who went 19th overall to Anaheim in 2007, made his AHL debut for Abbotsford in Sunday’s nationally-televised game at Toronto.

ETC. … Following his hat trick at Peoria on Sunday, Texas’s Aaron Gagnon has 13 goals in his last 16 games after totaling 11 goals in his first 53 contests… Milwaukee goaltender Mark Dekanich surrendered three goals on four shots vs. Houston on Jan. 1, but since then he has turned aside 104 of 106 Aeros shots (.981) in four straight victories… By tallying his 17th goal of the season on Friday at Lake Erie, Hamilton’s P.K. Subban became the second rookie in as many years to establish a new franchise record for goals by a defenseman in one season; Yannick Weber notched 16 goals during the 2008-09 campaign… Chicago goaltender Drew MacIntyre made 45 saves on Sunday before stopping four straight shootout tries in a 3-2 win over San Antonio, improving the Wolves to 7-0-0-0 against the Rampage this season… Four Albany players – Chris Terry, Jamie McBain, Stefan Chaput and Zach Boychuk – ranked among the AHL’s top 15 rookie scorers at the start of the week… Adirondack’s 4-3 comeback win in Hershey on Sunday dropped the Bears to 40-1-0-0 this season when leading after two periods… It was also Phantoms head coach Greg Gilbert’s 299th career AHL victory… Hershey has as many wins by five goals or more (13) as by one goal this season… Devan Dubnyk ended an 0-8-2 skid and earned his first career NHL win for Edmonton on Friday vs. Detroit… Manitoba’s 3-for-5 showing on the power play on Sunday vs. Grand Rapids marked the first time the Moose had tallied three power play goals in the same game since a 4-3 victory over Rockford on Dec. 6… Springfield is 4-0-2-0 in its last six road games after starting the season 7-19-3-1 away from the MassMutual Center… Hartford and Bridgeport both won in overtime on Sunday to remain tied for the league lead with nine OT wins each… Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story, a biopic of the four-time Calder Cup champion and former AHL coach of the year, premieres on CBC this Sunday.