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First teams punch tickets to playoffs

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Three spots down, 13 to go. The first three participants in the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs are set, with the Portland Pirates, Grand Rapids Griffins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins all clinching postseason berths over the weekend.

For Portland and Grand Rapids, it marks a return to the Calder Cup Playoffs after failing to qualify in 2005. The Pirates have opened up a six-point lead atop the Atlantic Division, and have reached the 40-win plateau for the first time since 1999-2000. The Griffins currently lead the league with 45 wins and a .720 points percentage, and own a comfortable 11-point cushion as they seek their third division title in five AHL seasons.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will be in the AHL postseason for the fourth year in a row, and has already all but locked up the best regular-season finish in team history. The Penguins, Calder Cup runners-up in 2001 and 2004, have won three in a row and lead Hershey by four points atop the East Division.

The races to join the 16-team postseason party are heating up with five weeks remaining, especially in the Western Conference. While Grand Rapids appears headed to a first-place finish in the North Division, Syracuse and Manitoba are on a collision course towards a division semifinal playoff meeting, with the Moose currently one point behind the Crunch for second place and home-ice advantage in the first round.

Toronto sits fourth in the North, eight points ahead of Rochester and nine up on Hamilton. But the Amerks play 10 of their final 15 games on home ice, and the surging Bulldogs are on an 11-3-0-0 run since Feb. 12. Rookie goaltender Jaroslav Halak is leading Hamilton’s charge; the 20-year-old from Bratislava, Slovakia, has allowed just nine goals in seven games, posting a 5-2-0 record, a 1.26 GAA, a save percentage of .958 and three shutouts.

In the West Division, Houston is currently four points ahead of second-place Milwaukee, with the teams’ season series finale set for the Bradley Center this Friday night. Peoria is 11 points back of the Aeros, but still has three meetings left with the division leaders. And a three-team race is on for the fourth spot in the West, with Omaha currently five points ahead of Iowa and seven clear of Chicago.

ADIEU, BOOM BOOM … Hockey Hall of Famer and former American Hockey League head coach Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion died Saturday morning after a brief battle with stomach cancer. He was 75.

The Montreal native was most famous for the 14 seasons he played for his hometown Canadiens, but Geoffrion made his mark in the AHL as well, serving as coach of Montreal’s affiliate, the Quebec Aces, from 1964-66. The Aces went a combined 91-47-6 in Geoffrion’s two seasons, winning back-to-back Eastern Division titles.

TO FIFTY … AND BEYONDDonald MacLean has become the first AHL player in five years to reach the magical 50-goal mark for a single season. The Grand Rapids forward hit the milestone with two goals in the Griffins’ 7-3 win at Chicago on Sunday afternoon.

MacLean’s previous career high was 33 goals, scored during the 2001-02 season in St. John’s when he captured the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the AHL’s scoring champion with 87 points. The ninth-year pro and two-time AHL All-Star from Sydney, N.S., has scored a goal in seven straight games and has potted 37 goals in his last 34 contests.

MORE AHL MILESTONES … With six goals in four games last week, Binghamton captain Denis Hamel is now one shy of 200 for his AHL career… Grand Rapids defenseman Bryan Helmer recorded his 300th career AHL assist on Sunday, and is also on the verge of milestones in career games played (698), goals (98) and points (398) in the AHL… Manitoba’s Craig Darby needs two assists for 400, and Rochester’s Chris Taylor is two assists shy of 300… Providence’s Jason MacDonald scored his 100th AHL goal on Sunday… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Dennis Bonvie went over 4,000 penalty minutes for his AHL career on Sunday (4,033)… Albany head coach Robbie Ftorek earned his 350th career AHL victory on Wednesday night.

ETC.

  • Jesse Schultz had three goals and an assist in Manitoba’s 5-2 win over Toronto on Sunday evening, extending his career high to 32 goals on the season
  • Omaha rookie David Moss has scored 10 goals in his last 11 games
  • Providence’s Jordan Sigalet earned his fifth straight win and his first professional shutout with 34 saves in a 4-0 victory over Hershey on Sunday
  • Houston’s Patrick O’Sullivan scored five goals in a two-game span last week, upping his rookie-leading total to 41 on the season
  • Darryl Bootland recorded a hat trick in Grand Rapids’ 5-4 overtime win against Peoria on Wednesday, becoming the first AHL player since 1997-98 with 20 goals and 200 penalty minutes in the same season
  • Alex Foster made his professional debut with the Toronto Marlies on Friday night after signing with the Maple Leafs earlier in the week; Foster’s dad, Dwight, played for Rochester and Binghamton in the late 1970’s, and his uncle Wes Jarvis spent nine AHL seasons with Hershey, St. Catharines and Newmarket in the 80’s
  • Chicago has topped 10,000 in attendance at six of its last 11 home games
  • In three weekend games, Binghamton was outshot 42-8 in the first period, but owned an 89-59 edge after the first 20 minutes
  • Norfolk has allowed 16 power-play goals in its last eight games
  • Clear Day lists for the AHL’s 27 teams will be released on theahl.com no earlier than 10:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday.