1. Playoffs in sight
It’s the start of April, and the AHL standings are beginning to show signs that the Calder Cup Playoffs are near.
The Texas Stars, who on Mar. 23 became the first team to clinch a 2014 playoff berth, successfully defended their division championship by securing the West Division title on Sunday. The Stars, with a league-best 95 points, are now eyeing the #1 seed in the Western Conference, a position they held last season also.
Grand Rapids and Manchester clinched playoff spots on Friday night, with the Griffins poised to defend their Calder Cup championship and the Monarchs heading to the postseason for the 12th time in their 13-year history.
Toronto, Chicago and Springfield are next in line, and could all punch their playoff tickets this week.
2. Checkers march up the West
The Charlotte Checkers could not have been too happy when they looked at the AHL standings on the morning of March 1. The Checkers were in 14th place, tied for the fewest points in the Western Conference and sitting nine points out of the eighth spot.
Four weeks later, things are looking much brighter in the Queen City.
After playing 16 games in 30 days, the Checkers find themselves tied for seventh place in the Western Conference, four points on the right side of the line separating playoff-bound teams from those who will head home for the summer when the regular season ends on Apr. 20.
Charlotte won 12 of its 16 games during March, closing out the month with a pair of dramatic shootout wins over Oklahoma City that put some breathing room between the Checkers and the ninth-place Barons.
Zach Boychuk, the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for March, led all league scorers with 22 points (9-13-22) in Charlotte’s 16 games. The Checkers were 12-0-0-0 when he recorded a point, 0-4-0-0 when he didn’t.
Chris Terry (10-10-20), Brett Sutter (7-8-15), Aaron Palushaj (4-9-13) and Michal Jordan (1-12-13) all had big offensive months for the Checkers also, and John Muse went 9-1-0 (2.05, .938) between the pipes.
Charlotte can continue to pull away from the pack this weekend when it visits Oklahoma City for rematches with the Barons on Saturday and Sunday.
3. Marlies go for three
Up by 18 points with nine games left, the Toronto Marlies are on the brink of what would be a historic third consecutive North Division championship.
The Marlies are poised to become just the sixth team in AHL history with three straight first-place finishes.
The Springfield Indians were the first to accomplish the feat, finishing first in a one-division league in 1959-60 and 1960-61 before topping the East Division in 1961-62. The Indians also won the Calder Cup in each of those three seasons.
The Quebec Aces (1964, 1965, 1966) won three straight Eastern Division titles, and the Hershey Bears duplicated the feat in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
The Philadelphia Phantoms won the Mid-Atlantic Division in each of their first three seasons of existence (1997, 1998, 1999), while the Rochester Americans finished first in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Toronto won the North Division in 2012 before going on to the Calder Cup Finals, and successfully defended its regular-season title in 2013.
4. Midwest is best
After sending only two of its five teams to the postseason each of the last two seasons, the AHL’s Midwest Division is poised to see four teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring.
Grand Rapids, last year’s regular-season division champion before going on to win the Calder Cup, has clinched a playoff berth and sits six points ahead of Chicago, although the Wolves have two games in hand on the Griffins.
Chicago and Grand Rapids have finished their head-to-head season series, but the Wolves’ final nine games are all against the rest of their Midwest Division opponents, with four meetings left against Milwaukee, three versus Iowa and two against Rockford. The Wolves are three points away from securing a playoff berth, and will soon be setting their sights on a top-4 seed in the Western Conference.
Milwaukee, 9-3-0-1 in its last 13 games, enters April sixth in the conference as it looks to extend its active streak to 12 consecutive postseason appearances. The Admirals also need to win eight of their last nine games for an 11th straight 40-win campaign.
Rockford, seventh in the Western Conference (tied with Charlotte but with one game in hand), is vying for its first trip to the playoffs since 2010.
5. O’Neill hot in spurts
Second-year pro Brian O’Neill of the Manchester Monarchs led all AHL skaters with 12 goals and tied for fifth with 15 points during the month of March. And while he played 10 games during the month of March, all of his offense actually came in half that time.
O’Neill’s 15 points came courtesy of five separate three-point efforts, which also included two hat tricks and three other two-goal games.
O’Neill, who scored three goals and totaled 15 points in 49 games as a rookie with Manchester in 2012-13, picked up his first career hat trick on Mar. 7 vs. Adirondack, and duplicated the feat a week later (Mar. 14) vs. Bridgeport. O’Neill then notched two goals and an assist on Mar. 22 at Springfield and again in back-to-back games Mar. 28 vs. Worcester and Mar. 29 at Portland.
6. Sommer sets mark
Roy Sommer coached his 1,257th American Hockey League game on Mar. 26, the most ever in the 78-year history of the league.
Sommer passed Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Mathers when he guided the Worcester Sharks to a 5-3 win over Portland at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, Maine.
Sommer, 56, was named the head coach of San Jose’s AHL affiliate on May 28, 1998, and has spent the last 16 seasons at the helm of the Kentucky Thoroughblades (1998-2001), Cleveland Barons (2001-06) and Worcester Sharks (2006- ). The Oakland, Calif., native has coached 104 players who have gone on to make their NHL debuts, including 80 who spent a portion of their careers in San Jose.
Sommer, whose total at week’s end stood at 1,259 games, is by far the active leader in that category, with more than twice as many AHL games coached as Chicago’s John Anderson (627) and Manchester’s Mark Morris (621)
7. LeNeveu, Wolf Pack get first shutouts
One of two teams in the AHL without a shutout on the season, the Hartford Wolf Pack made up for lost time with back-to-back whitewashes of their in-state rivals over the weekend.
With David LeNeveu in net, the Wolf Pack blanked Bridgeport, 4-0, on Saturday night at the XL Center, then traveled down to the Webster Bank Arena and took a 3-0 decision from the Sound Tigers on Sunday afternoon. They were the 10th and 11th shutouts of LeNeveu’s AHL career, and the franchise’s first shutouts since Cam Talbot blanked Worcester just over one year earlier on Mar. 28, 2013.
With Hartford now off the schneid, the only team in the AHL without a shutout this season remains the Rockford IceHogs — whose starting goaltender, Jason LaBarbera, owns the AHL record for shutouts in a season (13 in 2003-04).
8. Rookie scoring race heats up
Curtis McKenzie remains where he has been most of the season — at the top of the AHL rookie scoring list — but the Texas Stars forward has some company as the regular season winds down.
McKenzie (22-37-59) is tops among AHL rookies in assists and points; his 37th assist on Saturday night finally pushed him past Ryan Strome, who had 13-36-49 in 37 games with Bridgeport before rejoining the New York Islanders on Feb. 24.
Grand Rapids forward Teemu Pulkkinen is first among rookies with 30 goals and second with 55 points in 64 games, while Providence’s Alexander Khokhlachev, the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month for March, put up 17 points in 12 games last month and is now third in rookie scoring with 19-34-53.
9. Kobasew rolling
In the AHL for the first time since 2005, Chuck Kobasew scored a goal in each of his first six games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, authoring the longest goal-scoring streak in the AHL this season.
Kobasew, who made his Pens debut on Mar. 14, was finally held off the scoresheet by Norfolk on Saturday night but still has 7-1-8 in seven games with Wilkes-Barre after potting just two goals in 32 games with Pittsburgh before his AHL assignment.
Kobasew, a veteran of 600 NHL games with Pittsburgh, Colorado, Minnesota, Boston and Calgary, played 127 games in the AHL with the Saint John Flames (2002-03) and Lowell Lock Monsters (2004-05) after being drafted by Calgary 14th overall in 2001. He was a First Team AHL All-Star in 2004-05 after compiling 38-37-75 and a plus-37 rating in 79 games with Lowell.
For the 2013-14 season, a total of 113 AHL players have now made their NHL debuts.