Ads, Crunch closing gap in the West


The two hottest teams in the American Hockey League continued to surge following the All-Star break, and both are closing in on first place in their respective divisions.

The Milwaukee Admirals have won seven in a row and have earned at least one point in the standings in 13 of their last 14 (10-1-2-1), and enter the week in second place in the West Division, seven points behind Grand Rapids with three games in hand. The Admirals are unbeaten in eight (7-0-1) at the Bradley Center, and their .637 points percentage overall is third-best in the entire league.

Brian Finley, the sixth overall pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, has won his last six decisions, and has teamed all year with Wade Flaherty to form a dynamic tandem in the Milwaukee cage. Mathieu Darche has scored a team-leading 21 times for the Admirals, who lead the AHL in both goals (3.25) and shots (33.8) per game, and 10 players own a rating of plus-10 or better in a Milwaukee uniform this season, led by rookie AHL All-Star Timofei Shishkanov, whose plus-20 is tied for tops in the league.

Balancing out the offensive attack have been reigning Dudley “Red” Garrett Award winner (AHL rookie of the year) Darren Haydar, third-year sniper Simon Gamache and highly-touted rookie Scottie Upshall, but the catalyst for Milwaukee’s resurgence has been leading scorer Tony Hrkac, a veteran of 758 NHL games and a Stanley Cup champion with Dallas in 1999 who is averaging nearly a point per game in 41 contests with the Admirals. Milwaukee isn’t relying solely on offense; the Admirals are eighth in the AHL averaging 2.33 goals against per game, with a blue line group that features veterans Curtis Murphy, Brad Tiley and Ray Schultz along with top prospects Andrew Hutchinson and Kirill Safronov.

Milwaukee’s only regulation loss since Jan. 17 was an 8-6 defeat to the Syracuse Crunch, who have won six straight and are 8-1-2-0 in their last 11, moving to within seven points of front-running Hamilton in the North Division with four games in hand. The Crunch are second only to the Admirals with their goals-per-game average of 3.02, and Syracuse also boasts the AHL’s top power play, clicking at 18.9 percent on the season.

Donald MacLean, the AHL’s scoring champion in 2001-02, sits atop the Crunch’s leaderboard with 48 points, and second-year pro Tim Jackman, one of four Syracuse players to make his NHL debut with Columbus this season, is second on the team with 18 goals, double his total from all of last season.

Former first-round draft pick Pascal Leclaire and 2003 AHL All-Star Karl Goehring have bounced back from a trying 2002-03 season to stabilize the Crunch’s last line of defense, and Syracuse has already earned 26 wins, one off their mark of a year ago.

With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, playoff races are continuing to heat up around the American Hockey League in what should prove to be a wide open pursuit of the Calder Cup 2004 title.

BRODEUR BE-DEVILED … On Sunday afternoon, Los Angeles defenseman Tomas Zizka became the fourth AHL graduate in just over a month to score his first career NHL goal against future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur. Zizka joined Columbus’s Brad Moran (Jan. 27), the N.Y. Rangers’ Chad Wiseman (Jan. 15) and Ottawa’s Josh Langfeld (Jan. 13) in beating the three-time Stanley Cup champion netminder and 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner for goal number one.

Pavel Rosa, a 2004 AHL All-Star, picked up a goal and an assist for the Kings in Sunday’s 3-2 overtime loss at New Jersey, his first two NHL points since the 1998-99 season.

HAMILTON BACK ON TRACK … After missing 13 games with a serious eye injury, Bridgeport forward Jeff Hamilton picked up last week where he left off. The Sound Tigers’ leading scorer put to rest any questions about his vision by hitting all four targets in the Pepsi Accuracy Shooting event at the 2004 AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Feb. 8, then recording one goal, two assists and a game-high seven shots for PlanetUSA in the All-Star Game the next night.

Hamilton returned to regular-season action on Wednesday and tallied three goals and an assist in three games. Despite nearly six weeks on the shelf, the 26-year-old still ranks second in the AHL with 28 goals, second with 14 power-play tallies and first with 10 game-winning markers.

OFF THE ICE … As part of Saturday’s Hockey Day in Canada, the Manitoba Moose, in conjunction with the RCMP, will host up to 6,000 youngsters at the Winnipeg Arena for the Moose’s game against the San Antonio Rampage… Houston will host Grand Rapids on Wednesday in an 11:00 a.m. (CT) start geared towards schoolchildren and seniors; fans 55 and over can get an $8 ticket, and the Toyota Center concourse will be open an hour early for fans wanting to get in a morning walk before the game… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forward Toby Petersen’s annual auction of unique or game-used Penguins memorabilia raised more than $3,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

ETC.Jason LaBarbera’s AHL-record 10th shutout of the season for Hartford on Friday was also his 20th victory of the year, making him the first goaltender to reach that mark in 2003-04… On Saturday, 2002 AHL All-Star Mika Noronen became the eighth goaltender in NHL history to be credited with a goal… Alexandre Giroux recorded a hat trick for Binghamton in a 6-2 win over Toronto at the Corel Centre in Ottawa on Sunday… With Rastislav Stana injured and Maxime Ouellet in Washington, Portland turned to the goaltending duo of Scott Stirling and Matt Yeats to extend the Pirates’ points streak to eight games (5-0-1-2) with consecutive road wins over the weekend… In Utah’s only game last week, Mathias Tjarnqvist recorded a hat trick and Rob Valicevic notched five points (2g, 3a) in a 5-3 win over Cleveland on Saturday… After scoring at least four goals in a game five times in its first 51 matches, Norfolk has hit the mark in five of its last six… Following Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the IceCats, Philadelphia is 0-4-2-1 in its last seven trips to Worcester’s Centrum Centre since posting a win on Apr. 6, 1997… Springfield made its only visit of the year to Bridgeport’s Arena at Harbor Yard on Saturday; Worcester and Portland do the same this week… Cincinnati’s loss to Milwaukee on Sunday was the Mighty Ducks’ first in 10 all-time home dates with the Admirals (4-1-5-0)… Albany is winless in its last 14 road games (0-9-2-3); Grand Rapids is unbeaten in 12 (9-0-3-0) at home.