AHL Weekly: 74th season under way

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The American Hockey League’s 74th season got underway last week as 28 of the league’s 29 teams began on the road to the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs.

The Springfield Falcons, Manitoba Moose, San Antonio Rampage, Houston Aeros, Peoria Rivermen and Texas Stars each played two games during the season’s first weekend, and all six came out with a split. The Rampage and Stars squared off in a home-and-home set, with San Antonio capturing a 3-2 win on a late Joel Perrault goal on Friday and Texas responding with a 3-2 overtime decision on Greg Rallo’s deciding goal in the Stars’ inaugural home opener at the Cedar Park Center on Saturday.

The Hershey Bears raised their 2009 Calder Cup championship banners to the rafters of Giant Center on Saturday night, and then kicked off their season with a 3-1 win over the Norfolk Admirals. Third-year pro Andrew Gordon registered a hat trick for the Bears, and 2008-09 AHL MVP Alexandre Giroux began defense of his league scoring title by assisting on all three of Gordon’s markers. Keith Aucoin, who finished second to Giroux in last season’s scoring race, picked up a pair of helpers.

Gordon’s three-goal effort was one of three hat tricks around the league on Saturday night. Martin St. Pierre has appeared in three AHL All-Star Games and entered the season with 90 career AHL goals, but he had never posted a hat trick before scoring three times in his Binghamton debut, a 5-3 win over Hartford. Meanwhile, 19-year-old center Andrei Loktionov racked up three goals and an assist in his first professional game to help Manchester open its season with a 6-3 victory at Albany.

Manitoba and Houston squared off in a rematch of the 2009 Western Conference Finals and split a pair of games in Winnipeg. Moose forward Marco Rosa, who skated for Houston the past two seasons, registered two goals against his former club, and Manitoba captain Mike Keane put up three points (2-1-3) in the two games. Three-time AHL All-Star Andy Hilbert, signed by the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, joined the Aeros and posted a goal and two assists on the weekend.

The 2009-10 season kicks into high gear with 13 games on Friday, including the debut of the Abbotsford Heat when San Antonio visits the Entertainment & Sports Centre. Other home openers will be taking place this weekend in Hamilton, Houston and Norfolk on Friday; and in Hartford, Lake Erie, Lowell, Portland and Syracuse on Saturday.

PACKING IN THE CROWDS … The 17 contests on opening weekend drew an average crowd of 6,483, including a pair of 10,000-plus showings on Saturday. Hershey attracted 10,075 fans to Giant Center as the club celebrated its 2009 Calder Cup title, and Chicago welcomed 10,010 to Allstate Arena for its tilt against Milwaukee.

A standing-room only crowd of 5,411 fans packed the Glens Falls Civic Center on Saturday to watch the Adirondack Phantoms take on the Worcester Sharks. It was the arena’s largest turnout for an opening night in the 21 seasons of AHL hockey in Glens Falls.

A crowd of 8,480 fans – the largest ever at the Arena at Harbor Yard – saw the Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ 4-3 overtime victory over Lowell on Saturday night, while showings of 7,804 in San Antonio on Friday and 8,874 in Providence on Sunday also saw the home teams capture season-opening wins.

GOING GREEN … The American Hockey League is proud to be the first organization in professional hockey to make a full transition to digital publications for the 2009-10 season. Rather than producing a normal print run of the league’s annual Guide & Record Book, the league has created an electronic version that has been distributed to media members on CD; the publication is also available via download on theahl.com, and CD’s are available for purchase from ahlstore.com.

The American Hockey League is also encouraging its member clubs to join in the initiative by producing digital publications such as media guides and press notes. Several teams have already instituted “green” press boxes, providing game notes to their media on reusable USB flash drives.

This digital transition is the latest step by the AHL to service its teams, fans and media while also remaining environmentally conscious, economically responsible and technologically progressive. The AHL estimates that the digital production of the Guide & Record Book alone will save more than 7,400 pounds or 600,000 sheets of paper.

The 2009-10 AHL Guide & Record Book continues to celebrate the league’s rich tradition and history of developing the top young players in hockey. The CD jacket cover features photos of six prominent AHL alumni: 2009 Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, 2009 Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, 2009 NHL All-Rookie forward Bobby Ryan, and 2009 NHL All-Stars Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Dustin Brown.

ETC. … Milwaukee forward Cal O’Reilly picked up his 167th career assist on Saturday at Chicago, making him the club leader in that category since the Admirals joined the AHL in 2001… Wolves goaltender Drew MacIntyre, a Second Team AHL All-Star with Milwaukee last season, took the loss despite making 37 saves in his Chicago debut… Rockford, which was one of three AHL teams without an overtime loss in 2008-09, dropped a 3-2 OT decision in its 2009-10 opener at Peoria on Sunday… Nineteen-year-old rookie goaltender Thomas McCollum, a first-round draft pick by Detroit in 2008, stopped 23 of 24 shots in his pro debut as Grand Rapids opened its season with a 3-1 win at Peoria on Saturday… Providence’s Jeff LoVecchio, who missed all of 2008-09 after suffering a concussion in July 2008, scored twice on Sunday to help the Bruins to a 6-2 win over Springfield in their season opener… Texas and Houston are each a perfect 10-for-10 on the penalty kill through two games… Andrew Gordon became the second Hershey skater in as many years to notch a hat trick in the club’s initial game of the season; Graham Mink accomplished the feat on Oct. 8, 2008, at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton… Hartford has now lost four consecutive season openers after posting seven wins and a tie in its previous eight lid-lifters… Albany rookies Drayson Bowman and Chris Terry each scored in their professional debut in Saturday’s 6-3 loss to Manchester… AHL goaltenders did not post any shutouts during the season’s first weekend.