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AHL Weekly: Bears still eye three-peat

WEEKLY RELEASE #12

AHL standings || Scores and schedules || League leaders

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … It’s only been done once in American Hockey League history, by the Springfield Indians of the early 1960’s. And while wins haven’t come as easily this year as they did in 2009-10 for Hershey, the Bears are still very much occupied in their own quest for a third consecutive Calder Cup championship.

Last season’s Hershey squad won a league-record 60 games in the regular season and 16 more in the playoffs, dominating the rest of the AHL basically wire to wire. This year’s edition sits at 18-12-0-1 (37 points) through 31 games, in fourth place in a competitive East Division that has produced seven consecutive Calder Cup finalists. Although their offensive output is down 0.80 goals per game from last year’s remarkable effort, Mark French’s charges rank third in the AHL in goal scoring while also owning the league’s fifth-ranked defense (2.58 goals allowed per game).

The Bears experienced very little roster turnover following their 2009 championship, but many key parts of the 2010 team packed their bags over the summer. Chief among them was Alexandre Giroux, who took his 139 goals and 255 points over the last two AHL seasons (including playoffs) and signed with the Edmonton Oilers organization; he is now the leading scorer in Oklahoma City. Kyle Wilson scored at least 24 goals in each of his four seasons in Hershey; he moved onto Columbus and has spent the entire 2010-11 season in the NHL to date. Young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner graduated to the parent Washington Capitals as did Michal Neuvirth, whose 30-10 playoff record with Hershey helped him become the first goaltender in more than 30 years to win consecutive Calder Cups.

Of those players who did return to Hershey this season, the Bears are having trouble keeping many in the lineup. Last year’s league MVP Keith Aucoin has 24 points in just 15 games this season, but he missed 16 games due to injury and earned his first NHL recall of the season on Dec. 28, becoming the ninth different Hershey player to get the call from Washington this season. Andrew Gordon, coming off a breakout 37-goal effort in 2009-10, has surged to the top of the Bears’ scoring list with 16-15-31 in 26 games and scored his first NHL goal for the Capitals on Dec. 21 vs. New Jersey. Mathieu Perreault put up 8-17-25 in just 18 games before getting the call to Washington on Dec. 6, and Jay Beagle has 11 points in 24 games between his three separate NHL recalls.

Hershey offset some of its departing personnel last summer with a handful of additions which have paid major dividends so far. Brian Willsie, who spent four seasons with the Bears as a Colorado farmhand early in his career, ranks second on the club with 28 points (12-16-28), including eight power-play goals and a pair of four-point efforts. Former 39-goal scorer Kyle Greentree also joined the defending champs and is averaging nearly a point per game thus far (11-15-26 in 27 GP). Defensively, Hershey added former Calder Cup champions Lawrence Nycholat (4-21-25, +15) and Brian Fahey (3-11-14, +13) to the mix, and the pair have combined for 39 points and a plus-28 rating for the Bears. Sheldon Souray, an NHL all-star as recently as 2009, joined the Bears on loan from Edmonton at the start of the year and has seven points in 15 games through an injury-plagued first half.

Braden Holtby, who went 24-8-2 as a rookie in 2009-10, is out to an 8-3-1 start (1.98, .930, 2 SO) for the Bears this season and has also made his first five NHL appearances with Washington, going 2-2-1. He is joined in the crease by Dany Sabourin, a former Baz Bastien Award winner who is coming off a 28-win season in Providence.

Hershey, now 54-21-0-2 in the regular season during 2010, closes out the calendar year with three divisional games, hosting Binghamton tonight before a showdown with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Pittsburgh on Thursday and a New Year’s Eve battle with Syracuse back at Giant Center.

CLASSIC WEEK IN PITTSBURGH … The eyes of the hockey world will be on Heinz Field on Saturday for the Bridgestone/NHL Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. As a lead-in, the two teams’ AHL affiliates – the Hershey Bears and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – will do battle in the Steel City on Thursday at the Consol Energy Center, the first-year home of the NHL Penguins.

The rivalry between the organizations is just as fierce in the AHL as it is in the NHL: Thursday’s game will be the teams’ 78th meeting since the start of the 2005-06 season, including series in four consecutive playoffs from 2006-09. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton lost 10 of 12 decisions to its in-state rivals last year but is 4-0-0-0 so far against the Bears in 2010-11, en route to a league-best 24-7-0-0 record overall.

Both AHL clubs also produced their parent teams’ current head coaches. Bruce Boudreau was promoted to Washington after winning the Calder Cup in 2006 and returning to the Finals in 2007, and Dan Bylsma got the call in Pittsburgh after reaching the Calder Cup Finals as an assistant in Wilkes-Barre in 2008 and leading the Pens to a 35-16-1-2 record as head coach in 2008-09.

ENJOYING THE SHOW … Several AHL alumni made their mark in National Hockey League action last week, beginning with Andrew Gordon’s tally against future Hockey Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur of New Jersey on Dec. 21. Pittsburgh’s Ben Lovejoy, a Second Team AHL All-Star in 2009, nabbed his first NHL marker the next night vs. Florida, and Edmonton’s Ryan O’Marra beat 2009 AHL Goaltender of the Year Cory Schneider for the initial goal of his NHL career on Sunday at Vancouver.

Mats Zuccarello, who ranks fourth in the AHL rookie scoring race with 25 points (13-12-25) in 33 games for Connecticut this year, earned a recall on Dec. 22 and notched a shootout goal vs. Tampa Bay in his NHL debut the next night. And former first-round draft pick Josh Bailey, recalled after racking up 6-11-17 in just 11 outings for Bridgeport, recorded two goals and an assist in his second game back with the N.Y. Islanders on Thursday in the Isles’ 5-1 triumph over New Jersey.

ETC. … Chicago head coach Don Lever became the 16th head coach in AHL history with 300 career regular-season wins when the Wolves rallied from three goals down to defeat Grand Rapids, 6-3, on Monday night… Lever, who won a Calder Cup while coaching Hamilton in 2007, is 300-229-45 for his AHL career, including 65-37-7 (.628) with Chicago… Jan Mursak was recalled from Grand Rapids and made his NHL debut with Detroit on Monday, becoming the second Slovenian-born player in NHL history… AHL leading scorer David Desharnais (10-31-41) from Hamilton has registered multiple points in 11 of his 33 games to date and has gone back-to-back tilts without a point just once (Nov. 14 and 16)… Dustin Boyd (6-0-6) has scored in each of his first five games since joining the Bulldogs… Manchester rookie goaltender Martin Jones is on a personal three-game winning streak and has surrendered just three goals in that span (1.09, .963)… Springfield’s Nikita Filatov had a goal and an assist in the Falcons’ 5-2 win over Providence on Sunday, the 20-year-old’s first AHL tally since scoring for Syracuse on Mar. 23, 2009, at Toronto… Bridgeport’s Rhett Rakhshani took the AHL rookie scoring lead (10-19-29) with a seven-game points run (3-11-14) before the streak ended in the Sound Tigers’ 4-0 loss to Connecticut on Sunday… The Whale are 6-0-0-2 in their last eight games against fellow Atlantic Division teams… Rockford rookie Peter LeBlanc has taken 16 shots through his first nine AHL games and scored on five of them (31.3 percent)… Milwaukee has suffered just one regulation loss on home ice all year (7-1-2-1), dropping a 5-2 decision to Grand Rapids on Dec. 3… Peoria’s 13-game points streak (11-0-2-0) ended on Dec. 21 in a 6-3 setback to Toronto, marking the Rivermen’s first regulation loss since a 3-1 defeat to San Antonio on Nov. 17… Adirondack has totaled 68 goals this season, and AHL leading defenseman scorer Erik Gustafsson (4-22-26) has had a hand in 26 of them (38.2 percent)… San Antonio is a perfect 4-0 in shootouts this season after posting a 2-7 mark in the shootout during 2009-10… Norfolk has outscored opponents 92-48 in the second and third periods of games this season, but is 1-5 in games decided in overtime.