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AHL Weekly: East races charge to finish


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… The tight playoff battles in the North and West Divisions are compelling as ever, but the races for postseason spots and positions in the Eastern Conference are also poised to come down to the wire with less than three weeks to play in the 2010-11 regular season.

Four teams in the AHL have already hit the 90-point mark, and all four reside in the Eastern Conference. League-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (50-18-0-1, 101 points) officially punched their playoff ticket on Saturday night and needs just two more wins win to eclipse the franchise record of 51 set in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Portland (93 points) took over first place in the Atlantic Division over the weekend and can clinch its fourth consecutive playoff spot as early as Tuesday afternoon with a win over Worcester. Manchester (91) and Hershey (91), last year’s conference finalists, each have a magic number of five points to secure their berths in this year’s tournament.

The situation beyond those top four clubs is far murkier, however. A crossover rule this season stipulates that the top four teams in the East Division and the top three in the Atlantic Division will qualify for the playoffs, and the conference’s eighth and final spot will go to whichever has more points between the East’s fifth-place team and the Atlantic’s fourth-place club.

The East Division’s third and fourth slots are currently occupied by Norfolk and Charlotte, deadlocked with 84 points apiece with the Admirals holding three games in hand. Marc-Antoine Pouliot (20-39-59) leads Norfolk’s offense, which ranks second in the AHL at 3.38 goals per game, and is one of 10 Admirals in double digits in the goal column. While Norfolk is bidding for its first trip to the postseason in four seasons as Tampa Bay’s top affiliate, Charlotte is trying to reach the Calder Cup Playoffs in its first season in the league. With Jerome Samson (26-28-54) on recall to Carolina, Chris Terry (28-27-55) has taken over as the Checkers’ leading scorer, and Jacob Micflikier (23-27-50) and rookie sensation Zac Dalpe (19-27-46) have helped pick up the slack as well.

Behind the Admirals and Checkers are essentially two playoff spots and a large group of teams in the hunt, led by Connecticut (80 points), Binghamton (79) and Worcester (76) with five other clubs still mathematically alive. Kris Newbury has registered 8-8-16 in his last 13 games for the Whale, who have won eight of 10 this month to open up a four-point lead on the Sharks for the third and final assured playoff berth in the Atlantic. Worcester lost top goalie Alex Stalock to season-ending surgery last month and leading scorer Jonathan Cheechoo has been on the injured list for the last three weeks, but the defending division champions are hanging in the race and play five of their next seven games against teams below them in the standings.

Binghamton, decimated by NHL recalls but still angling for its first postseason spot since 2005, checks in three points up on Worcester for the conference’s crossover berth and five points back of Norfolk and Charlotte in the East race. AHL scoring leader Corey Locke (20-60-80) needs six more points to set a career high; Barry Brust (27-17-1, 2.55, .925) is tied for the league lead with seven shutouts; and Andre Benoit (7-40-47) and Derek Smith (10-36-46) rank among the AHL’s top six in defenseman scoring. Key pieces currently with parent-club Ottawa include Erik Condra (17-29-46) and Roman Wick (16-17-33) along with rookies Colin Greening (14-23-37) and Bobby Butler (22-11-33), the MVP of the 2011 AHL All-Star Game.

A make-or-break weekend looms for Providence (68 points) as the Bruins battle Worcester, Binghamton and Connecticut – the three teams they’re chasing – in a 48-hour span beginning Friday night. Springfield (65) needs to put the brakes on an 11-game skid before their playoff hopes completely vanish; Albany (64) has won eight of its last 11 and Syracuse (61) has taken seven of its last nine to stay in the hunt; and impressively, Adirondack – 18-10-2-6 since Joe Paterson took over as head coach on Dec. 20 – is still mathematically alive with 13 games remaining after a bleak 4-23-2-0 start to the season.

MONSTERS RISING FROM DEEP … On the morning of Jan. 13, Lake Erie woke up with a record of 16-19-3-4 and in sixth place in the North Division, six points out of a playoff spot and 10 points back of first place. Since then, the Monsters have taken points in 22 of 28 games (21-6-0-1) and just wrapped up a perfect 5-0-0-0 road trip, sending them to a share of the division’s top spot as they look to bring postseason hockey back to Cleveland for the first time since 2004.

Lake Erie has authored most of its resurgence without rookie Mark Olver (23-17-40) and second-year pro Ryan Stoa (16-17-33), two key offensive threats currently on NHL recall to Colorado. Since Jan. 13, Ben Walter leads the Monsters with 8-20-28 and a plus-20 rating in 22 games played, and David Van der Gulik (9-14-23, plus-20), Greg Mauldin (10-7-17, plus-15) and Matthew Ford (10-5-15) have also sparked the offense during the 28-game turnaround.

WEST STILL A JUMBLE … The AHL’s West Division teams continued to play musical chairs in the standings last week, but at least two of the seven squads still within realistic reach of a postseason berth will be left on the sidelines when the music stops on Apr. 10.

Houston (88 points) has used a four-game winning streak to slide one point ahead of Milwaukee (87) for first place, but the Admirals still hold three games in hand. Those two clubs have put a bit of distance between themselves and third-place Texas (82), which split a two-game set in Manitoba last weekend and will now play its next four contests on home ice. Oklahoma City (81) earned points in four of five road games last week (2-1-0-2) to jump from seventh to fourth, where the Barons are now part of a three-way tie with Chicago (81) and Peoria (81). San Antonio (79) sits seventh but is just three shy of third in the division; the Rampage battle Peoria and Milwaukee a combined four times on their upcoming five-game road trip.

ANOTHER HONOR FOR ANDREWS … American Hockey League President and CEO David Andrews has been selected by the Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation as the 2011 recipient of its Ace Bailey Good Guy Award, which is presented annually to individuals who have supported and advanced the game of hockey on the professional, school or youth level, and who are regarded to be truly “good guys.” Andrews will be honored on Wednesday night at the organization’s “Face Off for Ace” dinner in Cambridge, Mass.

The Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation was established in memory of Garnet “Ace” Bailey, who won the 1969 Calder Cup title with the Hershey Bears and went on to play eight years in the National Hockey League, capturing the Stanley Cup with Boston in 1972. Bailey was a victim of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and his family created the foundation to perpetuate his deep caring for the well-being and happiness of children through the improvement of hospital environments and services.

ETC. … Portland goaltender Jeff Jakaitis has earned his first three career AHL wins this season (3-2-0), and all three have come against Providence – two with the Pirates and one as a member of Worcester… Rookie Luke Adam enters the week riding a 10-game scoring streak (8-10-18) for Portland, the AHL’s longest active run… Chicago rookie Edward Pasquale secured his first professional shutout on Sunday with 34 saves in a 4-0 win over Oklahoma City… Former Stanley Cup champion Jassen Cullimore scored his first two goals of the season and added an assist in Rockford’s 5-3 loss to Grand Rapids on Sunday… Albany goaltender Mike McKenna suffered a six-game losing skid from Jan. 28 to Feb. 27 but has followed that up with a six-game winning streak to begin the month of March… Oklahoma City’s Colin McDonald, who nabbed his first pro hat trick on Friday at Rockford, has scored 32 goals (32-14-46) in 2010-11 after totaling 34 goals in his first three AHL seasons combined… Connecticut’s 1-0 win at Manchester on Friday was the Whale’s first win at Verizon Wireless Arena since Apr. 8, 2009, halting a string of seven straight winless visits (0-6-0-1)… Houston has allowed three or fewer goals in all 41 of its victories to date (41-25-1-5)… Three of the AHL’s top five goal-scorers – Hamilton’s Nigel Dawes (33), Portland’s Mark Mancari (32) and Oklahoma City’s Alexandre Giroux (29) – began the week on NHL recall.