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AHL Weekly: Falcons’ push taking wing

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Springfield Falcons entered the AHL in 1994 and made the Calder Cup Playoffs five straight seasons late in the decade while developing future NHL talent like Daniel Briere, Shane Doan, Olli Jokinen, Nikolai Khabibulin and Manny Legace. Now without a postseason berth since 2003, the Falcons are making a strong bid to end the longest playoff cold snap in AHL history.

In their first season as the top affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Falcons enter the week at 30-27-1-3 for 64 points, one point behind third-place Worcester for the Atlantic Division’s final guaranteed postseason bid. Under first-year head coach Rob Riley, Springfield enters March with as many as 30 victories for the first time since its 99-point season of 1997-98, and already having surpassed their win total from all but one of their seven previous campaigns.

Columbus’s top affiliate ranked 18th in the AHL in offense playing in Syracuse last season; this year’s Falcons are up to ninth in that category with an average of 3.11 goals per contest. Tomas Kubalik, a 20-year-old rookie and who was drafted by Columbus in 2008, paces Springfield’s offense with 19 goals and 40 points while playing in 60 of the club’s 61 games. A native of the Czech Republic, Kubalik’s 40 points are good for second among AHL rookies. The Blue Jackets acquired three-time 20-goal scorer Trevor Smith from Anaheim on Jan. 4, and Smith has recorded 6-6-12 in 14 games since joining the Falcons and ranks second on the club with 39 points (18-21-39) in 49 AHL contests overall. With 12-23-35 in 53 outings, team captain and 175-game NHL veteran Ben Guite is enjoying his most productive season since 2005-06. And 21-year-old rookie Matt Calvert racked up 13-12-25 totals in 38 games for Springfield before spending much of the second half up in Columbus, where on Monday he was named the NHL’s third star of the week.

Kyle Wilson, a two-time Calder Cup champion in Hershey, was assigned to Springfield on Jan. 21 and has lit up the AHL for 11 goals and 20 points in just 18 games, a span in which the Falcons have gone 11-7-0-0. Former sixth-overall draft pick Nikita Filatov boasts 6-9-15 totals in just 25 games since his assignment from the Blue Jackets, and at Monday’s NHL trade deadline, the Jackets added former AHL All-Star and two-time 20-goal scorer Greg Moore, who had been with Adirondack this year.

The Falcons are also the beneficiaries of career seasons by a handful of players. Third-year pro Maksim Mayorov, a fourth-round draft choice by Columbus in 2007, notched 17 goals in each of his first two AHL seasons with Syracuse; the 21-year-old has already reached that mark in 56 contests this year, and his 30 points are just two shy of the career-high 32 he put up in 2009-10. Fifth-year pro Trevor Frischmon (4-21-25) will establish a new career high with his next point, while Chris D’Alvise registered three points in his AHL debut on Nov. 20 and has gone on to post 11-12-23 in 40 outings.

Springfield’s defensive corps features a pair of stud 20-year-old rookies in David Savard (7-20-27) and John Moore (4-16-20), who was a first-round draft pick by the Blue Jackets in 2009. Savard’s 27 points rank third among all AHL rookie rearguards; Moore appeared in the AHL All-Star Classic and has played in his first two career NHL games in Columbus. Third-year pro Nick Holden (4-16-20) is well on his way to establishing a career high in points; Jonathan Sigalet (3-15-18) leads the team with a plus-11 rating; and former second-round draft choice Cody Goloubef has 16 points (4-12-16) in 41 games as a rookie.

Goaltender David LeNeveu, a second-round draft pick who made his pro debut with the Falcons in 2003-04, is back with the club and shows a 16-13-2 mark (2.92, .898) in 33 appearances; first-year North American pro Gustaf Wesslau has contributed a 12-13-1 record through 26 outings.

The Falcons largely control their own postseason fate by playing 13 of their final 19 games within the Atlantic Division, including five meetings with Connecticut and one with Worcester. This week, Springfield plays a home-and-home set with the Whale on Wednesday and Saturday before visiting Portland on Sunday afternoon.

TAFFE TERRIFIC IN FEBRUARY … Rockford forward Jeff Taffe just completed an impressive month of February in which he appeared in 13 games and registered a point in them all, totaling nine goals and 11 assists for the month. Taffe registered multiple points on five occasions during February, including a three-assist outing vs. Chicago on Feb. 18 and a two-goal, one-assist showing on Feb. 25 at Peoria.

Overall, Taffe brings an AHL season-high 15-game scoring streak (10-12-22) into March, which is the league’s longest scoring run since Hershey’s Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux each registered a point in 16 straight games from Dec. 27, 2009 to Jan. 31, 2010. A five-time 20-goal scorer and two-time AHL All-Star, Taffe paces the IceHogs overall this season with 22 goals and 48 points in 53 contests.

AMERKS MAKE A MOVE … The Rochester Americans’ season may have hit a low point on Feb. 11 in a 3-0 loss to in-state rival Binghamton, which marked the second consecutive game in which Rochester failed to score. Since then, though, the Amerks have rattled off an impressive 8-1-0-1 mark to pull out of the North Division cellar and to within six points of a postseason berth.

Reigning Reebok/AHL player of the week Tyler Plante has been a big reason for the surge. Since Jacob Markstrom went down to injury in early February, the 23-year-old Plante has started all 13 games for the Amerks and posted an 8-3-1 (2.13, .924) record with one shutout in that span. A second-round draft pick by Florida in 2005, Plante had appeared in just 14 of Rochester’s first 49 contests prior to this run.

The Amerks’ offensive leaders during their 10-game surge include a pair of defensemen – Clay Wilson (1-9-10) and Mike Kostka (2-7-9) – as well as forwards Chris Taylor (3-4-7), Mark Cullen (2-4-6), Michal Repik (3-2-5) and Michael Duco (2-3-5). Rochester visits Grand Rapids for a two-game set this weekend.

SHOOTING FOR 700 … One of the league’s most prolific point-producers since the turn of the century, Hershey center Keith Aucoin is closing in on yet another milestone. With 697 points (208-488-697) in 621 career AHL games, Aucoin is three points away from etching his name as the 21st player in league history to reach the 700-point plateau. Aucoin, who broke into the AHL’s top 10 all-time in assists with four helpers vs. Albany on Saturday night, is poised to become the first player to attain 700 points since Peter White reached the milestone in 2003-04.

Despite missing more than a month of action due to injury earlier this season, Aucoin is still in the running to defend his 2009-10 AHL scoring title. The reigning AHL MVP is currently tied for fourth in the league scoring race with 62 points (15-47-62) in just 44 games, 10 points shy of pace-setter Corey Locke of Binghamton (18-54-72).

ETC. … Home teams posted an 11-3-0-1 record during Saturday’s 15-game slate, the last day this season on which every AHL team will have been in action… Hamilton’s Nigel Dawes netted a goal in each of his first three games in a Bulldogs uniform last weekend and has scored in seven straight games overall (8-2-10), which ties him with new ’Dogs (and former Calgary Flames) teammate Dustin Boyd for the AHL season high… Rookie Joe Colborne has registered four goals (4-1-5) in his first six games with Toronto, matching his goal production from his last 23 games in a Providence uniform… Rockford’s Rob Klinkhammer had totaled four goals in his previous 45 outings before scoring four times in a three-day span last weekend as the IceHogs collected three straight victories… Thanks to an 8-14-22 spurt in his last 20 games, Houston’s Jon DiSalvatore has 15-28-43 with 17 games remaining; DiSalvatore’s goal output in his seven previous AHL seasons are 22, 22, 22, 21, 22, 20 and 21… Charlotte goaltender Mike Murphy wrapped up February at 7-0-1 (1.84, .940) with two shutouts in eight appearances; Murphy has not lost in regulation since a 6-4 setback at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Jan. 26… Lake Erie has won a franchise-record six straight games on home ice… The Monsters are tied with Hamilton and Manitoba for the North Division lead with 70 points, a total which would only be good enough for a share of sixth place in the West Division entering the new week… Binghamton’s 3-2 shootout loss at Adirondack on Saturday halted its winning streak at eight games, one shy of a franchise record; the Senators’ 11-game points streak (9-0-1-1) ended the next day in a 5-2 loss to Rochester… Manchester is 10-3-1-2 in its last 16 games, and two of the three regulation losses in that span have come in the Monarchs’ third game in as many nights… With workhorse Alex Stalock lost to injury, Worcester’s last four victories have featured four different winning goaltenders – Tyson Sexsmith (Feb. 27), Jeff Jakaitis (Feb. 20), Daren Machesney (Feb. 11) and Carter Hutton (Feb. 5).