AHL Weekly: Hershey bearing down on history

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Hershey Bears have already risen to great heights since becoming the top affiliate of the NHL’s Washington Capitals in the summer of 2005, winning two Calder Cups and making a third Finals appearance. But buoyed by one of the most potent offensive attacks in recent memory, the Bears are in the midst of writing another memorable chapter to their storied history this year.

Winners of eight straight and 20 of their last 21, the Bears are drawing comparisons to the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, who hold the league records for wins (57) and points (124) in a season. At 37-9-0-2, Hershey has one more victory but two fewer points than that Rangers squad did through 48 games. And with former Hershey head coaches Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods behind the bench in Washington, the Bears and Capitals are a combined 74-21-8 (.757 points percentage) entering February.

The rewrite of the Hershey record books began when the Bears reeled off 12 straight wins from Dec. 12 to Jan. 9, the longest run in franchise history. A loss to Norfolk on Jan. 13 was just a hiccup, as Hershey has won eight more in a row since then while scoring 59 goals over that span, an average of 7.38 goals per contest. The Bears’ league-leading offense is clicking at 4.40 goals per game for the season; Hamilton is a distant second at 3.28.

The Bears have been nearly unstoppable on home ice with a 21-3-0-2 mark at Giant Center, including 16 straight wins since Nov. 29. The longest home winning streak in AHL history was a 19-game surge by the Philadelphia Phantoms in 1996-97, and Hershey also has a chance to challenge the league record of 33 home victories in a single season.

The dynamic duo of Keith Aucoin (28-43-71 in 41 games) and Alexandre Giroux (26-40-66 in 38 games) have combined for 72 points during their current scoring streaks, which stand at 16 games each. Aucoin has at least one assist in each of those 16 games, leaving him one shy of the league-record 17-game assist streaks put together by Shaun Van Allen in 1992-93 and Peter White in 1993-94. The five-time AHL All-Star also notched a remarkable 35 points for the Bears in January – nine AHL teams currently don’t have a single player with 35 points all season – and on Sunday he became the 42nd player in AHL history to reach 600 career points.

Bears captain Bryan Helmer carved his name in the AHL record books over the weekend as well, when he became just the second defenseman in league history to record 500 points in his career. Helmer trails only John Slaney (519) in career scoring by an AHL blueliner, and his 382 assists are just four shy of AHL Hall of Famer Steve Kraftcheck’s standard for rearguards.

Hershey’s defense is doing its part also, as the Bears rank fourth in the AHL with 2.33 goals allowed per game and first on the penalty kill at a 90.0 percent success rate. Rookie Braden Holtby has gone 16-2-1 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in net, and Bears occupy 11 of the top 16 spots on the AHL’s plus/minus leaderboard.

The Bears’ schedule is relatively light this week, as they visit surging Norfolk on Wednesday prior to a Saturday night home date with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

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ROAD TRIPPIN’ … Hershey’s 16-game home winning streak notwithstanding, several AHL teams have found significant success in road contests of late.

Norfolk headlines the group after completing an impressive 6-0-1-0 road trip through the Northeast, lifting the Admirals to 15-11-3-0 overall on the road and into third place in the tight East Division. The trip, which began immediately following the All-Star break, coincided with the start of the Jim Johnson head coaching era in Virginia.

Lowell improved its franchise-record road winning streak to seven games with triumphs over division rivals Hartford and Worcester last weekend. The Devils are 15-8-3-0 away from home after winning 16 road games all of last year. San Antonio started 2-0-0-1 on its marathon 14-game, 29-day jaunt while the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo takes over the AT&T Center. And Hamilton played four road games in five days last week and won them all, improving to 18-6-1-2 on foreign ice this season.

Overall, AHL teams are 313-316-37-40 on the road in 2009-10 for a very respectable .498 points percentage.

AN ARMY OF ONEDerek Armstrong’s career night wasn’t enough to get the Peoria Rivermen in the win column at Carver Arena on Saturday night. Armstrong scored four goals to stake his team to a 4-0 third-period lead, but Houston scored four times in a span of 7:34 to tie the game, with Jon DiSalvatore and Maxim Noreau each recording three points during the rally. The Aeros then overcame Armstrong’s shootout goal to collect a 5-4 victory.

A former Calder Cup champion (2000) and league MVP (2001), the four goals were a career high for Armstrong, whose most recent AHL hat trick came Oct. 12, 2002, as a member of the Manchester Monarchs. Armstrong joined Lowell’s Tim Sestito (Oct. 17) and Springfield’s Chad Wiseman (Jan. 17) as the only AHL players to score four goals in a game this season.

ETC. … Houston’s rally from four goals down in Peoria on Saturday made a winner out of goaltender Anton Khudobin (32 saves), ending his personal winless streak at 0-9-1… Manchester has participated in eight shootouts this season; in net, Jonathan Bernier is 0-5 while Jeff Zatkoff is 3-0… Defenseman Denis Bodrov, Philadelphia’s second-round pick in the 2006 NHL draft, made his AHL debut with Adirondack on Saturday night along with Mika Pyorala, who began the season playing 36 NHL games for the Flyers… Chicago has points in 11 of its last 12 games (10-1-0-1) following Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Hamilton in front of 15,532 fans at Allstate Arena… Wolves forward Tim Stapleton shows 7-11-18 and a plus-11 rating during his current 10-game scoring streak… Manitoba’s six-game losing streak ended with a 6-4 win at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday… Providence scored 14 goals in a home-and-home sweep of Springfield over the weekend… Liam Reddox has tallied the game-winning goal in three of Springfield’s last four victories… Hartford had lost just three home games in regulation all season (15-3-1-2) prior to an 0-3-0-0 homestand last week… Bridgeport has earned points in six of its last 10 games but has won just one of them (1-4-1-4)… Rockford has gone 14-4-0-1 this season in games following a regulation loss… A franchise-record six of Hamilton’s eight shutouts this season have come on the road; the Bulldogs’ eight shutouts overall are tied with Manchester for the league lead… Since losing seven in a row in mid-November, Worcester has gone 21-4-2-1… Rochester enters the new week with 1,997 regular-season victories since the franchise first hit the ice in 1956.