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AHL Weekly: Making waves in the Atlantic

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The American Hockey League’s most crowded division is also its most competitive from top to bottom through the first two months of the season, with eight teams in the Atlantic Division separated by just 10 points as the calendar turns to December.

Manchester, which missed the Calder Cup Playoffs last season for the first time in team history, won all three of its games last week and sits four points ahead of the rest of the division with a mark of 15-6-1-2 (33 points). The Monarchs show an impressive 9-1-0-1 record on home ice and have been led by the goaltending tandem of former first-round draft pick Jonathan Bernier (10-5-2, 1.75, .948, 2 SO) and rookie Jeff Zatkoff (5-2-0, 2.10, .938, 1 SO). Manchester has surrendered just 2.04 goals per game, tied for second-fewest in the AHL.

Perennial playoff participant Hartford lost five of its first seven games but has gone 11-3-1-2 since to sit second in the division with 29 points. An impressive 12-4-1-1 against Atlantic foes, the Wolf Pack are led offensively by Corey Locke, who holds a six-point bulge on the field with his league-leading 33 points (12-21-33) in 24 games, while second-year defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti led all AHL defensemen with 22 points (6-16-22) in 21 games prior to his weekend recall to the N.Y. Rangers. Rookie Chad Johnson went 7-3-0 (1.61, .946) with two shutouts in 11 appearances during November.

Worcester (13-10-0-1), Lowell (12-9-3-0) and Bridgeport (13-12-0-1) enter the new week in a three-way tie for third place at 27 points apiece. The Sharks have been a streaky club, bolting out to an 8-3-0-1 start before losing seven straight games, only to reel off five consecutive wins heading into December. Rookie Logan Couture (7-10-17) has registered a point in 10 of his 12 games for Worcester this season, and first-year goaltender Alex Stalock ranks second in the league with 11 wins (11-6-1, 2.32, .914). In Lowell, second-year pro Vladimir Zharkov has a team-high 20 points (6-14-20) in 22 games and Matt Taormina leads all AHL rookie defensemen with 19 points (7-12-19) in 24 outings. And pacing Bridgeport are Sean Bentivoglio (8-8-16), Trevor Smith (8-7-15) and Greg Moore (6-9-15) as the Sound Tigers make the move to the Atlantic Division after eight seasons in the East.

Portland enters the week on a nine-game points streak (6-0-3-0), and the Pirates (11-10-3-0) have moved above .500 and into a sixth-place tie with Springfield (10-9-3-2) with 25 points each. Former first-round draft pick Tyler Ennis is tops among AHL rookies with 14 assists and 22 points, and 2009 AHL rookie of the year Nathan Gerbe is averaging a point per game (5-14-19). In Springfield, leading scorer Charles Linglet (7-19-26 in 24 games) has already topped his output from all of last season, and Colton Fretter has a team-high 10 goals (10-10-20) as the Falcons look to bring playoff hockey back to Springfield for the first time since 2003.

Providence, which has made 11 consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearances, currently sits eighth in the Atlantic despite its .500 record (11-11-1-0). Andy Wozniewski is tied for the AHL lead among defensemen with 22 points (6-16-22) in 21 contests after totaling 21 points in 74 AHL games in 2008-09, and sophomore forward Mikko Lehtonen is second on the club with 21 points (8-13-21) in 23 contests.

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ALL-STAR BALLOTING BEGINS TUESDAY … The 2010 AHL All-Star Classic Fan Balloting presented by Reebok begins Tuesday, Dec. 1, at noon EST, exclusively on the official Web site of the AHL, theahl.com. Fans will have the opportunity to vote for the most deserving AHL players by visiting theahl.com and completing the official Reebok AHL All-Star Fan Ballot.

The players receiving the most votes by position will earn berths in the starting lineups of both the Canadian and PlanetUSA AHL All-Star teams at the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic in Portland.

Online fan balloting at theahl.com is scheduled to end at 11:59 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009.

MOOSE TRACKS … The new-look Manitoba Moose are beginning to make a move in the North Division, collecting points in seven straight games (5-0-2-0) on the heels of a five-game losing skid. The points streak coincides with the return from parent-club Vancouver of reigning “Baz” Bastien Award winner Cory Schneider, who is 10-5-0 (2.29, .919) with one shutout thus far in his third professional campaign.

Manitoba, which lost five of the top six scorers from the club that reached last spring’s Calder Cup Finals, failed to score more than one regulation goal during a seven-game stretch from Oct. 29 to Nov. 7. In the seven games since, the Moose have reached four goals on four occasions. Rookie forward Sergei Shirokov is pacing the offense with nine goals and 17 points; newcomers Marco Rosa (6-10-16) and Marty Murray (6-7-13) have made early contributions, and captain Mike Keane (6-4-10) also has double-digit points through 26 games.

The Moose face a big test this week when league-leading Rochester (17-3-1-0, 35 points) visits the MTS Centre for a two-game set on Tuesday and Wednesday.

ETC. … Hamilton collected the 500th regular-season victory in franchise history on Saturday with a 4-0 win over Lake Erie, its second shutout of the Monsters in as many days… Providence rookie Jamie Arniel saw his goal-scoring streak end at an AHL-season high six games (6-5-11) in the Bruins’ 2-1 loss to Worcester on Friday, and the Sharks’ Logan Couture had an eight-game points streak (6-8-14) end that same night… Colton Fretter’s eight-game scoring run (6-6-12) also went by the boards Friday in Springfield’s 4-2 loss at Manchester, but he responded with a goal in two straight games to close the weekend… Norfolk had killed off 29 straight opponent power plays before Albany’s Brett Carson scored in the third period of a 3-2 River Rats win on Saturday… Hartford’s Andres Ambuhl has netted a goal in two of his last three games after scoring just once in the season’s first 21 contests… Houston has captured a pair of 1-0 victories this season, and Jean-Michel Daoust has scored the game’s only goal on both occasions… Hershey’s Boyd Kane racked up five goals in four games last week after totaling five tallies in his first 18 outings of the campaign… Rockford rookie Akim Aliu has fired just 18 shots on goal in 20 games this season, but has scored on six of them… Every Rockford skater recorded a positive plus/minus rating in the club’s 5-1 win over Abbotsford on Saturday… Since a 5-2 loss to Hershey on Nov. 20, Binghamton has won three straight home games and outscored opponents 16-1 over that span… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton dropped three straight games in regulation last weekend for the first time since Nov. 22-26, 2008… San Antonio’s 5-1 win over Milwaukee on Saturday snapped an 11-game winless streak overall and was the Rampage’s first November victory since Nov. 30, 2007, ending an 0-20-0-2 slide during the month… Rochester’s only three regulation losses this season have been by an aggregate score of 17-4… Milwaukee has not been issued a single misconduct penalty through the first two months of the season… Weekend wins over Houston and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton marked Syracuse’s first back-to-back victories since Mar. 28-29… Adirondack will host Norfolk on Friday at the Wachovia Center, home of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.