AHL Weekly: On, Wisconsin

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Milwaukee Admirals franchise has been a pillar of excellence since joining the American Hockey League in 2001, and they show no signs of fading as they again climb towards the top of the West Division.

Milwaukee, whose affiliation with the NHL’s Nashville Predators is in its 13th season overall, has qualified for the playoffs in eight of its first nine AHL campaigns – including an active league-record streak of seven consecutive years of at least 40 wins and 90 points. The Admirals, Calder Cup champions in 2004 and runners-up in 2006, have also graduated numerous players to the NHL, including current Predators such as Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne, Cal O’Reilly, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson, Cody Franson, Martin Erat, Kevin Klein, Jerred Smithson, Jordin Tootoo and Nick Spaling. Florida’s Mike Santorelli, Minnesota’s Greg Zanon, Atlanta’s Rich Peverley, Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis and Phoenix’s Scottie Upshall and Vernon Fiddler are also making NHL impacts after developing with the Admirals.

This season, head coach Lane Lambert’s club is on a 14-5-1-1 run since Nov. 26, reaching the midpoint of its schedule at 23-11-2-4 (52 points). Milwaukee, which is an impressive 12-2-2-1 on Bradley Center ice this season, has used a four-game winning streak to vault within a point of Peoria for the best mark in the entire Western Conference entering the new week.

Defense and goaltending have keyed Milwaukee’s strong first half in 2010-11. In the midst of a breakout campaign, third-year backstop Mark Dekanich boasts a 15-5-3 mark in 24 appearances, is tied for second overall with four shutouts, and ranks third in the AHL in both goals-against average (1.77) and save percentage (.938). Teaming with recent Nashville draftees Jeremy Smith (second round, 2007) and Chet Pickard (first round, 2008) between the pipes, Dekanich has helped the Admirals to the league’s third-best defense (2.38 GA per game).

Milwaukee has been led offensively in 2010-11 by Linus Klasen, who shows 16-13-29 through 31 AHL games for the Admirals as a first-year North American pro and is one of six players to skate for both the Admirals and Predators in 2010-11. Chris Mueller (12-8-20), who is already just one goal shy of the 13 he scored last year, paces the Admirals with four game-winning goals and has appeared in his first four NHL games with the Predators. Matt Halischuk, who is coming off a pair of injury-shortened seasons in the New Jersey organization to begin his pro career, has contributed 15 points (9-6-15) in 27 contests to date. Fourth-year forward Andreas Thuresson (4-11-15) parlayed a goal on Thursday vs. Grand Rapids into his first NHL recall of the year the next day, and fellow returnee Mark Santorelli (7-6-13) is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points.

Rookie forward Blake Geoffrion, a former second-round draft pick by the Predators and last season’s Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player, has collected 4-11-15 on the year, including nine points in 16 games since returning from an injury absence. Fellow first-year pro Ryan Thang (5-9-14) enters the week with a point in five of his last six games, and his plus-9 rating leads all Admirals forwards.

Second-year pro Jonathon Blum, a first-round pick (23rd overall) by Nashville in 2007, ranks second overall on the team with 22 points (5-17-22) from the Milwaukee blue line, where his fellow defensemen include Aaron Johnson, a veteran of 225 NHL games, and Teemu Laakso, whose 15 points in 35 games already surpass the 13 he notched last season. Roman Josi is tied for fourth among AHL rookie defensemen with eight power-play assists this season, and Brett Palin, who spent the previous five seasons in the Calgary Flames’ system, is just one shy of his career high of 10 assists while tying for the team lead in plus/minus (+9).

The Admirals, whose schedule lightens as they play just seven games in 25 days between Jan. 10 and Feb. 3, are in Winnipeg this week to face former head coach Claude Noel and the Manitoba Moose on Thursday and Saturday.

WEISBECK, CALVANESE EARN HONOR … Rochester Americans athletic trainer Kent Weisbeck and Springfield Falcons equipment manager Ralph Calvanese will serve in those roles for the Western Conference All-Star team at the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross in Hershey later this month. The duo was selected by the league based upon their many years of excellence and dedicated service to the AHL in their cities.

Weisbeck has missed only seven games during his 26 seasons as athletic trainer for the Americans, working his 2,000th game on Oct. 23, 2010. The Buffalo native joined the Amerks in 1985 and has worked in seven Calder Cup Finals during his time in Rochester, including the Amerks’ championship seasons in 1987 and 1996.

This season marks Calvanese’s 37th year as the equipment manager in Springfield, a role he first held for the AHL’s Indians in 1974-75 at the age of 19. The Springfield native has been part of three Calder Cup champions, and has worked nearly 3,000 AHL games through the years.

By virtue of the Hershey Bears’ 2010 Calder Cup championship, Bears athletic trainer Dan Stuck and equipment manager Justin Kullman will perform their duties for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

PENGUINS MARCH ON … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton went a perfect 4-0-0-0 last week, extending its latest winning streak to five games and becoming the first AHL team of 2010-11 to reach 30 wins and 60 points. The Penguins’ 30-8-0-0 mark gives them two more victories than Hershey had through 38 games last season, when the Bears went on to set an AHL record with 60 wins.

The Penguins earned back-to-back midweek wins at Charlotte before beating Bridgeport and Providence on home ice over the weekend, including a 2-1 overtime decision over the Bruins on Saturday. Wilkes-Barre’s leading scorer Dustin Jeffrey (15-22-37) notched the game-winner in that one and earned an NHL recall to Pittsburgh on Monday.

CHASING HISTORY … Veteran Bryan Helmer, who signed with Oklahoma City on Friday, is quickly closing in on a special milestone. With four assists in his first three games for the Barons, Helmer now has 517 points (120 goals, 397 assists), two shy of matching John Slaney’s career record for scoring by an AHL defenseman (519).

Helmer is already the AHL’s all-time leader among defensemen in assists (397) and games played (985), and has appeared in more Calder Cup Playoff games (138) than any player at any position. The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is a three-time Calder Cup champion, winning with Albany in 1995 and captaining Hershey to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.

ETC. … Worcester head coach Roy Sommer is set to coach his 1,000th regular-season AHL game on Friday when the Sharks visit the Springfield Falcons; Sommer, who has spent his entire 13-year career coaching the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliates in Worcester (2006- ), Cleveland (2001-06) and Kentucky (1998-2001), will become just the fourth bench boss to reach that impressive milestone, joining AHL Hall of Famers Frank Mathers (1,256), Fred “Bun” Cook (1,171) and John Paddock (1,107)… Charlotte’s Jerome Samson, Connecticut’s Jeremy Williams and Oklahoma City’s Colin McDonald became the AHL’s first 20-goal scorers of the season last week… Only two AHL games this season have been scoreless through 65 minutes, and Milwaukee’s Mark Dekanich has emerged from the shootout as the winning goaltender in both of them, including Saturday’s duel with Toronto’s Ben Scrivens… Former Penguin Nolan Schaefer made 50 saves in Providence’s 2-1 overtime loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday… Manitoba’s Sergei Shirokov has scored nine goals during his current 10-game scoring streak (9-3-12)… Peoria rallied from four separate one-goal deficits to defeat Oklahoma City 5-4 in overtime on Saturday night… Springfield erupted for a season-high seven goals in a 7-3 win over Charlotte on Saturday, but the Falcons have still not had an eight-goal game since consecutive 8-4 and 14-2 victories over Providence on Dec. 29-30, 1999… Adirondack, which became the last team in the AHL to play a shootout game on Dec. 31, has now gone to the shootout in five of its last six outings.