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AHL Weekly: Races head toward finish line


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… Only eight of the 16 available berths in the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs have been clinched as the AHL’s 75th regular season reaches its final week, setting up what promises to be a compelling final push before the dust finally settles on Sunday evening.

Updated AHL standings
Calder Cup Playoffs qualification rules

Crossovers could potentially come into play in both conferences this year, and the Eastern Conference race sees Norfolk (90 points), Binghamton (88) and Connecticut (86) currently occupying the final three available spots, with the Whale earning the Atlantic Division’s final guaranteed berth and the Senators crossing over to the Atlantic’s playoffs. But Worcester (84) is still very much in the hunt sitting two points back of third-place Connecticut in the Atlantic, but the Sharks will need to finish with more points than the Whale due to having lost the potential tiebreakers.

Portland (96) and Manchester (95) have sewn up playoff berths and are neck-and-neck for the Atlantic Division crown. The Pirates still hold two big games in hand, and the teams will go head-to-head for the final time this year on Wednesday in Portland. In the East, perennial playoff participant Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (113) and two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey (98) are playoff bound, and Charlotte (93) is headed to the postseason in its inaugural season. Norfolk (90) and Binghamton can both clinch as early as Tuesday if Worcester loses in regulation to Portland.

The West Division race has arguably been the AHL’s most compelling for several months already, and only Milwaukee (98) and Houston (96) know for sure that they’ll be playing beyond Sunday. Below that duo is a jumbled group of five teams, any of whom could finish as high as third place or miss the playoffs entirely. Defending conference champion Texas (90) currently sits third but is just two points up on Peoria (88) and three ahead of Oklahoma City (87), which is currently in position to earn the Western Conference’s crossover berth and shift over to the North Division playoffs. Chicago (86) and San Antonio (85) are presently on the outside looking in but still have ample opportunity to move up.

Manitoba (93) has wrapped up its seventh straight playoff berth in the North Division, and Hamilton (91) needs just one point in its final three games to earn a spot, while the division title could come down to a two-game set between the Moose and Bulldogs in Winnipeg this weekend. Bidding for its first postseason berth in four seasons in the AHL and still very much in the chase for the division crown, Lake Erie (90)’s magic number sits at two points. Fourth-place Abbotsford (84) is only three points back of Oklahoma City to prevent a potential crossover and holds a game in hand, while Grand Rapids (80) clings to mathematical life but would need to win its final four games and hope for plenty of help to qualify.

The 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs will begin next week with 16 teams looking to capture the American Hockey League championship.

FIT TO BE UNITED … Following are the tiebreaking procedures used in the event of a tie in the standings following the completion of the regular season on Sunday. The first tiebreaker was modified prior to the 2010-11 season to include only regulation and overtime wins.

Between two teams:
a) wins (excluding shootout wins)
b) points in season series between teams
c) goal differential
d) goals scored in season series between teams
e) intra-conference points percentage

Among three or more teams:
a) wins (excluding shootout wins)
b) points percentage in combined season series
c) goal differential
d) goal differential in combined season series
e) intra-conference points percentage

PENGUINS CLINCH FIRST PLACE … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton put an exclamation point on an impressive regular season on Saturday by clinching its first-ever Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s top team, courtesy of a 4-3 overtime victory over Rochester. The Penguins, who enter the final week of the season winners of five straight games and 10 of their last 12, are 56-20-0-1 overall – tied for the third-most wins ever by an AHL team and matching the franchise record for most points in a season (113), set by the 2005-06 squad.

The Penguins are anchored by their top-ranked defense (2.30 goals allowed per game), led by 2011 Baz Bastien Award winner Brad Thiessen (34-7-1, 1.93, .922) and 2011 AHL All-Star John Curry (22-13-0, 2.45, .905). Corey Potter and Robert Bortuzzo are tied for second among AHL defensemen in plus/minus at plus-25, and the Pens’ back end also features former Eddie Shore Award winner and Calder Cup champion Andrew Hutchinson (7-28-35 in 52 GP), who reached last year’s Finals with Texas.

Wilkes-Barre also boasts the league’s fourth-best offense (3.27 goals per game) despite playing without top weapons Dustin Jeffrey (17-28-45), Nick Johnson (20-19-39) and Eric Tangradi (18-15-33) for most of the season’s second half. Two-time AHL All-Star Brett Sterling (25-25-50) and 190-game NHL veteran Ryan Craig (19-28-47) have provided a significant boost in their first season with the Penguins, while Tim Wallace (20-17-37) has clinched his second straight 20-goal season.

MOVING ON UP… Chicago forward Darren Haydar entered Saturday’s game vs. Houston having matched his longest goal-scoring drought of the season, a 10-game dry spell which dated back to a Mar. 6 contest against Manitoba. With a first-period strike, though, Haydar snapped the skid and became the 41st player in AHL history to score 250 career goals.

A former AHL rookie of the year and league MVP, Haydar’s 250 goals (250-421-671) in 636 career games put him third on the active list behind Oklahoma City’s Alexandre Giroux (340) and Adirondack’s Denis Hamel (315). The two-time Calder Cup champion, named a Second Team AHL All-Star last week, paces the Wolves in goals (26) and points (71) this season, and his 671 career regular-season points rank 26th in league history.

ETC. … Adirondack forward Denis Hamel reached 600 points for his AHL career with the first of his three goals on Monday night vs. Rochester, the team for which the first 163 of those points came… Seven of the eight West Division teams have clinched winning records this year, and Rockford is 34-33-4-5 with four games left; this could be the second consecutive season that each team in the West finishes with a record of .500 or better… Peoria, which did not have a single 20-goal scorer during the 2009-10 season, boasts three this year in Graham Mink (24), T.J. Hensick (20) and Nicholas Drazenovic (20)… Hamilton’s Nigel Dawes enjoyed an impressive week, notching his third hat trick of the season and totaling nine points (6-3-9) and a plus-7 rating in four games; Dawes leads the AHL with 40 goals (40-25-65) in 63 games overall… Manitoba’s Marco Rosa has recorded a point in six of seven games (5-5-10) since returning to the lineup following a two-month absence due to injury… Abbotsford goaltender Leland Irving (45 saves) and reigning Reebok/Player of the Week Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers of Oklahoma City (55 saves) have each recorded a shutout in two consecutive outings after Monday’s action… Syracuse’s Patrick Maroon has produced 17 points (5-12-17) over his last 10 contests… Springfield rookie Cam Atkinson, coming off two straight 30-goal seasons at Boston College, notched the game-winning goal in his pro debut in Friday’s 3-2 win over Bridgeport and shows four points (2-2-4) through two contests… Norfolk’s Mattias Ritola has multiple points in six straight games with the Admirals (7-9-16).