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AHL Weekly: Rats rising up in the East

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Beset by inconsistencies on both sides of the puck, the Albany River Rats missed the playoffs last season after reaching the tournament the previous two springs. This year, the River Rats are both scoring and defending with regularity as they continue to march up the East Division standings.

Albany enters the new week at 17-10-1-2 on the season for 37 points, just one back of Hershey for first place in the East Division. Under second-year head coach Jeff Daniels, the River Rats have rattled off seven straight wins and collected a point in their last nine outings (8-0-1-0), and Albany shows a league-leading 13 wins on home ice thus far (13-4-0-1).

After finishing 25th in the AHL in goals allowed per game last season (3.23), Albany currently ranks sixth in that category this year (2.47), and the Rats have gone six straight tilts without surrendering more than one goal. Goaltender Justin Peters has allowed only five goals in winning five straight starts since a 6-2 loss at Springfield on Nov. 15, and the former second-round draft pick shows an 11-5-2 record while ranking among the league’s top netminders in both goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.931). Rookie counterpart Mike Murphy is out to a 6-6-0 (2.59, .923) start to his pro career after combining for 76 wins in juniors for Belleville (OHL) over the last two years.

The River Rats are a relatively young team up front, as six of their top seven scorers have yet to celebrate their 23rd birthday. Twenty-two-year old Jerome Samson, who already has two 20-goal AHL seasons under his belt, is pacing the offense with 23 points (11-12-23) in 30 games. Samson’s 11 goals are tied for the team lead with veteran Pat Dwyer (11-8-19), who is coming off a career-best 24-goal showing in 2008-09. After being limited to just 15 games last year due to injury, 21-year-old Stefan Chaput ranks third among AHL rookies with 14 assists (5-14-19) through his first 30 games for the River Rats this season. Rookie Zach Boychuk, drafted in the first round (14th overall) by Carolina in 2008, has put up 7-11-18 for Albany thus far, and his three game-winning goals are tied with Samson for the team lead.

Another first-round draft pick joined the organization on Dec. 3 when Carolina traded for 21-year-old Jiri Tlusty. A 25-goal scorer in the AHL last year, Tlusty racked up eight goals and 15 points in 20 games for the Toronto Marlies in 2009-10 prior to the deal. Twenty-year-old rookies Chris Terry (6-7-13) and Drayson Bowman (6-6-12) are out to quick starts this season, and the River Rats have also received contributions from Nick Dodge (7-3-10, plus-10), Mike Angelidis (3-6-9), and Jacob Micflikier (4-4-8 in 10 games).

Albany’s blue line has been anchored by rookie Jamie McBain (3-7-10) – a former second-round draft pick – and Bryan Rodney (2-7-9), who had a career-high 36 points last season. Veteran Jay Harrison has chipped in eight points (1-8-9) in 15 contests and has also appeared in 14 games for Carolina.

The week ahead has the River Rats continuing a four-game road swing with tilts in Lowell on Friday and in Syracuse on Saturday before the club breaks for Christmas.

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ALUMNI MAKING IMPACT … Reigning AHL rookie of the year Nathan Gerbe was one of several AHL alumni who made an impact in the National Hockey League last week. Gerbe, who shows 20 points in 23 AHL games with Portland this season, notched his first career NHL goal on Wednesday to help the Buffalo Sabres to a 3-0 win over Washington.

Rookie Dan Sexton, who has appeared in five AHL games for Manitoba this year, notched his first two NHL goals on Dec. 8 in Anaheim’s 4-3 overtime win over Dallas. The 22-year-old followed that up with a goal and an assist on Friday at Detroit, and another tally in Saturday’s 3-1 triumph at Columbus.

New York Islanders forward Rob Schremp, a 2008 AHL All-Star, converted a first-period power play chance for his first NHL goal on Saturday in the Islanders’ 3-2 overtime win over Boston. Also Saturday, Ryan Jones, who shows four goals in 15 AHL games for Milwaukee this year, tallied his first NHL goal of the campaign in Nashville’s 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit. Newly acquired forward Jiri Tlusty notched his first NHL goal of the year for Carolina in Friday’s 4-3 overtime loss at Washington, and Shawn Matthias lit the lamp that same night to help the Florida Panthers to a 4-2 win at New Jersey.

DESJARDINS STAYS HOT … Hamilton goaltender Cedrick Desjardins continued an impressive stretch of play last week with two more victories, surrendering just one goal on 48 shots.

The 24-year-old New Brunswick native has won four straight starts, collecting three shutouts and stopping 95 of 96 shots over that span (0.25, .970). Desjardins racked up a personal shutout streak of 212:37 over a five-game span from Nov. 25 to Dec. 9, and since that run was broken up, he has not allowed a goal in his last 65:14 of action.

In his second full AHL season, Desjardins now sits second among all goaltenders in both goals-against average (1.45) and save percentage (.944) while tying for the league lead with four shutouts in 14 appearances for the Bulldogs (8-4-1).

ETC. … After Hershey’s 6-2 home-ice win over Rochester on Saturday, the longtime rivals will square off for a home-and-home this weekend, beginning on Friday at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester… Rockford’s Kyle Greentree saw his scoring streak end at an AHL season-high nine games (6-6-12) in Sunday’s 4-1 loss at Houston… Adirondack’s Stefan Legein racked up five points (4-1-5) in three games last weekend, including back-to-back two-goal efforts on Friday at Syracuse and Saturday vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton… Phantoms defenseman Danny Syvret scored the game-winning goal with 0.1 seconds left in regulation in Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Penguins… Grand Rapids’ Jan Mursak, who had nine points (2-7-9) in 51 games as a rookie last year, already has 10 goals and 17 points through 27 games this season… Following Saturday’s 6-3 triumph over Syracuse, Binghamton has outscored opponents 27-4 in winning its last five home games… Eleven different players have scored the game-winning goal in Peoria’s 11 regulation victories thus far… Rivermen goaltender Ben Bishop has allowed just three goals in his last three appearances and has won five straight starts overall (1.58, .939)… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Nick Johnson, who had been injured since Oct. 24, returned to the lineup last week and recorded six points (3-3-6) in four games… Albany, which is 12-1-0-1 when scoring first, has taken a 1-0 lead in each of its last six games… Hartford had won 13 straight games over Albany prior to Sunday’s 2-1 shootout loss… Portland is 6-0-1-1 in its last eight road games after starting the year 1-8-1-0 away from the Cumberland County Civic Center.