AHL Weekly Release: 1 team in, 15 still to come

cc08.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … With four weeks remaining in the 2007-08 regular season, the Providence Bruins have become the first team to clinch a berth in the 2008 Calder Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins will be making their 10th consecutive postseason appearance, becoming the 10th team in AHL history to reach the playoffs every season for at least a decade. They have hit the 40-win mark for the fourth year in a row under head coach Scott Gordon, and with 46 wins and 13 games remaining, the B’s still have an outside shot at breaking the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers’ all-time AHL record of 57 victories in a season.

Providence punched its playoff ticket when captain Nate Thompson scored in overtime for a 4-3 win at Manchester on Friday night. It was the Bruins’ 23rd road win of the season, leaving them four shy of that league record with six road games remaining. The Portland Pirates in 2005-06 and the Chicago Wolves and Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights last season all won 27 games away from home.

The races to join the 16-team Calder Cup Playoff field are heating up as winter turns to spring. The top four finishers in each division qualify for the postseason, with one possible exception: if the fifth-place team in the West Division finishes with more points than the fourth-place team in the North Division, it would cross over and compete in the North Division playoffs.

It’s shaping up to be a fight to the finish in the West, where 14 points separate second place from eighth. Houston (75 points) would be in line for that crossover if the season ended today, but Peoria sits just one point behind the Aeros; Quad City and Hamilton are six points back; and Iowa trails by just seven points.

Toronto’s lead atop the North, which was 17 points on Feb. 17, is down to seven points one month later. Manitoba has points in eight straight outings (7-0-0-1) and 12 of their last 14 (11-2-0-1), but the Moose haven’t been able to pull away from the third-place Syracuse Crunch, who have earned points in 11 consecutive contests in a row (8-0-0-3) and 17 of 18 (12-1-0-5).

The East Division is up for grabs again thanks to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ current eight-game winning streak. The Penguins enter the week two points back of the Philadelphia Phantoms and the Albany River Rats are five back; the Phantoms have owned at least a share of first place since the morning of Oct. 8. The race for fourth in the East sees Hershey (74 points) holding a slim lead on Binghamton (73) and Bridgeport (71) as the Bears look to defend their status as two-time Eastern Conference champions.

Providence has a 10-point lead atop the Atlantic Division, with Hartford and Portland tied for second. The Wolf Pack are closing in on their 11th playoff berth in as many seasons, while the Pirates are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since getting all the way to Game 7 of the conference final in 2006. One point separates fourth-place Springfield (70) from fifth-place Manchester (69), with the Falcons and Monarchs set to square off twice this week.

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ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALLMike Wall turned aside 49 of 50 shots in Lake Erie’s 2-1 win over Grand Rapids on Saturday night. It was an AHL career high for Wall, who improved to 6-3-0 in his last nine decisions.

Wall has been quite busy in the Monsters’ cage, facing at least 40 shots in each of his last three outings and eight times in his 25 starts overall. Grand Rapids has peppered the third-year pro with 239 shots in six games this season, with Wall stopping 92.9 percent of them in going 4-2-0 vs. the Griffins.

TRIPLE CROWN THREAT … The Chicago Wolves’ Jason Krog put up seven more points in three games last week, upping his league-leading total to 91 points in 65 games. Krog also leads the AHL with 59 assists – one more than Rockford’s Martin St. Pierre – and is one goal behind teammate Brett Sterling with 32 goals.

Only two players in AHL history have ever won the offensive “triple crown” by leading the league in goals, assists and points. Doug Gibson did it in 1974-75, tying for the league lead with 44 goals while adding 72 assists for 116 points with the Rochester Americans. Paul Gardner accomplished the feat a decade later, putting up 51 goals, 79 assists and 130 points for the 1984-85 Binghamton Whalers.

ELLIOTT, LEIGHTON DUEL … Albany’s Michael Leighton dominated the Binghamton Senators all season, but the Sens finally had an answer on Friday night. Brian Elliott made 36 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped all four shootout attempts as Binghamton pulled out a 1-0 victory in the first AHL game this season to finish scoreless after 65 minutes.

Leighton, who finished with 29 saves himself, was credited with his sixth shutout of the year and first since Dec. 7. He played every minute of the eight-game season series against the Senators and stopped 255 of 263 shots, good for a 6-0-2 record, a 0.97 goals-against average, a .970 save percentage and two shutouts. In 23 career appearances vs. Binghamton (including playoffs), Leighton is 15-5-2 with a 1.64 GAA, a .945 save percentage and seven shutouts.

ETC. … Manitoba rookie Cory Schneider ran his personal winning streak to eight games by stopping 63 of 64 shots in back-to-back victories at Hershey over the weekend… Schneider outdueled Daren Machesney in Sunday’s 3-1 Moose victory, handing the Bears’ netminder his first career loss at Giant Center (13-1-3)… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s John Curry has won seven straight decisions and now ranks second in the league in GAA (2.07)… Mark Mancari ended a 14-game drought with a goal – and added two assists – in Rochester’s 4-3 overtime loss at Binghamton on Saturday… Iowa’s Konstantin Pushkarev (5g, 8a) and Springfield’s Viacheslav Trukhno (6g, 5a) both bring eight-game scoring streaks into the week… Hartford has won at least 40 games for the fifth consecutive season, one shy of the AHL record set by the Cleveland Barons from 1947-53.