AHL Weekly Release

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … News and notes from the week ending Mar. 10:

Not only are the Binghamton Senators, Springfield Falcons, Grand Rapids Griffins and Texas Stars all looking to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs after missing the postseason last year, they are all in the thick of the hunt for a division title with a first-year professional head coach at the helm.

Luke Richardson came to Binghamton last summer after spending the previous four years as an assistant coach with the parent Ottawa Senators following his retirement as a player in 2008. The B-Senators (36-17-1-5) enter the new week with a .661 points percentage, best in the AHL, and their 78 points put them one behind East Division foe Syracuse with one game in hand on the Crunch. Binghamton’s defense of its 2011 Calder Cup championship ended early last year as the Sens finished last overall in the 30-team AHL.

The Falcons are poised to bring playoff hockey back to Western Massachusetts for the first time since 2003 as they look to end the longest postseason drought in AHL history. Brad Larsen, an assistant coach with Springfield from 2010-12, took over as bench boss this season and has led his team to a 34-16-4-3 record (75 points) while opening up an 11-point lead atop the Northeast Division.

Jeff Blashill, an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings last year, was named head coach of the Griffins in June and has had Grand Rapids in first place in the Midwest Division for the better part of the 2012-13 season. The Griffins (35-19-2-2, 74 points) are four years removed from their last trip to the playoffs in 2009, and have not won a division crown since their 55-win, 115-point showing in 2005-06.

And in Cedar Park, Willie Desjardins took over the helm of the Texas Stars after two seasons as associate head coach of the Dallas Stars, and his club sits with the best record in the Western Conference (33-16-4-6, 76 points) entering the week. Texas reached the Calder Cup Finals in its inaugural season, but followed that up with a first-round exit in 2011 before failing to qualify for the postseason in 2012.

Five other first-year AHL head coaches have their teams in the hunt for playoff berths this spring as well: Bridgeport’s Scott Pellerin, Hamilton’s Sylvain Lefebvre, Lake Erie’s Dean Chynoweth, Milwaukee’s Dean Evason and Rochester’s Chadd Cassidy.

A pair of former AHL All-Stars made their long-anticipated National Hockey League debuts in the same game last week. Chris Terry, a fourth-year pro in the Carolina Hurricanes system, and Jeff Frazee, in his fifth pro season with the New Jersey Devils organization, both saw their first NHL action at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Saturday night.

Terry played 290 games with the Albany River Rats and Charlotte Checkers before earning his first NHL recall. An AHL All-Star in 2012, Terry leads the Checkers in goals (22), assists (24, tied) and points (46) this season and is tied for the AHL lead with seven game-winning tallies, so it should have come as little surprise that he scored the game-winning goal in Carolina’s 6-3 win over New Jersey.

Frazee has been manning the crease for the Devils’ AHL affiliates in Lowell and Albany since 2008, appearing in 180 games and earning a trip to the All-Star Classic in 2009. The former second-round draft choice came on for the third period of Saturday’s game and stopped all three Hurricanes shots he faced in his NHL debut.

Frazee’s debut came just four days after Keith Kinkaid made his own NHL debut in net for New Jersey vs. Tampa Bay, stopping 11 of 12 shots in more than 25 minutes of work.

A native of Londonderry, N.H., Ian O’Connor played for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs from 2003-07, dreaming of playing in the American Hockey League for his hometown Manchester club.

After four seasons at Providence College and after spending most of his first two pro campaigns in the ECHL, O’Connor signed a tryout with the AHL Monarchs on Feb. 27. And with friends and family in attendance at the Verizon Wireless Arena for his home debut on Mar. 6, O’Connor scored his first career AHL goal off former NHL All-Star goaltender Rick DiPietro in Manchester’s 3-2 overtime win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

O’Connor wasn’t the only Jr. Monarchs alumnus with a homecoming last week. Rookie defenseman Brian Dumoulin returned to his native Maine on Saturday night and helped his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to a 4-3 overtime win over the Portland Pirates.

Yet another former Jr. Monarch, Jon Rheault, made his National Hockey League debut last week after being recalled from San Antonio by the Florida Panthers.

Updated every morning until the end of the regular season on theahl.com, the AHL Playoff Primer offers a snapshot of the current race to the Calder Cup Playoffs.

To check out the Playoff Primer, visit theahl.com and click on “Playoff Primer 2013” under the Standings link.

Game-worn and game-used items from the 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic are up for auction now through AHL Authentic. Items will continue to be added over the next several weeks, including jerseys, helmets, gloves, game pucks and name plates.

For more information or to place a bid, visit stores.ebay.com/ahlauthentic.

Match-ups to look forward to in the week ahead:

Lake Erie at Toronto, Wednesday (7 ET) – Lake Erie sits two points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but the top of the North Division is in the Monsters’ sights as they face off against first-place Toronto three times in seven days beginning Wednesday. Just five points separate the Marlies from the fourth-place Monsters in the North, with Rochester and Abbotsford also in the mix. Lake Erie, which has stumbled to a 3-9-0-5 mark since Feb. 1, has won three of four from Toronto this season.

Chicago at Grand Rapids, Wednesday (7 ET) – Winners of four straight overall and seven of eight at home, Grand Rapids hosts Chicago in the teams’ sixth of eight meetings on the year. The Griffins have an eight-point lead over the Wolves atop the Midwest Division and are 5-0-0-0 against Chicago this season, including two wins in overtime and another in a shootout. The Wolves come in two points up on ninth-place Oklahoma City in the Western Conference, but with the most games remaining in the league (20). Following this game, the Griffins play 10 of their next 11 on the road.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at Worcester, Wednesday (7 ET) and Friday (7:30 ET) – The Penguins’ six-game New England road trip continues with a pair of games at the DCU Center in Worcester. Wilkes-Barre enters the week with a four-point lead on ninth place in the Eastern Conference, while the Sharks are three points back of eighth. The Penguins, 8-2-0-1 all-time against the Sharks, have won 10 of their last 13 road games.

Abbotsford at Houston, Thursday (8 ET) – Playing 12 of its next 14 games on home ice, Houston hosts Abbotsford in a big Western Conference matchup at Toyota Center. The fifth-place Aeros enter the week three points ahead of the eighth-place Heat, who are wrapping up a seven-game road trip with a swing through the Lone Star State. Houston forward Johan Larsson has six points (2-4-6) in three games vs. Abbotsford this season.

Albany at Rochester, Friday (7 ET) – Out-of-conference opponents in similar situations, Albany and Rochester face off at the Blue Cross Arena. The Devils enter the week one point out of a playoff spot in the East, while the Americans could be clinging to the final spot in the West by the time the puck drops on Friday. Albany, which is beginning a six-game road stretch, is 6-1-0-1 in its last eight games; Rochester had points in five straight (4-0-1-0) coming into the week.

There have been 40 hat tricks and 128 shutouts recorded in the American Hockey League through Mar. 11, and 57 AHL players have made their National Hockey League debuts this season:

Last week’s hat tricks (2)
Jason Akeson, ADK — Mar. 9 vs. Connecticut
Jimmy Hayes, RFD — Mar. 9 at Oklahoma City

Last week’s shutouts (5)
Dustin Tokarski, HAM — Mar. 5 vs. Abbotsford
Calvin Pickard, LE — Mar. 5 vs. Peoria
Nathan Lawson, BNG — Mar. 8 vs. Connecticut
Michael Hutchinson, PRO — Mar. 8 vs. W-B/Scranton
David Leggio, RCH — Mar. 8 vs. Abbotsford

Last week’s NHL debuts (9)
Ondrej Palat, SYR — Mar. 4, Tampa Bay (at PIT)
Chris Brown, POR — Mar. 4, Phoenix (vs. ANA)
Jon Rheault, SA — Mar. 5, Florida (vs. WPG)
Keith Kinkaid, ALB — Mar. 5, New Jersey (vs. TB)
Steve Oleksy, HER — Mar. 5, Washington (vs. BOS)
Victor Bartley, MIL — Mar. 8, Nashville (vs. EDM)
Greg Pateryn, HAM — Mar. 9, Montreal (at TB)
Chris Terry, CHA — Mar. 9, Carolina (vs. NJ)
Jeff Frazee, ALB — Mar. 9, New Jersey (at CAR)

Cody Reichard made his AHL debut in unusual fashion on Saturday night, relieving an injured John Curry after three rounds of Houston’s shootout against Charlotte; after allowing a goal on the only attempt he faced, Reichard got the start in Sunday’s rematch and made 23 saves for his first AHL win… Albany used a different starting goaltender in four consecutive games from Mar. 2-9, with Maxime Clermont, Jeff Frazee, Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood all drawing assignments… The Devils’ Joe Whitney has scored nine goals in his last eight games (9-3-12)… With a 3-2 shootout victory over Abbotsford on Sunday, David Leggio became the first Rochester goaltender to win 30 games in a season since Ryan Miller in 2004-05… Norfolk rookie defenseman Sami Vatanen brings a seven-game scoring streak (1-9-10) into the new week… Oklahoma City’s Jonathan Cheechoo has still not had a one-point game this season; in 18 games played, Cheechoo has seven multiple-point efforts (totaling 8-12-20) while being held scoreless in the other 11 contests… Nino Niederreiter scored a power-play goal for Bridgeport on Friday night in Albany, snapping the Sound Tigers’ 0-for-41 drought with the man advantage dating back to Feb. 12… After rallying for 4-3 (SO) and 7-4 wins in Oklahoma City over the weekend, Rockford leads the AHL with eight victories this season when trailing after two periods (8-20-1-0)… Providence’s 2-0 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday night was the Bruins’ first regulation win over the Penguins since Feb. 19, 2006, ending an 8-0-2-0 Pens run… Wilkes-Barre has won 10 of its last 11 shootouts, including a 6-1 mark this season… With Worcester’s Bracken Kearns, Milwaukee’s Victor Bartley, Manchester’s Tyler Toffoli and Syracuse’s Radko Gudas all getting the call in the last week, 26 of the 46 participants in the 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts AHL All-Star Classic have now been recalled to the National Hockey League since the event took place Jan. 27-28.