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AHL Weekly Release: High-octane Bears rise above field


her_200.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … They have won 14 division titles and five regular-season points titles, appeared in 20 Calder Cup Finals series, and won the AHL’s championship on a record-tying nine occasions. But the Hershey Bears had never won 11 consecutive regular-season games … until now.

The American Hockey League’s longest-tenured franchise at 71 years running, the Bears captured a 3-0 win over division-rival Norfolk on Sunday for their team-record 11th straight victory, bettering a 10-game run reeled off in March of 2002. Hershey has outscored its opponents by a remarkable margin of 54-15 during the current streak, which has vaulted the Chocolate and White (20-5-0-1) atop the AHL’s standings through nine weeks of play.

The Bears have benefited from a deadly combination of relentless offense and superb goaltending, while withstanding a steady stream of NHL recalls by the parent Washington Capitals: nine different Bears have skated with the Caps already this season. Hershey is averaging 4.38 goals per game through 26 contests, by far the most in the league, while at the same time allowing an average of 2.54 goals against, which is the third-lowest total in the circuit.

Three-time AHL All-Star Keith Aucoin leads the league in points (36) and assists (27) in 24 games for Hershey, and with 469 career AHL points is quickly closing in on becoming the 73rd member of the league’s 500-point club. Alexandre Giroux, a 42-goal scorer with the Bears in 2006-07, leads the AHL with 18 markers this season, and Graham Mink is averaging better than a point per game (12-13-25) through 23 contests in his first year back in Hershey since he was one of the heroes of the team’s 2006 Calder Cup title run. Chris Bourque, a veteran of 228 AHL games and two Calder Cup Finals and still just 22 years old, shows 24 points (7-17-24) through his first 23 games this year. Returnees Kyle Wilson (9-11-20) and Andrew Gordon (9-10-19) are also out to strong starts in 2008-09.

The Bears also boast arguably the AHL’s strongest group of rookie talent. Oskar Osala leads all first-year players and ranks third overall with 16 goals (16-6-22) on the season, while Mathieu Perreault (4-19-23) and Francois Bouchard (8-11-19) are also out to exceptional starts. That trio of first-year forwards is pacing the entire AHL in plus/minus rating, each at plus-17; second-year defenseman Patrick McNeill is right behind that group at plus-16, and eight of the top 10 plus/minus figures in the entire AHL belong to Bears. Other top Hershey blueliners this season include second-year man Sami Lepisto, who has 14 points (3-11-14) and a plus-14 rating in 20 games, and rookie Karl Alzner, who has nine points (2-7-9) and is a plus-15. Both were recalled to Washington on Nov. 26, and Alzner tallied his first career NHL goal for the Caps on Saturday.

Rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov (10-2-0) is sixth in the AHL with a 2.29 goals-against average in 12 appearances, and second-year counterpart Daren Machesney (9-3-0) has recorded three shutouts in his last four starts.

Head coach Bob Woods’ Bears now set their sights on the overall franchise mark of 14 straight wins; the 1987-88 club won its final two regular-season games before going 12-0 in the postseason and capturing the Calder Cup. Hershey makes its first-ever regular-season visit to Texas this week to battle San Antonio on Thursday and Houston on Saturday.

AHL standings
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League leaders

WEST DIVISION TIGHTENS … The AHL’s West Division remains anyone’s for the taking, as the new week kicks off with the division’s top seven teams separated by just nine points.

Iowa (15-7-1-1, 32 points) took over sole possession of first place in the West with a perfect 3-0-0-0 weekend, which extended their overall winning streak to four and points streak to eight (6-0-1-1). Drew Miller provided the heroics during the Chops’ two-game visit to Lake Erie, scoring the winning goals in overtime on Saturday and late in the third period on Sunday.

A three-game losing skid dropped Chicago out of the top spot, but the Wolves broke the slide with a 6-1 win over Rockford on Saturday and now sit second with 30 points. Peoria has ridden a three-game winning streak to third with 29 points, while the IceHogs are right behind at 28 points. Milwaukee swept a pair of games in Ontario last weekend and has won 11 of 14 overall to move into fifth place (13-7-0-1), one point back of Rockford with two games in hand.

Houston (11-10-1-2, 25 points) and Quad City (9-11-3-2, 23 points) are close behind the pack, and eighth-place San Antonio captured three straight wins last week on the heels of a 17-game winless skid.

THREES ARE WILD … It was a weekend of threes for the Philadelphia Phantoms, as they won three games in three days, all by three-goal margins, to move into sole possession of third place in the East Division.

Philadelphia began the weekend with a 6-3 victory over Hartford on Friday, receiving three points from Jared Ross (2-1-3) and rookie standout Claude Giroux (1-2-3). Fellow first-year pro Patrick Maroon tallied a hat trick and had a hand in all five goals on Saturday as the Phantoms dropped Binghamton by a 5-2 final. Giroux scored twice and Jeffrey Szwez notched his second game-winner in as many days on Sunday to propel Philadelphia to a 5-2 road win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Maroon finished with seven points (4-3-7) on the week, while Ross also had seven points (3-4-7) to go along with a plus-6 rating. The three-game winning streak comes on the heels of a 9-0 loss in Hershey on Nov. 29 and is the Phantoms’ longest run since winning a season-high six straight games from Oct. 25 to Nov. 7. Philadelphia is off until Friday, when it makes its only visit of the campaign to Springfield.

ETC. … Bridgeport has coughed up a lead of at least two goals in each of its five meetings with Binghamton this season, but still shows a 4-0-0-1 record in the season series… Milwaukee center Mike Santorelli has a goal in six straight contests (7-6-13) and a point in nine straight (7-11-18), including seven points (3-4-7) in two outings last weekend… Mark Mancari returned to Portland from NHL recall with Buffalo and extended his AHL scoring streak to 10 games (7-10-17)… Darryl Boyce’s game-winning goal in Toronto’s 6-5 victory at Hamilton on Sunday was the first successful penalty shot in overtime of an AHL game since the Bulldogs’ Duncan Milroy turned the trick vs. Manchester on Apr. 1, 2006… Chicago’s Brett Sterling registered four points (2-2-4) in three games last week and now shows 14 points (7-7-14) in 14 games since being reassigned to the Wolves by parent-club Atlanta on Nov. 7… Lowell’s Chad Wiseman saw his franchise-record six-game goal-scoring streak (6-4-10) end on Saturday in the Devils’ 5-2 loss to Portland… After scoring twice in his first 15 games of the season, Hartford second-year forward Artem Anisimov has netted nine goals in his last nine outings, and has at least one in four straight games (5-0-5)… Hershey’s 4-2 win over Hartford on Saturday was the Bears’ first home-ice victory over the Wolf Pack since Nov. 21, 1998, and their first in six all-time meetings at the Giant Center… 2007-08 AHL All-Rookie forward Brian Boyle tallied a goal and an assist in his AHL season debut for Manchester on Friday, helping the Monarchs edge Worcester, 3-2… Quad City’s Kyle Greentree has netted a goal in four consecutive games (5-1-6), including the equalizer with 1.8 seconds left in regulation at Peoria on Saturday… Providence’s Martins Karsums has scored each of his last five goals on the power play; overall, the Bruins boast the league’s second-best power play (22.0 percent) and its best penalty kill (89.3%)… Mike Brodeur made 28 saves in his Rochester debut on Sunday, backstopping the Amerks to a 4-0 win over Albany.