AHL Weekly Release: Milwaukee back in contention

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Quietly lurking for much of the season, the Milwaukee Admirals are in position to make a late run at defending their West Division championship as the 2006-07 regular season enters its final three weeks.

Although chances for a fourth straight 100-point season are nearly gone, the Admirals are still playing some of their best hockey of the year heading into the home stretch. Trailing Chicago and Omaha atop the West Division for most of the season, Milwaukee has earned points in 14 of its last 18 games (11-4-1-2) and is just six points behind the first-place Wolves. The Admirals are 5-1-1-0 against Chicago this season with three meetings left, beginning with a visit to Allstate Arena this Friday night.

A big reason for Milwaukee’s resurgence has been the return of second-year goaltender Pekka Rinne, who missed the first half of the season following off-season shoulder surgery. Rinne, who led the Admirals’ drive to the Calder Cup Finals last year, struggled in his first couple of starts but has regained his rookie form to go 11-5-4 in 21 outings with a 2.36 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

Rich Peverley, Milwaukee’s leading scorer with 28 goals and 64 points in 61 games, has been on NHL recall to Nashville for most of the last month. With Peverley’s promotion, rookie Cal O’Reilly is the active scoring leader on Milwaukee’s roster with 52 points in his first season out of the Ontario Hockey League.

Sheldon Brookbank, who also made his NHL debut with the Predators earlier this season, leads all AHL defensemen with 34 assists and 47 points, and six of his 13 goals on the year have been game-winners for the Admirals. Brandon Segal scored his 19th goal of the season last weekend, a career high for the fourth-year pro, and Chris Durno has contributed 10 goals and 13 points in 21 games since rejoining Milwaukee after the All-Star break.

Nashville sits in a tie for the best record in the National Hockey League through Sunday’s action, and an important factor in their accomplishment so far has been the Admirals’ success in four seasons under head coach Claude Noel, beginning with their Calder Cup championship in 2003-04. Among the regulars in the Predators lineup this season have been Milwaukee alumni Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson and Greg Zanon, who captained the Admirals to a Western Conference championship in 2005-06.

BETWEEN THE PIPESBetween The Pipes, a trading card set featuring dozens of current and former AHL goaltenders, has been released by In The Game. The 150-card base set is loaded with many of today’s “Future Stars”, including 2007 AHL All-Stars Jaroslav Halak (Hamilton), Curtis McElhinney (Omaha), Jason LaBarbera (Manchester), Marek Schwarz (Peoria) and Wade Dubielewicz (Bridgeport).

Other current AHL goalies in the set include Hartford’s Al Montoya, Lowell’s Frank Doyle, Milwaukee’s Pekka Rinne, Norfolk’s Corey Crawford and Toronto’s Justin Pogge.

The “Stars of the Game” subset includes former AHL All-Stars Ryan Miller, Antero Niittymaki, Kari Lehtonen, Dwayne Roloson, Ray Emery and Rick DiPietro, and other notable AHL alumni like Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur.

Former AHL’ers featured among the “Greats of the Game” and “Immortals” cards include legends such as Gerry Cheevers, Billy Smith, Glenn Hall, Patrick Roy, Emile Francis, Grant Fuhr and AHL Hall of Famer Johnny Bower.

AMERKS HONOR BEDNARSKI … The Rochester Americans honored former defenseman and broadcaster John Bednarski with induction into the team’s Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Bednarski, a four-time postseason AHL All-Star (two First Team, two Second Team), played just two seasons in Rochester, but later spent 20 years as an analyst on Amerks radio and television broadcasts and was instrumental in many off-ice efforts, including co-founding the organization’s annual golf tournament and charity dinner which raise funds for cystic fibrosis research.

MANLOW BREAKS THROUGH … Hamilton Bulldogs forward Eric Manlow waited more than 10 months, but he finally got back in the goal column over the weekend.

The former AHL All-Star, who had 25 goals for Grand Rapids last season, scored in the third period of Hamilton’s 3-2 shootout victory over Albany on Friday night. It was his first goal in 57 games, going back to his overtime winner in Game 3 of the Griffins’ division final series vs. Manitoba in last spring’s playoffs.

Manlow came back with another goal on Saturday night at Toronto. He has 127 goals and 253 assists for 380 points in 505 career AHL games.

ETC. … Hamilton forward Ajay Baines skated in his 500th career American Hockey League game on Friday night vs. Albany… Syracuse goalie Tomas Popperle has won 10 of his last 12 decisions and now leads all AHL rookies with 23 victories on the year… The Crunch have won five straight, the last four in come-from-behind fashion by identical 3-2 scores… Chicago topped 300 goals on the year with its 6-1 win over Peoria on Sunday; no other team in the West Division has scored as many as 200 goals… Andrei Taratukhin, Carsen Germyn and Brad Ference each had four points in Omaha’s 10-2 win at Houston on Saturday night… The Ak-Sar-Ben Knights have won eight straight road games, tied for the longest road winning streak in the AHL this season… Donald MacLean has tallied eight goals and eight assists in his last eight games for the Rampage, and is one goal shy of his third 30-goal season in the AHL… Cornell product David McKee earned the win in his AHL debut for Portland on Sunday afternoon in Bridgeport… Hershey has hit the 100-point mark for the fifth time in franchise history; in three of the previous four seasons (1987-88, 1996-97, 2005-06), the Bears went on to win the Calder Cup… Hartford has won 40 games for the fourth year in a row and the eighth time in its 10 seasons all-time.