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AHL Weekly Release: Newcomers helping Griffins early

WEEKLY RELEASE #3

gr_200.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … A season after finishing in fifth place in the North Division and out of a playoff spot for just the second time since joining the AHL in 2001, the Grand Rapids Griffins have used a potent offense to get out to quick start in 2008-09.

Under the tutelage of first-year head coach Curt Fraser, a former NHL bench boss in Atlanta, the Griffins are unbeaten in regulation at 4-0-1-0 on the young campaign. Since dropping their season opener in overtime, Grand Rapids has won four straight games for its longest winning streak since capturing six in a row from Jan. 27 to Feb. 17, 2007. The Griffins have scored 19 goals in their last three games and are now averaging 5.20 goals per game overall, good for second in the league. Grand Rapids is outscoring its opponents 12-3 in the first period this season, including a 10-2 edge in its last three opening frames.

Rookie forward Justin Abdelkader, drafted in the second round in 2005 by the parent Detroit Red Wings, leads all AHL rookies with six goals, including his first professional hat trick in Sunday’s 6-3 win over Norfolk. Abdelkader, a West Michigan native, has netted at least one goal in four of his first five games this season. First-year North American pro Ville Leino has found the scoresheet in all five games thus far and is pacing the Griffins with nine points (4-5-9) overall, including a two-goal showing on Saturday as the Griffins opened their home schedule with a 6-4 win over Hamilton before 10,834 fans, their 13th straight home-opener sellout.

Cory Emmerton, a second-round pick by Detroit in 2006, has begun his rookie campaign with three assists and a plus-3 rating in five contests. Fellow rookie Francis Pare has two goals and an assist in his first two pro games after leading the QMJHL with 54 goals for Chicoutimi last season, and first-year blueliner Logan Pyett has three assists in five games for the Griffins.

Veteran newcomers include Darren Haydar, now a two-time Calder Cup champion (2004, 2008), who has posted seven points (3-4-7) through his first five games this year and now shows 463 points in 422 career AHL matches. Landon Wilson, an AHL All-Star and Calder Cup champion in 1999 who has skated in 348 games in the NHL, sports two goals and five points in five games.

Defenseman Jonathan Ericsson and goaltender Jimmy Howard, the Griffins’ two representatives at the 2008 AHL All-Star Classic, are among the notable returnees to Grand Rapids this season, as is former first-round draft choice Jakub Kindl. Second-year pro Mattias Ritola totaled seven goals in 72 games as a rookie in 2007-08, but has already netted three this season, including two in Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs. And after recording two goals and two assists – his first four NHL points – during Detroit’s run to the Stanley Cup last spring, Darren Helm has suited up for three games for the Griffins this season and has a point in all three (0-4-4).

Looming on the horizon for the Griffins is a Wednesday home tilt against Syracuse, which sits just one point above Grand Rapids for first place in the North Division. The Griffins then play a home-and-home set against Milwaukee on the weekend.

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SUPER SATURDAY … The National Hockey League billed Oct. 25 as Super Saturday, with all 30 teams in action, and it was an especially eventful evening for several American Hockey League graduates.

Rookie Ben Bishop made his first career NHL start for the St. Louis Blues and combined with Marek Schwarz on a 4-0 shutout of the Florida Panthers; both Bishop and Schwarz began the season in the AHL with Peoria. Jason Garrison, a rookie defenseman who has five points in seven games with Rochester this season, made his NHL debut with Florida in that game.

Washington’s Tyler Sloan and Dallas’s B.J. Crombeen both scored their first NHL goals in the Capitals’ 6-5 win over the Stars on Saturday night, and Brandon Prust’s first career goal was the game-winner in Calgary’s 4-1 victory at Phoenix. Between the pipes, 2005 AHL All-Rookie goaltender Cam Ward made 57 saves in Carolina’s 4-3 win over the New York Islanders.

There was a full slate in the AHL on Saturday as well, with the maximum 14 games on the schedule.

ICEHOGS SURGE TO FIRST PLACE … Rockford enters the new week riding an AHL-high six-game winning streak, which has vaulted the IceHogs to the top spot in the West Division at 7-1-0-0 (14 points).

Three of the IceHogs’ six wins in the streak have come via the shootout, with Rockford goaltenders denying 13 of 16 opponent attempts. Antti Niemi is out to a 4-1-0 start to his North American pro career, including a 26-save shutout of Norfolk on Oct. 25, and ranks third among AHL goaltenders in both goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.951) in the early going.

Former first-round draft pick Jack Skille was assigned by the parent Blackhawks last week and promptly registered four points in three games with the IceHogs, including both regulation goals in Rockford’s 3-2 shootout win over arch-rival Chicago on Sunday. Defenseman Cam Barker, another first-rounder, contributed five points and a plus-3 rating in seven games, earning him a recall to the Blackhawks this afternoon.

ROOKIES CHIPPING IN FOR PIRATES … Rookies Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy have each tallied seven points through Portland’s first five games, helping the Pirates to a 5-1-0-0 start. The pair are tied for second in scoring among first-year players; Kennedy’s six assists are tops in that category, and Gerbe’s five goals are good for a share of second place.

Fourth-year pro Mark Mancari, a two-time 20-goal scorer and a 2008 AHL All-Star, is setting the overall pace for the Pirates with 10 points (4-6-10) on the young season.

ETC. … Toronto’s Andre Deveaux, who entered last week with 22 goals in 238 career AHL games, scored five times in three contests, including a hat trick in Sunday’s 5-4 win over Houston… Philadelphia goaltender Scott Munroe posted a 31-save shutout in the Phantoms’ 3-0 win at Albany on Saturday; dating back to the teams’ five-overtime playoff game on Apr. 24, Munroe hasn’t allowed a goal in his last 165:44 of play at the Times Union Center… Milwaukee’s Antti Pihlstrom picked up an assist on Saturday at Chicago to run his scoring streak to five games, but his goal-scoring run ended at four games… Hershey’s Keith Aucoin has extended his scoring streak to eight games, with 17 points (5g, 12a) during that span… Sunday’s 8-3 win was the Bears’ 200th regular-season victory all-time vs. Rochester (200-180-53)… Adam Berkhoel’s 46 saves in a 5-0 win at Lowell on Wednesday marked a career high and the most ever by a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender in a shutout… Following Saturday’s shutout in Worcester, Bridgeport goalie Peter Mannino (2-0-1) has stopped 97 of 99 shots to begin his pro career… Quad City’s eight games this season have featured a total of three first-period goals… Since opening the season with a pair of losses, Manitoba has outscored opponents 15-6 in taking four straight wins… After finding the net only twice in a span of more than 10 periods, Hartford scored three goals in a 6:27 span in the third period of a 5-4 shootout loss at Worcester on Wednesday… New Syracuse defenseman Kris Russell, assigned by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets earlier today, is the twin brother of current Hamilton forward Ryan Russell; the Crunch and Bulldogs are not scheduled to play each other until Dec. 27.