AHL Weekly Release: Norfolk first to clinch

nor_200.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … With four weeks remaining in the 2006-07 regular season, the Norfolk Admirals have become the first team to clinch a berth in the 2007 Calder Cup Playoffs.

For the Admirals, it is their seventh consecutive trip to the AHL postseason since joining the league in 2000-01. They have won more than 40 games for the third year in a row and have already established franchise records with 45 victories and 96 points this season. Norfolk clinched when Bridgeport lost to Philadelphia on Sunday night, and is in a three-way battle for both the East Division championship and the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy, which goes to the AHL team who finishes first in the overall standings.

Norfolk, which has seen 20 players skate for the parent Chicago Blackhawks this season, is also chasing a spot in the AHL record book. With a record of 31-4-2-0 at Norfolk Scope, the Admirals need wins in each of their final three home games to set an all-time league record for home victories in a single season. The 1987-88 Fredericton Express and the 1998-99 Providence Bruins both won 33 home games.

The races to join the 16-team Calder Cup Playoff party are heating up with four weeks remaining in the 2006-07 regular season. 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.

In the highly competitive Atlantic, the difference between a division title and missing the playoffs altogether is just 10 points, currently the advantage first-place Manchester (85) has over fifth-place Worcester (75). In between are Hartford (81), Providence (80) and Lowell (78), the Devils having gone 15-4-2-4 in their last 25 games. Portland is also still in the thick of the hunt, eight points behind Lowell but with two games in hand.

Like the Atlantic, the race for fourth place in the East Division is a three-team tussle as well, with Albany (69) currently one point ahead of Bridgeport (68) and seven up on Philadelphia (62). Nine of the River Rats’ final 14 games are scheduled against teams who would miss the postseason if it started today, including two big tilts against the fifth-place Sound Tigers.

Winners of 17 of their last 18 games, the Manitoba Moose have opened up an eight-point lead atop the North Division with the best record in the Western Conference. And while Hamilton (81), Rochester (79) and Grand Rapids (75) are all seemingly secure in playoff positions as well, the possibility of a West Division crossover leaves Iowa just three points behind the fourth-place Griffins.

The Stars could just as easily stay in the West Division draw if they make the postseason. Iowa is one point behind fourth-place Peoria (although the Rivermen have two games in hand), with one of two remaining showdowns between the clubs scheduled for Tuesday night in Des Moines. Meanwhile, Chicago (87), Omaha (83) and Milwaukee (80) are embroiled in a race to win the division that has produced a Calder Cup finalist five years running.

ALL YOU NEED IS DOVDov Grumet-Morris has answered the call to action for three AHL teams this season, and for each one, he has pitched a shutout in his first start.

Grumet-Morris, a second-year pro out of Harvard, was summoned by the Portland Pirates in December, and after making his AHL season debut in a relief appearance, he made 29 saves in a 1-0 shootout loss to Hartford on Dec. 16.

Grumet-Morris later joined the Hamilton Bulldogs and in his first outing stopped all 36 shots he faced in another 1-0 shootout loss, this one at Grand Rapids on Feb. 24. He then made his Manitoba Moose debut this past Sunday and turned aside 28 shots in a 4-0 victory in Peoria.

In 14 AHL games this season, Grumet-Morris has a record of 3-6-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage and those three shutouts.

STERLING, HAYDAR HIT THEIR MARKSBrett Sterling scored his 50th goal and Darren Haydar picked up his 100th point of the season in Chicago’s 5-4 overtime win at Omaha on Friday night.

Sterling is the fifth rookie in American Hockey League history to score 50 goals in a season. Haydar, who has earned points in 55 of his 62 games played this season, finished the weekend with 69 assists and 104 points on the year, both league-leading totals.

HEY, EBBETT! … Binghamton’s Andrew Ebbett scored eight goals in a five-game stretch from Mar. 9-17.

Ebbett, who signed with the Ottawa Senators after playing four seasons at the University of Michigan, is one of 10 rookies to score 20 goals in the AHL this season.

The Vernon, B.C., native notched his first professional hat trick on Wednesday night, helping Binghamton snap a 10-game losing streak with a 7-4 win in Toronto.

ETC.Marius Holtet scored three goals in the final 9:34 of regulation to lift Iowa to a 5-4 comeback win at San Antonio on Sunday… Matt D’Agostini scored four times, including the game-winner on a power play with 17.2 seconds left in overtime, to lead Hamilton to a 5-4 win at Syracuse on Friday night… Hershey rookie Kyle Wilson picked up 10 points in three games over the weekend, including a natural hat trick in Sunday’s 6-1 win over Binghamton… Keith Aucoin has recorded five straight multiple-point games for Albany… Hartford’s Ryan Callahan scored his first two NHL goals in the N.Y. Rangers’ 7-0 win over Boston on Saturday night… Peoria’s Jeff Woywitka (St. Louis), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Kyle Brodziak (Edmonton) and Lowell’s David Clarkson (New Jersey) also scored their first career NHL goals on Saturday… Five-time AHL All-Star and two-time Eddie Shore Award winner Curtis Murphy missed all three of Houston’s games last week after playing 322 consecutive regular-season and playoff games in the AHL, the NHL and Russia since 2003; he had missed just one of 521 games over the last seven years – Milwaukee’s 2003-04 season opener while attending the funeral of former teammate Dan Snyder… After going beyond regulation three times last week, Milwaukee has played 25 overtime games in 2006-07, one shy of the AHL record… With Saturday’s come-from-behind 5-4 victory, Peoria is now 9-0-0-0 all-time at the Omaha Civic Auditorium… Houston’s road winless streak hit 15 games (0-12-2-1) with weekend losses in Toronto, Syracuse and Rochester… Grand Rapids has scored 11 shorthanded goals in its last 19 games.