AHL Weekly Release: Race getting hotter in North

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … It may still be cold outside, but it’s getting hotter in the North, where two points separate the division’s top three teams as the American Hockey League’s 2006-07 season sees February give way to March.

sprukts_200.jpgThe Rochester Americans still own the best record in the division at 36-20-1-0 (.640), but have been besieged by call-ups and have fallen two points behind Manitoba for first place. The Amerks are one of two teams in the Western Conference with 200 goals scored this season, but they have been shut out three times during their current four-game losing streak.

Rochester played this past weekend with four of their top five scorers – Clarke MacArthur, Drew Stafford, Michael Ryan and Mark Mancari – on recall to the Buffalo Sabres, and with leading goaltender Craig Anderson up with the Florida Panthers. With their dual affiliation, the Amerks have sent 18 different players to the NHL this season.

mtb-celeb_200.jpgRochester’s recent struggles have opened the door for the Manitoba Moose to move atop the North Division with 75 points. The Moose, who have not won a division title since joining the AHL in 2001, rattled off nine straight wins from Feb. 3-23, and are now 22-5-4-2 since losing back-to-back home games to the Americans in early December.

2007 AHL All-Star forward Jason Jaffray continues to lead Manitoba’s offense, chipping in 16 points (5g, 11a) and a plus-11 rating in 11 games since the birth of his daughter on Feb. 3. Meanwhile, Drew MacIntyre has gone 18 consecutive starts without allowing more than three goals, and is 16-4-0 in his last 20 decisions in the Moose crease.

ham-celeb_200.jpgHamilton, on an 11-2-1-2 run, kicked off a nine-game road trip by taking three of four points in Grand Rapids over the weekend. The Bulldogs are gunning for their third division title in the last five years, and enter the week tied with Rochester two points behind Manitoba.

Duncan Milroy and Andrei Kostitsyn, both of whom spent time last week with the parent Montreal Canadiens, share the Bulldogs’ scoring lead with 52 points apiece, while Corey Locke has put up 12 points (5g, 7a) in his last seven games for Hamilton. Jaroslav Halak, still the AHL’s leader with a 2.00 goals-against average, made his NHL debut with Montreal on Feb. 18 and promptly won his first three career starts.

With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, Rochester and Hamilton have 16 games each left against North Division opponents, including four meetings with each other. Manitoba only has eight division games left on its schedule, none against the Amerks or Bulldogs.

800 FOR BONVIE … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Dennis Bonvie became the 27th player in American Hockey League history with 800 regular-season games played when he hit the ice for the Penguins’ game in Binghamton on Friday night.

The 33-year-old native of Antigonish, N.S., is in his 14th AHL season.

Bonvie, Penguins teammate Wade Skolney and the Senators’ Mike Sgroi, who have combined for more than 6,300 penalty minutes in nearly 1,500 career professional games, each scored a goal in the Pens’ 5-4 win.

SHOTS FIRED … There have been 17 penalty shots attempted in the American Hockey League during the month of February, a sharp increase compared to the 20 that were awarded over the season’s first four months combined.

Shooters are having greater success as well; they were 3-for-20 (.150) on attempts prior to the All-Star break, but are 8-for-17 (.471) since.

The Binghamton Senators have been perfect on their seven penalty shots this season, with shooters going 4-for-4 (led by Matt Koalska with two goals) and goaltenders 3-for-3 on the other end.

SQUEAKY CLEAN … Forty games into his first full AHL season, Grand Rapids forward Jeff Campbell has yet to run into the long arm of the law.

The third-year pro out of Western Michigan University has seven goals, 13 assists and zero penalty minutes for the Griffins this season.

Including a stint in Lowell last year, Campbell has played 47 career AHL games without being assessed a single penalty.

RATS, CANES RENEW … The Albany River Rats have extended their affiliation agreement with the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes for two more seasons, through 2008-09.

On Saturday night, a crowd of 7,806 fans watched the River Rats post a 4-3 shootout win over Portland, the largest crowd at the Times Union Center since Apr. 5, 2003.

It was Albany’s 26th victory of the year; four times in five seasons from 2001-06, the Rats won 25 games or fewer.

ETC. … San Antonio wrapped up its 16-game road trip with a 2-0 win in Rochester last Wednesday, finishing the 28-day trek at 7-8-0-1… Jason LaBarbera is averaging 36 saves per each of his league-leading seven shutouts for Manchester this season… There have been four games played in the AHL this season that finished scoreless after 65 minutes; Dov Grumet-Morris has suffered the shootout loss in two of them… Chicago’s Cory Larose has no goals – but 13 assists – in his last 12 games… Providence’s Dennis Packard went 32 games without a goal before scoring three times in four contests last week… During its current six-game winning streak, Hartford has outscored its opponents, 26-6… Milwaukee has alternated wins and non-wins over its last 14 games (7-5-1-1)… Syracuse’s eight-game road winless streak (0-5-0-3) and Hamilton’s nine-game home points streak (8-0-1-0) both ended in the Crunch’s 5-2 win at Copps Coliseum on Friday… AHL graduates Tomas Fleischmann (Washington), Cam Janssen (New Jersey), Frans Nielsen (N.Y. Islanders), Clarke MacArthur (Buffalo), Ladislav Smid (Edmonton), Tom Gilbert (Edmonton), John Zeiler (Los Angeles) and Tim Brent (Anaheim) all scored their first career NHL goals last week… Binghamton has been awarded the 2008 AHL All-Star Classic.