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AHL Weekly Release: Rookie coaches making impact too

WEEKLY RELEASE #13

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … In addition to its important position as the top development circuit for the National Hockey League, the American Hockey League is also proud of the role it plays in grooming the NHL coaches of the future. That was never more evident than this past year, when nine of the 29 AHL head coaches from Opening Night 2007 had earned posts in the NHL by the end of the following summer.

Due in large part to that graduation rate, the 2008-09 season got underway with 10 first-year AHL coaches behind benches around the league, along with two others who were new to their team, and another – Hershey’s Bob Woods – in his first full season at the helm after taking over midway through 2007-08.

Woods’s Bears are atop the entire AHL at 26-9-0-1 (53 points), while first-year AHL bench bosses Rob Murray (Providence) and Curt Fraser (Grand Rapids) have guided their clubs to the top spot in their respective divisions. Murray, an assistant coach under current New York Islanders head coach Scott Gordon for five seasons, is out to a 22-14-1-1 start with the defending regular-season champion Bruins; Fraser came to Grand Rapids with three-plus years of NHL head-coaching experience and has the Griffins, who missed the playoffs last season, atop the North Division at 21-8-4-3 (49 points).

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Dan Bylsma, an assistant coach during the Penguins’ run to the Calder Cup Finals last spring, took over the top job after Todd Richards accepted a spot on the San Jose Sharks’ staff. Bylsma’s Penguins enter the new week winners of nine of their last 11 games and third in the competitive East Division at 22-12-1-1 overall.

The tight West Division race features three first-year AHL bench bosses. Gord Dineen’s Iowa Chops (19-13-2-2) are tied with Davis Payne’s Peoria Rivermen (20-16-1-1) for second place with 42 points apiece, while Bill Peters’ Rockford IceHogs have won three straight games and sit just one point out of second at 19-14-0-3. In his first campaign with the defending Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves, former AHL Coach of the Year Don Granato has his club tied with Rockford for the fourth spot at 19-15-2-1 (41 points).

After a slow start, Benoit Groulx’s Rochester Americans show a 6-2-0-1 mark in their last nine games. Darren Rumble has guided the Norfolk Admirals to five wins in their last seven outings (5-2-0-0) as they prepare to kick off a nine-game homestand, and Jeff Daniels’ Albany River Rats have captured three straight contests, all by one goal. Springfield’s Jeff Truitt and three-time Calder Cup champion John Paddock of Philadelphia also have their respective teams well within the reach of the playoffs as the calendar turns to 2009.

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HAT-TRICKERY … Reigning Reebok/AHL Player of the Week Alexandre Giroux recorded the third four-goal game by an AHL player this season on Sunday, accomplishing the feat in Hershey’s 7-2 win at Worcester. Giroux had nine points in two games after returning from the parent Washington Capitals on Saturday afternoon, and now has 26 points in his last 11 AHL games (14-12-26).

Giroux’s effort was one of seven hat tricks recorded in the AHL over the weekend. On Friday, Peoria’s Trent Whitfield and Worcester’s Riley Armstrong each notched his first career three-goal game. On Saturday, Toronto’s Max Taylor netted the final three goals in a 6-1 victory over Philadelphia, Michael Ryan had all three Albany goals in a 3-2 overtime decision over Bridgeport, and Pascal Pelletier’s hat trick paced Rockford to a 6-4 win over Chicago. And Sunday, Jon DiSalvatore scored three times in Lowell’s 4-1 win over Manchester.

STINGY DEFENSE … Grand Rapids has ridden strong defensive play and excellent goaltending over the last two weeks to first place in the North Division.

The Griffins have surrendered just 13 goals in posting an 8-1-1-0 record over their last 10 games. Goaltenders Daniel Larsson and Jimmy Howard have combined to record four shutouts over that span, giving Grand Rapids a league-leading six whitewashes already on the season, already more than halfway to the team record of 10 set during the 2003-04 campaign. The recent run has lifted the Griffins to third place in the AHL for fewest goals allowed per game (2.58); they entered the month of December ranking 11th in that category (2.86).

Individually, Larsson (12-4-1) has jumped to fifth in the circuit with a 2.30 goals-against average, his save percentage of .924 is fourth-best, and his four shutouts are good for a share of the league lead.

AHL GRADS MAKING MARK IN NHL … Seven AHL graduates scored their first career NHL goals last week, including three players on Tuesday night alone. Rookie Jonathon Kalinski (Philadelphia), 2006 Calder Cup champion Chris Bourque (Washington), and 2008 AHL All-Star Brian Lee (Ottawa) all accomplished the feat in winning efforts that night.

Rookie Dustin Jeffrey (Pittsburgh), who has 17 points in 30 AHL games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, netted his first NHL marker on Thursday at Boston. That same night, Sean Collins’ first NHL goal opened the floodgates as Washington posted a 7-4 win over Tampa Bay. And Friday, Hamilton rookie Max Pacioretty scored in his NHL debut with Montreal, while 2008 AHL All-Star Andrew Ebbett potted his first NHL goal for Anaheim.

ETC. … Manitoba owned the AHL’s best regular-season record in 2008, going 50-25-1-4 (.656) during the calendar year… Trent Whitfield’s hat trick for Peoria vs. San Antonio on Friday was the first of his 11-year pro career, and came on the 11th anniversary of his last junior hat trick, with Spokane of the WHL on Jan. 2, 1998… Michael Ryan is the third player in Albany history (Steve Sullivan, Pierre Dagenais) to record more than one hat trick in a season… Philadelphia’s Patrick Maroon scored twice in a 36-second span on Dec. 30 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton… Rampage captain Jeff Hoggan has netted a goal in five straight outings (5-0-5) and has a point in six straight (5-2-7)… Lowell’s Jon DiSalvatore shows seven goals and 10 points in his last 10 games… Jeremy Reich and Matt Marquardt scored on penalty shots in successive games for Providence, Friday vs. Hershey and Saturday at Springfield… The Bruins are 19-0-0-0 this season when leading after the first period and 16-0-0-0 when leading after the second… Houston wraps up its eight-game road trip this week with games at Bridgeport, Hershey, Quad City and Chicago… Quad City won its first overtime game in franchise history on Friday vs. Milwaukee; the Flames’ previous 28 trips past regulation had resulted in seven OT losses and 21 shootouts… Seven of Hershey’s nine regulation losses this season have been by a margin of three goals or more.