AHL Weekly Release: Wolf Pack in playoff hunt again

hfd_200.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … They stumbled out of the gate and were floundering in late November. But the Hartford Wolf Pack have charged back towards the top of the Atlantic Division, and are closing in on some American Hockey League history.

With 20 games remaining in their 2006-07 regular season, the Wolf Pack are closing in on becoming just the third AHL team (Hershey, Montreal/Nova Scotia) ever to reach the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of its first 10 seasons.

Hartford lost six of its first seven games this season and sat at 5-11-1-0 on U.S. Thanksgiving. Since then, the Pack are playing at a .762 clip (31-10-2-0) that has them in second place in the Atlantic and within striking distance of the top spot.

February’s Rbk X-Pulse/AHL Goaltender of the Month Al Montoya backstops one of the AHL’s youngest teams. The 22-year-old Montoya lost nine of his first 11 decisions this year, with a 3.07 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage to show for it. Since Dec. 22, the second-year pro is 16-3-0 (1.59, .937) and has climbed to fourth on the league leaderboard with a 2.15 GAA, nearly half a goal per game better than his rookie effort (2.61).

With last week’s acquisition of Alex Bourret from the Atlanta Thrashers, five of Hartford’s top seven scorers are rookies under the age of 22, including AHL All-Star Game hero Ryan Callahan, who is tied for third in the AHL with 33 goals. Lauri Korpikoski, Dane Byers and Brandon Dubinsky are all in their first full professional campaigns, although all debuted with the Wolf Pack late in the 2005-06 season.

Second-year forward Nigel Dawes, a 35-goal scorer for Hartford in 2005-06, is second on the team in scoring after beginning the season in the NHL with the parent New York Rangers. Jarkko Immonen recorded seven points in three games from Feb. 23-25 before returning to the Rangers last week. Daniel Girardi, an AHL All-Rookie selection last season, remains the Wolf Pack’s top scorer among defensemen despite being up with New York since Jan. 25. And second-year blueliner Ivan Baranka has nine assists and a plus-11 rating in his last 11 games, and leads Hartford in plus/minus for the season (+13).

The Wolf Pack have won eight of their last nine games, allowing two goals or fewer in each one. On Sunday, 2003 first-round draft choice Hugh Jessiman scored twice in a 3-2 overtime victory over Hershey, Hartford’s seventh consecutive road victory over the Bears.

The Pack begin the final quarter of the regular season trailing first-place Manchester by eight points in the Atlantic Division. Hartford still has three meetings remaining against the Monarchs, including one at the Verizon Wireless Arena this Wednesday night.

THE EXPERIENCE IS CLEAR … The Clear Day lists submitted last week feature 51 players who have won a Calder Cup championship in their careers, including 17 members of last year’s Hershey Bears title team who are preparing for another Calder Cup run:

Antti Laaksonen, ALB (1999) Chris Bourque, HER (2006) Jason Morgan, HOU (2001) Jeff Hoggan, PRO (2003)
Terry Virtue, BNG (99, 00)  Frederic Cassivi, HER (02, 06)  Curtis Murphy, HOU (03, 04)  Brandon Smith, ROC (1999) 
Mark Wotton, BRI (2006)  Deryk Engelland, HER (2006)  Erik Reitz, HOU (2003)  Bryan Helmer, SA (1995)
Andy Delmore, CHI (1998)  Eric Fehr, HER (2006)  Marty Murray, MCH (2001)  Pascal Rheaume, SA (1995)
Darren Haydar, CHI (2004)  Tomas Fleischmann, HER (2006)  Wade Flaherty, MTB (2004)  Dan Cavanaugh, SPR (2003) 
Derek MacKenzie, CHI (2002)  Mike Green, HER (2006)  Brandon Segal, MIL (2004)  Kyle Wanvig, SPR (2003) 
Jonas Johansson, GR (2006)  Jakub Klepis, HER (2006)  Peter Ferraro, PEO (1999)  Tomas Kloucek, SYR (2000) 
Ben Simon, GR (2002)  Louis Robitaille, HER (2006)  Mark Cullen, PHI (2003)  Derrick Walser, SYR (2001)
Dan Smith, GR (1997)  Jeff Schultz, HER (2006)  Boyd Kane, PHI (05, 06)  Micki DuPont, WBS (2001)
Tony Voce, GR (2005)  Tyler Sloan, HER (2006)  Eric Meloche, PHI (2005) Wade Skolney, WBS (2005)
Francis Lessard, HFD (2002)  Dave Steckel, HER (2006)  David Printz, PHI (2005) Mathieu Darche, WOR (2004)
Dale Purinton, HFD (2000) Joey Tenute, HER (2006)  John Slaney, PHI (2005) Graham Mink, WOR (2006)
Dean Arsene, HER (2006) Dieter Kochan, HOU (2003) Aaron Downey, PRO (1999)  

Additionally, eight AHL head coaches – John Anderson, Don Lever, Bruce Boudreau, Claude Noel, Kjell Samuelsson, Randy Cunneyworth, Todd Richards and Roy Sommer – have won Calder Cups as players, head coaches and/or assistant coaches.

There are also five AHL players who have won Stanley Cups in their careers: Lowell’s Grant Marshall (1999, 2003), Manchester’s Oleg Tverdovsky (2003, 2006), Manitoba’s Mike Keane (1993, 1996, 1999), San Antonio’s Pascal Rheaume (2003) and Syracuse’s Jamie Pushor (1997).

RATS BACK IN THE RACE … It took 10 days for Albany to make up a nine-point deficit and pull back into a tie with Bridgeport for fourth place in the East Division.

The Sound Tigers had 61 points to the River Rats’ 52 when the teams met on Feb. 23. Albany, bidding for its first postseason appearance since 2000, took a 4-3 decision that night to start a 4-1-1-0 run, while Bridgeport is mired in a five-game losing streak.

ETC. … Since returning from NHL recall to Carolina on Dec. 31, Albany captain Keith Aucoin has registered 10 goals and 29 assists for 39 points in 25 games… Donald MacLean, Chris Ferraro and newcomer Alex Leavitt each had four points and a plus-5 rating in San Antonio’s 5-1 win over Iowa on Saturday night… MacLean’s hat trick that night was the ninth of his AHL career… Rookie Jamie Tardif scored three times in the second period of Grand Rapids’ 5-3 loss at Syracuse on Saturday, the Griffins’ first loss to the Crunch in 11 meetings… Jason Krog scored twice in his return to the Chicago lineup on Saturday, extending his AHL scoring streak to 26 games in the Wolves’ 6-3 loss to Hamilton; the streak ended in Sunday’s 3-2 victory over San Antonio… Robert Nilsson recorded three assists in his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton debut on Wednesday vs. Binghamton… Nathan Smith has scored the game-winning goal in four of Manitoba’s last five victories… Milwaukee’s Rich Peverley, currently ninth in the AHL in scoring, recorded an assist in his NHL debut for Nashville on Sunday… Worcester’s Graham Mink leads the AHL with 15 goals in calendar year 2007… Omaha has allowed a total of seven goals on its current six-game winning streak… Peoria is 8-1-1-2 since the All-Star break… Springfield snapped a 10-game road losing streak and an eight-game slide overall with a 3-2 shootout victory in Worcester on Sunday… Rochester is 8-1 this season in games decided past regulation… Having wrapped up a 10-game road trip in Portland on Sunday, Norfolk finishes the season with 16 games against East Division opponents.