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AHL Weekly: Season 76 under way

WEEKLY RELEASE #1

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The American Hockey League raised the curtain on its 76th season last weekend as 29 of the league’s 30 clubs started down the path to the 2012 Calder Cup championship.

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The season kicked off on Friday with five games, including the debut of the St. John’s IceCaps who paid a visit to the Providence Bruins. IceCaps defenseman Mark Flood scored the league’s first goal of the new campaign just 1:15 into the opener and St. John’s went on to a 4-1 win – which they would follow up with a 1-0 victory in Manchester on Saturday to go to 2-0-0-0.

A matchup at Scope Arena between the Norfolk Admirals and Charlotte Checkers provided much of the opening weekend’s offensive fireworks, as the teams combined for 18 goals in two games. In Friday’s opener, Carter Ashton’s second goal of the game came 1:55 into overtime and gave the Admirals a 6-5 win, capping a rally from two goals down with seven minutes to play. In Saturday’s rematch Norfolk pulled out a 4-3 victory, marking the second consecutive season in which the Admirals have begun the year with back-to-back wins. The Admirals’ rookie trio of Ashton, Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson combined for 11 points (six goals and five assists) on the weekend, while Checkers forward Jon Matsumoto recorded two goals and four assists himself for a league-leading six points.

There were three hat tricks recorded during opening weekend, beginning with Manchester captain Marc-Andre Cliche’s three-goal performance in a 5-2 win over Springfield on Friday. Ninth-year pro Kris Newbury recorded his first pro hat trick on Saturday, accounting for all of Connecticut’s offense in a 6-3 loss at Adirondack. And Justin DiBenedetto led Bridgeport to its first win of the season on Sunday, scoring three times in a 4-2 victory at Albany.

Texas, which had scored as many as seven goals in a game just once in its first two seasons (an 8-2 win vs. Chicago on Nov. 16, 2010), went 4-for-8 on the power play en route to a 7-0 victory over Oklahoma City in the season opener for both clubs on Sunday. Rookie Matt Fraser had two goals and an assist for his first three professional points and Richard Bachman made 21 saves for the shutout. No other game on the AHL’s opening weekend was decided by more than three goals.

Average attendance for the 23 games over the weekend was 5,924, up 2.2 percent from the league’s first weekend in 2010-11. Lake Erie led the way drawing 18,534 fans to its two-game series with Abbotsford at Quicken Loans Arena, including a crowd of 13,021 for Friday night’s icebreaker. San Antonio drew 9,062 fans for Saturday’s game with Chicago, the largest ever for a Rampage home opener.

After a couple of days off, the AHL schedule resumes on Thursday with the Rochester Americans’ 56th home opener, an event at the Blue Cross Arena that will feature more than 50 Amerks alumni on hand to celebrate the franchise’s storied history. Friday’s schedule will be highlighted by the AHL’s return to St. John’s as the IceCaps host Hamilton at Mile One Centre. Other home openers this coming weekend will take place in Abbotsford, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee on Friday, and in Chicago, Connecticut, Hershey, Oklahoma City, Portland, Springfield, Syracuse, Toronto and Worcester on Saturday.

1-0 (SO) … Connecticut’s 1-0 shootout win at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday marked the 25th time since shootouts returned to the AHL in 2004-05 that a game finished scoreless after 65 minutes. Chad Johnson made 41 saves for the Whale before stopping three of five attempts in the shootout to outduel Scott Munroe (23 saves, 1/4).

The Whale franchise has played five such 1-0 games in its history, and has now won four of them. Sunday was the first 1-0 shootout game ever for the Penguins.

ROSTER REVIEW … The 30 AHL team rosters submitted to the league office on opening day included 726 players, from Acolatse (Worcester’s Sena) to Zolnierczyk (Adirondack’s Harry). The average age of an AHL player to start the 2011-12 season was 24 years and 4 months.

The youngest player in the league on opening night was 19-year-old goaltender Maxime Clermont of the Albany Devils, a 2010 draft pick by New Jersey. Born Dec. 31, 1991, Clermont is one day younger than Milwaukee defenseman Taylor Aronson and is among eight teenagers on AHL opening rosters. All told, there were 304 AHL players (41.9 percent) who were 22 years old and under as of Oct. 7, and 481 players (66.3 percent) under the age of 25.

The Manchester Monarchs (23 years, 3 months) are the youngest team in the league, with 12 players on their 21-man opening-night roster aged 22 and under. Leading the Monarchs’ youth movement are several members of last year’s club that earned 98 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division, including 2011 Second Team AHL All-Star defenseman Slava Voynov, 2007 fourth-overall draft pick Thomas Hickey and second-year goaltender Martin Jones.

AHL rosters are 60.3 percent Canadians and 29.8 percent Americans. Twenty-two Swedes (3.0 percent) make up the largest contingent of European-born players in the league.

ETC. … Syracuse, the only team not active during opening weekend, kicks off its 2011-12 schedule in Binghamton on Friday… Leland Irving, who led the AHL with eight shutouts for Abbotsford last season, made 19 saves in the Heat’s 1-0 win over Lake Erie on Saturday… Adirondack’s opening roster featured four players with older brothers in the NHL: Brayden Schenn (Luke), Tye McGinn (Jamie), Blake Kessel (Phil) and Eric Wellwood (Kyle)… With two assists over the weekend, Chicago’s Darren Haydar moved past AHL Hall of Famer Dick Gamble and into a tie for 21st place all-time with 425 career AHL helpers… Springfield saw its seven-game winning streak in season openers end in Friday’s loss to Manchester, while Grand Rapids had earned points in eight straight opening games (5-0-2-1) before Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Rockford… The IceHogs are off to a 2-0-0-0 start after winning 10 of their final 11 games last season… Milwaukee’s 4-1 win in Peoria on Saturday extended the Admirals’ AHL record to 17 consecutive regular-season road games without a regulation loss (11-0-4-2)… Five penalty shots were called over the first three days of the season, with Milwaukee’s Michael Latta, Hamilton’s Brock Trotter and Albany’s Mike Sislo converting on their tries… Norfolk outshot Charlotte, 88-59, during the teams’ two meetings over the weekend… Binghamton is the first defending Calder Cup champion to open the season with two regulation losses since the 1997-98 Hershey Bears.