AHL Weekly: Wolves charge toward the top

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … After winning their second Calder Cup in 2008, the Chicago Wolves missed the playoffs entirely in 2009 and started this season by losing five of their first six games. But the Wolves have turned their fortunes around dramatically and are now charging hard toward the top of the AHL standings.

Chicago made a change behind the bench after its slow start, bringing in former AHL coach of the year and Calder Cup champion Don Lever, who has guided the club to a 36-12-0-4 mark since taking over. Chicago enters the new week with eight straight wins, points in 14 straight (12-0-0-2) and just one regulation loss in its last 22 games (19-1-0-2) to soar to the top of the West Division. The Wolves have been impressive at both ends of the ice, as they rank second in the AHL in offense (3.43 goals per game) and fifth in defense (2.43). Chicago’s power-play and penalty-killing units both place among the AHL’s top 10, and the Wolves are a perfect 23-0-0-0 when taking a lead into the third period.

Jason Krog, the AHL’s MVP and scoring champion with Chicago in 2007-08 and a Calder Cup finalist with Manitoba last year, is pacing the Wolves again this season with 60 points – including a league-high 48 assists – in 56 games. Former AHL rookie of the year Brett Sterling (33-22-55) has six goals in his last six games and is bidding to become the seventh player in AHL history to win the league’s goal-scoring title more than once. Tim Stapleton, who went on an 11-game scoring streak earlier this season, currently shows 24-25-49 in 58 contests. Joey Crabb has put up 32 points in his last 28 outings and has already set career highs in goals (20) and points (39) for the year, while Matt Anderson has chipped in 12 goals and 23 assists, and his plus-23 rating is tops among Chicago forwards.

Second-year pro Arturs Kulda (plus-37) and future Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios (plus-35) have anchored the Wolves’ blue line, ranking first and second in the AHL in plus/minus. An AHL All-Star last month, Ivan Vishnevskiy shows five assists and a plus-9 rating in seven games since joining the Wolves via trade from the Dallas organization. Rookie Paul Postma (9-8-17) was named Reebok/AHL Player of the Week after notching six points in his last two games, and Jamie Hunt had five points in three weekend games to match his output from his first 20 matches of the season.

Goaltender Peter Mannino (18-3-0) has won his last 10 decisions and ranks second in the AHL in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.934) through 24 appearances. Drew MacIntyre, a Second Team AHL All-Star the past two seasons, is 16-11-1 (2.48, .918) overall including a current eight-game winning streak.

The Wolves, who enter the week five points ahead of second-place Rockford with three games in hand, will welcome the IceHogs to Allstate Arena on Sunday after visiting Peoria and Milwaukee to begin the coming weekend.

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BANNER WEEKEND FOR ATTENDANCE … From the pre-game festivities to the perfect weather conditions to the intense battle on the ice, the Mirabito Outdoor Classic in Syracuse on Saturday was a grand success, witnessed by the largest crowd in the AHL’s 74-year history as 21,508 fans packed the New York State Fairgrounds for the Crunch’s 2-1 win over Binghamton. That game was just part of a three-day weekend that saw nearly a quarter of a million fans (242,236) attend 37 AHL games, an average of 6,546 per contest.

The Hamilton Bulldogs drew a team-record 15,529 fans to the Bell Centre in Montreal – home of their NHL affiliate Canadiens – on Sunday afternoon for a 5-0 win over Adirondack. Saturday night’s impressive crowds included 14,104 in Chicago; a sellout of 10,695 in Hershey; 9,946 in Grand Rapids; and 9,007 in Manchester, which all saw victories by the home team. On Sunday, a gathering of 7,985 watched Bridgeport edge arch-rival Hartford by a 2-1 final.

All told, the weekend pushed the AHL past the four-million mark for attendance this season, as 4,107,870 fans have taken in games across North America since the beginning of the campaign.

THE RECORDS KEEP FALLING … Hershey continued its assault on the AHL record book with wins over Lake Erie on Saturday and Albany on Sunday, giving the Bears 20 consecutive victories on home ice. The previous record of 19 was held by the 1996-97 Philadelphia Phantoms. Bears captain Bryan Helmer recorded his 386th career assist in Sunday’s win, moving into a tie with AHL Hall of Famer Steve Kraftcheck for the most assists by a defenseman in league history.

Hershey has not lost at Giant Center since dropping a 5-4 shootout decision to Adirondack on Nov. 28, and is now 20-0-0-1 in its last 21 home games, one away from matching the longest single-season home points streak in AHL history held by the 1971-72 Boston Braves (18-0-4). The overall record is 24 home games with a point, set by the Springfield Falcons and spanning the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons.

YOUR TURN, MY TURN … More history was made during Portland’s two-game visit to the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester over the weekend. On Saturday, the Pirates rallied for a 4-3 victory that extended their winning streak to 11 games, the longest in franchise history. But with number 12 in its sights, Portland saw Americans forward Mike York first score with 1.3 seconds left in regulation to tie Sunday’s rematch, then pot the winning shootout goal as the Amerks joined Hershey as the only AHL franchises to win 2,000 regular-season games.

York’s heroics capped a weekend that saw him record two goals and an assist in three games in his first action after being out of the lineup for Rochester’s previous 34 tilts.

ETC.Jonathan Bernier made 40 saves on Saturday in a 4-0 win over Providence, Manchester’s fourth consecutive shutout of the Bruins; Providence has gone 240:48 without scoring against Manchester… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton set a franchise-record for goals in its 9-2 win over Albany on Wednesday, and Chris Conner’s six points (3-3-6) that night also marked a single-game franchise high… Matt Keith tallied Rockford’s first hat trick in exactly one year on Friday vs. San Antonio; Tim Brent scored three times for the IceHogs on Feb. 19, 2009, at Milwaukee… Saturday’s 4-2 win over Worcester marked Hartford’s 300th regular-season home victory in franchise history… Rookie Brett Sonne tallied the first multiple-goal game of his professional career in Peoria’s 5-3 come-from-behind win at Grand Rapids on Saturday… Springfield goaltender Devan Dubnyk stopped 91 of 96 shots (.948) in a two-game set at Norfolk last weekend but still went 0-1-1… Brock Trotter has 17-12-29 in his last 18 games for Hamilton… Toronto is 6-0-0-0 in the last six games in which it outshot its opponent after starting the season 7-10-1-1 in such contests… Chicago, Norfolk and San Antonio, the three AHL teams whose head coaches were relieved of their duties this season, are a combined 67-29-2-10 (.676) under their new bench bosses.