Countdown begins to Calder Cup 2004


The stars have set in Grand Rapids, and with the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic now just a memory, the American Hockey League resumes its 68th regular season this week on the road to the Calder Cup 2004 Playoffs.

Forty-one games are on tap through the rest of this week, with six more on the schedule for the Presidents’ Day holiday in the U.S. on Monday. Highlighting the slate is Binghamton’s second annual trip to the Corel Centre, home of the parent Ottawa Senators. The B-Sens will host the Toronto Roadrunners in Canada’s capital on Sunday afternoon.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are back in the fast lane, immediately following a five-game losing streak with their current six-game unbeaten run. The Sound Tigers, league finalists two seasons ago, have a record of 27-11-8-3 and a league-leading .663 points percentage coming out of the All-Star break. They are also leading the tightest division race in the AHL, just one point clear of Philadelphia and four up on Hershey atop the East.

After a disappointing exit in the qualifying round of the 2003 postseason, Hartford is in first place in the Atlantic in search of the franchise’s second division championship. But behind the Wolf Pack, just five points separate Providence, Manchester, Worcester, Lowell and Portland.

The Grand Rapids Griffins are once again the top team in the Western Conference, and their seven-point lead over Chicago in the West Division gives the Griffins the inside track on a third consecutive AHL division crown. Grand Rapids returns to action on Friday with a 10-game home unbeaten streak intact.

And in the North, the Hamilton Bulldogs have gone 7-1-2-0 in their last 10 outings to open up an eight-point cushion atop the division. Trailing the Bulldogs, who lost a Game 7 in the 2002 conference finals and Game 7 of the 2003 Calder Cup Final, are six teams separated by a total of eight points, from second-place Cleveland to seventh-place Manitoba.

In 2002-03, all 20 teams who entered the AHL All-Star break in playoff positions went on to qualify for the postseason, and all six first-place teams at the break held on to win division titles.

ALL-STAR JERSEY AUCTIONS … From now until Feb. 19 at 8:00 p.m. ET on, the AHL is auctioning off the warm-up jerseys worn before Monday’s All-Star Game. The sale of the gold (PlanetUSA) and red (Canadian) sweaters will benefit the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation.

Additionally, the Griffins are auctioning off a set of special jerseys, donated by each of the AHL’s 28 teams and signed by each team’s All-Star Classic participants, to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The jerseys are up for bid on eBay until Feb. 20.

LABARBERA TIES MARK … Hartford’s Jason LaBarbera tied a 61-year-old AHL record on Saturday with his ninth shutout of the season, a 2-0 win over Springfield. Buffalo’s Gordie Bell set the mark in 1942-43, and it was matched in 2001-02 by Syracuse’s Jean-Francois Labbe.

With exactly two months remaining in the 2003-04 regular season, Hartford’s team total of 12 shutouts and the league total of 121 are almost certain to wind up surpassing the AHL records of 13 (Syracuse) and 136, both set two seasons ago.

Wolf Pack captain Ken Gernander reached 600 career AHL points in Saturday’s game, the 39th player ever to do so.

OFF THE ICE … Anyone sharing the last name of any U.S. president will get a $5 discount on a ticket to Monday’s Houston-Grand Rapids game at the Toyota Center… The Albany River Rats, who will surpass the two-million mark in all-time attendance tonight, will recognize the milestone with a host of giveaways at Saturday’s matinee against Manchester… The Utah Grizzlies will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a Wedding on Ice, joining 50 couples in holy matrimony during the Grizz’ game with Cleveland.

ETC. … In his first AHL appearance since winning the Jack Butterfield Trophy as MVP of the 1990 Calder Cup Playoffs, Jeff Hackett stopped 16 shots to lead Philadelphia to a 5-2 win over Albany on Friday; three days later, Hackett announced his retirement due to complications from vertigo… Meanwhile, Phantoms graduate Antero Niittymaki began his NHL career with three victories, stopping 74 of 77 shots for the Flyers in wins over Washington, Atlanta and New Jersey… Charlie Stephens recorded back-to-back three-point games for Binghamton, including a goal and two assists in a 7-4 win against his former Hershey teammates on Friday… The Senators scored on four consecutive shots in the second period of a 6-5 win over Philadelphia on Saturday… After being out since training camp, 1995 Calder Cup champion Bryan Helmer recorded an assist in his season debut with Springfield on Friday… Toronto rookie Mike Morrison was 3-0-0 with a .956 save percentage last week to help the Roadrunners to their first three-game winning streak… 2003 AHL All-Star Philippe Sauve was the MVP of Saturday’s NHL YoungStars game in St. Paul, Minn.