Division rivalries highlight road to playoffs


Six weeks remain in the American Hockey League’s 68th regular season, and with all 28 teams still in the hunt for a trip to the Calder Cup 2004 Playoffs, nearly 80 percent of the 275 games remaining on the AHL schedule will pit division foes against each other in crucial high-stakes showdowns.

The West Division boasts the league’s top two teams as well as the last two Calder Cup champions. Grand Rapids (.672) has climbed to the top of the AHL’s overall standings with 82 points, but the Griffins’ quest for a third consecutive AHL division championship is by no means over, as Milwaukee (.644) is in close pursuit in the West with 76 points (and two games in hand). Chicago remains within striking distance as well, and Houston, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Utah are poised to battle for the final two berths.

Like Milwaukee in the West, Cleveland and Syracuse are closing the gap and have games in hand on first-place Hamilton in the North Division. Only four points separate the Barons (68) and Crunch (67) from Toronto (64) and Rochester (64), and while St. John’s and Manitoba are currently on the outside looking in, the Maple Leafs and Moose have plenty of intra-divisional games left in which to make up ground (see box).

It’s been a three-horse race atop the East Division for much of the season, and Philadelphia (75 pts.) and Bridgeport (74) are beginning to separate themselves from the field. Hershey is seven points behind the Phantoms, but has just 16 games remaining. Norfolk (65) has turned their season around with a 12-3-1-0 tear, and Binghamton (60) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (60) are suddenly fighting for fifth place. Albany (48) is still alive, with two games left each against the Senators and Penguins.

Hartford has owned at least a share of its division lead since Oct. 24, and a current 11-game points streak (8-0-2-1) has the Wolf Pack in position to make a run at their second Calder Cup in five years. Just as in the North, only four points come between second-place Manchester (67) and fifth-place Portland (63) in the Atlantic, and Lowell (58) and Springfield (50) still have plenty of time to make up ground.

The top five teams in each division reach the postseason, with the fourth- and fifth-place teams squaring off in a best-of-three qualifying round.

CARL LISCOMBE (1915-2004)Carl Liscombe, a two-time AHL MVP and the first pro hockey player ever to record 100 points in a season, passed away on Feb. 23 at the age of 88.

With the Providence Reds in 1947-48, Liscombe recorded 118 points in 68 games, setting a pro hockey record for scoring. He was the first recipient of the AHL’s Les Cunningham Award as regular season MVP, earning the honor in 1948 and 1949. Liscombe won a Calder Cup with the Reds in 1949 after scoring 55 goals in the regular season, a league record that would stand for 34 years.

OT TIMES THREE … The Providence Bruins finished the week by winning three overtime games in four nights, with all three wins coming on the road and all three overtime goals being scored by a defenseman. Kevin Dallman beat Lowell on Thursday, Milan Jurcina lifted the B’s past Bridgeport on Saturday, and Rich Brennan did the honors in Manchester on Sunday.

Brennan’s goal also marked the second consecutive night that Manchester lost on an overtime goal by an ex-Monarch. Rob Valicevic netted the OT winner for Utah on Saturday.

SHOOTING BLANKS … Binghamton managed just 24 shots on goal in a two-game weekend series at Norfolk, dropping 6-1 and 3-1 decisions to the surging Admirals. The Senators were on the short end of a 42-13 margin in shots on Friday night, and were outchanced 21-11 in the rematch on Saturday. Norfolk has won 11 of its last 13 games, and is 12-3-1-0 since the Jan. 22 announcement that the club was for sale.

Binghamton enters the week mired in a six-game losing streak, and head coach John Paddock’s record string of nine straight 40-win seasons is in jeopardy; the Sens have 26 victories with 18 games remaining.

ETC. … On Sunday afternoon, the Chicago Wolves drew 12,938 fans for their game against San Antonio at Allstate Arena, while the NHL Blackhawks drew 12,177 for their game against the Rampage’s affiliate, the Florida Panthers, at the United Center… Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft, spent his Sunday in suburban Rosemont, recording an assist in his AHL debut after being assigned by Florida to San Antonio… When Wade Dubielewicz was replaced by Dieter Kochan after allowing three goals on eight shots in Hartford on Wednesday night, it was the first time all season Bridgeport had made a goaltending change mid-game… The Sound Tigers’ Martin Kariya and older brother Steve Kariya of Albany faced off against each other for the first time on Friday night; one or both of them had missed each of the teams’ first five meetings this season… Utah goaltender Jason Bacashihua improved to 4-for-4 this season (and 5-for-5 in his pro career) on penalty shots when he stopped an attempt by Manchester’s Jeff Giuliano on Saturday night… Chris Taylor recorded one goal and seven assists in three weekend games for Rochester… Milwaukee forward Greg Classen registered six points and a plus-8 rating in four games last week… Grand Rapids had its 10-game home winning streak and 16-game home unbeaten streak snapped in a 5-3 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday… Hamilton’s current six-game winless skid (0-2-2-2) includes four games in which the Bulldogs squandered a third-period lead… Portland’s points streak reached 14 games (6-0-5-3) before the Pirates lost both ends of a two-game series in St. John’s… The AHL’s Clear Day period begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on Mar. 11, two days after the NHL’s trading deadline.