Eventful weekend kicks off season around AHL

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

The defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears raised another banner, a first-round pick had a two-goal pro debut, several goaltenders turned in dominant efforts, and Pacific Division clubs piled up goals, capping an eventful first weekend of the AHL’s 88th season.

Before their season opener against the Belleville Senators on Saturday night, the Bears commemorated their league-leading 12th Calder Cup championship one more time with an extensive pre-game ceremony.

In addition to adding another banner to the Giant Center rafters, the Bears also handed out their championship rings. Produced by Baron, the rings each feature 70 stones – 44 for their regular-season wins in 2022-23, 14 for their playoff wins and 12 for the franchise’s dozen Calder Cup titles. A chocolate drop, the words “Fear The Roar” and “Choices” help to round out the look.

Four Bears graduates now with the parent Washington Capitals – Lucas Johansen, Beck Malenstyn, Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas – made the trip from D.C. for the ceremony. Belleville forward Garrett Pilon, who spent parts of six seasons with the Bears before signing with Ottawa in the offseason, joined his former teammates as well.

“It was really special,” Pilon said. “Now it’s kind of back to business. The season can start.”

Said Bears head coach Todd Nelson, “It was an emotional night.”


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But once the game started, Senators goaltender Mads Sogaard put on his own show with a 30-save performance for his first AHL shutout. It was a much happier season debut for Sogaard, who was injured 4:16 into Belleville’s 2022-23 opener at Laval.

The Bears recovered from the 3-0 loss by defeating the visiting Cleveland Monsters on Sunday evening, 5-2. Before they hit the road for a three-in-three weekend in New England, Nelson will host his traditional team pig roast for the players and their families today.

“We have a lot of talent on paper,” Nelson said, “but we’re not a hockey team yet. We have to mold this group into a hockey team. It’s going to take time.”

Elsewhere around the league over opening weekend:

New York Rangers first-round pick Brennan Othmann sparkled in his professional debut for Hartford on Friday night, scoring two power-play goals including the equalizer with 2:41 to go in regulation at Providence. Othmann was selected 16th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft.

Othmann was the only Wolf Pack skater to beat the Bruins’ Brandon Bussi in 65 minutes of action, as the reigning AHL All-Rookie goaltender made 40 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss.

Along with Sogaard and Bussi, several other netminders turned in strong early performances.

Chicago Blackhawks goaltending prospect Drew Commesso made 34 saves in his pro debut for Rockford on Friday, as the IceHogs cruised to a 7-2 win in San Jose. The 21-year-old Commesso, who went to the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft, spent the past three seasons at Boston University.

On loan to Syracuse by the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, Pyotr Kochetkov quickly made an impression on his new teammates with 31 saves to secure the Crunch’s 4-3 overtime victory at Utica on Friday.

Veteran Michael Hutchinson’s tryout bid with the Grand Rapids Griffins got off to a good start with a 40-save effort in a 3-2 win over Colorado on Friday. The 14th-year pro has played 153 games in the NHL with five teams. A night later, the Griffins completed a weekend sweep of Colorado behind 41 saves from Detroit Red Wings first-rounder Sebastian Cossa. Cossa, who struggled in his three appearances with Grand Rapids last season, was the 15th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

Alex Stalock stopped 40 shots on Friday to lead San Diego to an opening-night win over Ontario, and Charlotte second-year pro Mack Guzda made 32 saves and took a shutout deep into the third period on Saturday, settling for a 4-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The Pacific Division, which had six of the nine lowest-scoring teams in the AHL in 2022-23, saw its clubs average 3.67 goals per game over opening weekend.

After finishing 29th in the AHL last season, the Henderson Silver Knights found the net 11 times in a two-game road sweep of Iowa to kick off their 2023-24 schedule. Offseason signing Adam Cracknell had two goals in a 4-2 win in the opener on Friday, while Sheldon Rempal followed up with two goals and an assist in Saturday’s 7-3 victory.

Led by Arshdeep Bains’s four-point night on Friday and Tristen Nielsen’s hat trick on Saturday, the Abbotsford Canucks swept their two-game visit to Laval, winning 7-4 and 4-3.

San Diego, which finished last in the league in both offense (2.50 goals per game) and defense (3.90) last season, opened 2023-24 with 4-1 and 6-4 wins at Ontario. And San Jose scored nine times in two games against Rockford, answering Friday’s 7-2 loss with a win by the same score on Saturday.

The Rochester Americans opened their season with back-to-back overtime games for the first time since 2002, erasing two-goal deficits in both contests. On Friday, the Amerks spotted Bridgeport an early 2-0 lead before rallying to earn a point in a 4-3 OT loss to the Islanders. And on Saturday, Rochester was down 3-0 and 4-1 in Toronto only to score three times in the third period and win it on Jiri Kulich’s overtime strike.

Lehigh Valley matched a franchise record on Sunday by scoring three shorthanded goals in a 5-2 win over Belleville. Cooper Marody, Adam Ginning and Rhett Gardner scored the man-down goals for the Phantoms, who also converted on a 5-on-3 power play.