Focus shifts to Calder Cup races

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The stars have faded in Winnipeg, and with the 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic now in the history books, the American Hockey League has resumed its 70th regular season as the road to the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs kicks into high gear.

The tightest race is atop the Atlantic Division, where four points separate the top three teams: Portland, Manchester and Hartford. The Pirates have excelled offensively this year, with their 180 goals in 49 games already more than either of the last two full 80-game seasons, and they are in position to make a run at the first division title in the team’s 13-year history. The Monarchs are on pace for a fourth straight 40-win season, while the Wolf Pack are poised to reach the Calder Cup Playoffs for the ninth year in a row.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been on top of the overall standings since kicking off the 2005-06 AHL season with an 8-1 win over Bridgeport on Oct. 5. But the Penguins, 35-7-3-2 on the year, have just a six-point cushion over Hershey in the East Division. Norfolk and Bridgeport are even with 53 points apiece, tied for third place, and Philadelphia and Binghamton, who finished at the top of the East a year ago, have ground to make up over the final two months of the season.

In the Western Conference, both divisions currently have two-team races brewing for first place, with several teams battling for the remaining postseason spots. In the North, Grand Rapids and Manitoba have been battling for first place all year, with the Griffins (17-2-1-1 in their last 21 games) currently holding a six-point lead over the Moose (12-3-2-1 in their last 18). Syracuse currently sits third, followed closely by Toronto and Rochester, which is looking to extend its string of 16 straight postseason appearances.

Houston and Milwaukee, two of the last three Calder Cup champions, are the cream of the West Division, with the Aeros holding a slim four-point lead on the Admirals. Peoria, Iowa and Omaha are all eyeing a trip to the playoffs in their first AHL season, and Chicago, the defending conference champion, is always a serious contender.

Over the past three years, 52 of the 56 teams who hit the All-Star break in playoff positions went on to qualify for the postseason.

JERSEY AUCTION UNDERWAY … From now until February 15, fans can visit and bid on the warm-up jerseys worn by this year’s AHL All-Stars during the pre-game warmup prior to Wednesday night’s 2006 AHL All-Star Game in Winnipeg. The auction, part of the AHL’s partnership with the MeiGray Group, will benefit charities including the Ace Bailey Children’s Fund.

MeiGray will also be auctioning off the jerseys worn during the first period of Wednesday’s game, pucks used during the 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic and vintage All-Star Classic jerseys dating to 1995. A league-wide jersey auction earlier this year by the AHL and the MeiGray Group raised funds and heightened awareness in the wake of the hurricanes that struck the southern U.S. in 2005.

FIVE FOR IMMONEN … Hartford forward Jarkko Immonen scored five times in the Wolf Pack’s 6-0 rout at first-place Portland on Saturday night. Immonen, Hartford’s team leader with 23 goals and 45 points in this his first North American season, scored once in the first period, twice in the second to secure his first hat trick, then twice more in a span of 44 seconds in the third period, including a penalty-shot goal against Dieter Kochan.

The 23-year-old Finn, acquired by the N.Y. Rangers from Toronto in the Brian Leetch trade of 2004, became the first Wolf Pack player ever to score more than three goals in a regular-season game, and topped Chris Kenady’s four-goal effort in a 2000 playoff contest.

IRONMAN MAKES NHL DEBUT … When the Iowa Stars hit the ice at the MTS Centre to face the Manitoba Moose on Friday night, the longest current ironman streak in the AHL came to an end.

Iowa defenseman Dan Jancevski was recalled by the NHL’s Dallas Stars on Friday and made his NHL debut in Saturday afternoon’s game at St. Louis. Prior to his recall, Jancevski had appeared in 257 consecutive regular-season games in the AHL, a streak that began on Dec. 14, 2002.

The longest games-played streak in AHL history is 548 games, set by Billy Dea of the Buffalo Bisons over nine seasons from 1958-67. The longest active streak now belongs to Houston defenseman Dustin Wood at 191 games.

ETC.Jimmy Roy, who scored a goal while captaining the Canadian team to victory in the 2006 AHL All-Star Game, netted the winning goal on a shorthanded penalty shot in Manitoba’s 3-2 victory over Iowa on Friday… Houston’s Patrick O’Sullivan, named the Rbk Hockey/AHL Rookie of the Month for January, celebrated his 21st birthday with a goal in Wednesday’s All-Star Game… Omaha defenseman Mark Giordano missed the All-Star Classic but instead made his NHL debut last Monday with Calgary… Crunch forward Mark Hartigan extended his scoring streak to 18 games (17g, 18a), the longest in the AHL this season, with points in both Syracuse matches over the weekend… Timofei Shishkanov recorded three goals and two assists in his first two games with Peoria last week… With an assist on Saturday, Rob Collins became Bridgeport’s franchise leader in scoring with 137 points, surpassing Trent Hunter… Philadelphia visits Chicago on Saturday in a rematch of the 2005 Calder Cup Final, won by the Phantoms in a four-game sweep… Jean-Philippe Darche, brother of 2004 Calder Cup champion forward Mathieu Darche, played in Super Bowl XL on Sunday; he is the long snapper for the Seattle Seahawks.