Marlies tighten North Division race

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … A turn of the calendar page to December has coincided with a turn of fortunes for the Toronto Marlies, who have won eight of their last 10 games to get back in the thick of the race in the AHL’s North Division.

The first-year Marlies were in the cellar on Dec. 1, their 8-12-0-0 record considered an early-season disappointment under Paul Maurice, whose credentials include 239 wins and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL head coach. But in the last 10-game segment, played entirely against opponents from within the division, Toronto doubled its win total and climbed to within one point of third-place Rochester with one game remaining before the Christmas break.

John Pohl, limited by injuries to just 13 games for Worcester last season, was acquired by Toronto in August and has emerged as the Marlies’ top offensive threat, leading the club with 17 goals and 32 points in 29 games and earning a recall by the parent Maple Leafs earlier today. Jeremy Williams, who had a strong rookie campaign in St. John’s a year ago, is averaging better than a point per game with the Marlies, and Kris Newbury, who had nine goals total over the last two seasons, already has eight this year, to go with a team-high 85 penalty minutes.

Bates Battaglia, a member of Maurice’s Carolina Hurricanes that went to the 2002 finals, has been a veteran leader for the Marlies, contributing 26 points while being one of three players to skate in all 30 games. Tyler Beechey missed most of the first six weeks of the season due to injury, but has registered 10 points and a plus-9 rating during Toronto’s current 8-2-0-0 run.

One of the top rookie defensemen in the AHL in 2004-05, Ian White has come back strong in his second season, leading Toronto blueliners in scoring. Jay Harrison, a third-round draft pick by the Maple Leafs in 2001, is tops on the Marlies with a plus-8 rating, and has four goals in 29 games after combining for six goals in his first three AHL seasons. Toronto’s defensive corps also includes former first-round draft pick Carlo Colaiacovo, who has made several trips up and down Lake Shore Boulevard between the AHL and NHL this year, and Brendan Bell, the 2003 defenseman of the year in the Canadian Hockey League.

Jean-Sebastien Aubin, with 168 games of NHL experience, and Jean-Francois Racine, in his first full AHL season, have essentially platooned in the Marlies crease, combining for a goals-against average of 1.81 and a .934 save percentage in December.

Toronto puts its four-game winning streak on the line Wednesday when the Lowell Lock Monsters visit Ricoh Coliseum for the Marlies’ final pre-holiday contest.

FOLLOWING YONDER STAR … Iowa Stars goaltender Mike Smith represented Canada at last week’s Loto Cup tournament in Piestany, Slovakia, picking up the win in his lone appearance, a 4-2 victory over Switzerland on Friday evening.

With Smith unavailable, Dan Ellis carried the load for Iowa over the weekend and stopped 93 of 96 shots, allowing only three power-play goals in defeating Chicago once and Omaha twice. The Stars have won four in a row and are 8-1-1-1 in their last 11 games.

O, HOLY KNIGHTBrandon Prust is used to being a Knight, and the forward now hopes to repeat some of last year’s success in his rookie season in Omaha. Prust, a third-round draft choice by Calgary in 2004, was a member of the record-setting London Knights OHL team that captured the 2005 Memorial Cup championship.

Now with the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, Prust is one of several members of that London team to suit up the AHL in 2005-06, a list that includes Portland’s Corey Perry, Hamliton’s Danny Syvret, Hartford’s Daniel Girardi, Rochester’s Drew Larman, Syracuse’s Marc Methot and Springfield’s Gerald Coleman.

SO TO HONOR THEM … Prior to Friday night’s game against Toronto, the Cleveland Barons honored a quartet of legends with induction into the Cleveland Hockey Legends Ring of Honor.

Recognized were standout defenseman Bill Needham, who played 981 career AHL games, all with the original Barons; goaltender Moe Roberts, who won Calder Cups with the Barons in 1939 and 1941; Tommy Williams, a four-time All-Star and three-time Calder Cup champion defenseman; and Al Sutphin, who as the team’s owner and general manager from 1934-49 left a huge imprint on the AHL and the city of Cleveland.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT I KNOW? … Manchester’s Petr Kanko and Springfield’s Ryan Craig each scored a goal in his NHL debut last week, Kanko for Los Angeles on Friday and Craig for Tampa Bay on Saturday… Wilkes-Barre’s Michel Ouellet (Pittsburgh), Bridgeport’s Jeff Hamilton (N.Y. Islanders), Lowell’s Chad LaRose (Carolina) and Albany’s Aleksander Suglobov (New Jersey) also scored their first NHL goals over the weekend… Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have combined for 48 points (16g, 32a) in 12 games since joining Portland on Nov. 22… Patrick Lalime made 44 saves for his first career AHL victory as Peoria snapped a six-game losing streak with a 5-4 shootout win over Chicago on Sunday… Eric Chouinard scored all four of Philadelphia’s goals in two weekend games; he had three goals in 22 games prior… Syracuse defenseman Andy Delmore tallied 10 assists in five games during a busy week for the Crunch… Adam Hauser collected back-to-back shutouts for Manchester last week, giving him 14 for his young AHL career… Joe Mullen and Rick Kehoe served as interim co-coaches for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over the weekend, leading the Penguins to a 2-1-0-0 mark… Former Hamilton Bulldogs accounted for seven of the eight goals in Edmonton’s 5-3 win over Montreal on Thursday night… Hartford improved to 8-0-1-3 in its last 12 games… Grand Rapids is 4-0-0-0 this season in the third game of three-in-three stretches… Hershey’s 44 points through 29 games marked the best start in the franchise’s 68-year history.

The entire American Hockey League extends best wishes to everyone for a happy and healthy holiday season.