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Stealth Aeros on top in the West

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Other teams may have been grabbing most of the headlines around the American Hockey League, but all the while the Houston Aeros have been a first-place team for most of the first two months of the 2005-06 season.

Houston’s roster includes few returning regulars from last year’s squad, but the newcomers have propelled the Aeros to a record of 17-7-1-1 through 26 games, good for 36 points and the top spot in the AHL’s always-competitive West Division. The changes began behind the Houston bench, as Todd McLellan left during the offseason to become an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings and Rob Daum was brought in to guide the Aeros after 10 record-setting seasons leading the University of Alberta.

Erik Westrum, who put up ordinary numbers in his first four AHL seasons, has been extraordinary on the ice for the Aeros in 2005-06, leading the AHL’s scoring race with 36 points. The Minneapolis native and University of Minnesota product was acquired by the parent Minnesota Wild in an August trade with Phoenix, and is already closing in on his career highs for goals (18 in 2004-05), assists (29 in 2001-02) and points (42 in 2001-02).

Two other key additions to the Aeros are among the top rookies in the entire American Hockey League. Roman Voloshenko, a second-round draft pick by the Wild in 2004, has recorded 14 goals and nine assists for 23 points, including a hat trick in his debut on Oct. 7 and a four-goal performance on Oct. 21. Houston is 12-0-0-0 when the 19-year-old forward records a point. Patrick O’Sullivan, a second-rounder in 2003 who scored the winning goal for the United States in the gold-medal game at the 2004 World Junior Championships, has 10 goals and 11 assists on the year, including 14 points in his last 10 games.

Curtis Murphy, a two-time Calder Cup champion and two-time Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s outstanding defenseman, returned to Houston this year and has resumed his familiar spot among the top scoring blueliners in the league, posting 19 points to date. Kurtis Foster, another veteran defenseman with a Calder Cup title on his resume, had 15 points in 19 games for Houston before being recalled to Minnesota, where he has erupted for four goals and an assist in six NHL games with the Wild.

Houston’s most notable returnees are captain Kirby Law and goaltender Josh Harding. Law, the reliable eighth-year pro and 2004 AHL All-Star, is second on the team with 29 points as he closes in on 500 career AHL games. Harding, one of the top rookie netminders in the league a year ago, leads the league in victories with 13 and has won eight of his 10 decisions since returning from injury in early November.

The Aeros hit the road for three games against North Division opponents this weekend including Saturday’s stop in Hamilton, Houston’s first visit to Copps Coliseum since capturing the Calder Cup with a Game 7 win there on June 12, 2003.

Bridgeport’s Bruno Gervais was one of 11 AHL players to make his NHL debut last week.

MORE THAN READY AND EAGER FOR RECALLS … The appropriately-named Ryan Ready and Ben Eager were among 13 AHL players who made their National Hockey League debuts last week. All told, 110 AHL players have skated in the NHL for the first time this season, and Ready and Eager make 12 members of the 2005 Calder Cup champion Philadelphia Phantoms who have played for the parent Flyers in 2005-06.

Last week’s group of NHL debutants also included Rochester’s Chris Thorburn (BUF), Manchester’s Jeff Tambellini (LA), Manitoba’s Rob McVicar (VAN), Hartford’s Chris Holt (NYR), Grand Rapids’ Jimmy Howard (DET), Bridgeport’s Bruno Gervais (NYI), Syracuse’s Geoff Platt (CBJ), Hamilton’s Jean-Philippe Cote and Andrei Kostitsyn (MTL) and Milwaukee’s Greg Zanon and Kevin Klein (NSH).

PENS STUMBLE, STILL DON’T FALL … Sunday’s shootout loss in Hershey extended the Penguins’ points streak to 23 games (20-0-2-1) to start the season, but it did bring an end to their historic road winning streak.

Wilkes-Barre will go into the AHL record books as the owner of the longest road winning streak in AHL history (15 games, dating back to last year), and co-holders of the single-season record of 13 straight.

“SHOOTER” BOWLS A 300Brad Smyth has become just the 17th player in American Hockey League history to score 300 goals, reaching the milestone in Manchester’s 3-2 loss to Portland on Sunday evening. The former AHL MVP, scoring champion, Calder Cup winner and All-Star has 604 points (300g, 304a) in 553 career AHL games.

Despite Smyth’s goal, Sunday’s defeat ended the Monarchs’ own streak without a regulation loss at 13 games (10-0-1-2), and Tim Brent’s buzzer-beating goal for the Pirates at 19:59 of the third period meant Manchester avoided a trip to overtime for just the eighth time in 23 games this season.

LONG LIVE THE SHOOTOUT KING … Thursday night in San Antonio began as a duel between two NHL goaltenders on conditioining assignments in the AHL, but turned into Karl Goehring’s return as master of the shootout.

The Rampage’s Brian Boucher and Cleveland’s Vesa Toskala battled for 65 minutes to the league’s first scoreless tie of the season, but with Boucher trying to come back from a groin injury, San Antonio head coach Pat Conacher inserted Goehring into the game to begin the shootout.

Goehring was a perfect 7-0 in shootouts last season with Syracuse, stopping an incredible 34 of 38 attempts (.895). In his first go with the Rampage on Thursday, the 2003 AHL All-Star denied four of the Barons’ five shooters and preserved a 1-0 win for San Antonio.

The Rampage, Bulldogs and Marlies wore special jerseys over the weekend.

HOOPS, PIGSKIN ON ICE … The San Antonio Rampage honored the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs on Friday night by wearing silver and black Spurs-themed jerseys. The Rampage will don the duds four more times this season, and at the end of the year, they will be auctioned off to benefit the Spurs Foundation and help purchase Rampage tickets for underprivileged area youths.

Also this weekend, the budding rivalry between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies took another step as the clubs wore jerseys inspired by the cities’ longstanding CFL adversaries for their home-and-home series. The Bulldogs were decked out in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ yellow and black, while the Marlies wore the Toronto Argonauts’ trademark double-blues. Former and current Ti-Cats and Argos were on hand for special ceremonies, and the game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off by both clubs.

ETC.

  • Jiri Hudler temporarily took over the AHL scoring lead with three points, including the overtime goal, in a 4-3 victory over Milwaukee on Saturday, then was recalled by the parent Detroit Red Wings
  • With Columbus off for six days, the Blue Jackets assigned seven players to Syracuse over the weekend, including Nikolai Zherdev, the fourth overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft
  • Robert Nilsson, the 15th overall pick in 2003, scored three goals in his first two games with Bridgeport after being assigned by the N.Y. Islanders
  • Manitoba’s Kevin Bieksa, an AHL All-Rookie defenseman last year, has 14 points in 13 games for the Moose this season
  • Manitoba added former All-Star goaltender Maxime Ouellet last week, acquired by Vancouver in a trade from Washington
  • Andy Hilbert scored three consecutive third-period goals in Norfolk’s 5-4 win over Binghamton on Wednesday, and promptly joined the parent Chicago Blackhawks
  • Steve Bancroft, Zenith Komarniski and Lynn Loyns each scored his first goal of the season in the third period of Omaha’s 6-4 win in Chicago on Saturday
  • Chad LaRose, recalled by Carolina on Sunday, scored two shorthanded goals in Lowell’s 2-0 victory over Providence on Saturday
  • Springfield’s 1-0 overtime win over Manchester on Saturday ended a 13-game slide against the Monarchs (0-9-3-1)
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which began its inaugural 1999-2000 season on an 11-game winless streak (0-9-2), hit the .500 mark for the first time in team history with Friday’s win in Norfolk
  • Saturday in Des Moines, Peoria held on for a 5-3 win over Iowa in the completion of their suspended game from Nov. 13, then took a 4-3 shootout decision in the regularly-scheduled game
  • Syracuse is 7-1-1-0 this year when allowing the game’s first goal, and is riding a six-game points streak (5-0-1-0) overall
  • Hershey forward Chris Bourque has been named to the United States team for the 2006 World Junior Championships, which begin Dec. 26 in Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna, B.C.