📝 by Patrick Williams
The American Hockey League’s oldest rivalry resumes tonight with both teams also owning some very recent success.
In the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/4 PT), the Hershey Bears and Rochester Americans meet for the 461st time in a rivalry that dates more than 65 years.
The AHL’s two senior-most franchises first met Oct. 28, 1956, a 4-2 Hershey victory at Rochester, and share a combined 17 Calder Cup championships between them. Owning a league-best 11 titles, the Bears joined what is now the AHL for the 1938-39 season; Rochester began play in 1956 and has taken the Calder Cup six times. The Amerks’ first championship came in 1965 when they defeated the Bears in the Finals with a team that featured future AHL Hall of Famers in head coach Joe Crozier, forwards Dick Gamble and Bronco Horvath, and defenseman Don Cherry, along with future Hockey Hall of Fame members Al Arbour and Gerry Cheevers.
But more recently — as recently as this week, in fact — the teams each have fashioned their own impressive victories.
The Amerks became the first team this season to take down the league-leading Utica Comets (13-1-0-0) after they went into Adirondack Bank Center on Wednesday and hammered out a 4-2 win. First-period goals from Sean Malone and Casey Fitzgerald gave starter Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen a 2-0 lead and he went on to take the win with 27 saves. Rochester (9-6-0-0) will enter play this weekend fourth in the North Division with both the second-place Cleveland Monsters and third-place Toronto Marlies within close reach.
One night after a 7-3 road loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack, Hershey returned home and closed out last weekend with a come-from-behind 4-2 win against the Charlotte Checkers, breaking Charlotte leads twice. The Bears then opened this week by rallying from a 2-0 hole at home to Providence before finally putting away the stubborn Bruins in overtime, 4-3. That win came without second-leading scorer Mike Sgarbossa and key forward Beck Malenstyn, both on recall to the Washington Capitals, and left the 8-5-2-1 Bears holding down third place in the Atlantic Division.
Life for AHL goaltenders is all about moving on quickly from the previous game and resetting for the next one, a lesson that that Luukkonen and Hershey’s Zach Fucale know well. Don’t be surprised to see Rochester head coach Seth Appert turn to Luukkonen again for the eighth time in nine games after he frustrated a talented Utica attack.
Buffalo took Luukkonen in the 2017 NHL Draft’s second round, but hip surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons and have eaten into his development time. A key prospect in the Sabres organization, the 22-year-old is finally being provided his first heavy workload since 2018-19, when he had a standout Ontario Hockey League season with Sudbury.
In all, Luukkonen is 5-6-0 in 11 games and has a 3.46 goals-against average paired with an .883 save percentage. But he has shown considerable growth in November, with a .919 save percentage in seven starts and winning AHL Player of the Week honors for Nov. 8-14 after consecutive 41- and 39-save efforts.
“We think his game has been trending forward after a couple of rocky starts there early in the season,” Appert told the Amerks team website after Luukkonen’s honor. “He’s put in a ton of work to get his game where he wants it to be.”
In the process of Luukkonen winning that honor, Appert decided to use his young goaltender three times in four nights.
Said Appert to the website, “[He] puts in so much extra work on the ice, in the weight room, on the bike, on the treadmill. I believed his conditioning would be fine and he could handle that. But I also believed that if he succeeded, he’d gain a lot of extra belief in himself, because a lot of people don’t think goalies can do a three-in-four. I looked at it as a development opportunity for him and a growth opportunity for him.”
Luukkonen backed up Appert’s belief, shutting out Cleveland with 32 saves Nov. 13.
Fucale, who shut out Detroit in his NHL debut with the Washington Capitals earlier this month, earned Wednesday’s Hershey win after having been in net for that 7-3 loss in Hartford.
“[Wednesday’s] message was really to just start being consistent in the way we play, having more urgency and last game,” Fucale said after defeating Providence. “Yes, we did take some [penalties], but I think that kind of forced us to dial in together work and together.
“This feels real nice. It’s a long season [with] ups and downs, and the last game in Hartford didn’t go my way, didn’t go our way at all. We’ve got a few things to clean up, but this feels real nice.”
CHECKING OUT THE COMETS
Charlotte will have another crack at the Utica Comets this weekend when the Checkers host the league leaders in pair of games starting Saturday night.
Last Friday in Utica, the Comets defeated Charlotte, 4-1, to set a new AHL record with their 12th consecutive victory to begin the 2021-22 season. That first look at the Comets left Charlotte head coach Geordie Kinnear highly impressed.
“They play the same way every shift, all four lines,” said Kinnear, who won the 1995 Calder Cup as a New Jersey Devils prospect with the Albany River Rats. “They have a great identity, and they came after us. I thought we were right there with them. But they play the right way, [and] scored a couple of blue-paint goals. In the end, that’s how you win hockey games at the end of the year, getting pucks to the blue paint. They scored two against us, and they won the hockey game.
“Well-coached team that plays four lines and plays the same way throughout their line-up.”
The Checkers (8-7-2-0) snapped a three-game slide with a 4-3 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Wednesday.
SAMBERG BOOSTS MOOSE
Manitoba Moose defenseman Dylan Samberg is back, and Mark Morrison is a happy head coach.
The 22-year-old Samberg, a 2017 second-round pick by the Winnipeg Jets, had been out of action since sustaining an ankle injury with the NHL club during training camp. He returned last week for the first of three straight games against the Central Division rival Milwaukee Admirals and make a quick contribution.
Morrison is in his first year leading Manitoba, so Samberg’s return was his initial chance to see the second-year prospect in game action up close.
“It’s funny,” Morrison said. “I was just talking to (assistant coach) Eric Dubois there. Really impressed. Not just his physicality as a big body, but he’s very patient with the puck and makes some great breakout passes. I really liked his game. And I think that says a lot, too. Because to just step in after we’ve already played 13 games, and he hasn’t played one yet, to be able to perform like that at that level, that’s hard.”
Samberg posted seven points in 32 games with the Moose in 2020-21 as a rookie out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
A NET GAIN IN PROVIDENCE
When the Boston Bruins signed goaltender Troy Grosenick in the offseason, the move immediately provided Providence with a proven number-one option following the promotion of Jeremy Swayman to the NHL roster and Dan Vladar’s trade to the Calgary Flames.
New Providence head coach Ryan Mougenel and the veteran Grosenick had history from their days with the San Jose Barracuda, where Mougenel worked as an assistant coach and Grosenick won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender in 2016-17 as the Barracuda reached the Western Conference Finals.
So when an injury kept Grosenick out of the Providence crease for more than a month, the P-Bruins certainly felt that absence. Grosenick returned last Friday night against Hartford, handling 23 shots in a 2-1 overtime win. Then against Hershey on Wednesday, Mougenel turned to Grosenick, and the veteran nearly stole a victory with several point-blank chances down the stretch amid 28 stops.
“He’s an outstanding goalie,” Mougenel said of Grosenick, and [I am] just a little bit disappointed that we didn’t get it done for him [against Hershey].
“We’ve got to get him going and playing some more games,” Mougenel said. “He’s better the more he plays.”
Mougenel has the option to turn back to Grosenick against Friday when the Bruins visit the Bridgeport Islanders. From there, they stay on the road and see the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins a night later.
GULLS STARTING TO FLY
San Diego and San Jose meet tonight for the fourth time in eight days, and the Gulls can make it a clean sweep with a win at Pechanga Arena.
Last weekend in San Jose, the Gulls took 4-3 and 2-1 victories. Back in San Diego on Wednesday, the Gulls used two second-period goals to break open a 1-1 game and secure a 5-1 decision.
New head coach Joel Bouchard and his club are starting to find their way following a slow start. At 6-6-1-0 and with points in five of their last six, the Gulls have pulled into a tie with the Abbotsford Canucks for fifth place in the Pacific Division.
“Well, it hasn’t been perfect,” Bouchard told the San Diego team website after the win, “but we try to climb with our style of play… It’s been three games in a row where with the lead we seemed to manage it very well. That’s that kind of feeling you have as a coach that they’re good guys, they’re cheering on for each other, [for] which I’m very happy.
“We’re not clean all the time, we’re not perfect, but we’re clinging on collectively, and they’ve been great to listen to the advice we’ve been giving them.”
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Stockton (10-1-2-0) and Ontario (11-2-0-1) split their two-game set last weekend. The Reign’s 5-3 decision on Monday handed the Heat their first regulation loss of the season.
🏒 NHL veteran Cory Schneider of Bridgeport matched an AHL career high with 44 saves in a hard-luck 4-1 loss to the Springfield Thunderbirds on Wednesday. In the last week, the Islanders have lost forwards Richard Panik, Andy Andreoff, Anatolii Golyshev and Otto Koivula and defensemen Robin Salo, Paul LaDue, Thomas Hickey and Grant Hutton to recall by New York.
🏒 After playing 11 of their first 15 games on the road, the Charlotte Checkers are in a stretch of 10 of 13 contests on home ice.
🏒 Long-time Springfield hockey fans may well recognize Thunderbirds forward Alexey Toropchenko’s surname. His father, Leonid, posted a 31-goal season for the Springfield Indians in 1992-93, then the affiliate of the Hartford Whalers. Part of the early wave of players from the former Soviet Union into the AHL in that era, the elder Toropchenko played that one season in Springfield and eventually returned to Russia, where he spent eight seasons in a variety of leagues. Alexey, a 2017 fourth-round pick by the St. Louis Blues, has five goals and three assists in 17 games this season. Thunderbirds winger Nolan Stevens’ father, AHL Hall of Famer John Stevens, was captain of that 1992-93 Indians squad.
🏒 San Diego debuts a new third jersey tonight. With an ocean-blue base and “Gulls” in orange script, the jersey will reflect the 1960s-era look that the city’s Western Hockey League club used. Milwaukee broke out its cream-colored “fauxback” third jersey on Wednesday, styled to replicate what the team logo might have looked like if the Admirals had existed during the 1950s and 1960s.
🏒 With 16 goals in 61 chances (26.2 percent), the Ontario Reign own the AHL’s top power play. The Providence penalty kill has taken over the AHL lead at 88.5 percent (54-for-61).
ON THE MOVE
🏒 Ontario’s Sean Durzi, who is second in scoring among AHL defenseman with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists), made his NHL debut on Wednesday for the Los Angeles Kings against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that took him in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft. Playing 15:52, Durzi supplied a goal and an assist.
🏒 Including San Jose’s Scott Reedy, Edmonton’s Philip Broberg and Vegas’s Ben Jones, a total of 53 AHL players have made their NHL debuts in 2021-22.
🏒 New Jersey recalled forward Chase De Leo from Utica while sending forward Alexander Holtz, the seventh overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, back to the Comets. Holtz scored in his return on Wednesday, his sixth goal in five AHL games this season.
🏒 The Lehigh Valley Phantoms lost top prospect Morgan Frost on recall to the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday. Before departing, Frost had generated 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 16 AHL games, putting him in a fifth-place tie in league scoring. The Phantoms added goaltending help via AHL veteran Jon Gillies, who spent time with Providence earlier this month. Forward Nick Lappin (221 AHL regular-season games) also is with Lehigh Valley on a professional tryout.
🏒 As the Ottawa Senators rebound from the absence of several players to COVID-19 protocols, the Belleville Senators are also getting their roster back in shape, adding center Clark Bishop on loan. Belleville also acquired 25-year-old defenseman Jack Dougherty from Providence for future considerations; Dougherty played the past two seasons with Belleville before signing with Providence during training camp.
🏒 Milwaukee has received help from the Nashville Predators with the assignment of forwards Michael McCarron and Mathieu Olivier to the Admirals this week. In addition, defenseman Ben Harpur is with Milwaukee on a conditioning loan.
🏒 Stockton Heat forward Adam Ruzicka, tied for fourth in AHL scoring with 16 points (10 goals, six assists) in 13 games, is on recall to Calgary. The Heat received forward Walker Duehr back from Calgary.
Abbotsford and Bakersfield both resume action tonight after a schedule gap caused by last week’s postponements following the flooding in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley; the Canucks visit Tucson while the Condors are in Ontario… Hartford-Springfield goes at XL Center tonight before the teams go up I-91 to complete a home-and-home series Saturday afternoon; the Thunderbirds have won five in a row, one shy of the team record… Syracuse will attempt to stop a six-game winless slide (0-4-1-1) with home games against Lehigh Valley (Friday) and Rochester (Saturday)… The North Division has two home-and-home series, with Cleveland meeting Toronto and Belleville taking on Laval… In the Central Division, the Texas Stars are in Manitoba this weekend before making their first-ever visit to Laval… The Rockford IceHogs host Milwaukee on Friday and Sunday, with a Saturday road date against the Chicago Wolves sandwiched in between… Meanwhile, the Wolves go to Grand Rapids on Friday before taking on the Griffins at Allstate Arena on Sunday… A trip west is on the agenda for the Iowa Wild, who meet the Henderson Silver Knights for the first time with matinees Saturday and Sunday… Six teams will hold Hockey Fights Cancer dates on Saturday — Belleville, Lehigh Valley, Ontario, Syracuse, Toronto, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“[Winning puck battles] is the most important skill in hockey. If you can’t win a puck battle, you play defense all game. And if you can win puck battles, you get on offense, and you put yourself in position to be successful.”
— Head coach Seth Appert on Rochester’s second period last Friday against Lehigh Valley in which the Amerks were outshot, 19-4. From there Rochester outshot the Phantoms 12-3 down the stretch to take a 5-4 shootout win.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast. Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.