Weekend notebook: Senators ‘grinding’ way to a playoff spot

Photo: Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photography

📝 by Patrick Williams

Despite a pile of injuries, a parade of new faces and a goaltending carousel, the Belleville Senators just will not go away.

Defenseman Lassi Thomson became the latest hero Wednesday night when he threaded a right-point shot through heavy traffic with 13 seconds left in regulation to give the Senators a 4-3 win over Utica.

That win vaulted Belleville over Laval into the North Division’s fifth and final playoff spot, one point ahead of the sixth-place Rocket. Interim head coach David Bell’s club has points in six straight games (4-0-2-0), the longest current streak in the AHL.

Now it is back on the road, where the next test awaits. The B-Sens are in Cleveland this weekend for critical contests Saturday and Sunday with the Monsters, who are just two points back of Belleville in the North Division with three games in hand. The Senators have lost three of four meetings with Cleveland this season, but since back-to-back losses to the Monsters coming out of the All-Star break, Belleville has gone on a 9-3-2-0 run to become a prime playoff contender.

“We didn’t exactly do ourselves any favors at the start of the year,” forward Angus Crookshank said, “so we know we’ve got a battle. Everyone’s up for it, and I think everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to find our way into the playoffs.”

Crookshank has been on his own hot run lately, picking up three goals and six points across his past six outings. The rookie’s 22 goals lead the club, and Bell will be counting on him as a key part of Belleville’s attack. The Sens lost rookie forward Ridly Greig on recall to Ottawa on Thursday, while forwards Rourke Chartier, Viktor Lodin and Scott Sabourin all are out injured.

“They’re grinding,” Bell said of his players. “Guys are tired, guys are banged up, and they’re just giving max effort every night. So from a coaching standpoint, it’s admirable, it’s appreciative on my side.

“They’re grinding and scrapping for points.”

The team’s remaining and healthy personnel continue to pick up the slack. Cole Cassels came through with four assists against the Comets and is heavily relied on by Bell as part of the team’s leadership group.

“He’s played hurt,” Bell said of Cassels, the eighth-year pro who is in his third stint with Belleville. “If he’s not feeling great, he still finds a way to contribute. He’ll play center and play wing. He’ll play [penalty kill] all the time. If somebody is struggling on the power play, you can put him out on the power play.

“He’s a hockey player. Unbelievable leader… He’ll just grab a guy and talk to him quietly. Rarely does he bark, but if he has to bark at a guy, he will. He just has a really good feel for when something needs to be said and what time it needs to be said.”

Recently acquired goaltender Dylan Ferguson continues to shine as well. Brought in from the Toronto Marlies for future considerations on Feb. 24 amid a crush of injuries and recalls, Ferguson has gone 4-1-0 in five appearances for Belleville, posting a 2.22 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.

Ferguson, Luke Richardson and Ryan Bednard all manned the Senators crease last week, the second time in three weeks that Bell had to use three different starters in as many games.

“It’s not the greatest situation for them or the coaches,” Bell said of his goaltenders. “For the most part, these guys all have given us a great effort, given us a chance to win the games.”

The to-the-point Bell was promoted from his role as assistant coach to replace Troy Mann on Feb. 2 and has gone 9-5-3-0 since taking over.

“He’s done a great job,” Crookshank said of Bell. “He’s hard on us, but at the same time he expects a lot from us. Even from a structural standpoint, nothing crazy really changed. There were a couple of tweaks, but it was not like it was a complete overhaul of the whole system, which was easier on everyone.

“I’ve got a lot of time for Bell. He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve had.”

The AHL’s longest-running rivalry takes another turn when the Hershey Bears host the Rochester Americans in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week on Saturday (7 p.m. ET).

The Bears dropped three consecutive games to Providence to fall behind the Bruins at the top of the Atlantic Division, but got back in the win column with a 6-3 decision at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday. Hershey is still five points ahead of fast-moving Charlotte as they return to PPL Center to face the Phantoms again tonight.

The Amerks are also coming off a crucial victory on Wednesday, as Malcolm Subban made 29 saves to shut out Laval, 2-0. Rochester is tangled up in a six-team battle for the North Division’s final four playoff spots, five points behind second-place Utica but just four ahead of last-place Cleveland. The Amerks visit the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins tonight before moving on to Hershey.

Saturday’s game will be the 463rd regular-season meeting all-time between Hershey, which joined the AHL in 1938, and Rochester, which formed in 1956. The Bears hold a 216-193 advantage in wins, with 53 ties.


🏒 Two more AHL players made their NHL debuts this week to push the season total to 64.

Milwaukee Admirals forward Egor Afanasyev’s first NHL game came last Saturday night for the Nashville Predators in Los Angeles. Afanasyev, 22, played three games for Nashville before returning to Milwaukee, where he 13 goals and 26 points in 55 games this season. Nashville selected Afanasyev in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft.

Jiri Patera became the latest Henderson Silver Knights netminder to make his way to the parent Vegas Golden Knights when he made his debut on Sunday, making 33 saves to secure a 5-3 win over St. Louis. A sixth-round pick as part of the Golden Knights’ first draft class in 2017, Patera has made a quick climb since first coming to the Silver Knights in the 2020-21 campaign. This season with Henderson, the 24-year-old has gone 12-13-1 with a 2.66 GAA and a .916 save percentage in 27 games.

🏒 The AHL’s two new entries for 2022-23 are also the top two teams in the league standings. And now they are also first two clubs to qualify for the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

The Calgary Wranglers and Coachella Valley Firebirds secured their invites to the 23-team postseason field. They remain locked in a battle for first place overall; the Wranglers sit three points ahead of the Firebirds, but Coachella Valley has played four fewer games.

Toronto can become the next club to join the playoff field, needing just one more point to become the first Eastern Conference club to get in. The Marlies are at Scotiabank Arena this afternoon for a St. Patrick’s Day matinee against Charlotte.

The Calder Cup Playoff Primer has a full breakdown of the race to the postseason as well as all of the qualification rules.

🏒 Springfield Thunderbirds goaltender Joel Hofer is off to the NHL after the St. Louis Blues recalled him on Thursday.

Hofer has been a workhorse for the Thunderbirds, ranking second among AHL netminders with 40 games played this season. He has gone 22-14-4 with a 2.50 GAA, and his .920 save percentage is third-best in the AHL; he is also second overall with four shutouts.

Hofer has allowed three goals on 123 shots over his last four starts (0.74, .976, 2 SO) and was the Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending March 5. St. Louis signed the AHL All-Star to a new two-year, one-way contract extension on Jan. 3.

With Hofer gone, the Thunderbirds have brought in Garret Sparks on a professional tryout deal to team up with Vadim Zherenko. Sparks was voted the AHL’s outstanding goaltender in 2017-18 and led the Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup championship that spring. He has been with Orlando (ECHL) this season.

The Blues are without goaltender Jordan Binnington for two games after he was suspended by the NHL for an incident in Wednesday’s game against Minnesota.

🏒 Another battle between in-state rivals Hartford and Bridgeport is on tap this weekend as those clubs fight for an Atlantic Division playoff berth.

The Wolf Pack closed to within one point of the Islanders for the sixth and final playoff spot in the division with a come-from-behind 7-5 win on Wednesday night. Bridgeport scored on its first three shots in the opening 9:09, but that early lead eventually disappeared amid four third-period from Hartford.

Saturday’s rematch will be the Wolf Pack’s first visit to Total Mortgage Arena since their 9-0 rout of the Islanders on Mar. 4. Bridgeport has won five of the teams’ first nine meetings this season.

🏒 The Doan family legacy in Arizona has added another generation.

Forward Josh Doan, the son of Coyotes great Shane Doan, signed a three-year entry-level deal with the club on Thursday and will make his pro debut tonight for the Tucson Roadrunners against visiting Calgary. The 21-year-old Doan spent two seasons at Arizona State, where he captained the club as a sophomore.

The Coyotes picked Doan in the second round of the 2021 NHL Draft. He finished with 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 39 games for the Sun Devils this season.

Shane Doan, who played 1,540 games with the Coyotes franchise, spent part of the 1997-98 season in the AHL, collecting 21 goals and 21 assists in 39 games for the Springfield Falcons.

🏒 Can Charlotte make a run for Hershey?

Catching the second-place Bears would bring a valuable prize, as the top two teams in the Atlantic Division get byes in the best-of-three first-round series.

The Checkers, who have lost consecutive games only once since Christmas, are five points behind Hershey as they begin a two-game visit to North Division-leading Toronto today.

Last season, Charlotte went 16-3-2-1 over its final 22 games to capture the Atlantic Division title.

🏒 Defenseman Corson Ceulemans made his pro debut Thursday night with Cleveland in a 4-3 overtime loss to visiting Grand Rapids.

The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Ceulemans 25th overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, and the 19-year-old from the University of Wisconsin signed with them March 7. He paired with AHL All-Star Jake Christiansen on the Cleveland blue line in his debut.

🏒 A massive three-in-three weekend awaits Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as they look to make up ground in the Atlantic Division playoff race.

The Penguins are seven points out with 14 games to go as they prepare to host Rochester tonight. From there, they travel to Syracuse on Saturday before going to Lehigh Valley for a Sunday matinee.

The Penguins have only failed to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs once since 2002.

🏒 First-round pick Shakir Mukhamadullin is on his way to the San Jose Barracuda.

Mukhamadullin, acquired by the parent San Jose Sharks from New Jersey as part of the nine-player Timo Meier deal on Feb. 26, recently completed his season with Ufa Salavat Yulayev of the Kontinental Hockey League.

The 21-year-old defenseman made his North American debut last spring, playing three Calder Cup Playoff games with Utica.


🗣️ “There’s another level to the playoffs in importance, but the position we’re in now to evaluate them as an organization is to say, ‘Okay, this guy and this guy elevated when we needed them, because these are big games, these are four-point games. That experience, I think, is invaluable.”

— Belleville interim head coach David Bell on the value of late-season play in evaluating prospects