Weekend watch list: Oct. 20-22

Photo: Tessa McAndrews

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

A two-game series between the defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears and the host Providence Bruins is among the highlights of a busy weekend across the AHL.

Providence (44-18-8-2, 98 points) edged out Hershey (44-19-5-4, 97 pts.) by a single point for the Atlantic Division title in 2022-23 and won five of six meetings head-to-head. The Bruins are 22-4-1-1 against Hershey in their last 28 meetings, allowing a total of 11 goals in the last 10 match-ups, and at Amica Mutual Pavilion, Providence is unbeaten in regulation over Hershey’s last 14 visits (13-0-0-1).

But the Bruins exited the Calder Cup Playoffs in a division semifinal loss to Hartford, while the Bears won their 12th Calder Cup championship.

Providence (1-1-0-1) got in the win column with a 4-2 victory over Bridgeport on Wednesday night; Hershey (1-1-0-0) is embarking on its first road trip of the season, a stretch of four games in six nights in Providence, Bridgeport and Wilkes-Barre. Bears head coach Todd Nelson has acknowledged that it is an early priority to put last season’s championship behind them.

“We have to move forward,” said Nelson, who has tied AHL Hall of Fame member Robbie Ftorek for 12th place on the league’s coaching wins list (354). “Last season is done. We have talent, but talent alone is not going to help you win.

“It takes its toll. That’s why it’s so hard for NHL teams to repeat. It’s a mentally draining thing, but we have to get through it. There are high expectations here. My expectation is to win a Calder Cup again, but it’s going to be a growing process.”

The Ontario Reign and San Diego Gulls have wasted no time in reigniting their long-standing rivalry.

Tonight marks their third of eight meetings in 2023-24 after the Gulls took 4-1 and 6-4 victories at Toyota Arena last weekend. The teams head south to San Diego as the Gulls commence their home schedule tonight at Pechanga Arena, where the Reign have won their last six visits.

After finishing last in the AHL a season ago, the Gulls underwent an extensive offseason overhaul. New head coach Matt McIlvane arrived, and the parent Anaheim Ducks brought in top-tier experience in goaltender Alex Stalock, defenseman Trevor Carrick and forward Andrew Agozzino. Two gems in the Anaheim prospect pool, defenseman Olen Zellweger and forward Nathan Gaucher, also are settling in with the Gulls.

Zellweger, 20, went to the Ducks as a second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2021 NHL Draft and is coming off a standout season in which he won top defenseman honors in both the Western Hockey League and the Canadian Hockey League. Gaucher, who does not turn 20 until Nov. 6, won a Memorial Cup title last season with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; he was the 22nd overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

The Reign have their own collection of young talent as well. Rookie defenseman Brandt Clarke, taken eighth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings, is with Ontario. Forward Akil Thomas is also back in action after sustaining a season-ending injury last November, and Alex Turcotte, who had a goal and an assist last weekend, was the fifth overall selection in the 2019 draft.

Carrick, who spent the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons with the Gulls, is back after playing last season in Syracuse.

“It’s always been pretty intense,” Carrick told SanDiegoGulls.com. “But that’s why you play, right? You play for those rival games. When you see each other quite a few times during the season, you pick up on each other and the games get tight. They make for some fun hockey games.”

A return to Abbotsford for Calgary Wranglers head coach Trent Cull is among the intriguing storylines in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (10 pm ET, 7 pm PT).

Cull spent five seasons in the Vancouver Canucks organization leading their AHL affiliates in Utica and Abbotsford. After spending last season as an assistant with Vancouver, he moved on to the Calgary Flames organization to take over the Wranglers; Cull has succeeded back-to-back AHL coach of the year Mitch Love, who is now an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals.

After the Flames relocated their AHL affiliate to Calgary last season, the teams needed little time to build a Western Canadian rivalry. Calgary went 8-4-0-0 in the 12-game regular-season series before the clubs staged a fierce battle in the Pacific Division semifinals; the Wranglers took the series three games to one with all four one-goal decisions, including two overtime games.

An AHLTV account is required to watch the AHLTV Free Game of the Week, but no subscription is needed. Visit AHLTV.com for details.