Weekly Release: No margin for error in Atlantic race


ahl06_200.jpgSPRINGFIELD, Mass. … As teams across the American Hockey League reach the quarter pole of the 2008-09 season, the Atlantic Division has emerged as the tightest from top to bottom. Heading into December, all seven teams boast points percentages of .500 or better, and just eight points separate the first-place Providence Bruins from a four-team deadlock that is filling the fourth through seventh spots in the standings.

Last year’s regular-season points champion, Providence has won three straight and six of eight to take over the division’s top spot with 29 points. Linemates Vladimir Sobotka (1-4-5), Martins Karsums (3-1-4) and Martin St. Pierre (2-1-3) each have a point in all three games of the Bruins’ current winning streak, while Johnny Boychuk (4-19-23) continues to lead all AHL defensemen in scoring.

Portland’s .700 points percentage remains tops in the division, but a five-game winless skid from Nov. 21-29 has helped drop the Pirates one point behind Providence (albeit with two games in hand). A 4-0 win on Sunday, with rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth (7-2-0) earning his second shutout of the season, got Portland back in the win column, and Nathan Gerbe (13-10-23) and Tim Kennedy (5-16-21) remain two of the league’s top rookies. Mark Mancari posted a team-high 25 points prior to his Nov. 21 recall to Buffalo.

Worcester enters the week with seven wins in its last eight games, good enough to move into third place in the Atlantic. Tom Cavanagh (9-9-18) and Ryan Vesce (4-14-18) are tied for the Sharks’ scoring lead, and Riley Armstrong parlayed a quick start (9-5-14 in 18 games) into his first career NHL recall to San Jose on Saturday. Second-year goaltender Taylor Dakers has won his first five starts of the season (2.00, .918) for Worcester.

Lowell (9-8-1-2), Springfield (9-8-2-1), Manchester (9-8-0-3) and Hartford (9-9-1-2) enter the new week in a four-way tie for fourth place with 21 points apiece.

In Lowell, Jon DiSalvatore is averaging a point per game (5-15-20) and rookie goaltender Jeff Frazee is 4-1-0 (1.71, .949), including back-to-back 40-plus save performances in victories last weekend as the Devils look to bring postseason hockey back to Lowell for the first time since 2005.

In Springfield, where the playoffs haven’t been reached since 2003, Rob Schremp (1-17-18), Ryan Potulny (10-6-16) and Gilbert Brule (8-4-12) are pacing the offense for the Falcons.

Reigning AHL Rookie of the Year Teddy Purcell boasts a team-high nine goals and 18 points for Manchester while current first-year man Justin Azevedo shows eight points (4-4-8) over his first eight professional games.

And a year after being named a Second Team AHL All-Star, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau sits stop Hartford’s offense with 10 goals and 21 points through 21 games, and second-year pro Artem Anisimov’s seven goals (7-12-19) are already nearly halfway to the 16 he scored as a rookie with the Wolf Pack in 2007-08.

The week ahead features eight intra-divisional games in the Atlantic, beginning on Wednesday when Springfield visits Lowell in the teams’ fifth meeting of the campaign. Portland plays three divisional road games in three nights next weekend, traveling to Springfield on Friday, Lowell on Saturday and Worcester on Sunday.

AHL standings
Scores and schedules
League leaders

BEARS CLAWING ALONG … The week began with four players recalled to the NHL on Wednesday morning. It ended with four more victories in the bank and no sign of hibernation in sight.

The Hershey Bears have won nine in a row and at 18-5-0-1, their 37 points are the most in the AHL heading into December. Forwards Chris Bourque and Graham Mink and defensemen Sami Lepisto and Karl Alzner all got the call to Washington on Wednesday, and blueliner Bryan Helmer followed them up on Friday. But the Bears rolled along, including a 9-0 win over Philadelphia on Saturday – their second victory by that count in less than two weeks.

Hershey has scored at least seven goals in a game on six occasions already this year, and is far and away the leader with an average of 4.46 goals per game. In addition, the Bears have outscored their guests by a 60-23 count in 11 home games this season, including 36-7 over its last six at Giant Center.

Three-time AHL All-Star Keith Aucoin paces all AHL scorers with 36 points (9-27-36), and Alexandre Giroux shows a league-high 17 goals while ranking second with 29 points. Oskar Osala is setting the AHL rookie pace with 16 goals on the year, and rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov is 9-2-0 overall with a 2.31 goals-against average. Eight of the top 10 plus/minus ratings in the AHL belong to members of the Chocolate and White, led by rookies Osala (+17), Mathieu Perreault (+17) and Francois Bouchard (+17).

Hershey goes for its 10th straight win – which would be its longest run since March 2002 – when it welcomes Hartford to Chocolatetown on Saturday.

AHL TEAMS INVADE NHL RINKS … Last weekend saw a pair of AHL teams play games in the home arena of their NHL affiliate. On Friday, the Philadelphia Phantoms took a 4-1 win over Springfield in front of 7,920 fans at the Wachovia Center in the back end of an arena doubleheader that included a Flyers game against Carolina in the afternoon.

The Hamilton Bulldogs traveled a bit further for their game, a 5-3 loss to Binghamton on Sunday before 14,446 fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal, home of the parent Canadiens. That was the largest crowd for an AHL game so far this season.

One additional AHL game is scheduled to be played in an NHL rink this season. The Portland Pirates and Albany River Rats will square off on Feb. 10 at the home of the Pirates’ new NHL affiliate, HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

ETC. … Six points separate the top seven teams in the West Division entering the week… Manitoba’s six-game winning streak overall and nine-game run at the MTS Centre ended with a 4-3 loss to Iowa on Saturday; the Moose now embark on a four-game road swing to Texas… Milwaukee’s Mike Santorelli is riding a seven-game scoring streak (4-6-10) and has a goal in his last four outings… Syracuse rookie Nikita Filatov broke an 11-game goal-scoring drought with his second-period tally on Saturday against Toronto… Houston’s Krys Kolanos has scored a goal in nine of his 13 games this season and notched the game-winner in both of the Aeros’ victories last weekend… Manchester’s Teddy Purcell collected six points (3-3-6) in the Monarchs’ stretch of five games in six days last week… Brett Sterling’s overtime goal in Chicago’s 4-3 win over Quad City on Saturday was the sixth of his AHL career… Rookie center John Armstrong is on a five-game scoring streak (2-6-8) for Quad City, which is 3-0-2-1 in its last six contests… Defenseman Clayton Stoner scored six seconds into the third period of Houston’s 2-1 overtime loss to Milwaukee on Friday… Claude Lemieux’s goal for Worcester on Saturday was his first in the AHL since Mar. 24, 1986; Mike Sillinger’s goal for Bridgeport on Friday was his first in the AHL since May 1, 1993… Rockford has netted 30 goals over its last seven games (4.29 per game) after scoring 36 over its first 14 contests (2.57 per game)… Iowa has scored the game’s first goal in eight of its 21 contests, but is a perfect 8-0-0-0 in those tilts… San Antonio’s current 17-game winless streak is the longest in the AHL since Albany’s 21-game slide (0w-14l-4t-3otl) in 2001-02… Bridgeport is 4-1-0-0 when trailing after two periods this season… Manitoba is the only AHL team yet to allow a shorthanded goal this season, while Binghamton is the lone team yet to score one… Grand Rapids won three games in three nights last weekend for the first time since Dec. 21-23, 2005.