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AHL postseason picture taking shape

Race for remaining spots in Calder Cup Playoffs heating up down the stretch

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

The Ontario Reign and Toronto Marlies gained some company last week.

The teams were the first two in the American Hockey League to clinch berths in the Calder Cup playoffs before the Albany Devils, Grand Rapids Griffins, Hershey Bears, Lake Erie Monsters and Milwaukee Admirals joined them last weekend. Roughly 14 teams still remain in pursuit of the final nine berths that the league will hand out before the end of the regular season on April 17.

Hershey clinching is the latest chapter in an affiliation with the Washington Capitals that has produced 10 trips to the playoffs in 11 seasons and three Calder Cup championships. The Bears lead the Atlantic Division and could clinch the affiliation's fifth division title.

Milwaukee returns to the postseason after missing last season, the only time in 15 seasons the Admirals did not qualify. The Griffins reached the playoffs after starting the season 2-8-0-1 before going 41-17-1-0 since then.
 
However, spring plans for the San Diego Gulls, Utica Comets and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins remain on hold. Each team had an opportunity to clinch a berth Sunday but fell short.

The Marlies' remarkable season continues as well. They became the first team to reach 100 points and reached 50 wins for the second time in team history. If the Marlies win their final six games, they would come within one win of the league record of 57 wins set by the 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers (who played 80 games rather than 76).

Near the bottom of the AHL, the Binghamton Senators, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, San Antonio Rampage and St. John's IceCaps each saw their playoff hopes end officially end. For Montreal Canadiens prospects with St. John's, it will be the fifth season in a row the organization has missed the AHL postseason, and the seventh consecutive season the Phantoms do not qualify. In their first season of an affiliation with San Antonio, Colorado Avalanche prospects will sit out the AHL playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.

But between the two extremes of the AHL standings is where plenty of shuffling continues.

In the Atlantic Division, the Portland Pirates moved from simply hoping to qualify as a fifth-place crossover team to one pushing its way into the thick of the divisional race. After starting last weekend two points ahead of the Hartford Wolf Pack for that fifth-place spot, the Pirates shut out the Providence Bruins 2-0 at home Friday before winning back-to-back road games at Hartford and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Pirates' weekend put them into fourth place, two points behind the third-place Bruins and four points out of second place, where Wilkes-Barre/Scranton sits.

Hartford fell to six points out of a playoff spot. The Wolf Pack play five of their final six games on the road. If the Wolf Pack miss the playoffs, it would be their fourth time since 1998.

In the North Division, the lone battle remains between Utica and the Syracuse Crunch. A 7-3 Crunch road win against the Comets on Sunday salvaged the weekend after two losses followed a five-game winning streak that had put them into the heart of the divisional race. But the Crunch remain six points behind the third-place Comets, who have a game in hand.

The Central Division race is mostly settled with the division's first three spots clinched and the fourth-place Rockford IceHogs down to a magic number of three. The Charlotte Checkers also are in pursuit for a crossover spot.

Battles rage for second place and fourth place in the Pacific Division. Points percentage will seed the division because five of its seven teams play 68 games rather than the league's standard 76 games. San Diego and Texas continue the battle for second place. The Gulls' magic number is one, the Stars have a magic number of two and the teams are likely en route to a first-round meeting.

Charlotte holds the Pacific Division crossover spot at .557, but in pursuit are the fourth-place San Jose Barracuda (.540) and a pair of .516 teams, the Bakersfield Condors and Stockton Heat.

STAYING PUT

Albany became the third New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate to reach the playoffs since 2000. The Devils will also be staying in Albany for at least three more seasons as well.

New Jersey announced an agreement to extend Albany's lease with the Times Union Center through the 2018-19 season Monday. Albany has won 42 games, the most in an AHL season for a New Jersey affiliate since 1998-99.

New Jersey has 13 players on its roster that spent time developing with Albany.

WELCOME ABOARD

The NHL Trade Deadline is the first major reshaping of AHL rosters each season. The AHL's trade deadline follows a week later when teams further fine-tune their lineups.

The final step in the process of assembling rosters for potentially long runs in the Calder Cup playoffs comes later in the regular season. AHL teams are able to add prospects from eliminated Canadian Hockey League and NCAA teams, and the additions can be significant.

Lake Erie added a major piece to its blue line with the signing of Zach Werenski to an amateur tryout agreement. Werenski, 18, joined Lake Erie after two seasons at the University of Michigan. He ranked second in college scoring among defensemen with 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 36 games for the Wolverines. 

The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Werenski eighth in the 2015 draft. He also captained the United States to a bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship and was named the tournament's top defenseman.

Werenski made his pro debut last weekend, playing two games for the Monsters in a road series against the Chicago Wolves.

The Manitoba Moose, ravaged by injuries and recalls for the past month, have received some help. The parent Winnipeg Jets assigned a pair of second-round picks to the Moose. Left wing Brendan Lemieux, a key part of the Evander Kane trade with the Buffalo Sabres last season, is joining the Moose from the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. Center Jansen Harkins will head to Manitoba from Prince George of the Western Hockey League.

AHL GAME OF THE WEEK

Though Portland has rebounded from a March slump, Providence has hit turbulence. The Bruins lost some recent momentum with losses to Portland and Hershey last weekend before finishing with an overtime win Sunday. The Pirates and Bruins start a home-and-home series at Dunkin' Donuts Center Friday with third place in the Atlantic Division - and perhaps more - on the line. They finish the series at Portland on Saturday. This weekend for Portland will also feature a visit from Hartford on Sunday. 

WITH HONORS

The AHL named Bridgeport center Alan Quine its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. Quine scored four goals and had three assists in three games, including a hat trick in a 5-2 win at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last Saturday. A sixth-round pick by the New York Islanders in the 2013 NHL Draft, Quine has 48 points (19 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Hershey forward Chris Bourque still holds the AHL lead with 73 points (28 goals, 45 assists)…Providence rookie Frank Vatrano is on recall with the Boston Bruins, but he continues to hold the AHL lead in goals with 33 in 33 games…Mikko Rantanen's 53 points (22 goals, 34 assists) in 45 games for San Antonio lead all rookie scorers…Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.76 GAA and 38 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His nine shutouts and 3,335 minutes also lead the AHL…The Reign have two players in the top three shots in shots, league-leader Sean Backman (232) and Michael Mersch, who is third with 198 shots.

AROUND THE AHL

Toronto has a five-game winning streak. With the parent Toronto Maple Leafs' season ending this week, the Marlies stand to add goaltender Garret Sparks, forwards William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Richard Clune, Frederik Gauthier, Tobias Lindberg and Nikita Soshnikov, plus defensemen T.J. Brennan, Andrew Campbell and Viktor Loov. However, the AHL debut of right wing Mitch Marner, the fourth pick in the 2015 draft by the Maple Leafs, will have to wait. Marner's London Knights have advanced to the second round of the OHL playoffs. The Marlies are bidding to become the first Maple Leafs affiliate to win the Calder Cup since 1982…The Springfield Falcons ended an eight-game winless streak last Saturday…Lehigh Valley has sold out 11 consecutive home games and has 22 sellouts this season…Last in the North Division, Binghamton has lost six consecutive games (0-4-2-0). The Senators will be out of the playoffs for the second season in a row…Five more AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 131. The five players ranged from 2014 first-round pick (No. 16) Sonny Milano of Columbus to Carolina Hurricanes rookie forward Sergei Tolchinsky, an undrafted player, to Ben Harpur of the Ottawa Senators, a defenseman who spent part of this season in the ECHL.

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