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AHL Notebook: Deadline trades shape playoff race

Crossover format, new faces add intrigue to home stretch

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

The American Hockey League heads into the final fifth of its season with the Calder Cup Playoffs in sight after a busy period of roster-shuffling.

Some teams have already flourished since the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29 and the AHL deadline that followed a week later. Others are struggling in the wake of moves at the NHL and AHL levels, and still others are a case of wait-and-see.

The biggest post-deadline beneficiary has been the Charlotte Checkers, who brought in seven new players in an attempt to salvage their season. Charlotte had lost 15 of 18 games going into last week, a slide that was blunted only by a 12-game point streak earlier in the season.

Since making the moves, the Checkers have won four games in a row and are right back in playoff position.

New arrivals Blair Jones and Andrew Miller immediately made offensive impacts. Jones, a veteran center from the Utica Comets that cost the Checkers center T.J. Hensick, had three goals in his first four games. Miller, a forward who arrived from the Bakersfield Condors for Charlotte fixture Zach Boychuk, scored twice in his first four games.

Along with Jones and Miller, Charlotte picked up defenseman Dennis Robertson, prospects Dane Fox and Valentin Zykov, goaltender John Muse and forward Anthony Camara.

A big test for Charlotte awaits in the form of a seven-game road trip that starts this week and includes three games in three days this weekend. But if the Checkers can survive, they have a six-game home stand at the start of April.

Playoff races: The moves at the deadline will certainly reshape the AHL playoff races, which is already impacted by the crossover format. In the East, the top four teams in the Atlantic Division make the playoffs, but the fourth team in the North Division could be bumped if the fifth-place team in the Atlantic has more points and crosses over. In the West, the same format applies, with the fifth-place team in the Central being allowed to cross into the Pacific if it has a higher point percentage than the fourth Pacific team.   

The Rochester Americans, who are fifth in the North and had won seven of nine games, ran into the North Division's last-place team, the Binghamton Senators, and lost 6-1 at home Sunday.

Third place in the North Division is seven points away for the Americans, so fourth place is their most likely pathway to the postseason at the moment. The St. John's IceCaps hold a two-point lead on Rochester; the Americans have three games in hand. However, Rochester or St. John's will need to elbow aside the Atlantic Division's Portland Pirates, who hold the North Division crossover spot. The Hartford Wolf Pack also sit ahead of the Americans and the IceCaps.

Portland has become vulnerable since returning home from a grueling seven-game February road trip that finished 4-2-1-0. The Pirates have one win in their past eight games and have lost six in a row, leaving them on the fringe of the Atlantic Division playoff picture.

Beset by recalls to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Marlies have endured their first sustained slump. The Marlies have one win in their past six games. That said, the Marlies still possess an 11-point lead on the Albany Devils for the AHL lead.

In the Western Conference, the Grand Rapids Griffins have put together an 11-game winning streak to move them to the top of the Central Division standings. They joined the 2009-10 Hershey Bears (the Calder Cup winner that season featuring Braden Holtby, Karl Alzner and John Carlson) as the second AHL team in the past 25 years to have had two 10-game winning streaks in the same season.

But the Griffins have plenty of company near the top of the standings. The Lake Erie Monsters are fourth in the division, but trail the Griffins by four points. The Rockford IceHogs and Milwaukee Admirals are also jostling for first place.

The Ontario Reign have just about run away with first place in the Pacific Division, and the Texas Stars are safely in a playoff spot, but there is plenty of competition for the final two places.

The San Diego Gulls won three games in overtime this past week and are on an 8-0-1-1 streak that has pushed them into third place. San Diego's run has them .009 behind second-place Texas.

While the Stockton Heat have started to fade from contention, the Bakersfield Condors and San Jose Barracuda are fighting for fourth place in the Pacific Division, where the Barracuda have a .009 lead. Each team also faces a threat from Charlotte for the crossover spot.

NEW HOMES

Several players are thriving in their new AHL homes.

One move in particular, a seven-player trade involving Binghamton and Rochester, has paid off for each team. Center Phil Varone has two goals and eight assists in seven games with Binghamton. He had a goal and three assists in the 6-1 win at Rochester. Teammate Jason Akeson has three goals and eight assists in seven games, including three assists against Rochester.

A pair of new Rochester scorers have thrived after arriving from Binghamton. Forward Cole Schneider has six points (one goal, five assists) in five games. Center Eric O'Dell has four goals in his first five games.

TOUGH BUSINESS

The pro goaltending world can be a tough one sometimes, and veteran Brad Thiessen is the latest example.

Lake Erie returned Thiessen to the ECHL this past week to make room for Joonas Korpisalo's return from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Korpisalo had provided stability in Columbus with No. 1 goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky injured for long stretches this season.

All Thiessen had done with the Monsters was arrive in mid-December and go 10-4-4 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. The AHL named Thiessen its CCM/AHL Goaltender for February after he went 6-1-2 with a 1.75 GAA and a .937 save percentage in nine games for the Monsters. He also had two shutouts in February.

However, Thiessen, who won the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Award as the AHL's outstanding goaltender in 2010-11 with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, turns 30 this week, and Korpisalo is the Blue Jackets' top goaltending prospect.

Korpisalo has had his own success as a North American rookie this season, going 14-8-2 (2.63 GAA, .918 save percentage) in 26 games with Columbus. Korpisalo, 21, and partner Anton Forsberg give the Monsters one of the most dangerous tandems in the AHL going into the playoffs.

AHL GAME OF THE WEEK

For the second time in a week, the Marlies and Providence Bruins will play against each other. This time they will be in Toronto for a Saturday matinee at Ricoh Coliseum. One night after defeating Portland 9-2, the Marlies lost a 3-2 game at Providence. The Bruins, who trailed 2-0 after two periods, scored two goals in a 1:18 span to send the game to overtime. Brian Ferlin's second goal of the game won it after Marlies goaltender Antoine Bibeau had stopped an overtime penalty shot. This could be another preview of a potential Eastern Conference final.

WITH HONORS

The AHL named Muse its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. He was in net for each of Charlotte's four wins this past week. An addition in a trade with Texas on Feb. 29, he has gone 4-1-0 since then with a 1.63 GAA and a .929 save percentage.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque holds the AHL lead with 66 points (26 goals, 40 assists)…Providence rookie Frank Vatrano has 31 goals in 31 games…Ontario goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.63 goals-against average and 33 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His .932 save percentage, eight shutouts and 2,828 minutes also top the AHL.

AROUND THE AHL

Providence lost in regulation at home Sunday for the first time since Nov. 22. The loss halted an 18-0-3-2 run… Grand Rapids outscored opponents 45-11 in its 11-game winning streak and 16-3 in three wins this past weekend…After an 11-game, 23-day trip where they went 3-6-1-1, the San Antonio Rampage have lost six consecutive home games. They head back on the road this week with stops at San Diego and Ontario…An 0-3-1-0 week has just about ended the Lehigh Valley Phantoms' postseason hopes. They are seven points behind Portland for the Eastern Conference crossover spot. The Philadelphia Flyers' affiliate has not reached the playoffs since 2009…The Marlies have four nine-goal games this season…Last place in the AHL, the Manitoba Moose could be eliminated from playoff contention as soon as Friday. They are already eliminated from the top-four spots in the Central Division, leaving the crossover spot to the Pacific Division as their lone option…Five AHL players made their NHL debut this past week, bringing the season total to 114 players.

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