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Hartford, Bridgeport jostle for AHL playoff berth

Sound Tigers lead Wolf Pack by four points with three games remaining

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

The Hartford Wolf Pack will have to go through Canada in order to reach the Calder Cup playoffs.

Hartford's chances of qualifying for the postseason took a hit with a 3-2 loss at the Portland Pirates, who earned a playoff berth with the win. The Wolf Pack (81 points) are chasing the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (85 points) for a crossover berth from the Atlantic Division with each team having a better points percentage than the fourth-place finisher from the North Division.

Bridgeport and Hartford each have three games remaining. The Sound Tigers hold the first two playoff tiebreakers over the Wolf Pack should they tie in points.

Seven teams earned playoff berths this past week, leaving two remaining spots in the 16-team field. Along with Portland, the Providence Bruins, Rockford IceHogs, San Diego Gulls, Texas Stars, Utica Comets and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins joined the Albany Devils, Grand Rapids Griffins, Hershey Bears, Lake Erie Monsters, Milwaukee Admirals, Ontario Reign and the Toronto Marlies in the postseason field last week.

The task for the Wolf Pack starts Wednesday against the Marlies, who have clinched the MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the league's regular-season champion. Their regular season finishes with a two-game road series against the St. John's IceCaps, who have received reinforcements from the Montreal Canadiens. Hartford, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, has reached the playoffs in 14 of the past 17 seasons.

However, Bridgeport also faces a difficult end to its season with three games in the final three days of the regular season. The Sound Tigers visit Portland and Albany before finishing at home against Providence.

Four teams are jostling for one remaining playoff berth from the Western Conference. The Charlotte Checkers of the Central Division are threatening to bump aside the Pacific Division's San Jose Barracuda as a crossover qualifier. The Checkers lead the Barracuda in points percentage (.541 to .538).

The Checkers, who went 2-3-0-1 on a six-game homestand, conclude their regular season with a pair of road games against Lake Erie. San Jose meets the rival Stockton Heat in a home-and-home series. San Jose surrendered a 5-2 second-period lead in an 8-5 loss at Texas on Saturday. 

The Bakersfield Condors, 0-3-1-0 in their past four games, are sixth in the Pacific with a .500 point percentage, trailing fifth-place Stockton (.508).


Help is on the way for AHL teams preparing for the playoffs or those vying to qualify.

Albany will be bolstered by forwards Pavel Zacha, Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher, and defenseman Damon Severson, who were assigned from the New Jersey Devils on Monday.

Zacha, 19, was selected No. 6 in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Devils and had 28 goals in 51 games for Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League.

Lake Erie, third in the Central Division, has secured a playoff berth. With the parent Columbus Blue Jackets done for the season, the Monsters have added goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, defensemen Justin Falk and Dean Kukan, and forwards Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Rockford added forward Tyler Motte, who finished a three-season career at the University of Michigan and was a Hobey Baker Award nominee after scoring 32 goals in 38 games. Motte, 21, made his debut for the IceHogs on Saturday, and had a goal and an assist Sunday. 

Stockton will have defensemen Oliver Kylington and Pat Sieloff, and forwards Turner Elson, Hunter Shinkaruk and Drew Shore from the Calgary Flames going into their home-and-home series with San Jose.

Owning a 7-0-0-1 streak, the biggest haul belongs to the Marlies, who regained T.J. Brennan and captain Andrew Campbell for their blue line, forwards Sam Carrick, Frederik Gauthier, Tobias Lindberg and William Nylander, and goaltender Garret Sparks from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Marlies added defenseman Viktor Loov and forwards Richard Clune, Kasperi Kapanen and Nikita Soshnikov last week. Right wing Mitch Marner, the fourth pick in the 2015 draft by the Maple Leafs, is another eventual possibility for the Marlies. He is in the second round of the OHL playoffs with London, but he would be eligible for the AHL postseason if London is eliminated.


The AHL has started to name its season award winners. 

Providence forward Frank Vatrano won rookie and first-team all-star honors; he has a league-leading 33 goals in 33 games. Joining Vatrano on the all-star team was teammate Seth Griffith (23 goals and 49 assists, second in league scoring) and AHL leading scorer Chris Bourque (30 goals, 49 assists) of Hershey. Brennan, who is third in the league with 67 points (24 goals, 43 assists) and San Diego rookie Brandon Montour (12 goals 43 assists) round out the blue line in front of goaltender Peter Budaj of Ontario. Budaj's 1.74 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and 41 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His nine shutouts and 3,514 minutes also top the AHL. Budaj (41-14-4) also won the Aldge "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as top goaltender.

The rookie team features Milwaukee goaltender Juuse Saros, who could challenge for a backup spot with the Nashville Predators next season. Montour and Grand Rapids defenseman Robbie Russo join Providence's Austin Czarnik (17 goals, 41 assists) and leading rookie scorer Mikko Rantanen (23 goals, 36 assists) of the San Antonio Rampage.

Rantanen and Russo also received second-team all-star honors, as did three Penguins - goaltender Matthew Murray, defenseman Will O'Neill and center Dustin Jeffrey. Albany's Mike Sislo, whose 27 goals are tied for fourth in the AHL, rounded out the team.

Rick Kowalsky of Albany won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL's top coach, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton veteran Tom Kostopoulos won the Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey. Earlier this season he became the fourth player in hockey history to play 600 NHL and 600 AHL games. The Penguins captain is in his 17th professional season.


The Lehigh Valley Phantoms had their 12th consecutive sellout crowd at PPL Center on hand for an announcement that they will host the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic from Jan. 28-30, 2017.

The Phantoms are the second consecutive Eastern Conference team to host the event, following the Syracuse Crunch.

Though the Phantoms have struggled on the ice despite adding several AHL veterans last summer and will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, they have been a massive off-ice success since relocating to Allentown, Pa., before last season. Lehigh Valley has sold out the 8,420-seat PPL Center 23 times this season and provides the parent Philadelphia Flyers with an AHL affiliate 75 minutes from Wells Fargo Center.


Milwaukee and Rockford increasingly look to be on a road toward a first-round matchup between the Central Division rivals. The Admirals, 10-0-0-2 in their past 12 games, clinched the Central Division title last weekend. The IceHogs have fallen to fourth place in the division and have lost four of their past five, including a two-game sweep by the Manitoba Moose. The final meeting of the season series is Saturday at Rockford. For the IceHogs, the game will wrap up a stretch of three games in four days that finishes their regular season. Along with their fifth division since 2002, the Admirals are fighting the Ontario Reign for the Western Conference championship, trailing the Reign by .011.


The AHL named Budaj its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday after he went 3-0-0 with a .963 save percentage. He had a season-best 46-save win at Stockton on April 13 and became the second AHL goaltender in the past 50 years to win 40 games in a season. He has started 21 straight games.


The Marlies finished one win short of the league record of 28 road wins set by the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals. The Marlies went 27-7-3-1 away from Ricoh Coliseum for a .763 point percentage. …Toronto has 52 wins with three games remaining. … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has qualified for the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season, tying the fifth-longest streak in AHL history. … Providence has three players in the top-10 in league scoring. Along with Griffith, Alexander Khokhlachev is fourth (23 goals 43 assists) and Czarnik is 10th. Providence has the AHL's top power play, is second on the penalty kill and is tied for fifth with 3.10 goals per game. … Of the top-10 teams in shots per game, league-leading Stockton is the only team that has not clinched a playoff berth. … Manitoba has slipped past the Iowa Wild and Springfield Falcons into 28th place in the AHL. Iowa (56 points) has two games in hand on Manitoba (59) and one on Springfield (58). … Ten AHL players made their NHL debut last week, bringing the season total to 141.

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