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AHL Notebook: Midseason review

Penguins affiliate excelling in league's toughest division at halfway point

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

The six-month grind that is the American Hockey League's regular season has reached its midpoint.

Up next for many teams in the coming weeks will be re-tooling for a late-season push to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Also in play is the potential for prospects to be added or traded by their NHL parent teams as the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1 approaches, a factor that can reshape playoff races dramatically.

The top four teams in each of the AHL's four divisions will qualify for the playoffs. As six teams in the Pacific Division play 68 games rather than 76, the AHL uses point percentage to determine which teams will qualify.

Here is a look at the AHL through the first half:

 

Atlantic Division

There may be no deeper team in the AHL than the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, whose 28 wins, 59 points, and .756 points percentage lead all teams despite them playing in the league's toughest division. A blend of goaltending, scoring, and all-around depth means there are no significant weaknesses on coach Clark Donatelli's roster. Second-half recalls to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season slowed Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to some extent, a situation that will bear watching.

An hour south of the Penguins are the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, who have the second-best point percentage in the league yet are seven points behind in the Atlantic Division race. The Phantoms have seamlessly blended a deep group of high-end AHL veterans with a strong collection of prospects while the Philadelphia Flyers continue to build one of the more impressive pipelines in the NHL. An interesting subplot will be the goaltending competition between Anthony Stolarz and rookie Alex Lyon.

The Providence Bruins used a strong December record to overcome a slow start and take over third place in the division. Aiding that climb has been the significant turbulence that the Hershey Bears have hit recently in losing six of their past seven games. Goaltending and a thin group of defensemen have slowed the Bears, but management with Hershey and the Washington Capitals are traditionally aggressive in making late-season moves to solidify any areas that need help.

Three wins in their past 13 games have put the Bridgeport Sound Tigers seven points behind fourth-place Hershey. The Hartford Wolf Pack and Springfield Thunderbirds round out the division.

 

North Division

Led by first-year coach Benoit Groulx, the Syracuse Crunch have so far survived near-daily movement of top players to and from the Tampa Bay Lightning and have a one-point lead on the second-place Albany Devils.

Albany has survived its own lineup issues with veteran goaltender Scott Wedgewood (shoulder surgery) out. Rookie goaltender Ken Appleby has come from the ECHL to make up for Wedgewood's loss and take over much of the workload.

A 10-game road trip that spanned a month did not slow down the third-place St. John's IceCaps, who have also battled frequent roster moves to and from the Montreal Canadiens.

The Utica Comets have rallied in the first half of this month from a poor start to move into fourth place. They are trying to fend off the Binghamton Senators and Rochester Marlies. A 2-7-1-0 slide has pushed the Toronto Marlies, who showed strong promise to start the season, to last in the division.

 

Central Division

The Milwaukee Admirals led the division early but have slowed down recently and been passed by the Grand Rapids Griffins and Chicago Wolves.

Chicago and Grand Rapids lead the division with 51 points, and each team has used a potent offense to do so. Grand Rapids has a 28.8 power play percentage that leads the league, and the fourth-best penalty kill (84.8 percent). They have four games in hand on the Wolves, who have used a run of 10 wins in 11 games to overcome a sluggish start.

The defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters have also endured NHL roster movement and a slow start to their season. They find themselves trying to fend off the Iowa Wild and Manitoba Moose for fourth place. The Charlotte Checkers and Rockford IceHogs are also lingering in the division race.

 

Pacific Division

Losing goaltender Peter Budaj in the first week of the season forced the Ontario Reign to scramble. Jack Campbell and the AHL's second-best power play (27.0 percent) has helped relieve some of that burden and put the Reign in first place.

Tied for second place are the San Jose Barracuda and Tucson Roadrunners, a pair of teams that have a dangerous power play and can score goals. Tucson has been forced to overcome the loss of captain Craig Cunningham to a heart condition as well.

The fourth-place Stockton Heat are trying to beat out the San Diego Gulls and Texas Stars. The Bakersfield Condors and San Antonio Rampage each will need a strong second half to move into contention.

 

WITH HONORS

Tucson rookie forward Christian Fischer was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending last Sunday. He had seven points (three goals, four assists) in three games.

 

STAT PACK

Chicago forward Kenny Agostino leads the AHL with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists). … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Jake Guentzel is on recall with Pittsburgh, but his 21 goals tie him with Lehigh Valley's Greg Carey for the AHL lead. Guentzel's 42 points leads all rookies. … Juuse Saros, who's with the Nashville Predators, leads the AHL in goals-against average (1.76) and save percentage (.938) among goaltenders who have played 720 or more minutes to qualify among league leaders. … Lehigh Valley's 3.68 goals per game lead the league and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has allowed the fewest goals per game (2.31). … San Diego, Tucson, and Utica each have four-game winning streaks.

 

ON THE MOVE

Hartford goaltender Magnus Hellberg is on recall to the New York Rangers to replace the injured Antti Raanta. Mackenzie Skapski will replace Hellberg in Hartford. The Wolf Pack added forward Marek Hrivik from the Rangers. … Binghamton received goaltender Matt O'Connor from the Ottawa Senators when Chris Driedger headed to Ottawa. … Charlotte goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic made his NHL debut for the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday. He had been in the ECHL earlier this month. … Flyers center Boyd Gordon has been assigned to Lehigh Valley. … Through Tuesday, 66 players have made their NHL debuts this season.

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