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AHL Notebook: Calder Cup Playoff storylines

Race in North Division tight; Barracuda running away with Pacific title

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

The only deadline that remains in the American Hockey League is the end of the regular season.

Deadlines have dominated the AHL the past month. Along with the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline on March 1, the AHL also had its own roster deadline on March 8. That deadline allowed AHL teams to fine-tune their rosters and make last-minute adjustments after the NHL concluded its deadline.

However, that does not mean that AHL rosters are completely set. AHL teams are able to add players from the Canadian Hockey League or college hockey. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have the second-best points percentage in the league (.697). They received more help Tuesday when the Pittsburgh Penguins assigned forward Zach Aston-Reese to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Aston-Reese, 22, led the NCAA with 31 goals and 63 points for Northeastern University.

Those late-season amateur additions can dramatically reshape an AHL team. Last season, Pittsburgh forward Jake Guentzel was a late-season addition to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster. He went on to have 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 14 playoff games and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton advanced to the second round. Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski joined the Lake Erie Monsters from the University of Michigan last season and played a dominant role in a run to the organization's first-ever Calder Cup championship.

From here it will be a four-week sprint toward the Calder Cup Playoffs. The top four teams in each of the four divisions qualify for the playoffs, and there are races in each of the four divisions.

Here is a look at some key storylines heading into the final month of the regular season.



The Hershey Bears rank eighth in the AHL yet they are below the playoff line in the most unforgiving division.

Hershey is tied with the third-place Bridgeport Sound Tigers and fourth-place Providence Bruins at 77 points. Hershey has moved aggressively in the past month, adding a No. 1 goaltender in Pheonix Copley and defensive depth in NHL veteran Tom Gilbert and Mattias Backman.

Swirling rumors that the Bridgeport could lose goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a call-up by the New York Islanders could be a major factor. Halak is 16-5-3 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage for Bridgeport.



The playoff picture here remains jumbled. Six points separate the first-place Syracuse Crunch from the Utica Comets, whose 65 points are fifth-best in the division.

The Tampa Bay Lightning went to work to help the Crunch, bringing in major additions in center Byron Froese (24 goals) and veteran goaltender Mike McKenna. However, Froese was recalled by the Lightning, and Syracuse has yet to go on a run since the moves.

A team to watch after a significant roster makeover will be the Toronto Marlies. They added veteran forwards Cal O'Reilly and Mike Sislo, as well as versatile forward Sergey Kalinin and defenseman Steve Oleksy. The early returns have been positive for the Marlies, who have 11 goals in their past two games. They also have five upcoming games against teams below the playoff line.



The long-running battle for first place between the Grand Rapids Griffins and Chicago Wolves continues. First-place Grand Rapids has a one-point lead and a game in hand. Each team is dealing with players being recalled. Grand Rapids is without defenseman Robbie Russo and Mitch Callahan, who are with the Detroit Red Wings. Forward Ivan Barbashev and defenseman Jordan Schmaltz were recalled by the St. Louis Blues from the Wolves.  

Although the fourth-place Iowa Wild have sustained several roster losses recently, the defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters have yet to close the gap on them. Cleveland was swept in a two-game road series by the San Antonio Rampage and is stuck five points behind. Also lingering are the Charlotte Checkers.



Nothing seems to be slowing down the San Jose Barracuda, who lead the AHL with a .727 points percentage. A team that hovered around .500 for the first six weeks of the season, San Jose has dominated since and are on an 18-1-1-1 run.

But for all of the Barracuda's success, they have yet to gain breathing room in the Pacific Division as the second-place San Diego Gulls have also excelled. San Diego is 22-4-1-1 since Dec. 29 and sits seven points behind San Jose with a game in hand.

While San Diego added two proven veteran forwards in Spencer Abbott, the status of Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson (lower body) bears watching. Anaheim recalled goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who is 10-2-0 with a 1.42 GAA and .944 save percentage in 12 games for San Diego since arriving in a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 10.



Springfield Thunderbirds forward Paul Thompson was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending last Sunday. He scored four goals and had an assist in three games.



Wolves forward Kenny Agostino leads the AHL in scoring with 73 points (21 goals, 52 assists). He has a 19-point lead on Hartford Wolf Pack forward Taylor Beck, who ranks second with 54 (15 goals, 39 assists). … Chicago teammate Wade Megan remains the AHL leader in goals (27). … Providence Bruins goaltender Zane McIntyre has taken over the AHL lead in GAA (2.03) and save percentage (.931). The San Antonio Rampage are on a three-game winning streak after a 12-game losing streak. … Elsewhere in the Western Conference, Chicago has a 10-game point streak (8-0-2-0). The Manitoba Moose have a six-game losing streak, and the Rockford IceHogs have lost seven consecutive games. … Hartford became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention.



Springfield defenseman Mackenzie Weegar was recalled by the Florida Panthers. … Charlotte forwards Lucas Wallmark and Valentin Zykov each made his NHL debut this past week with the Carolina Hurricanes. Through Tuesday, 92 AHL players have played their first NHL game this season.

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