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Crabb finding his game with Wolves

by Lindsay Kramer
Wolves forward Joey Crabb had a golden cushion to ease his landing when Atlanta sent him to the AHL's Chicago Wolves at the end of last month.

Consistent power-play minutes awaited him for the first time in his three-year career with the Wolves. Chicago coach Don Granato slapped an 'A' on him, too. Then there were the glorious bus rides of the minors.

''I'd almost rather bus than go through security in the airport, and then go to the airport and fly,'' Crabb said.

This is what it's like when you are on a roll. Even those three-hour road trips from Chicago to Grand Rapids feel like they are taken on a magic carpet.

Crabb, 25, returned from a 26-game swing with Atlanta -- the first NHL games of his career -- and produced like a brand-new player for the Wolves. He left as a third-liner and penalty killer and returned to post 6 goals and 2 assists in his first six games back. That compares to 5 goals and 5 assists through his first 16 games with Chicago this season.

Crabb's 11 goals this season are two more than he posted in 72 games for the Wolves last season. Maybe Granato knew something when he pulled Crabb aside shortly after he returned and told him to expect consistent power-play time. The last time Crabb heard such instructions was during his tenure at Colorado College.

''It took me a little while to get back into it. It's been almost three years now,'' Crabb said. ''I think a lot of times I'm too (cautious) offensively for my own good. I think once someone puts some faith in me, it helps my confidence a lot and I do better. I felt pretty good when I was up there (the NHL). You come down here and it carries over. I'm using this opportunity to try to get called right back up. I don't want to waste any time as far as getting back up there.''

Crabb has been around long enough to understand the quickest route back. His offensive output makes him happy that part of his game hasn't rusted, but the reason the Thrashers gave him almost a third-of-a-season look is because of his handyman's attitude.

''It definitely makes you want more. It makes you goal-hungry,'' he said of the scoring. ''I'm going to definitely try to keep scoring more when I'm here, but that's not the end-all to my game. I think first and foremost I'm an energy guy. You have to look at the big picture, where you're headed instead of where you are.''
IceHogs waiting for chances -- Rockford forward Petri Kontiola is just as good of a player as he was last season, if not better.

The Chicago Blackhawks are most certainly a better -- and healthier -- team than they were in 2007-08.

Those parallel truths have made for a frustrating past few months for the prospect.

Kontiola is following up a strong rookie season, in which he had 18 goals and 68 points for the IceHogs, with a sophomore effort that has him with a team-best 43 points through 52 games. Last season his production earned him 12 games in Chicago; he's yet to see any NHL time this season.

The most apparent reason is the improved pool of talent in Chicago, and the Blackhawks haven't yet needed to drain the IceHogs of their players. In 2007-08, 18 players were recalled to Chicago from Rockford, compared to just seven so far this season. 

''It's totally different than last year. We had a bunch of guys who had their chances,'' said Kontiola, 24. ''The Blackhawks are doing so great (now). Why would they change anything? All we can do is keep up the good work. Maybe someday they'll want some of us.''

Kontiola has responded well to certain kinds of motivation in the past. The Seinajoki, Finland native was taken in the seventh round of the 2004 Entry Draft, snapping him out of what he admits was a lackadaisical attitude toward the sport. His points totals then increased each of his subsequent three seasons in Finland before he broke out with a strong AHL debut last season.

"I think once someone puts some faith in me, it helps my confidence a lot and I do better. I felt pretty good when I was up there. You come down here and it carries over. I'm using this opportunity to try to get called right back up. I don't want to waste any time as far as getting back up there."
-- Joey Crabb

''When I was back home in Europe, I didn't care about anything," said Kontiola. "I didn't care about getting drafted. I never thought I would be anything special. Now I think it's great, I got drafted by a pretty good team. I'm just waiting. Hopefully they give me a chance. When I go to the games, I think I have to be good tonight so maybe they recognize me.''
Rochester pest unleashed -- Rochester rookie forward Michael Duco is uncaged again, a development that should make the rest of the AHL a little nervous.

Duco is one of the best young pests in the league, but his teeth were a little rounded off for the past few weeks while he wore a face cage to protect a recovering broken cheekbone. On Feb. 4 against Rockford, though, he was given the OK to rip it off.

''It's hard to play your game when you can't back up what you're saying,'' Duco said. ''I think the cage makes people pretty angry. I never stop talking.''

Duco, an undrafted free agent, caught Florida's eyes with a high production/agitation ratio for Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League last season, contributing 32 goals, 22 assists and 173 penalty minutes. The offensive numbers are a little slower translating to the AHL -- 9 goals and 9 assists in 46 games -- but the 5-foot-10 Duco still plays a big game in the pest department, with 109 penalty minutes. If there's an irate opponent running around desperately looking for a big hit, chances are he's chasing Duco.

''Ever since minor hockey, I was a more physical player,'' Duco said. ''People don't like people who run around out there. I feel when I play a physical game and people are coming at me, it motivates me to play harder.''
Around the AHL -- Edmonton relieved first-year Springfield coach Jeff Truitt of his duties Feb. 10 and replaced him with former Houston coach Rob Daum. Truitt and the Falcons were 16-27-6-1. ... Last weekend, referees and linesmen across the AHL wore special helmet decals to support Hustle for a Cure -- The John D'Amico Fund, which was established in memory of longtime on-ice official and Hockey Hall of Famer John D'Amico, who lost his battle with leukemia in 2005. ... Grand Rapids' Darren Haydar became the 73rd member of the AHL's 500-point club when he hit that threshold against Lake Erie on Feb. 7. The Monsters entered that contest against Grand Rapids with the league's worst power play (11.1 percent), while the Griffins brought the league’s top-ranked penalty kill (89.5 percent). So, naturally, Lake Erie scored three man-up goals. ... The next night, Grand Rapids gave up five power-play goals and a franchise record 10 goals overall in a 10-5 loss to Toronto. The eight power-play goals in the two games matched the total number of power-play goals the Griffins had surrendered in their previous 26 games combined. ... Syracuse defenseman Dan Smith played in his 700th AHL game Feb. 6 against Lake Erie. ... Rochester's Michal Repik entered the week with a goal in four straight outings after scoring once in his previous 19 games. ... Hartford's 16 shots on goal against Springfield on Feb. 7 tied a franchise record for fewest shots in a contest, but the Wolf Pack also tied a team mark with two shorthanded goals to beat the Falcons, 3-2. ... Providence rookie Mikki Lehtonen has 7 goals in seven games against Worcester this season, including four in their last two meetings. ... Hamilton blueliner Yannick Weber scored twice against Binghamton on Feb. 6, making him the first Bulldogs defenseman in franchise history to score more than 10 goals in a season. ... Grand Rapids' 4-3 loss at Milwaukee on Feb. 10 was the Griffins' fourth one-goal loss in the Bradley Center this season.

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