Peoria Rivermen defenseman Justin Fletcher
's strength shines through in a transition game. In order to play that way on the ice, he's had to live through it in his career.
The second-year pro was the AHL's co-player of the month in March, with 3 goals and 12 assists. That nearly doubled his production of the season up to that point. His 31 points overall are almost twice as many as he contributed for Norfolk and Rockford in 59 games last year.
The X-factor this season has been his ability to finally settle into a system. He joined Springfield out of St. Cloud State two seasons ago, and then signed with Tampa Bay that offseason.
Norfolk loaned him to Rockford at the end of 2007-08, then he re-signed with the Lightning organization last summer. At the start of this season, Tampa Bay traded him to Peoria.
"I came back this year pretty confident. Then I got traded, which did get my spirits down. It caught me off-guard," he said. "You get back on your heels for a second. I just started to feel comfortable (in Peoria), getting used to the way we played. The last couple of months, things have been picking up for me and the team."
Joining the Rivermen gave Fletcher, 26, more than just another new address; it also slotted him into a style more complementary to what he has to offer. Rockford last year, Fletcher said, was a run-and-gun team whose offense centered around creating chances for forwards. He said Peoria is a strong defensive team, but also one that gives its defensemen a safety net to take the right kinds of chances.
"The style we play here is you don't really get left out to dry," Fletcher said. "You always have support. You have to learn to find your offense in different ways. It took awhile, but now I feel very comfortable. It's not at the point where I just think about it. I just go out and play."
Once that stage of familiarity was reached, Fletcher sees his second-half surge as merely a natural career progression.
"This is my second year in the league," he said. "Good players start to step up after the all-star break in their second year. I feel like that's what I've started to do. I hope I find some stability. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing until I can find a team that has that stability."
Give me Laliberte
-- Phantoms forward David Laliberte
is giving the Spectrum a heck of a closing act.
Fourteen games ago, the Phantoms were down 12 points in the chase for the final playoff spot in the East Division. Since then, Philadelphia has gone 10-2-0-2 to overtake Binghamton by one point for the last spot, and in that stretch Laliberte has 8 goals and 3 assists and is plus-11.
"We want to make the playoffs. We have to push. We have to win every game right now," he said. "We just keep battling."
At the start of the season, Laliberte, a second year-pro, looked like no more than a 50-50 AHL/ECHL prospect. He played 27 games for the Phantoms last season and 27 in Wheeling. But after a slow start, the work he put in on offseason conditioning became apparent, and he took a spot on a line with Jonathan Matsumoto and Patrick Maroon
. Those three have stayed together for most of the season, with Laliberte contributing 28 goals and 19 assists.
"I'm a shooter. I just try to get in a good spot and release really quick," he said. "I know Maroon or Matsumoto will try to find me in the slot in good position."
The Spectrum is closing after this year, and the regular-season curtain falls Friday when the Phantoms host Hershey. A sellout crowd is expected, a manpower edge Laliberte thinks the Phantoms will take with them on the ice.
"It's going to be a big thing," he said. "I guess we have to take it like another player for us. It's going to be a big crowd."
Greiss takes best shot
-- Worcester goalie Thomas Greiss
is the wrong guy to call out for a mano-a-mano confrontation.
"The style we play here is you don't really get left out to dry. You always have support. You have to learn to find your offense in different ways. It took awhile, but now I feel very comfortable. It's not at the point where I just think about it. I just go out and play." -- Justin Fletcher
In his latest showdown, Greiss saved Worcester's 3-2 win at Manchester on April 4 by denying Monarchs forward Matt Moulson
's penalty shot attempt at 19:54 of the third period. It marked the first time that a penalty shot had been awarded in the final minute of regulation of an AHL game since Feb. 10, 2007, when Peoria's Jason Bacashihua
stopped Houston's Danny Irmen
with 2.2 seconds left to seal a 4-3 victory
"It was added pressure, because if it's in, it's tied up," Greiss said, comparing the penalty shot to a shootout. "If you stop it, you're the hero."
Greiss has been money in one-on-one situations, stopping 13 of 18 shootout tries (72.2 percent) this season and 57 of 67 (85.0 percent) for his AHL career. He had faced one prior penalty shot attempt in three years with the Sharks and turned away Hartford's Lauri Korpikoski
on Mar. 9, 2007.
"I just try to read what the player does, follow him. You get used to it," Greiss said. "At least (with a shootout) I know what's going to happen. It's no surprises. It's not going to go off a skate or a bad bounce. It's just me and him."
Around the AHL
-- The Binghamton Senators will assist victims' families and survivors of the tragic shooting that took place at the American Civic Association in Binghamton. Team captain Denis Hamel
and two assistant captains will wear a special American Civic Association patch April 10 when the B-Sens play Norfolk at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena. Immediately following the game, the three jerseys will be auctioned and all proceeds will go directly to a charitable fund benefiting the victims' families and survivors. ... Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is closing in on its fourth consecutive 100-point season, a feat never accomplished in the AHL. ... After beating Iowa 1-0 in front of 9,705 on April 4, eight of the last 10 home crowds for the San Antonio Rampage have exceeded 7,400. San Antonio goalie Josh Tordjman
set a franchise record with his eighth career shutout in that game. ... Hamilton's Brock Trotter
scored nine seconds into a game vs. Grand Rapids on April 3, a Bulldogs franchise record. ... Alexandre Giroux
now has 57 goals for Hershey, tied for the sixth-most ever in a single AHL season. ... Since Christmas, Manitoba is 0-4-0-1 against Toronto but 28-10-0-5 against the rest of the league. ... With Chicago mathematically eliminated from postseason contention a year after Hamilton failed to qualify in 2008, the defending Calder Cup champion will miss the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since 1963 (Springfield), 1964 (Buffalo) and 1965 (Cleveland). ... Hartford set a franchise record with three shorthanded goals vs. Providence on April 3. Mike Ouellette
became the first Wolf Pack player to score two shorthanded goals in the same contest. ... At their April 5 home game vs. Norfolk, the Phantoms gave away 5,000 collectible jars that each contained approximately two teaspoons of melted ice taken from the Spectrum ice surface by the Zamboni. That translates to approximately 108 pounds of ice total. ... The River Rats allowed five power-play goals in Bridgeport on April 5, tying a franchise record that dates to 1996. ... Binghamton's Jeff Glass
has started a franchise-record 16 straight games for the Senators. He also set a career high with 47 saves against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on April 1. ... Milwaukee's win against Rockford on April 4 put it over the 100-point plateau for the eighth time in franchise history. ... Grand Rapids' Jimmy Howard
made 21 saves in Rochester on April 5 to earn his 14th career shutout as a Griffin, just two shy of Joey MacDonald
's franchise record.