The eight teams of the American Hockey League’s Central Division were back to work last weekend after a couple of days off for the Christmas holiday. With so many games played within the division, the playoff race will be tight throughout the remainder of the season.
Admirals Home Streak is Snapped
The Milwaukee Admirals (24-5-3-2) had a tough week out of the break with three games in three nights, including two of them on the road. They didn’t let the schedule makers get them down as they won two of these games. They are sitting atop the Central Division and the entire AHL with 53 points.
On Friday morning, the Nashville Predators announced that they recalled forward Colin Blackwell and defenseman Jared Tinordi. The Admirals picked up right where they left off with a 3-0 win at the Grand Rapids Griffins later on that evening. They needed both of their goaltenders, Troy Grosenick and Connor Ingram, to complete the road shutout.
Defenseman Matt Donovan scored the only goal the Admirals would need on the evening, 13 minutes into the game when his shot from the point found the back of the net. Mathieu Olivier doubled the lead with his fifth goal of the season about 12 minutes into the second period.
With 2:31 left in the middle frame, Grosenick was interfered with by Griffins forward Evgeny Svechnikov and he had to leave with an injury after making 21 saves. Daniel Carr scored on the ensuing power play with a one-timer from the bottom of the right circle to give the Admirals a 3-0 advantage.
Ingram stopped all 13 shots he faced for the team’s second straight shutout of the Griffins. Admirals goaltending has gone 146:20 of play since they gave up a goal to the Griffins.
The Griffins snapped the Admirals nine-game home winning streak on Saturday night with a 3-2 victory. It was their first loss at the Panther Arena since Nov. 1 and marked only their second regulation loss in the last 22 games.
Rem Pitlick opened the scoring a little over eight minutes of the game with the first of two goals on the evening by rifling home a shot from the left dot. The Griffins ended a scoreless streak of 173:09 against the Admirals with a game-tying goal midway through the second period.
Grand Rapids went up 2-1 late in the second period, but the lead lasted for only 72 seconds of play. While on a power play, Pitlick tied the game by blasting home a between-the-legs feed from Cole Schneider. The Griffins scored the game-winning goal, off a deflection, with just under two minutes to play in the third period.
“I think the result is the way the game should have went, based on the play,” head coach Karl Taylor said after the game. “I thought Grand Rapids showed a lot of mettle in their game. They checked us really hard. I thought they were the better team tonight.”
On Sunday morning, Taylor was named the head coach for the Central Division for the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic. He will be joined by Kris Knoblauch of the Hartford Wolf Pack (Atlantic), Chris Taylor of the Rochester Americans (North) and Jay Varady of the Tucson Roadrunners (Pacific).
Later that afternoon, the Admirals finished off their weekend with a gritty 3-2 shootout win at the Chicago Wolves with Grosenick back in goal.
Playing in their ninth period in the past three days and trailing by a goal, the Admirals found a way to score twice and grab 2-1 third-period lead. Cole Schneider tied the game, while on the power play, by swiping home a rebound. Frederick Gaudreau, who had the primary assist on Schneider’s goal, put the Admirals on top with a goal from the slot.
The Wolves forced overtime with power-play goal late in regulation. After a scoreless overtime, the game headed to the shootout. Gaudreau won the game for the Admirals with the only goal of the skills competition, in the fourth round.
Player of the Week
Gaudreau and Carr led the Admirals with three points over the weekend. Gaudreau gets the nod thanks to his big performance on Sunday afternoon. He also had an assist in Friday night’s victory in Grand Rapids. The 26-year-old forward has been effective with four goals and eight points in his 13 games for the Admirals this season.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 3 @ Cleveland Monsters; Saturday, Jan. 4 @ Monsters
Wild Continue Offensive Surge
The Iowa Wild (17-12-2-2) split their pair of games last week by winning on the road and losing at home. They have 38 points, which is good enough for the division’s runner-up spot and has them three points ahead of third place.
The Wild and their power-play unit got plenty of work in a 6-2 victory at the Rockford IceHogs Friday night. Iowa scored on three of their eight power plays during their dominating win.
They wasted no time as they scored twice in the first minute of the game to quiet down the big crowd in Rockford. Colton Beck finished off a 2-on-1 rush to start the scoring just 22 seconds after the opening faceoff. Kyle Rau picked up the primary assist on the fastest goal to start a game in team history to extend his point streak to nine games. Gerry Mayhew started his big night by doubling lead the with a one-timer 30 seconds later.
The IceHogs pushed back during the second half of the period and cut the Wild’s lead in half with just over two minutes to go. The Wild answered right back with a goal from Dmitry Sokolov 41 seconds later to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission.
After a scoreless second period, the Wild scored three goals in a crazy third period that saw 48 combined penalty minutes dished out. Brandon Duhaime went top shelf, from the slot, to put the Wild up 4-1 with his fourth goal of the season early in the frame.
They iced the game by scoring a pair of goals while on a five-minute power play. Mayhew scored his second goal of the night and team-high 18th of the season by cleaning up a rebound. Former IceHog Luke Johnson scored the sixth and final Iowa goal with a one-timer from the left circle. The IceHogs scored a late goal, but it was too little, too late.
The Wild were back home on Saturday night to take on the Wolves where they lost a battle of attrition, 4-3. Chicago started the night with only 17 skaters and lost another due to injury in the second period. However, by the end of the night, the Wild only had 15 skaters as Beck, Kyle Bauman and defenseman Hunter Warner were all unable to finish the game.
Mayhew extended his point streak to five games by setting up Bauman’s second goal of the season midway through the first period. From behind the net, Mayhew threaded a pass to Bauman in the slot where he cashed in for the game’s opening tally.
The Wolves took a 2-1 advantage into the first intermission by scoring a pair of goals just 26 seconds apart late in the opening period. Sam Anas evened things up, 48 seconds into the second period, as he got a loose puck and fired it home for his eighth goal of the season.
The Wild found themselves down 3-2 later in the period after surrendering a power-play goal. Just before the middle frame expired, Duhaime scored for the second time in the last 24 hours with a turnaround shot from the right dasher boards.
Unfortunately, the Wolves scored midway through the final frame and it was enough for them to steal a road victory.
“I thought we didn’t play as well as we have been,” said veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowksi. “We had spurts of it, but the majority of the game – I don’t think we brought what we’ve been bringing lately.”
Player of the Week
Mayhew was up to his old tricks over the weekend. He scored a pair of goals on Friday and added two assists on Saturday. He leads the Wild with 18 goals and his tied with Anas for the team-lead in points with 28. He has four goals and eight points during his five-game point streak.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Dec. 31 vs Texas Stars; Friday, Jan. 3 vs IceHogs; Saturday, Jan. 4 @ Wolves
IceHogs Struggle Through Winless Week
The IceHogs (17-13-0-1) have hit a bit of a rough patch due to injuries and some key players being called up the NHL. They lost both of their games last week and their current losing streak is up the three games. They still sit in third place with 35 points.
Head coach Derek King said that the hardest games of a season are the last one before a break and the first one coming back. That proved true as the IceHogs lost their last game before the Christmas break to the Cleveland Monsters and then got dominated by the Wild, 6-2, coming back on Friday night.
The IceHogs were down 2-0 before some of the fans were even in their seats as they gave up a pair of goals in the first 52 seconds of the game. After killing off a two-man disadvantage, the IceHogs started to get back into the game. Late in the frame, Brandon Hagel scored on the power-play by redirecting a Lucas Carlsson point shot for his team-leading 10th goal of the season. Unfortunately, Iowa regained their two-goal lead just 41 seconds later.
After a scoreless second period, the Wild scored three goals to pull away. Two of those goals came on a five-minute power play after Nathan Noel was given a major and a match penalty for a slew-foot. He received a one-game suspension for his actions. Anton Wedin added a late goal, his sixth, but it was not nearly enough to mount a serious comeback.
“From a game like this, you have to learn lessons,” captain Tyler Sikura said. “It’s a tough league. You’re going to have guys coming at you every game. Teams are going get better and better as the season goes on. There’s not going to be any easy points.”
The IceHogs headed up north for Sunday matinee at the Manitoba Moose. Due to Noel’s suspension and illness for Wedin, the IceHogs had to dress seven defensemen in a 3-2 loss.
Sikura got the scoring started with a power-play goal midway through the first period, but the Moose answered with a goal of their own on the man-advantage just before the break to even things up. They added two more goals in the first half of the second period to build up a 3-1 lead.
Defenseman Philip Holm cut the deficit to 3-2 with just over nine minutes to play off a great pass from Alexandre Fortin. That would be the final goal of the night as both goaltenders came up big the rest of the way. This is the first time the IceHogs have lost three straight games since the first three contests of the season.
The loss was a costly one as Phillip Kurashev was elbowed in the head by Ryan White midway through the first period. He did not return to the game.
Player of the Week
The IceHogs scored four goals in their two games and Carlsson assisted on three of them. He was the only player to have multiple points over the weekend. The Swedish-born blueliner has been great after missing a couple of weeks due to injury. In his first four games back, he as a goal and five points. He now leads the IceHogs with 12 assists on the season.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Dec. 31 @ Moose; Friday, Jan. 3 @ Wild, Sunday, Jan. 5 vs Wolves
Wolves Earn Three Big Points
The fourth-place Wolves (15-16-2-1) were very happy with taking three out of possible four points over the weekend. Despite being shorthanded and missing some key players, the Wolves remain in the final Calder Cup playoff spot with 33 points.
The Wolves had a strange night in Iowa on Friday. After Keegan Kolesar was recalled by the Vegas Golden Knights in the morning, forward Tyrell Goulbourne and defenseman Jake Bischoff missed the game due to illness. The Wolves only dressed 11 forwards and 17 skaters versus the Wild and, to make matters worse, they lost Reid Duke during the second period. Despite all of this, they found a way to pull off a 4-3 victory.
The Wild grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the first period before the Wolves fired back with a pair of quick goals from defensemen. Zach Whitecloud’s shot from the point tied the game just 26 seconds before Gage Quinney set up Jimmy Schuldt’s fifth goal of the season to put them ahead 2-1.
The home team drew even before the second period was even a minute old. Just over 10 minutes later, Valentin Zykov, playing his first game back from the NHL, was the last to get his stick on the puck during a mad scramble in the crease. The power-play tally was his first goal in the AHL this season. The Wild came back to tie the game again with just over a minute to play in the middle frame.
Rookie Paul Cotter has been snake-bitten of late as he has been so close to scoring his first goal of the season over the past few games. He even hit the cross-bar early in the third period. A few moments after drawing iron, he finally racked up his first professional goal by redirecting Schuldt’s shot into the Iowa net for the game-winner.
Goaltender Oscar Dansk made 25 saves to extend his personal winning streak to six straight games.
The Wolves returned home to take on the Admirals on Sunday afternoon and they had enough healthy bodies to fill out a full lineup. Kolesar was back after his one-day stay in Las Vegas, Goulbourne was back from his illness and Jermaine Loewen was recalled from Fort Wayne of the ECHL. However, both Duke and Quinney were unavailable due to injuries suffered in Iowa.
After a scoreless first period, Zykov scored his second goal in as many games by firing a wrist shot into the top of the net. The play started with Zykov forcing a turnover at his defensive blue line and he trailed the play up the ice to finish it off with a goal.
The Admirals came back to tie the with a power-play goal about nine minutes into the third period. They took a 2-1 lead with just 5:44 left in regulation. The Wolves got a late power play and they converted to force overtime. Pirri took advantage of a scrambling goaltender to light the lamp from the left circle.
The Wolves had nearly a minute of power-play time to start overtime but they could not cash in. They were unable to convert on any of their four shootout attempts, but they were happy with the point.
Player of the Week
Pirri keeps lighting up the competition in the AHL with a goal and three assists over the weekend. He is now fourth on the team in scoring with 18 points despite only playing in 16 games.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve been trending in the right direction,” Pirri said on Sunday. “We had 30 shots after we slept for four hours. We’re working the system and guys are getting more confident and it shows in all four lines.”
The Week Ahead
Thursday, Jan. 2 vs Stars; Saturday, Jan. 4 vs Wild; Sunday, Jan. 5 @ IceHogs
Rampage Keep Pace with Successful Weekend
The San Antonio Rampage (12-13-5-4) grabbed three points during a weekend series with the interstate rivals. The kept pace with the Wolves, who they are tied with at 33 points. However, they are in fifth place because Chicago has three more wins than them.
The St. Louis Blues recalled defenseman Jake Walman on Friday morning for his first stint in the NHL. Niko Mikkola was sent back down in a corresponding move and he was in the lineup for that evening’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Texas Stars.
The Rampage was outplayed for much of the opening period but took a 2-0 lead into the locker room after 20 minutes of play. Nathan Walker’s 14th goal of the season, from the right circle, opened the scoring just 1:42 into the game.
Klim Kostin doubled the lead about eight minutes later with a snapshot from the left circle on the Rampage’s third shot of the game. Mike Vecchione picked up the secondary assist on the play for the 100th point of his AHL career.
The Stars came back to tie the game with a power-play goal in the middle frame and a second strike early in the third period. The Rampage had four shots in overtime and Vecchione drew iron as well. Joey LaLeggia, Austin Poganski and Kostin were all denied in the shootout as the Stars snuck one past Ville Husso for the win. Husso did all he could with 37 saves in the losing effort.
“I didn’t think we were very good for, certainly, the first 40 minutes,” a disappointed head coach Drew Bannister said. “We were a little bit better in the third and we had our opportunities in the overtime. The first 40 minutes, I thought we were doing a lot of standing around and watching.”
The Rampage returned the favor on Saturday night by staging a comeback to take down the Stars in overtime in their building. It was their first overtime win of the season in ten tries.
Andreas Borgman got the Rampage on the board nine minutes after the Stars scored the game’s first goal. With an extra attacker on the ice during a delayed penalty, Borgman slid down into the slot and scored with a backhand shot. The Stars built up a 3-1 lead with a goal before the end of the first period and another in the opening minute of the middle frame.
LaLeggia became the second defenseman to score the Rampage less than a minute after the Stars’ third goal. The Stars responded by taking a 4-2 lead about eight minutes later, but Alexey Toropchenko scored off a redirection before the end of the period.
With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Walker tied the game with a redirection of a Derrick Pouliot one-timer. The game seemed destined for a shootout until Kostin won the game with just 1.3 seconds left in overtime. Goaltender Adam Wilcox, who gave up four goals on just 18 shots, came out to play the puck which was picked up by Kostin, who drove to the net and won the game with a five-hole wrist shot.
Player of the Week
Between a shoulder injury and some time in the NHL level, Kostin’s production has been limited in the AHL. He had just three goals and nine points in 20 games entering the weekend. He had a goal in each of the games versus the Stars and added two helpers in Saturday night’s big win to finish the week with a team-high four points.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 3 vs Griffins; Sunday, Jan. 5 vs Griffins
Moose Win Lone Game
The Moose (16-18-0-0) had just one game last week, but it was a victory so they could keep pace in the tight playoff race. They currently sit in sixth place with 32 points and are just a single point out of a postseason spot.
On Sunday morning, the Winnipeg Jets assigned goaltender Eric Comrie back to the AHL. Comrie’s season has seen him start with the Jets, be claimed by the Arizona Coyotes organization, get traded to the Detroit Red Wings before being picked up on waivers by the Jets again.
Comrie was not in uniform for the Moose’s 3-2 win over the IceHogs on Sunday afternoon. Rockford struck first with a power-play goal midway through the first period. The Moose got even near the end of the frame while on a power play of their own. Johnathan Kovacevic scored his fourth goal of the season off a nice no-look pass from Skyler McKenzie.
The Moose scored a pair of second-period goals less than three minutes apart to open up a 3-1 lead. Kristian Reichel broke the tie by putting home the rebound off a Jimmy Oligny shot. Michael Spacek took advantage of another rebound to scored the eventual game-winner goal.
The IceHogs closed to the gap to just one before the end of the second period, but they were unable to get the equalizer during the final 20 minutes of play. Mikhail Berdin made 30 saves for the win.
“I thought we were a little bit sloppy, especially by both blue lines,” McKenzie admitted after the game. “I felt as the game went on, our legs got a lot stronger and we got a lot faster as a team. We started making the simple plays and I think that is why we were successful.”
Player of the Week
The Moose do not win their lone game of the week without the efforts of Kovacevic. Not only did he score the team’s first goal, but he also had the primary assist on the game-winning goal as well. He also made a great play that didn’t show up on the scoresheet. Midway through the third period, Berdin left a rebound in the crease and had no idea where the puck was. Kovacevic was the first to get to it and swipe it out of harm’s way before the IceHogs could tie the game.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Dec. 31 vs IceHogs; Friday, Jan. 3 vs Colorado Eagles; Saturday, Jan. 4 vs Eagles
Griffins Split Tough Weekend Series
The Griffins (13-16-2-2) had a tough week with a pair of games against the top team in the league. They were able to split the weekend set and remain in seventh place with 30 points. A playoff spot is still well within striking distance as they are just three points out of fourth place.
Before the Griffins got back to work, the Detroit Red Wings grabbed a trio of players on Friday morning. Goaltender Calvin Pickard, defenseman Brian Lashoff and forward Filip Zadina were all recalled to the NHL. In corresponding moves, the Griffins recalled goaltender Filip Larsson from the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL and signed defenseman Blake Hillman to a professional tryout contract (PTO).
Later that evening, the Griffins hosted the first-place Admirals and had their offense stymied in a 3-0 loss. The Griffins outshot Milwaukee 34-31 in their first home game in three weeks, but where held off the scoreboard by both of the Admirals’ netminders. This marked the second straight game versus the Admirals in which the Griffins failed to score.
“It was a sloppy game on our end,” said head coach Ben Simon. “We had a couple of days off and I didn’t like our start. We weren’t consistent enough through the end of the game.”
The Griffins got some revenge the following evening by beating the Admirals 3-2 in their building. The Admirals scored the lone goal of the opening period to take a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
All-Star captain Matthew Ford had a big second period with a pair of goals. His first tied the game midway through the frame when he finished off a 2-on-1 rush with Taro Hirose. He scored his second of the period and sixth of the season with just under four minutes to play. This time he found a loose puck in between the circle and fired home a shot from his knees. The lead did not last long as Milwaukee evened things up just over a minute later while on a power play.
Moments after killing off a late third-period power play, Turner Elson scored the game-winning goal with less than two minutes to play. Elson got to the front of the net where he got his stick on a Dennis Cholowski shot to direct it into the Admirals net.
Player of the Week
Ford is a veteran of nearly 700 AHL games so he is the perfect captain for the Griffins this season; a team with a lot of young players moving back and forth between the AHL and NHL. His two goals led the way to victory in Milwaukee on Saturday night. He is third on the team in scoring with 16 points.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Dec. 31 vs Wolves; Friday, Jan. 3 @ Rampage; Saturday, Jan. 4 @ Stars; Sunday, Jan. 5 @ Rampage
Stars Keep Playoffs in Sight
Although they are still at the bottom of the Central Division, the Stars (13-16-2-2) have had a very strong month of December to get back into the thick of things. They earned another three points over the weekend. They are tied with the Griffins with 30 points, but they lose out on the tiebreaker because they have two fewer regulation wins.
The Stars began their weekend in San Antonio for a home-and-home series with the rival Rampage. They didn’t let some early frustration get to them as the stormed back late for a 3-2 shootout victory.
Despite outshooting the Rampage 13-5 in the opening period, they trailed 2-0 at the first intermission. The Rampage scored less than two minutes into the game then added a second tally on the power-play.
From there, goaltender Jake Oettinger and the Stars’ offense took over there. Anthony Louis got the road team on the board by getting by the defense and scoring on the short side. The power-play tally was his third with the Stars and fourth on the season.
Joel Kiviranta tied the game, less than five minutes into the third period, by redirecting a Gavin Bayreuther shot into the Rampage net. Jason Robertson had a great chance to win the game in overtime, but he hit the crossbar. However, he was the only player to score in the shootout to give the Stars the extra point.
The series shifted back to Cedar Park on Saturday and for the second straight night, the game needed more than 60 regulation in order for the road team to earn the victory.
Joel L’Esperance opened the scoring, four minutes into the game, by scoring off a defenseman’s skate. After the Rampage tied the game about 10 minutes later, the Stars regained the lead late in the first period. Rookie Tye Felhaber took advantage of some space on the ice to score his first career AHL goal.
Kirivanta extended the lead to 3-1, early in the second period, by scoring his goal in as many games. However, the Rampage answered right back less than a minute later to pull back to within one. Later in the frame, Tanner Kero scored his first goal as a member of the Stars, but, once again, San Antonio answered back shortly thereafter.
The Rampage fired 20 shots at goaltender Landon Bow during the third period and they finally got one past him with less than two minutes to play to force overtime. San Antonio won the game with just 1.3 seconds left in overtime. Bow was fantastic in a losing effort, making 37 saves; the most he’s made in a single game this season.
Player of the Week
L’Esperance has been one of the biggest reasons why the Stars can even talk about the postseason after a miserable start to the season. He led the way with three points versus the Rampage over the weekend. He leads the team with 14 goals and 23 points after posting seven goals and 12 points during the month of December.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Dec. 31 @ Wild; Thursday, Jan. 2 vs Stars; Saturday, Jan. 4 vs Griffins
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.