The American Hockey League’s Central Division has two teams pulling away from the pack while the remaining six teams battle it out for two playoff spots. After another busy week, the top players in the division came together at the AHL All-Star Classic and nearly won it all.
Admirals Keep on Trucking
The Milwaukee Admirals (31-8-4-2) swept their three-game week and head into the All-Star break as the top team in the AHL. They have a 10-point lead in the Central Division and are the only team in the league that has fewer than 10 regulation losses.
On Tuesday morning, the Nashville Predators assigned Colton Sissons to the Admirals for a conditioning stint as he recovers from a lower-body injury. This is the first time Sissons has played in the AHL since he was the Admirals’ captain during the 2015-16 season.
Later that evening, the Admirals hosted the Belleville Senators in a battle between two division leaders. Milwaukee got the best of the North Division’s top team with a 2-1 win.
Early in the first period, Anthony Richard and Yakov Trenin starting off a tic-tac-toe scoring play that was finished off by Michael McCarron for the game’s opening goal. It was McCarron’s seventh goal of the season and second with the Admirals.
The Senators drew even early in the final frame when Rudolfs Balcers deflected a Drake Batherson shot past Connor Ingram.
Trenin, who was playing in just his second game back after a stint in Nashville, scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period. Rem Pitlick started the play by forcing a turnover then getting it across the slot to Trenin.
Ingram withstood some late Belleville pressure with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker. He finished the night 20 saves to give the Admirals their 16th win in 21 home games this season.
The Admirals spent the weekend with a home-and-home series against the Rockford IceHogs. Friday night’s home game saw a combined 11 goals, six of which came on the power play, and 68 penalty minutes with the Admirals coming out on top, 7-4. The win was their fifth straight on home ice as they became the first team in the league to win 30 games. The 2018-19 team didn’t win their 30th game until March 30th.
The Admirals scored three straight goals after the IceHogs struck first to build a 3-1 lead. Freddy Gaudreau tied the game before Mathieu Olivier gave them a lead which Mikka Salomaki added to shortly thereafter. Rockford added a late goal to pull within one goal heading into the first intermission.
Gaudreau and Eeli Tolvanen each scored power-play goals just 19 seconds apart to give the Admirals a 5-2 lead early in the second period. The IceHogs answered with two quick goals of their own to get back to within a goal midway through the frame.
Pitlick turned the momentum when he scored his 14th goal of the season with five minutes to play in the sandwich stanza. Daniel Carr used his deadly backhand shot to score the seventh and final goal of the evening.
“We’ll take the win,” said head coach Karl Taylor. “I was very happy with how we stayed with it. Our penalty kill has been great, but we got stung tonight. Those things happen, but we found a way to get the win.”
The two teams headed southwest for a rematch in Rockford the following night. The Admirals’ offense picked up right where it left off with a 5-2 win.
For the second straight night, the IceHogs opened the scoring, but their goal was quickly answered by Tolvanen less than two minutes later.
The Admirals went on to score five straight goals as Tolvanen’s tally was followed up by a pair of goals by McCarron in the second period. Tanner Jeannot and Carr both scored midway through the third period to take a 5-1 stranglehold on the game. The IceHogs added a second goal with 90 seconds left in regulation, but it was far too late to mount a comeback.
Taylor was behind the bench for the Central Division squad at the AHL All-Star Classic Monday night. The AHL does their 3-on-3 tournament a bit different as all four division play against each other in a round-robin format.
After wins against Atlantic and North Divisions and a shootout loss to the Pacific Division, the Central Division advance to the championship game. Unfortunately, they lost the rematch against the Atlantic.
Alexandre Carrier was a big factor in the team’s success. He finished tied for the team-lead with four assists and five points.
Ingram gave up seven goals on 21 shots in his first All-Star Classic appearance. He also was credited with an assist.
Player of the Week
The Admirals exploded for 14 goals last week by nine different players. Tommy Novak led the entire team with four points on the week, all of which came via the assist. The rookie forward now has 17 helpers on the season, which has time tied with Colin Blackwell for fifth on the team.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 @ Chicago Wolves; Saturday, Feb. 1 @ IceHogs
Wild Pull Away From the Pack
The Iowa Wild (26-14-3-3) earned five out of a possible six points last week and still lost ground to the first-place Admirals. While they trail Milwaukee by 10 points, they have opened up quite the lead on the rest of the division as they now have an 11-point cushion over third place.
The week started on the road with a 4-3 shootout loss at the red-hot Grand Rapids Griffins. Gerry Mayhew opened the scoring just four minutes into the game with his 28th goal of the season. The opening tally set the Wild’s franchise record for most goals in a single season and it took just 44 games to get there.
The Griffins tied the game late in the first period before taking a 2-1 lead with a shorthanded goal just 12 seconds into the middle frame.
The dynamic duo of Sam Anas and Mayhew both scored in the third period to give the Wild a 3-2 lead. Anas’ goal came on the power-play about six minutes into the frame, while Mayhew’s second goal of the evening came with less than four minutes to play.
Kaapo Kahkonen, who made 43 saves, had some back luck as a puck was banked off his back, from below the goal line, and into the net to tie the game with just 57 seconds left in regulation.
After a scoreless overtime, Dmitry Sokolov scored in the shootout, but the Griffins converted on two of their three chances for the win. Even with the loss, Iowa has at least one point in each of their last eight trips to Grand Rapids.
On Friday, Anas was added to the Central Division All-Star team, replacing Trenin of the Admirals after he was recalled to the National Hockey League.
More franchise history was made that evening when the Wild opened up a season-long nine-game homestand against the Manitoba Moose. Kahkonen made 33 saves in a 1-0 shutout of the Moose to pick up his 33rd career win; the most in Iowa team history.
Nico Sturm scored the only goal of the night about four minutes into the third period. Sturm deflected a shot from Mayhew into the air, then batted it off the crossbar and over the goal line for his 10th goal of the season.
The shutout was Kahkonen’s third of the season and ninth of his career in just 62 AHL games.
The two teams were back on the ice on Saturday night with a bit more offense. The Wild picked up their second straight one-goal victory with a 4-3 win.
Anas scored his second goal of the week to give the Wild a 1-0 lead less than nine minutes into the game. Mayhew struck again to double the lead midway through the second period with Sturm picking up the primary assist. Will Bitten’s power-play goal late in the frame gave the Wild a 3-0 advantage heading into the final period.
The Moose finally got on the scored with just over eight minutes to play. Kyle Rau scored an empty-net goal with two and a half minutes to play to push the lead to 4-1. Rau’s goal turned out to be the game-winner as the Moose scored a pair of goals just 36 seconds apart to make things very interesting. Mat Robson made 33 saves to earn the victory.
The trio of Anas, Mayhew and defenseman Brennan Menell represented the Wild at the All-Star Classic in Ontario. The trio combined for three goals and 10 points with Menell picking up four assists.
Player of the Week
Mayhew keeps on rolling along as he continues to put up MVP-type numbers. Not only did he become the first player in Wild franchise history to score 30 goals in a season, but he is also the first player in the league this season to hit that plateau. He has a six-goal advantage on Reid Boucher and Justin Bailey of the Utica Comets for the AHL lead. He is second in the league in scoring with 47 points.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 vs Griffins
Wolves Earn in Split in Texas
The Chicago Wolves (21-19-3-2) spent their last weekend before the All-Star break down south with a weekend series at the Texas Stars. They split to the pair of games to come back home in third place with just a one-point lead over the Stars and Griffins.
The Wolves fell behind 1-0 when the Stars finished off a quick passing play about seven minutes into the game. They had gone nearly six straight periods without a goal before Brandon Pirri scored on a breakaway with just 23 seconds left in the second period.
Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt scored the game-winning goal, just 2:30 into the final period, with a one-timer from the top of the left circle. Goaltender Oscar Dansk made 19 saves to improve his record to 11-0-2 since Dec. 1.
The Stars exacted revenge on Saturday night with a 5-3 victory in the rematch. The Wolves outshot the Stars 37-19 but fell short in the only statistic that matters.
Nicolas Roy gave the Wolves a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal seven minutes into the contest thanks to a nice backhand pass from Keegan Kolesar. The home team responded with a power-play strike of their own two minutes later to draw even. The goal ended a streak of 21 straight penalties killed off by the Wolves. Texas grabbed a 2-1 lead with the struck again just 24 seconds later.
Chicago used the same combination that scored the first goal to tie the game later in the opening period with Roy feeding Kolesar at the far post for the easy redirect.
The Stars scored a pair of goals late in the second period to open up a two-goal lead. Jake Leschyshyn’s third goal of the season cut the deficit to one, six minutes into the final frame. The Stars responded with another power-play goal a few moments later to finish off the scoring.
Rookie Lucas Elvenes headed west to represent the Wolves at the All-Star Classic. He scored a pair of goals and added two helpers to finish the evening with four points.
Player of the Week
Roy has had a heck of season because he hasn’t been in the same place very long. Since training camp, he has made the trip between Chicago and Las Vegas 18 times. He was back in the AHL last week and had a goal and three assists to lead the Wolves with four points. He is seventh on the team in scoring with 21 points despite only playing 26 games between stints in the NHL.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 vs Admirals; Saturday, Feb. 1 vs Moose
Stars Move into Playoff Position
The Stars (21-19-2-2) had a very productive week by winning two of their three games. They are tied with the Griffins at 46 points and are just one point out of third place. They own the tie-breaker for the final playoff as they currently have a greater points percentage than Grand Rapids.
They started their week by picking up a huge win at the IceHogs on Wednesday night. Landon Bow made 29 saves in a 1-0 win to pick up his first shutout of the season and third in his AHL career. He needed to stand tall with 11 saves in the third period while his team was nursing a one-goal lead.
Riley Tufte scored the only goal of the game five minutes into the second period. After Tye Felhaber forced a turnover, Tufte went five-hole with a backhand shot for his first-ever professional goal.
The Stars returned home to host the Wolves in the final two games before the All-Star break. The Wolves drew first blood in the weekend set with a 2-1 win on Friday night.
Felhaber factored in on the Stars’ lone goal of the night in the first period. He set up defenseman Gavin Bayreuther at the blue line where he blasted home a rocket for his third goal of the season, which has time tied for the most on the team among defensemen.
The Wolves drew even in the final minute of the second period, then scored the game-winner goal early in the third period. The Stars hit the post twice in the final frame and were unable to score the equalizer. Jake Oettinger was the hard-luck loser after giving up a pair of goals on 23 shots.
The Stars’ offense showed up for Saturday’s rematch as they pulled to within a point of the Wolves with a 5-3 win.
The first period had plenty of action as the two teams scored four combined goals. Two minutes after the Wolves opened the scoring, the Stars tied the game while on their first power play of the night. Chicago-area native Anthony Louis went upstairs to get his team on the board. Brad McClure forced a turnover and scored an unassisted goal 24 seconds later to give the Stars a lead. The Wolves came back to the tie game up before the first intermission.
Tanner Kero, who was playing in his 300th professional game, redirected a Joel Hanley shot to give Texas a 3-2 lead late in the second period. Louis struck again, just over a minute later, from the bottom of the right circle to increase the lead to two.
“I was just trying to play hard, play my game and it ended up working out for me,” Louis said about his two-goal effort. “I got a nice bounce on the second one. The first one was a nice seam play by Kersie (Kero) and just ripped it.”
The Wolves got to within one goal early in the third period before Jason Robertson’s 15th goal of the season gave the Stars some insurance and capped off the scoring.
Leading scorer Joel L’Esperance was a key contributor to the Central Division’s success at the All-Star Classic. He finished his evening with two goals and four points.
Player of the Week
The Stars earned both of their victories with Bow between the pipes. He followed up Wednesday’s shutout with 34 saves in Saturday’s win over the Wolves. He gave up just three goals on 66 shots for .954 save percentage (SV%) on the week.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan 31 @ San Antonio Rampage
Griffins Continue Upward Trend
The Griffins (20-20-2-4) won two out of their three games last week to get back to .500 for the first time since late November. They are tied with the Stars for fourth-place and are just one point behind Chicago for third. This is a pretty good run when you consider the Griffins were in last place just three weeks ago.
Before the Griffins took to the ice on Wednesday, the Detroit Red Wings recalled defenseman Dennis Cholowski, who recently picked up his first two AHL goals.
Later that evening, they defeated the visiting Wild 4-3 in a shootout thanks to some late-game heroics from Chris Terry. The win extended their season-high point streak to seven straight games and broke their four-game losing streak to Iowa.
After the Wild scored a power-play goal early in the opening period, Tyler Spezia scored late in the frame to even up the score. Dominic Turgeon gave the Griffins their first lead of the night with a shorthanded goal just 12 seconds into the second period.
The Wild tied the game with a 5-on-3 goal early in the third period and took a 3-2 lead with less than four minutes left in regulation.
Terry stepped in to keep the Griffins’ point streak alive by banking a shot from below the goal line off of the goaltender and into the net with just 57 seconds left in the third period. After a scoreless overtime, Terry and Matt Puempel came through in the shootout to earn the win.
The Griffins got some help for their weekend series against the San Diego Gulls when the Red Wings reassigned Cholowski, goaltender Calvin Pickard and forwards Givani Smith and Filip Zadina to the Griffins.
Eights were wild in Friday night’s 4-3 overtime win over the Gulls as the Griffins had eight former first-round picks in the lineup that pushed their points streak to eight straight games.
San Diego jumped out to a 2-0 lead, late in the opening frame, when Max Jones scored on the power play and Kiefer Sherwood lit the lamp while the teams skated at 4-on-4.
Chase Pearson got the comeback started with shorthanded goal two minutes into the second period. Zadina, who recently had his first two-game in the NHL, tied the game while on the power play a few minutes later. Cholowski set him up in the right circle where he rifled home a one-timer for his eighth AHL goal of the season.
Troy Terry, no relation to Chris, gave the Gulls a 3-2 lead about seven minutes into the third period. Zadina answered with another goal to tie the game up, about four minutes later.
All-Star Matthew Ford won the game just over a minute into overtime, while the Griffins were on a 5-on-3 power play, by cashing in off of a Zadina rebound.
“Obviously a break would be nice, but it’s good to play with the boys again,” Zadina said about spending the NHL All-Star break in the AHL. “I’m glad I can be here and help the team win. Being with them was a lot of fun. It was great”
The Gulls got their revenge with Saturday night’s 3-1 win. Despite owning a 39-19 shot advantage, the Griffins had their point streak snapped and finished their successful eight-game homestand with a 5-1-0-2 record. This was their first regulation loss since Jan. 5.
After a scoreless opening frame, the Gulls got on the board early in the second period. Matt Puempel scored the Griffins’ lone goal of the night, on their 27th shot, just before the second intermission.
Brent Gates Jr., who grew up going to Griffins games, beat his favorite childhood team with the eventual game-winning goal with six minutes to play. They iced the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute of play.
Ford was an honorary playing captain at the All-Star Classic and he made the Griffins proud. The southern California native led the squad with four goals and five points.
Player of the Week
While those eight former first-round draft picks get a lot of the attention, an undrafted free agent is putting together quite the rookie season. Taro Hirose picked up assists on five of the Griffins’ eight goals last week. He now has four goals and 18 points in 21 games, which leads all Grand Rapids’ rookies in scoring. His 14 assists are the fourth-most on the team. Not bad for a guy who has played in less than half of their games.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 @ Wild
Break Comes at Perfect Time for IceHogs
The IceHogs (20-23-1-1) are getting some of their key players back on their lineup, but it did not help them much in a three-loss week. They entered the week in fourth place, but now they have dropped to sixth place; four points out of a playoff and just two points ahead of last place.
Goaltender Matt Tomkins did everything he could to get his team into the win column on Wednesday night but was on the wrong end of the 1-0 loss to the Stars. The loss was their first all season when allowing just a single goal. They were also shutout by the Senators last Monday, marking the first time they have been held off the scoreboard in back-to-back games since March of 2017.
The following day, Tomkins, who has been playing on an AHL contract, was signed to a two-year, two-way contract by the Chicago Blackhawks. The former seventh-round draft pick leads the IceHogs with 2.45 goals-against average (GAA) and .916 SV% in nine games this season.
On Friday night, the IceHogs started a home-and-home series against the Admirals by making the short trip up to Milwaukee. The struggling offense finally broke out, but they were let down by a rare bad goaltending night in a 7-4 loss.
Dylan Sikura scored the IceHogs’ first power-play goal since Jan. 14 to open the scoring less than four minutes into the game. The Admirals responded with three straight goals to open up a 3-1 advantage. Just before the end of the first period, Nicolas Beaudin sprung MacKenzie Entwistle on a breakaway where is used his backhand to score the team’s second power-play goal of the night.
The momentum was squashed early in the second period when the Admirals used back-to-back penalties to score a pair of power-play goals within the first 1:07 for the frame. The tallies came just 19 seconds apart, but the IceHogs still found a way to make things interesting.
Defenseman Chad Krys scored from the blue line about four minutes after the Admirals’ two goals. Brandon Hagel got the IceHogs to within one goal a few moments by knocking home a rebound out of mid-air for his 14th goal of the season.
That would be as close as the IceHogs would get as the Admirals scored late in the second period before added a seventh and final goal early in the third. The sloppy game featured 68 total penalty minutes and three power-play goals by each team.
The two rivals headed to Rockford on Saturday night, but it was more of the same as the Admirals muscled their way to a 5-3 victory.
For the second straight game, the IceHogs opened the scoring, this time it was Entwistle who won a battle for a loose puck in front of the net and swiped it home. It was all Milwaukee after that as they scored the next five goals; one just prior to the first intermission before a pair of goals in each the second and third periods.
Tyler Sikura scored his 12th of the season in the final minutes of regulation, but it was far too little, too late for the IceHogs to get back into the game.
“It’s frustrating,” Entwistle admitted after the game. “They’re a good hockey team and the capitalize on their chances. We’ve got some work to do in the d-zone. We’ve to put this behind us, get a couple of days of rest here and come back strong.”
Goaltender Kevin Lankinen was the lone IceHogs representative at the All-Star Classic. He appeared in all for games, surrendering four goals on 20 shots.
Player of the Week
Dylan Sikura cannot be thrilled with how his season is going. He finally was recalled to the Blackhawks in early December and scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 5. However, he only dressed in nine games despite being on the roster for nearly six weeks. He was returned to the IceHogs on Jan. 19. He didn’t let the disappointment affect his production as he scored a goal and led the team with four points last.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 vs Moose; Saturday, Feb. 1 vs Admirals
Rampage Settle for .500 Week
The Rampage (15-18-6-5) spent their week playing outside of the Central Division. They earned three out of a possible six points and find themselves in seventh-place. San Antonio is still just five points back of a playoff spot and just one point ahead of the eighth place.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were back at the AT&T Center to complete their two-game set on Tuesday night. The Rampage earned a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to finish their season-long eight-game homestand with a 2-4-2 record.
Klim Kostin opened the scoring, nine minutes into the game, by redirecting a shot by defenseman Joey LaLeggia into the Penguins’ net. It was Kostin’s ninth goal of the season and his sixth in the last 10 games.
The Penguins drew even about 12 minutes into the second period and the game remained tied until they grabbed a 2-1 lead midway through the third period. Nathan Walker sent the game to overtime by deflecting Derrick Pouliot’s point shot past goaltender Casey DeSmith with just over a minute left in regulation.
Jordy Bellerive, who had two goals and game-winning shootout tally last Saturday, beat the Rampage again with a goal in the final minute of the extra time.
The team headed west for a weekend series at the Colorado Eagles, where they split the two games. The Eagles were too much to handle in Friday night’s 5-1 loss.
The Rampage entered the third period only down 1-0 before things got crazy over the final 20 minutes of play. The Eagles scored a pair of goals, just 31 seconds apart, early in the frame to go up by three. Zach Nastasiuk scored the Rampage’s lone goal by cleaning up the rebound off a Joey LaLeggia shot.
The Eagles answered with two more goals, including one with goaltender Adam Wilcox on the bench for an extra attacker.
Jordan Nolan’s three-point night on Saturday led the way in a 4-2 win over Colorado. The victory was the Rampage’s first-ever against the Eagles, who joined the AHL last season.
The Eagles took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play to take a 1-0 lead with just six seconds left in the first period. Austin Poganski got that goal back, just over a minute into the second period, by driving hard to the net and poking home a rebound for his second shorthanded tally of the season. Nolan Stevens had an assist on the play and has recorded a point on all four of the Rampage’s shorthanded goals this season.
Colorado came right back to regain the lead just 33 seconds later, while still on the same power play. Less than seven minutes later, Nathan Walker one-timed a pass from Mitch Reinke into the back of the net for his 18th goal of the season, setting a new career-high. Nolan picked up his first point of the night with the secondary assist.
He had the primary assist on the game-winning goal, midway through the third period, when he passed over to LaLeggia who finished off the rush with his fourth goal of the season. Nolan added an insurance goal with just over a minute to play when he fired home a wrist shot from the top of the right circle.
Pouliot took part in the All-Star Classic on Monday night. He picked up his only point with this unselfish play.
Player of the Week
Both Nolan and LaLeggia had three points last week, with five of them coming in their lone victory of the week, so they will split the honor. Nolan is up to 11 assists on the season, which is seven helpers shy of his career-high which he set last season. Meanwhile, LaLeggia has been struggling to find the scoresheet this season. He has just 15 points in 35 games after putting up 90 points over the previous two seasons.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 vs Stars
Moose Hunting for Goals
The Moose (20-26-0-0) find themselves in eighth place of the Central Division after being swept in Iowa over the weekend. Even though they are in last place, they are still six points out of a playoff spot and seven out of third place.
Manitoba put up 33 shots on goal on Friday night, but they were all turned away in a 1-0 loss to the Wild. Iowa scored on a power play, midway through the second period, for the only goal of the contest. Goaltender Mikhail Berdin made 28 saves and has allowed just one goal in each of his last two starts.
Saturday’s night rematch saw the offense get on track, but the Moose suffered another one-goal loss in a 4-3 defeat. The Wild built up a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes by adding two goals in the second period after scoring nine minutes into the game.
JC Lipon finally got the Moose on the board for the week about 12 minutes into the final frame. With goaltender Eric Comrie on the bench for an extra attacker, Lipon went upstairs for his ninth goal of the season.
The Wild scored an empty-net goal with 2:31 left to play and turned out to the game-winner. With 90 seconds left in the game, Kristian Vesalainen scored on the power play. Skyler McKenzie put back a rebound off a Cameron Schilling shot to cut the deficit down to 4-3 with less than a minute to play, but they were unable to get any closer.
“We showed some desperation there at the end,” Logan Shaw said of the team’s performance. “I think, from here on out, we are going to have to show that desperation game in and game out and not just for 10 or 15 minutes.”
Jansen Harkins was the lone Moose representative at the All-Star Classic. He did his part by contributing a goal and an assist.
Player of the Week
Vesalainen was the only player to have more than one point last week with his goal and assist on Saturday night. With his goal, he became the third member of the Moose to hit double digits in goals this season. His 24 points have him tied for third in team scoring along with Lipon and Andrei Chibisov.
The Week Ahead
Friday, Jan. 31 @ IceHogs; Saturday, Feb. 1 @ Wolves
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.