Last season, it came down to the final weekend of play to decide who in the AHL Central Division would go on to the Calder Cup playoffs. Based on the first month of the 2018-19 season, this year should not be any different. The Central is stacked with competitive teams and there will be a couple of very talented squads who will be staying home when the postseason begins in April.
Predators Organization is Firing on All Cylinders
The Nashville Predators are off to a great start this year and are tied with the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL lead. Their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, is proving to be hard to beat in October too. They have earned 17 of a possible 20 points and have the most points in the league.
The Admirals enjoyed a very successful week on home ice by beating the San Antonio Rampage 3-0 on Tuesday, taking out the Cleveland Monsters 3-2 in overtime on Friday and earning a 4-1 victory over the Manitoba Moose on Saturday. They have won all four of their home games at the Panther Arena this season and are riding a four-game winning streak to the top of the division.
— Milwaukee Admirals (@mkeadmirals) October 27, 2018
Milwaukee is getting scoring from multiple sources as they already have six players with at least three goals. Defenseman Matt Donovan is off to a hot start offensively as he is tied for the team lead in goals with six and leads all players in scoring with 12 points.
“He’s got a hot stick and it’s great to see,” head coach Karl Taylor said of Donovan after Saturday’s win. “He’s adjusted. It took him a few games early on, but now he is definitely finding his stride. He’s driving our back end.
One of the key things in the summer when I got this position; if you look at the scoring from the blue line last year, it was a little bit light. One of our goals was to really address that as a group, to make sure our D-men were part of our offense. If he keeps going this way, he is going to have lots of people looking at him for the future.”
The first place Admirals will host the Moose again on Tuesday before the Rockford IceHogs come to town on Friday and they will close out their week at the Grand Rapids Griffins on Saturday night.
Youth Leading the Way in Chicago
The Chicago Wolves have won the last two Central Division titles; one as the St. Louis Blues affiliate and last year splitting their roster with players from both the Blues and Vegas Golden Knights organizations. After the AHL expanded in the summer by adding the Colorado Golden Eagles, the Wolves are now the Golden Knights’ affiliate. Because the Golden Knights are not your average expansion team and are trying to win now, the Wolves have a lot of talented young players who might be in Las Vegas if they were a typical second-year team.
The Wolves started their week with a 6-2 win over the Monsters in front of thousands of screaming grade schoolers during a special Wednesday matinee. The team headed out on a four-game road trip that began with a come-from-behind 4-3 victory at the Texas Stars on Friday. They had a late third-period comeback effort thwarted during a 3-2 loss at the San Antonio Rampage on Sunday evening.
Head coach Rocky Thompson has plenty of dynamic young players on his team this season. His top line of Daniel Carr, Gage Quinney and Brooks Macek have driven a potent offense early on. In fact, the loss on Sunday was the first time the Wolves failed to score at least three goals. The trio has combined for 18 goals and 32 points through the first nine games.
“They have a lot of chemistry and you could see that early on,” Thompson said of his top line after Wednesday’s win when Quinney and Macek combined for five goals. “We put that line together when (Tomas) Hyka left and Macek filled in on there and they immediately clicked. I just think they complement each other.
Everyone is capable of making a play but also shooting the puck, which is important. At the end of the day, really what it was for me, was in that first period they were the hardest working line on the ice for both teams. They just were. When you are the hardest working line and the guys play together like that, you’re going to get rewarded and they were rewarded today for their effort.”
The Wolves enter this week alone in second place, four points behind the Admirals. They will conclude their road trip with back-to-back games at the Moose Friday and Saturday night.
Big Weekend Gets Wild Back in the Thick of Things
The Iowa Wild started the season with three straight victories but lost back-to-back contests heading into their weekend series against Colorado. Their offense brought the heavy artillery in a 6-5 overtime win on Friday and a 6-1 beating of the Golden Eagles on Saturday. They are now in third place with 10 points on the season.
Jordan Greenway, who was recently sent down from Minnesota, picked up a hat trick in Saturday’s blowout victory. He is now in a seven-way tie for second on the team in goals with three, one behind rookie center Gerry Fitzgerald who leads the team. His performance over the weekend got him a quick recall to the NHL.
The Wild are undefeated at Wells Fargo Arena and their five-game winning streak on home ice is a franchise record. They are on pace to shatter the team record for most home wins in a season, which was set last year with 18. In the three previous seasons, the Wild only posted 11, 10 and 11 home wins so there is excitement in Des Moines these days.
October was a relatively easy month for Iowa with just two road games (both at Texas) and just one mid-week game. Things get a little more hectic in November. The team travels to Grand Rapids to take on the Griffins on Friday. From there, they have a home-and-home series with the IceHogs, Saturday in Rockford and then back home on Sunday.
IceHogs Gain Points but Lose Players
The Rockford IceHogs enjoyed three games at home last week and although they only won one game they have picked up at least one point in five of their last six games. They had an impressive 5-2 win over the Rampage on Wednesday when Victor Ejdsell scored his first two goals of the season. Over the weekend, they lost 2-1 to the Monsters on Saturday and fell to the Moose by the same score in a shootout on Sunday. All three of the IceHogs’ regulation losses have come against Cleveland, so they are thankful the Monsters are no longer in the Central Division.
“It’s never fun to come out on the losing end,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said following Sunday’s loss. “Based on the weekend and how we played, we probably deserve better than one point. I think, overall, we will continue to get better and the points will come.”
The IceHogs received some reinforcements this past week. Goaltender Anton Forsberg cleared waivers and was reassigned to Rockford after Corey Crawford returned to the Chicago Blackhawks lineup. Defenseman Gustav Forsling recovered from offseason wrist surgery and made his season debut against Cleveland.
While the additions were welcome, Colliton has to deal with a rash of injuries. Veteran winger Jordan Schroeder was “banged up” and missed both games over the weekend and the IceHogs lost two key players to injury during their shootout loss to the Moose. Defenseman Carl Dahlstrom left the game early in the first period with a groin injury and did not return. Matthew Highmore, who is tied with Dylan and Tyler Sikura for the lead in points, fell awkwardly on his right shoulder late in the second period and had to be helped back to the locker room. The IceHogs recalled called forward Brett Welychka from the ECHL on Monday, which is a sign that either Schroeder or Highmore will not be ready for action this week.
Rockford has 10 points and are tied with the Stars for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central. They will have a busy weekend with a stop at first place Milwaukee on Friday before that aforementioned home-and-home series against Iowa.
Stars Adjusting to Life in the Central
The defending Western Conference-champion Texas Stars were shifted to the Central Division due to expansion and they have had an inconsistent start to their season. After an opening night win, they lost three in a row and then followed that up with three straight wins. However, they could not carry any of that momentum into the weekend as they lost 4-3 to the Wolves and 6-1 to the San Jose Barracuda on home ice.
The Stars scored first in their loss to the Pacific Division-leading Barracuda before the wheels came off. Michael Mersch and Denis Gurianov stayed red hot as they combined for the lone goal. Mersch now has four goals over the last five games and Gurianov has a seven-game point streak which includes six goals and 10 points. Gurianov had scored a goal in the previous six games, which tied a franchise record. With the Dallas Stars struggling during the first month of the season, it might be a matter of time before the talented Russian winger is in the NHL.
The Stars will start November out west with a pair of games against two former Pacific Division foes; they play the Ontario Reign on Thursday and the Bakersfield Condors on Saturday.
Moose Struggling to Find Offense
The Winnipeg Jets boast a potent offensive attack, but the farm team has had a very hard time finding the back of the net to begin the season. After scoring just six goals in their first four games the Manitoba Moose busted out for 10 goals in a two-game set versus the Rampage, but could not carry the momentum into the weekend. They scored two combined goals in a 4-1 loss at Milwaukee on Saturday and a 2-1 shootout win over the IceHogs on Sunday. Rookie goaltender Mikhail Berdin made his AHL debut in Rockford and stopped 35 of the 36 shots and all three shootout attempts for the win.
“Yeah, the big thing is we got good goaltending,” Tye McGinn, who scored his first goal of the season on Sunday, told the Moose’s official website. “We came out to start, and that’s what we really needed. Especially on the road against a good team like that. I think we know we didn’t play our best game on Saturday night, and we needed a big response. It’s good to get those, sometimes, back-to-back games just so you can clear your head and I think that’s what we did.”
The Moose will be back in Milwaukee on Tuesday night for a rematch with the Admirals before heading back home to host the Wolves on Friday and Saturday.
Wins Have Been Hard to Come by in Grand Rapids
The Grand Rapids Griffins have had trouble scoring and preventing goals this season and their 3-5-0-0 record reflects that. They have allowed 30 goals in their eight games; only the Stars and Rampage have given up more goals in the division, but they have both played more games. Their offensive attack has been balanced as 12 different players have scored and seven of those have more than one goal.
The seventh-place Griffins had just two games last week, both at the Belleville Senators. They dropped the opening game 5-3 on Friday night but bounced back for a 3-1 win on Saturday. The win was their first on the road this season after losing their first four games away from the Van Andel Arena.
Jake Chelios, son of Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, is having a solid start. He had a three-game assist streak snapped during Saturday’s win but his four helpers are the second on the team. Jake and Chris are the first father-son duo to play for the Griffins in team history.
The 2018 sixth-overall pick, Filip Zadina is tied for third in scoring with four points. The talented winger has two goals and two assists through the first eight games of his professional career.
The Griffins have a very busy weekend as they host the Wild on Friday and the Admirals on Saturday before a trip to the Monsters on Sunday.
Last Place Rampage Finally Snap Losing Streak
The San Antonio Rampage’s first season as the Blues’ affiliate is not off to a good start. After a win on opening night, they had five straight defeats. The misery continued with a 3-0 loss at the Admirals on Tuesday and a 5-2 loss at the IceHogs the following night. The Rampage went over 111 minutes without a goal before Trevor Smith’s third-period goal on Wednesday.
The losing streak hit eight with a loss on home ice to San Jose on Friday. The Rampage finally picked up their second win of the season by beating the Wolves 3-2 on Sunday. Goaltender Jordan Binnington made 25 saves to pick up the 100th win of his career, 57 of those wins came as a member of the Wolves.
— San Antonio Rampage (@sarampage) October 28, 2018
The Rampage will have a bit of a different look this week as the Blues made a bevvy of roster moves on Monday. Forwards Robby Fabbri and Nikita Soshnikov and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson have been recalled to St. Louis as they have completed their conditioning assignments. Goaltender Ville Husso has also been recalled and the Rampage will welcome goaltender Evan Fitzpatrick from the Tulsa Oilers of the ECHL. Rookie forward Jordan Kyrou as been reassigned to San Antonio from the Blues to help make room. He had an assist in nine games with St. Louis.
The Rampage will spend their weekend in California with games at the Barracuda, Stockton Heat and Condors.
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.