Heading into the season, there was little doubt the Central Division would be very competitive and that it will likely come down to the final week of the year before we know which four teams will be heading to the Calder Cup playoffs. The first month and a half of the American Hockey League season have not made anyone stray from that line of thinking.
Admirals Hang on to 1st Place Despite Struggles
Two weeks ago, the Milwaukee Admirals had the most points in the AHL, but the last 14 days have been rough for them. They have just four points and one win in their last six games and their lead in the Central Division is down to just two points.
Their second straight rough week started with a “School Day” matinee versus the Chicago Wolves. While the game was entertaining for the thousands of youngsters in attendance, the Admirals could not slow down the Chicago offense in a 5-3 loss. Defenseman Matt Donovan, who signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Nashville Predators last week, continued his hot start with a goal and an assist.
The losing streak hit five-straight games when the Rockford IceHogs came to town on Friday night. Colin Blackwell’s third goal of the season tied the game late in the second period, less than a minute after Rockford took a 1-0 lead. However, that would be the only puck they would get past goaltender Anton Forsberg in a 2-1 loss.
After a day off, the Admirals got off to a slow start in Chicago on Sunday afternoon. They fell behind the Wolves 2-0 late in the first period, but Anthony Richard responded by scoring just 12 seconds after Chicago’s second goal. Eeli Tolvanen tied the game just over a minute later. The Admirals would score five more goals including one more from both Richard and Tolvanen as well as tallies by Tyler Gaudet, Blackwell and Zach Magwood. Richard now leads the team with eight goals on the year and Blackwell has scored in three straight games. Goaltender Troy Grosenick suffered an apparent leg injury late in the third period and was replaced by Tom McCollum.
The Admirals are the second-most penalized team in the division and it was a major issue for them this past week.
“We’ve got to move our legs more,” head coach Karl Taylor replied when asked about the number of penalties taken. “I don’t know if it is laziness or stick penalties or what the case is. We’ll watch the last few games and see if it is something we can control and change and make sure we are more disciplined as a group. We’ve got to address that quick and sharply.”
They will get their first crack at being a better-disciplined team when they travel to Iowa for a two-game series with the Wild on Wednesday and Friday. They will return home to host the Ontario Reign Saturday night.
Changes Don’t Derail IceHogs’ Charge into 2nd Place
No team had a stranger week than the Rockford IceHogs did. They woke up Tuesday morning to find out that their head coach Jeremy Colliton was moving on to Chicago to take over for the fired Joel Quenneville. Assistant coach Derek King was named interim head coach and will lead the team for the remainder of the season.
King made his debut on Wednesday morning versus the Iowa Wild, completing a stretch of three straight games between the two teams. The IceHogs did not make a good first impression under their new coach as they left thousands of school kids with very little to cheer for in a lackluster 3-0 loss.
“Too many guys were not ready to compete, not ready to battle for pucks,” King said after the loss. “Maybe I have to make a few changes. Maybe guys are little comfortable with me, but I’ll address that.”
He was able to make changes to the lineup as the team signed forwards Hunter Fejes and Justin Auger to professional tryout contracts (PTO) following the loss to Iowa. Both were in the lineup Friday night at Milwaukee and in fact, it was Auger who opened the scoring. Defenseman Joni Tuulola scored his first goal of the year late in the third period of a 2-1 victory over the first-place Admirals.
The IceHogs headed south on I-94 for their first meeting against the Wolves on Saturday night. They used the same formula to beat Chicago that they used in the postseason last spring; scoring on the power play and getting a great performance out of goaltender Colin Delia. Auger scored for the second straight game before Rockford built a 4-1 lead thanks to a Lucas Carlsson’s first goal of the year and power play tallies by Darren Raddysh and leading goal-scorer Dylan Sikura in a three-goal second period. Delia turned away 37 shots including 19 of the 20 he saw in the third period as the Wolves made a furious comeback effort.
— Rockford IceHogs (@goicehogs) November 11, 2018
The IceHogs are in the midst of a six-game road trip as they enter the week just two points out of the division lead. They will have an early start at Grand Rapids on Wednesday before spending the weekend in Texas with games against the Stars on Friday and San Antonio on Saturday. They will be without defenseman Gustav Forsling as he was recalled to the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday morning. They will also welcome left winger Nick Moutrey, who was signed to a PTO.
Wild Scrape Their Way Up the Standings
The Iowa Wild opened their week with a dominating 3-0 win at the IceHogs. They scored a goal in each period with Sam Anas scoring in the first, Matt Read in the second and Cal O’Reilly topping off the win with an empty net goal late in the third. O’Reilly, who leads the team with 12 assists, picked up his fourth multi-point game of the season. Goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen stopped all 28 shots he saw for his first career shutout and the first by a rookie in the AHL this year.
The Wild were back on the ice for their second straight “School Day” game the following morning on home ice against the Bakersfield Condors. The 12,400-plus fans in the building were treated to a back-and-forth contest that saw the visitors come out with a 5-4 win in overtime. Iowa trailed 4-2 heading into the third period but got two goals in 15 seconds from Mason Shaw and Gerry Mayhew to send the game to extra time. This set a franchise record for the fastest consecutive goals. Cooper Marody, who had a pair of assists in regulation, ended the game 1:30 into overtime by beating Andrew Hammond to the post with a wraparound shot.
The Condors stayed in town and completed the two-game sweep of the Wild with a 4-3 win on Saturday night. Iowa once again found themselves down 4-2 in the third period and Anas had the home crowd envisioning another late rally when he cut the lead to one with just over five minutes remaining in the game. However, they were unable to get the equalizer against the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate. Forward Dmitry Sokolov scored his first two goals of the season in the losing effort, the first multi-point game of his AHL career.
Iowa is tied in the standings with the Wolves with 17 points, but they are currently in third place thanks to a higher points percentage. Their 37 goals on home ice is the most in the AHL and they will enjoy some more home cooking this week. They will host Milwaukee both Wednesday and Friday night before finishing the weekend with a trip to Chicago and their first meeting with the Wolves on Saturday night. The contest in Chicago will be the start of a four-game road trip.
Wolves Stumble With Subpar Defensive Weekend
The Chicago Wolves entered the week as one of the top offensive teams in the AHL, led by a high-powered top line. Putting the puck into the net was not much a concern for the fourth-place Wolves, but preventing it from going into their own goal was a major problem.
Daniel Carr had a memorable afternoon on Wednesday during the Wolves 5-3 win in Milwaukee, their only victory of the week. Carr became the first player to score four goals in a game since Travis Boyd did it for the Hershey Bears on Feb. 16. Brooks Macek picked up an assist on all five Chicago goals, falling one helper shy of the franchise record for the most assists in one game.
“I score most of my goals within five feet of the net and going to the net,” Carr told the team’s official website. “The first three (Wednesday) were right around the net where the battles are. That’s where I score and I haven’t done as good a job as I need to, so I should probably try to do that more.”
The Wolves then returned home from a five-game road trip and were treated rudely by two of their biggest rivals. First, the IceHogs came into the Allstate Arena and were able to take two points in a 4-3 decision. After Macek scored his 13th goal of the season to tie the game in the final seconds of the opening period, Rockford built a 4-1 lead in the middle frame. Keegan Kolesar scored his first goal of the season before the second intermission. The Wolves put pressure on the IceHogs during the entire third period, where they registered 20 of their 40 shots on goal. Macek added his league-leading 14th goal of the season in the final minute of play, but they came up short in their comeback effort.
Head coach Rocky Thompson wanted a better start out of his team following Saturday’s loss and he got that in Sunday afternoon’s rematch with the Admirals. Carr scored his fifth goal of the week against Milwaukee mid-way through the first period and Tyler Wong doubled the lead just a couple of minutes later with his first tally on the season. However, things went south fast for the home team as the Admirals would tie the game before the end of the first period and score seven unanswered goals in a blowout.
“We got our butts kicked tonight and it was very humbling, for sure,” Thompson said following the 7-2 defeat.
The Wolves will get some time to get back to the drawing board. They are off until Saturday night when they host Iowa and then the Manitoba Moose on Sunday.
Stars Get Healthy Against Texas Rival
The move to the Central Division has not gotten off to the greatest start for the Texas Stars. The defending Western Conference champions have had a rough go of it for the first month-plus of the season, but they got healthy over the weekend against their intra-state rivals. The Stars outscored the San Antonio Rampage 12-3 in a home-and-home series on Saturday and Sunday.
Their successful weekend began on home ice with an eight-goal outburst. Erik Condra scored just 51 seconds into the game and it was a sign of things to come. Colton Hargrove, Joel L’Esperance and Gavin Bayreuther all scored before the horn sounded to end the opening frame. Justing Dowling added a goal in the second period before Condra scored two more times to complete the hat trick in the third period. Colin Markison added his first goal of the season to finish off the scoring barrage. Landon Bow stopped 30 of the 31 shots he saw in the 8-1 victory.
The following night, the series moved to San Antonio and the Stars had two new additions to the lineup. Winger Denis Gurianov returned from his brief stint in the NHL and defenseman Taylor Fedun made his debut with the team after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres. They both picked up assists on Hargrove’s first period goal to tie the game. Texas entered the third period trailing 2-1, but Travis Morin’s first goal of the season tied the game about eight minutes into the frame. Roope Hintz scored the eventual game-winning goal on the power play just over two minutes later. Gurianov added an empty net goal to seal the 4-2 victory. Low made another 19 saves for his second win in as many nights.
The successful weekend has the Stars just three points out of the fourth and final playoff spot as they try and chase down the top teams in the division. Talented young defenseman Ben Gleason was reassigned to the AHL on Tuesday so he will be available for both games this week. The Stars host the Moose on Wednesday and the IceHogs on Friday.
Inconsistent Offense Still Hindering Moose
The Manitoba Moose only had two games this past week and their inconsistent play was still an issue in splitting a pair of meetings with Grand Rapids on home ice. Logan Stanley’s first goal of the season opened the scoring on Thursday night, but the Griffins scored the final four goals of the night to win going away.
The all or nothing Moose offense showed up for the rematch on Saturday, a 6-2 win in front of over 4,200 fans. Manitoba got goals from Skyler McKenzie, Kristian Vesalainen and Jasen Harkins to open up a 3-0 lead before the first intermission. Alexis D’Aoust’s first goal with the Moose gave them a 4-0 lead in the second period. The Griffins got on the board early in the third period, but the goal was quickly answered by Mason Appleton’s team-high seventh goal of the year and then Vesalainen’s second of the night and AHL career. Goaltender Eric Comrie was named the game’s First Star with his 38 save effort and became the first netminder to make 4,000 saves in franchise history. 12 different skaters picked up a point in the win.
“A lot of plays started out of our own zone, so don’t discount the defensemen,” captain Peter Stoykewych said after the victory. “I thought everyone played well from the net out, [Comrie] obviously made some big saves to preserve that lead and we were able to capitalize on our chances.”
After a relatively light workload last week, the Moose will embark on a four-game road trip this week. They began a set of back-to-back games in Texas with an ugly 5-0 loss at the Rampage on Tuesday morning, who has given up the most goals in the division. They will travel to the Stars Wednesday night and from there they will move on to Grand Rapids on Saturday before wrapping up the busy week at the Wolves on Sunday afternoon.
They will have a boost to the roster for the busy week as the Winnipeg Jets signed forward Logan Shaw to a two-way contract on Sunday and he was assigned to the Moose after clearing waivers. Shaw has been playing with the San Diego Gulls this year and has two goals and five points in seven games. He is a veteran of 180 NHL games and has dropped the puck 156 times in the AHL.
“It’s a good opportunity for me, you know? I’m here to help (the Moose) win and make myself better, and hopefully I eventually get a chance to play up top,” Shaw said after his first practice with the team. “If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it’s an opportunity for me to try and make that next step again.”
Griffins, Zadina Looking to Take the Next Step
The Grand Rapids Griffins spent their week in Manitoba with a two-game set against the Moose. They took the series opener, 4-1, on Thursday night. Chris Terry lit the lamp twice in a three-goal third period to lead the Griffins to their third straight victory overall and the sixth straight win over the Moose. In addition to Terry’s pair of goals, rookie Filip Zadina set up Filip Hronek for nice one-timer in the second period while Matt Puempel added an insurance goal during the exciting final frame. They tallied a season-high 39 shots on goal in the win.
Both winning streaks came to an end on Saturday night when the Moose exacted revenge with a 6-2 blowout win. Terry scored his team-high eighth goal of the season in the third period to cut the Manitoba lead down to 4-1, but they quickly gave up two more goals. Turner Elson added a late goal to finish off the scoring. For the second straight night, the Griffins set a season-high in shots as they were able to get 40 pucks on goaltender Eric Comrie.
Zadina, the sixth overall pick of last June’s NHL Entry Draft, has a pair of two-goal games on the season but is still adjusting to life in North America. While many Red Wings fans want to see the youngster in Detroit, head coach Jeff Blashill wants for development before making the jump.
“For me personally, it would be when he’s dominating the level that he’s at,” Blashill said last week when asked about his talented prospect. “I don’t think there’s any reason to have a young guy come up if he’s not yet dominating the level. We’ve tried hard not to do that because generally, that doesn’t work out. Dominate the level you’re at, once you’re dominating the level, we like to use the words ‘look like you don’t belong.’ When those guys go watch him or if I’m able to go watch him if he looks like he doesn’t belong, he’s that much better than everybody else on the ice, that’s when he should come up. When’s that going to be? Who knows? That’s just the question you can’t answer.”
The Griffins are 3-1-0-1 on home ice and they will spend the whole week at the Van Andel Arena. They will host the IceHogs in their “School Day” game on Wednesday morning before the Reign come to town on Friday and another meeting with the Moose on Saturday.
Rampage Hope Misery Ends Soon
Fans of the San Antonio Rampage have to be frustrated with the change of affiliation from the Colorado Avalanche to the St. Louis Blues. The Avalanche’s new affiliate, the Colorado Golden Eagles, have many players from last year’s Rampage team on their roster and are off to a 6-4-2-0 start. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Rampage are off to a miserable start with just eight points in 16 games. They are the only team in the AHL who have yet to hit double digits in points.
Last weekend was spent getting beat up by the Stars in a home-and-home series. Jakub Jerabek had the lone goal in an 8-1 loss on Saturday night. Jordan Nolan picked up his 100th professional point with the primary assist on the play. Ville Husso started the game in net, but he spent the final 40 minutes watching from the bench after giving up four goals on 13 shots in the first period. Jordan Binnington gave up another four goals on 16 shots over the final two periods of play.
Husso returned to the crease for the rematch on Sunday night and looked much better. Nolan scored his first goal with the Rampage to open the scoring and Klim Kostin’s power play goal gave the Rampage a 2-1 which they held until the third period. Things fell apart in the final 20 minutes for the home team as they gave up three unanswered goals and lost 4-2.
And here we have Jordan Nolan, demonstrating the proper technique for scoring goals.
— San Antonio Rampage (@sarampage) November 13, 2018
The players took out their frustration on the Moose during Tuesday’s “School Day” matinee with a 5-0 win. Nolan extended his point streak to three games with a pair of goals. The Rampage also got goals from Samuel Blais, Ryan Olsen and Chris Butler. Binnington stopped all 16 shots he saw for his first shutout of the season. The game was quite chippy as the two teams combined for 70 penalty minutes, including four fighting majors and a game misconduct.
The Rampage will conclude their week by hosting the IceHogs on Saturday night.
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.