As COVID continues to rise across the world of professional sports, the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Central Division has been relatively fortunate to this point. However, last week, their good luck ran out as teams were depleted while their NHL clubs looked for replacements, and the division had its first games postponed due to the resurgence of COVID cases.
The first-place Chicago Wolves had to play their week with a depleted roster as the Carolina Hurricanes dealt with several COVID cases. Carolina recalled AHL leading scorer Andrew Poturalski, Stefan Noesen, and Jack Drury on Thursday morning. The Wolves recalled Kyle Marino from the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and signed forward Cedric Lacroix to a Professional Tryout Contract (PTO) to make sure they had a full lineup. The next afternoon, Josh Leivo and C.J. Smith were recalled by the Hurricanes, meaning the top-five scorers for the Wolves were all up in the NHL.
Despite not playing any games, the Grand Rapids Griffins still made plenty of news. On Monday, defenseman Donovan Sebrango left the team to play for Canada at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championship.
On Tuesday, the Griffins made a pair of moves, recalling goaltender Kaden Fulcher from the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye and signing defenseman Gordi Myer to a PTO. Center Kyle Criscuolo and left wing Taro Hirose were recalled by the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. On Friday morning, the team learned that their games against the Toronto Marlies, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, were postponed due to league COVID protocols affecting the Marlies, as well as Toronto Public Heath workplace guidelines. No make-up dates have been announced yet.
The Red Wings needed more help on Saturday as they dealt with their COVID issues. Griffins head coach Ben Simon and assistant coach Todd Krygier served as coaches alongside Red Wings assistant Doug Houda during that evening’s game with the New Jersey Devils. Detroit also recalled right wing Riley Barber and goaltender Calvin Pickard.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Wild reassigned defenseman Kevin Czuczman to the Iowa Wild. They also recalled goaltender Trevin Kozlowski from the Iowa Heartlanders of the ECHL. Czuczman was right back on the move to the Twin Cities Friday morning.
The Manitoba Moose needed some reinforcements on Tuesday, so they recalled forwards Isaac Johnson and Bobby Lynch from the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers. On Thursday, the Winnipeg Jets recalled forward David Gustafsson before their game in Chicago. The Moose brought up forward Ty Pelton-Byce from Newfoundland in a corresponding move.
Following their loss at Iowa on Friday night, the Moose had all their games postponed through Dec. 22 due to AHL COVID protocol and travel concerns. Saturday night’s rematch with the Wild was rescheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19. Their two-game set at the Texas Stars scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 21, and Wednesday, Dec. 22 were also postponed, with make-up dates to be announced later.
The Nashville Predators’ recent surge of COVID cases significantly affected the Milwaukee Admirals’ weekend. On Thursday, the Predators recalled forwards Cody Glass, Rocco Grimaldi, Mathieu Olivier, and Cole Smith from Milwaukee. Additionally, head coach Karl Taylor and assistant Scott Ford served behind the bench for the Predators’ game against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday and the Chicago Blackhawks the following night.
The Rockford IceHogs made a few transactions before heading to the Lone Star State for the weekend. The Blackhawks recalled forwards Brett Connolly and Mackenzie Entwistle on Sunday and reassigned Mike Hardman back to the AHL. In addition, Reese Johnson was placed on injured reserve after breaking his right clavicle. On Tuesday, forward Lukas Reichel and goaltender Arvid Soderblom cleared concussion protocol while Dylan McLaughlin cleared COVID protocol.
Thursday was a busy day for the IceHogs. First, defenseman Michael Krutil left the team to play at the World Junior Championship for Czechia. Then, the IceHogs loaned forward Chad Yetman and goaltender Cale Morris to the Indy Fuel of the ECHL. Finally, defenseman Jakub Galvas was removed from concussion protocol. On Saturday, defenseman Ian Mitchell was recalled by the Blackhawks and joined the team in Dallas. He and center Josiah Slavin were both reassigned to Rockford on Sunday.
The Dallas Stars needed some help up front, so they recalled forwards Riley Damiani and Ty Dellandrea from Texas on Tuesday. Both players returned to the AHL on Thursday. After veteran goaltender Anton Khudobin cleared waivers and was loaned to Texas, the Stars reassigned fellow netminder Colton Point to the Steelheads in the ECHL. On Friday, Dallas recalled forward Riley Tufte and defenseman Thomas Harley.
The Week in Review
Tuesday, Dec. 14
The Admirals and Wild met for the third straight game on Tuesday night, with the series shifting to Milwaukee. Like the two games last weekend in Iowa, the Admirals came out on top for their fifth straight win.
Olivier put the Admirals up 1-0 early in the first period while killing off a four-minute power play. His shorthanded breakaway goal was his second on the season.
In his 600th career AHL game, Cole Schneider doubled the lead by scoring off a rebound a minute into the second period. Defenseman Joe Hicketts got Iowa on the scoreboard about three minutes later with a goal from the left circle. Schneider scored his second goal of the night by cashing in off another rebound. Just over two minutes later, Glass’ fourth goal of the season extended Milwaukee’s lead to 4-1.
Kozlowski replaced starter Hunter Jones in goal for the third period after allowing four goals on 20 shots. Joseph Cramarossa cut the Admirals lead down 4-2 just over seven minutes into the final frame. Three minutes later, Joseph LaBate beat Kozlowski on a breakaway to get that goal back for the Admirals. Anthony Ricard followed that up with Milwaukee’s second shorthanded goal of the night late in the period. Moments later, Cramarossa converted on the power play for his second of the night.
Goaltender Connor Ingram made 41 saves for the win. In addition to their two shorthanded goals, the Admirals killed off 10 of the 11 power plays they gave the Wild.
Thursday, Dec. 16
The Wolves welcomed in the Moose for a Thursday morning School-Day game featuring the top two teams in the Central Division. Despite a weird starting time and a depleted lineup, the Wolves came back to win their 10th straight game.
Jeff Malott found a loose puck and swept it past goaltender Alex Lyon to give Manitoba a 1-0 lead just 59 seconds into the game. Defenseman Arytom Serikov answered 12 minutes later with a long-distance goal from the right point, his second on the season.
Jonathan Kovacevic was credited with his fourth goal to break the tie early in the second period. His centering pass from the right corner hit the skate, then the stick of Wolves forward Stelios Mattheos, and went into the Chicago net. Todd Burgess doubled the Moose’s advantage by scoring off a rebound less than seven minutes later. Marino, just called up from the ECHL, had a spirited fight with Evan Polei late in the period, and that seemed to breathe some life into the Wolves. Maxim Letunov got Chicago to within a goal by scoring off a redirect with 8.3 seconds left in the middle frame.
David Cotton tied the game midway through the third period with a power-play goal. Smith hit the post from the right circle, but Cotton was right in front of the net to poke the rebound back into the net for his third goal of the season. Levio was the hero as he beat goaltender Mikhail Berdin and the clock to give the Wolves a dramatic win. He streaked up the left wing, danced around a defender, and deposited a backhand shot into the cage with just 1.1 seconds left on the clock.
“(Jamieson) Rees chipped it to the middle, I got a quick pull around the stick, and was fortunate to tuck it below the blocker,” Leivo said of his game-winning play. “I thought the team never gave up. We were down a bit, and then we battled back. We’re on a little bit of a roll here, so that feels good.”
Friday, Dec. 17
Iowa welcomed in Manitoba for what was supposed to be the first of two games. The Wild used some scoring from the back end to snap an eight-game losing streak and pick up their first victory in December.
C.J. Suess scored the Moose’s lone goal of the night just over three minutes into the game by using a power move to the net and beating Jones. Defenseman Calen Addison tied the game about 10 minutes later with a power-play goal. He used his speed to get through the neutral zone split the defense before beating Arvid Holm with a backhand shot.
Addison scored the eventual game-winning goal on another power play seven minutes into the second period. Adam Beckman hit him with a pass in the high slot, and the young defender buried a slap shot into the back of the net.
Nate Sucese put Iowa up 3-1 with a goal from the left circle with just under five minutes to play in the third period. Mason Shaw added an empty-net goal about two minutes later to cap off the scoring.
Friday night’s contest between these old rivals saw the Wolves enter with a 10-game winning streak, while the Admirals were victorious in each of their last five games. However, as covered above, this game had a major ECHL flavor to it, with all the key players from both teams recently called up to the NHL.
Both goaltenders, Ingram and Eetu Makiniemi, came up big on a night that offense would be sparse. The game headed into overtime still knotted in a scoreless tie thanks to 36 saves by Ingram and 24 by Makiniemi.
Dominik Bokk scored the only goal of the night at 2:50 of overtime. He took control of an errant Milwaukee shot and headed back in the other direction up the right side. He was stopped at the right circle, so he made a spin move to create space to his left then beat Ingram with a quick wrist shot for the victory.
Makiniemi picked up the second shutout of his rookie season. He has won six straight starts to improve to 11-2-1.
“Nothing really changes; it’s next man up,” a disappointed Schneider said about the strange situation both teams were in. “We could have played a little better. We went into the game with no excuses. It was a tough one tonight.”
The 4,340 fans who showed up for Friday’s game at the H-E-B Center didn’t get to see a Stars win, but they were treated to a memorable night. They saw the debut of a veteran goaltender and former playoff hero, a Teddy Bear Toss, and one of the rarest plays in all of hockey.
McLaughlin, fresh out of COVID protocol, put the IceHogs up 1-0 seven minutes into the game by scoring through the legs of Khudobin, who was making his Texas debut. On an odd-man rush, Alex Nylander doubled the lead just 30 seconds later. Stars defenseman Ben Gleason cut the lead in half just over a minute later. His goal from the right circle caused thousands of stuffed animals to rain down from the seats.
The IceHogs held onto their 2-1 advantage until the closing seconds when goaltender Collin Delia was credited with the first goalie goal in franchise history. With Khudobin on the bench for an extra attacker, Delia made a save, but the Stars missed a pass, and the puck traveled all the way down into their vacated net. The Rockford netminder was given credit for the goal since he was the last player in a red sweater to touch the puck.
“I knew I was the last one to touch it, but I didn’t know if anyone else saw it,” Delia said, smiling ear-to-ear. “I don’t even think it was technically a shot on net. I think it was going wide, and I just got a toe on it. I couldn’t believe that it went in. When I got credit for it, I thought it was hilarious!”
Saturday, Dec. 18
Marlies @ Griffins – PPD
Moose @ Wild – PPD
The Admirals got some reinforcements between games as Olivier, Grimaldi, Kole Sherwood, and their coaches returned from Nashville. Smith was also reassigned but was a late scratch. Even with the additions to the lineup, Milwaukee could not figure out Chicago.
The Wolves were given an extended 5-on-3 power play early in the opening period but could not convert. Late in the frame, a pass hit off Mitch McLain’s skate and went right to the stick of David Gust, who quickly scored his sixth goal of the season to give Chicago a 1-0 lead.
The Admirals scored their first goal of the weekend series about 12 minutes into the second period. While on a power play, defenseman Jeremy Davies’ shot from the right point got through heavy traffic and eluted Lyon’s glove to tie the game.
Chicago answered with a power-play goal of their own just over two minutes later. Artyom Serikov’s second-chance shot was redirected up and over Ingram by Jamieson Rees for his second goal of the season. Three minutes later, Spencer Smallman sprung David Cotton on a shorthanded breakaway where he used his backhand to give the Wolves a 3-1 advantage.
The Admirals made things interesting when Graham Knott redirected a Grimaldi shot for a power-play goal with 2:32 left. However, Smallman iced the game with an empty-net goal just 28 seconds later. The victory tied the 1999-2000 team for the longest winning streak in franchise history. The Wolves are a perfect 6-0-0-0 versus the Admirals this season.
“If you work the way we work, you give yourself a chance every night,” Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky said after another undefeated week. “We’ve seen that in our last three. Our effort has been outstanding from start to finish. We just keep playing. It’s a credit to the group in there. Whoever puts on a jersey is playing towards our identity.”
Texas got revenge on their visitors from the Land of Lincoln in their final game before their now extended holiday break. In what looked to be a laugher, the Stars had to sweat it out and thwart off a comeback attempt.
After a scoreless opening frame, captain Curtis McKenzie put the Stars up 1-0 early in the second period with his seventh goal of the season. He struck again to double the lead with just over a minute to play in the stanza by redirecting a pass from Joel L’Esperance.
Tye Felhaber’s first goal of the season put the Stars up 3-0 midway through the third period. With just under six minutes to play, Hardman scored his first AHL goal of the season to get the IceHogs on the board. Lukas Reichel cut the deficit to 3-2 with a power-play goal just over three minutes later. The rookie’s eighth goal tied him with Nylander for the team lead. This was as close as Rockford would get as Khudobin, and the Stars held on for the final 2:35 of regulation to earn the big victory.
“As a team, I thought we made the smart plays,” said Texas head coach Neil Graham. “Tonight, we stayed to our identity, and I thought our battle and compete was consistent for 60. The way we handled pucks and forechecked as a group. They made a big push at the end, but I was happy for our group that we held on and did it the right way.”
Sunday, Dec. 19
Marlies @ Griffins – PPD
McKenzie is in his second stint with the Stars, and the team captain has been heating up heading into the holidays. He has three goals and six points in his last six games and was held off the scoresheet just once during this stretch. He leads the team with eight goals and is one point behind Damiani for the overall scoring lead with 17.
The Admirals penalty-kill unit had themselves a huge week mainly because the team’s lack of disciple had them on the ice frequently. Milwaukee killed off 21 of 23 penalties in their three games for a 91.3% success rate. They are now at 80.8% on the season, 18th in the AHL, and fifth in the Central Division.
The Week’s Top Performer
Staying in Milwaukee, the Admirals only won one of their three games last week, but that wasn’t because of a lack of effort from their top netminder. Ingram is starting to re-establish himself as a top goaltending prospect after a tough 2020-21 season.
He stopped 108 of the 115 shots he faced in his three starts for a .939 save percentage (SV%). He is now 8-8-2-0 on the season with a 2.89 goals-against average and .914 SV%, which is ranked ninth among all AHL goalies with at least 10 starts.
Tuesday, Dec. 21
Admirals @ IceHogs
Wednesday, Dec. 22
Wolves @ Cleveland Monsters, Admirals @ Griffins
Thursday, Dec. 23
Wolves @ Monsters
Central Division Standings
Wolves 20-4-1-1 (42 pts, .808%)
Moose 15-9-1-0 (31 pts, .620%)
IceHogs 11-10-1-1 (24 pts, .522%)
Wild 10-10-2-0 (23 pts, .500%)
Griffins 9-10-2-1 (21 pts, .477%)
Admirals 10-13-2-0 (22 pts, .440%)
Stars 8-11-3-1 (18 pts, .435%)
(Standings determined by points percentage, top five teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs)
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.