AHL Central News: Down to the Final Week

It feels like we were just previewing the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Central Division’s shortened season, and now we are entering the final week of games. The Chicago Wolves had a chance to put a stranglehold on the Central Division crown, but both the Grand Rapids Griffins and Cleveland Monsters gained ground. The Iowa Wild swept a weekend set from the Rockford IceHogs, while the Texas Stars split a set with their visitors from the desert. There is just one week left to decide who gets to take home the Sam Pollock Trophy for being the top team in the division.

Off-Ice Business

On Saturday, the Columbus Blue Jackets reassigned defenseman Gavin Bayreuther to the Monsters. He had a goal in nine NHL games this season.

Just prior to starting their weekend set with the Wolves, the Griffins lost the services of forward Givani Smith as he was recalled to the Detroit Red Wings’ taxi squad. He has seven goals and 12 points in his 21 AHL games in 2020-21.

Givani Smith Grand Rapids Griffins
Smith has been bouncing back and forth between Grand Rapids and Detroit. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The IceHogs sent forward Mikael Hakkarainen to the Indy Fuel of the ECHL on Friday. The Finnish forward has played in six AHL games and two ECHL contests while also spending time on the Chicago Blackhawks’ taxi squad.

Weekend Recap

Friday, May 7

Griffins 5, Wolves 4

The Wolves had a late rally spoiled to become the final team in the AHL to lose a game in which they scored first. They were 11-0-0-0 when scoring first before the Griffins grabbed the first game of a weekend set on Friday.

Anthony Richard scored that aforementioned opening goal as he was sprung on a breakaway by Tommy Novak. He beat goaltender Kevin Boyle for his 11th goal of the season and seventh versus the Griffins. Riley Barber started his big night by tying the game less than five minutes later by beating Beck Warm to the left post. However, he was in the penalty box as Phil Tomasino gave the Wolves a 2-1 lead just before the first intermission.

Kyle Criscuolo had the lone goal of the second period to even up the score. While on the power play, he deflected a Jared McIsaac shot past Warm. Early in the third period, defenseman Dylan McIlrath gave the Griffins 3-2 lead with a one-timer from the right circle. Criscuolo doubled the lead with just over nine minutes to play with his sixth goal versus the Wolves and ninth overall.

Penalties got the Griffins in trouble and allowed Chicago back into the game. While on a 5-on-3 advantage, Dominik Bokk scored on a backdoor play off a feed from Novak. Just seconds after the power play expired, David Cotton redirected a shot by Marc Del Gaizo to tie the game with his 10th goal of the season. It began to appear that the game was heading to overtime, but Barber had a different idea. He was given space at the right circle and sent a dagger past Warm with just 12.1 seconds left in the game. The game-winning goal gave him 17, the second-most in the AHL.

Riley Barber Grand Rapids Griffins
Barber has been huge for the Griffins this season. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“I think it’s huge, especially against a team like Chicago,” Barber said of the win. “We haven’t had the best record against them, but we’ve played some close games. It’s great to get a win, especially with these back-to-backs. We are right back at it tomorrow, and our schedule doesn’t give us much rest towards the end of the year, so we just have to keep going.”

Barber was very candid by later admitting to how tough it is finishing out this strange season.

“To be honest with you, it’s pretty hard,” he revealed. “With no playoffs, half salary, and the schedule we’ve got coming up, it is pretty hard to stay motivated. I think the guys are doing a great job. I think the coaches are doing a great job trying to keep us in it. Tomorrow we’ve got another chance to play hockey, the game we love.”

Wild 6, IceHogs 1

The Wild were not very good hosts on Friday night as they scored a season-high six goals on the visiting IceHogs. Iowa picked up their fifth win in the regular-season series, with the 10th and final meeting still to come to close out the weekend.

Defenseman Louie Belpedio had the only goal of a very physical opening period. Mason Shaw found Belpedio alone at the top of the right circle, where he blasted a slap shot past Matt Tomkins to open the scoring.

Louie Belpedio Iowa Wild
Belpedio had a big game on Friday. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The IceHogs drew even just two minutes into the second period when Mitch Fossier tapped home a great pass by Michal Teply behind Hunter Jones for his third goal of the season. The Wild responded with three goals before the end of the frame to take control of the contest.

Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit scored the eventual game-winning goal from just inside the blue line at the 12:30 mark. Less than four minutes later, Gerry Mayhew scored right off an offensive zone faceoff win to double the lead. Gabriel Dumont scored a power-play goal off a rebound to give the Wild a 4-1 advantage heading into the second intermission.

Belpedio added his second goal of the night and third of the season by scoring from the slot while on a third-period power play. Bitten beat Tomkins on a breakaway with just 22 seconds left to play to finish the scoring.

“I think we played well altogether,” Belpedio said of Iowa’s effort. “We didn’t have too many lapses. We had each other’s back. We were playing smart. We were playing our game, and good things happen when we do that.”

Saturday, May 8

Rochester Americans 4, Monsters 3 (SO)

The Monsters were able to gain a point in the standings on Saturday night, but they left a crucial point on the ice in their shootout loss on home ice.

The Americans got a power play just 1:30 into the game, and they needed all of eight seconds before Jean-Sebastien Dea took advantage of it and scored the only goal of the first period.

Cliff Pu, who was in the penalty box for the opening tally, tied the game just over six minutes into the second period. Nearly six minutes later, Josh Dunne gave Cleveland a 2-1 lead as Tyler Angle picked up his second primary assist of the period. The Americans had a quick answer as Patrick Polino tied the game with his second goal of the season just over two minutes later. The Monster found themselves back up by a goal at the end of the frame, thanks to a late goal by Jake Christiansen.

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Dea scored his second goal of the night to tie the score midway through the third period. After a scoreless overtime, he was the only player to score in the shootout as Angle, Pu, and Tyler Sikura were all denied on their attempts. Rochester goaltender Billy Christopoulos made 38 saves to earn his first career AHL win.

“We generated 41 shots, and I think that says a lot,” Cleveland head coach Mike Eaves said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys still trying to make one last good impression for management and the coaching staff. I didn’t think we took what they gave us; we tried to force things.”

Tucson Roadrunners 5, Stars 2

The Roadrunners finally got the Stars’ number after losing the first four meetings of their six-game regular-season series.

Anthony Louis hit double digits in goals when he opened the scoring on an early first-period power play. Thomas Harley had the original shot from the point that was redirected by Josh Melnick, then Louis before getting in behind goaltender Ivan Prosvetov.

Three minutes later, Michael Carcone answered with the first of five straight Roadrunners’ goals to tie the game. Defenseman Jalen Smereck scored his second goal in as many games to break the tie. Jeremy Gregoire’s one-timer padded the lead just before the end of the opening frame.

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Tucson added two more goals in the second period to build a 5-1 advantage. Carcone scored his second of the game from the right circle while on the power play. Starting goaltender Adam Scheel was pulled and relieved by Colton Point after Carcone’s team-leading 15th goal of the season. Just 31 seconds later, Ben McCartney scored his first professional goal in his AHL debut.

While on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, captain Cole Schneider redirected Riley Damiani’s shot to draw the Stars to within three goals, but that was as close as they would get.

“We knew coming in that they would be coming out with purpose,” Stars head coach Neil Graham said. “I thought our start was fine. We scored the first goal. Then, I believe, we showed some immaturity in our game as a group. You have to know they are going to push back, and we didn’t handle that situation well.”

Griffins 3, Wolves 1

Grand Rapids kept their hopes alive to win the Central Division by sweeping the weekend series against the Wolves with their first win at Chicago in five chances.

The Griffins caught a lucky break to open the scoring. McIlrath slashed the stick out of Jamieson Rees’ hands as he looked to make a clearing pass. Moments later, Hayden Verbeek found Patrick Curry at the front of the net, where he shoveled the puck past Antoine Bibeau for his fourth goal of the season. Bibeau was on his game as this was the only goal he surrendered during a 19-shot opening frame for the Griffins.

The Wolves evened the game about six minutes into the second period. After missing a couple of shots from in close, the puck found Novak out in front, and he quickly swatted it past Pat Nagle for his sixth goal of the campaign. Grand Rapids scored two goals on consecutive shots late in the frame to go up 3-1. Wolves’ defenseman David Warsofsky was stunned after being hit in the face with a clearing attempt, and that allowed Tyler Spezia to get in all alone and break the tie. Just over a minute later, Turner Elson rifled a shot just under the crossbar off a Dominic Turgeon faceoff win to double the advantage.

Tyler Spezia Grand Rapids Griffins
Spezia had the game-winning goal Saturday night. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The two quick goals were all the Griffins needed as neither team found the back of the net during the third period. They held the Wolves to just five shots on goal, and Nagle made 22 saves for his sixth win of the season.

“I thought we worked hard for most of the game,” said Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “Just couldn’t find a way to create a little bit more offense. A little bit of a rut right now. We’ve got to find our way out of it.”

Sunday, May 9

Wild 2, IceHogs 0

Iowa traveled to Rockford to close out their 10-game regular-season series. They rode a 35-save performance by Jones to win their sixth game against the IceHogs. This was the rookie goaltender’s second AHL shutout.

The Wild struck first late in the opening period while on their third power play of the day. After a shot block, Connor Dewar found Matt Boldy all alone at the right faceoff dot, where he pounded home a one-timer into a wide-open net. During the first period, Mayhew left the Wild bench and skated to the locker room. He did not return.

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Iowa doubled their lead just 40 seconds into the middle frame. Tomkins couldn’t locate a rebound after Bitten’s shot hit him in the mask, and Dumont was in the perfect spot to sweep home the rebound.

The IceHogs threw 13 shots at Jones during the final period of play, but he turned them all away to preserve his shutout. The Wild will play their final three games of the 2021-22 season at home against the Stars, while the IceHogs close out with a trio of games against the Wolves.

“They did a great job of blocking shots and keeping pucks to the outside,” IceHogs head coach Derek King said of Iowa’s defense. “We just couldn’t penetrate. When we did have shots, we didn’t have bodies in front. It was just one of those nights when the offense wasn’t there.”

Stars 3, Roadrunners 1

The Stars rebounded on Sunday to win two out of the three games played against the Roadrunners over the weekend and took five of the six games in their season series.

Texas opened the scoring late in the first period when defenseman Ben Gleason scored from the left point with just one second remaining on a power play. The Stars held on to their 1-0 lead heading into the third period after killing off a pair of penalties in the middle frame.

Point’s shutout bid was spoiled midway through the third period when Barrett Hayton tied the game with his fifth goal of the season. Shortly after giving up the lead, the Stars got an extended 5-on-3 power play and used it to score the game-winning goal. Damiani scored from the left circle to give Texas a 2-1 lead. He currently leads all AHL rookies in scoring with 33 points.

Riley Damiani Texas Stars
Damiani leads all AHL rookies in scoring. (Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

Adam Mashcerin finished off the scoring with an empty-net goal. He is currently tied with Barber for second in the league with 17 goals. They both trail Cooper Marody of Bakersfield Condors, who has 21.

The Stars finished out the home portion of their 2020-21 schedule with an 8-8-3-0 record at the H-E-B Center.  

“I felt good out there,” Point said after his first start since April 17. “I was seeing the puck well. The guys kept most of the shots to the outside, which is awesome and makes my job a lot easier. It felt good to finally get back into a game and just wanted to keep proving myself.”

The Weekend’s Top Performer

Bitten got off to a slow start this season but has been coming on of late for the Wild. He started his weekend with a goal and an assist in the third period of Friday’s win against Rockford. He followed that up by assisting on both Iowa goals on Sunday to finish the weekend with four points. He is currently on a four-point streak that has seen him score three goals and six points. He had just three assists in the first 15 games of the season, but since April 1, he has six goals and 15 points in the last 13 contests.

Central Division Standings

Wolves – 18-8-1-2, 39 pts (.672 pts %)

Monsters – 15-8-1-2, 33 pts (.635 pts %)

Griffins – 14-10-3-0, 32 pts (.571 pts %)

Wild – 15-12-4-0, 34 pts (.548 pts %)

Stars – 16-16-3-0, 33 pts (.500 pts %)

IceHogs – 11-17-1-0, 21 pts (.397 pts %)

Upcoming Mid-Week Schedule

Monday, May 10: IceHogs @ Wolves

Tuesday, May 11: Griffins @ Monsters

Wednesday, May 12: Wolves @ Griffins

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