AHL Central News: Staal Returns, Moose Inch Closer to First

The American Hockey League’s (AHL) Central Division had another action-packed week. The gap between first and second place closed a bit as we hit the halfway mark of January. The race for the five Calder Cup Playoff spots and postseason seeding will be hotly contested. As we know, things can change in the blink of an eye in the AHL.

Off-Ice Business

The Chicago Wolves added more experience to their net on Thursday when Alex Lyon was returned by the Carolina Hurricanes. They also recalled goaltender Dylan Wells from the Norfolk Admirals of the ECHL and forward Kyle Marino from the Idaho Steelheads. The following day, defenseman Joey Keane was recalled by the Hurricanes. The Wolves also traded center Stephen Harper, to the Tucson Roadrunners for future considerations. On Saturday, they signed defenseman Billy Constantinou of the ECHL’s Iowa Heartlanders to a professional tryout contract (PTO).

The Grand Rapids Griffins prepared for their week against the top two teams in the Central by getting defenseman Luke Witkowski back from the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. At the end of the weekend, Witkowski headed back to the taxi squad, along with winger Taro Hirose and goaltender Calvin Pickard.

The Iowa Wild was supposed to host the Rockford IceHogs on Tuesday, but that game was postponed until Feb. 15 due to COVID protocol. They also announced that their postponed game from Dec. 27 versus the IceHogs will be made up on April 27. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Wild recalled defenseman Kevin Czuczman. The most significant move they made came on Thursday when they signed former Stanley Cup winner Eric Staal to a PTO.

Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
Staal is back within the Minnesota organization. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Wild also recalled forward Bryce Misley from the Heartlanders. On Saturday, defenseman Dakota Mermis returned from the Minnesota taxi squad. Goaltender Hunter Jones and forward Kyle Rau were sent up to the taxi squad Sunday morning. Additionally, they recalled goaltender Trevin Kozlowski from the ECHL and signed forward Kaid Oliver to a PTO.

On Monday, the Manitoba Moose announced the rescheduled dates for the previously postponed games at the Texas Stars on Dec. 21 and 22, which will be played on Feb. 7 and 9. They also recalled defenseman Hayden Shaw from the ECHL’s Trois-Rivières Lions and defensemen Trent Bourque and Tristan Pomerleau from the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers. On Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets recalled defenseman Declan Chisholm to the taxi squad. This led to the Moose signing forward Matt Alfaro along with defensemen Chris Martenet and Keoni Texeira to PTOs. On Sunday, the Jets assigned forwards Mikey Eyssimont, Austin Poganski, and goaltender Arvid Holm to the taxi squad and sent Chisholm back to the AHL.

The Nashville Predators recalled forward Cody Glass on Thursday and returned him to the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday. The next day, the Predators recalled defenseman Jeremy Davies to the taxi squad. Additionally, the Admirals sent goaltender Tomas Vomacka back to the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.

Rockford defenseman Jakub Galvas was recalled by the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday and became the 104th IceHogs alumni to play for the Blackhawks. The following day, leading scorer Lukas Reichel was recalled for his first crack at the NHL. In addition, Nicolas Beaudin was assigned to the taxi squad while forwards Kurtis Gabriel, Mike Hardman, and Josiah Slavin, and goaltenders Cale Morris and Arvid Söderblom were sent to the IceHogs. On Saturday, Slavin and defenseman Ian Mitchell were recalled by Chicago. Reichel and Mitchell were returned to Rockford on Sunday, while forward Mike Hardman and Morris were moved up to the taxi squad once again.

Lukas Reichel Rockford IceHogs
Reichel made his NHL debut this past week. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Texas Stars began their week on Tuesday by sending forward Yauheni Aksiantsiuk and defensemen Max Martin down the Steelheads in the ECHL. On Wednesday, the Dallas Stars recalled goaltender Anton Khudobin and forward Rhett Gardner. Dallas added forward Riley Damiani to the taxi squad the following day. Defenseman Thomas Harley joined him on the taxi squad Saturday morning.

The Week in Review

Tuesday, Jan. 11

Wild @ IceHogs – PPD

Wednesday, Jan. 12

Wolves 4, Griffins 0

In a rare mid-week home game, the Wolves continued their dominance over the Grand Rapids Griffins. In just his second AHL start, goaltender Daniel Mannella earned his first shutout to give Chicago the best record in the entire league.

Stefan Noesen provided the only goal the Wolves needed four minutes into the game. He drove to the net and cashed in off a rebound from an Eric Williams shot for his 14th goal of the season. Jack Drury doubled the lead by redirecting a Joey Keane shot past Pickard just over five minutes later.

After a scoreless middle frame, Andrew Poturalski gave the Wolves a 3-0 lead early in the third period off a blistering one-timer from the bottom of the left circle. His 16th goal of the season briefly tied him with Micheal Mersch of the Rochester Americans for the most in the AHL. Noesen scored an empty-net shorthanded goal late in the game to cap off the scoring. Poturalski had a goal and an assist to give him 16 points in six games versus the Griffins this season. Grand Rapids is now 1-9-1-1 against Chicago and the second-place Moose while going 12-2-3-0 against everybody else.

Stefan Noesen Chicago Wolves
Noesen has been red hot of late. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Mannella, 26, stopped all 23 shots he faced for his first AHL shutout. In his three appearances since signing a PTO on Jan. 8, he is 2-0-0 with a 1.21 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. He’s allowed three goals on 66 shots.

“These opportunities don’t come around every day, and I was going to come to Chicago and make the most of it,” Mannella said after the win. “I’ve just had a blast and learned every day I’m here. It’s a great group of guys, and their record shows that — shows how tight-knit they are. I’m just happy to be a part of it right now.”

Moose 2, Admirals 0

Manitoba kept pace with the first-place Wolves by picking up another hard-fought road victory, a 2-0 shutout in Milwaukee.

The Moose had 15 shots during the first period, but Admirals netminder Devin Cooley was up to the task of keeping the game scoreless through 20 minutes. Late in the second period, Luke Johnson swatted at a bouncing puck and scored for the second straight game to give the Moose a 1-0 lead. Austin Poganski, who had the primary assist on Johnson’s goal, scored an empty netter in the final minute of play to seal the deal.

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Mikhail Berdin, making his first start since Dec. 16, made 24 saves for his third shutout of the season. Cooley was the hard-luck loser after a 33-save effort.

“I think it was a great battle,” Berdin said shortly after the win. “We played good. The defense blocked lots of shots. We were just battling and working hard. We brought everything to the table, and I think we did a great job.”

Friday, Jan. 14

Griffins 3, Moose 2 (OT)

The Griffins needed extra time to do it, but they snapped their three-game losing streak against the Moose.

Manitoba scored first in their ninth straight contest. With less than four minutes left, Evan Polei scored the only goal of the first period, followed up his initial shot, and cashed in when goaltender Victor Brattstrom coughed up a rebound. Grand Rapids led 11-6 in shots through 20 minutes but found themselves down a goal.

Defenseman Ryan Murphy scored a power-play goal in the opening minute of the second period to draw the Griffins even. It was their first power-play goal in the last four games and just their third tally in their last 43 opportunities on the man advantage. Todd Burgess put the Moose back up a power-play goal later in the frame when he fired home a one-timer from the left circle off a pass from Johnson.

Kyle Criscuolo tied the game with just over four minutes left in regulation as he got a shot off from a tough angle that got through the legs of Cormier. Jonathan Berggren won the game for Grand Rapids with 47 seconds left in overtime. The rookie made a nice move around a defender then beat Cormier over the shoulder for his eighth goal on the campaign. This was the Griffins’ first win on the season when trailing after two periods. They have points in seven of their last eight games.

“I thought the first two periods we let some good chances come down our end,” said Manitoba captain Jimmy Oligny. “We played a good third, and once again, Corms (Cormier) was unbelievable for us. Our compete level is there, but we just have so many new guys in there that we’ll need to get used to playing with each other. It’s only going to get better from here.”

Wild 4, Wolves 3

The newly-signed Staal played his first AHL game since 2005 with the Lowell Lock Monsters and was a difference-maker in a 4-3 Iowa win over the division leaders.

Max Lajoie’s power-play goal with 8.4 seconds left in the first period gave the Wolves a 1-0 advantage. Mitchell Chaffee quickly tied the game for Iowa in the opening minute of the second period. Kyle Rau set up a Staal goal just 13 seconds later to promptly give the Wild a 2-1 lead. Dominic Turgeon padded the lead four minutes later when his wrist shot changed directions and got in behind Lyon. Less than a minute later, C.J. Smith scored on the power play by finishing a tic-tac-toe passing play with Neosen and Poturalski.

Shorthanded goals were the specialty for the third period of play. Early in the frame, Poturalski scored on a breakaway while killing a penalty to tie the game. With under six minutes to play, Staal sent Nick Swaney in on a shorthanded breakaway, and he beat Lyon for the game-winning goal. Zane McIntyre made 29 saves to earn his first win for Iowa.

IceHogs 5, Cleveland Monsters 2

Despite losing their leading scorer Reichel to the Blackhawks, the IceHogs offense stayed hot against the visiting Monsters to win their third straight game.

The IceHogs struck first with a power-play goal just over six minutes into the contest. Wyatt Kalynuk fired a shot from the point that got through heavy traffic for his fourth AHL goal of the season. The Monsters drew even about five minutes later. Carson Meyer stepped in to get the puck off a Josh Dunne faceoff win, then flung it past Soderblom for his sixth goal of the season. Before the end of the opening frame, Rockford’s special teams put them back on top. While killing off an Evan Barratt penalty, Hardman jumped on an errant pass in the neutral zone, then beat Jet Greaves for the unassisted shorthanded goal.

Wyatt Kalynuk Rockford IceHogs
Kalynuk led a red-hot IceHogs power play. (Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs)

A crazy sequence was set off about five minutes into the second period when Carson Gicewicz was sent off for boarding, and Billy Sweezey was hit with a roughing penalty. While skating at 4-on-4, the IceHogs got goals from Dylan McLaughlin and Michal Teply just 15 seconds apart to go up 4-1. Kevin Stenlund, who was on the receiving end of the Gicewicz hit, scored on a 5-on-3 power play moments later to bring Cleveland back to within two goals.

Defenseman Isaak Phillips’ empty-net tally was the only goal of a third period that saw the physicality amp up. Soderblom made 33 saves to earn First Star honors as the rookie netminder improved to 5-5-0-0 on the season.

“At the end of the day, we won,” IceHogs interim head coach Anders Sorensen said. “We didn’t play great. But it’s a strength as a group to win those games when you aren’t playing well. The first 5-6 minutes were good. We got up and then let down our guard. We were fortunate.”

Colorado Eagles 5, Admirals 4 (SO)

The Admirals started their two-game set in the Mile High State by jumping out to a big lead but had to settle for just one point after losing in a shootout. It was a great effort by Milwaukee, who dressed just 17 skaters and had to use defensemen Frederic Allard and Josh Healey as forwards.

Speaking of defensemen, Matt Donovan started an eventful first period just 70 seconds into the game by beating goaltender Justus Annunen through the five-hole.  Alex Beaucage tied the score just over four minutes later with a power-play goal off a rebound. Graham Knott went through the legs of Annunen to put the Admirals back up 40 seconds later. Late in the period, Egor Afanasyev put Milwaukee up 3-1 while on a four-minute power play.

Allard, playing out of position, gave his team a three-goal advantage 1:07 into the middle frame, but their fortunes changed quickly. Callahan Burke sparked the Eagles’ comeback with a breakaway goal midway through the second period. Kiefer Sherwood got Colorado to within a goal with a power-play tally late in the stanza.

Early in the third period, former IceHog Dylan Sikura scored off a rebound to draw Colorado even. After a scoreless overtime, the game headed to a shootout that saw the Admirals get the only three shots. Cole Schneider scored in the third round of the shootout, but David Farrace, Afanasyev, and Grant Mismash were denied. Devin Cooley stopped two of the four shots he saw, surrendering goals to Jordan Gross and Jayson Megna.

Saturday, Jan. 15

Charlotte Checkers 8, Stars 3

The Stars opened a six-game road trip in North Carolina, and it did not get off to the best start as the Checkers gave them a thrashing.

Things started nicely as Nicholas Caamano scored his fourth goal of the season just 40 seconds after the opening faceoff. The Checkers started their big first period with quick goals by Serron Noel and Kole Lind to go up 2-1. Joel L’Esperance scored on a power play to tie the game midway through the frame before Charlotte took over. Scott Wilson gave the home team a 3-2 lead about four minutes after the L’Esperance tally. Then Noel scored a pair of goals 33 seconds apart to complete a first-period hat trick. Starting goaltender Adam Scheel was pulled after the third Noel goal and replaced by Matt Jurusik, who made his Stars debut.

Serron Noel Panthers
Noel had a first-period hat trick on Friday. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Zac Dalpe and Chase Priske added second-period goals to put the Checkers up 7-2. Dalpe scored one final tally early in the third period. Josh Melnick scored a nifty goal through his legs before the end of regulation, but it was far too little, too late for Texas to mount a serious comeback.

Moose 2, Griffins 1 (SO)

For the second straight night, 60 minutes was not enough to decide a winner between these two teams. This time around, it was the Moose prevailing in the shootout.

Both goaltenders, Pickard and Holm, kept the game scoreless through 40 minutes. Hirose finally scored the game’s first goal at 4:55 of the third period. While on a 5-on-3 power-play, he scored his eighth goal of the season from the high slot. Defenseman Leon Gawanke tied the game less than five minutes later with a long-distance shot from just inside the blue line.

Taro Hirose Grand Rapids Griffins
Hirose had the lone goal for the Griffins Saturday night. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Moose started overtime on a power play but could not get one over the goal line. Criscuolo opened the shootout with a goal, but Berggren and Hirose were denied. Burgess and Johnson scored for Manitoba to give them the extra point.

“It was a gritty game and could have gone either way,’ Pickard said after the tough defeat. “It was tough to let those both in on the shootout. It’s frustrating not to make the stops for the guys who battled. We’ll take the point and get ready for the next one.”

Wild 3, Wolves 2 (OT)

The Wild used the momentum from Friday night’s win to take down the Wolves in overtime in Saturday’s rematch.

The two teams put up 18 combined shots in the opening period but headed to the locker rooms in a scoreless tie thanks to the play of Lyon and Jones. Rau got the Wild on the board midway through the second period when he redirected a Swaney pass into the net. It was his 72nd goal as a member of the Wild, tying him with Sam Anas for the second-most goals scored in franchise history.

The Wolves finally got on the scoreboard with 5:28 left in regulation when Noesen scored off a rebound. Just over a minute later, David Gust beat Jones to give Chicago a late 2-1 lead. However, the advantage did not last long as Marco Rossi drew Iowa even 31 seconds later after Lyon coughed up a rebound.

Staal struck for his second goal of the weekend to win the game just over a minute into overtime. He entered the zone on a 2-on-1 rush with Adam Beckman, looked off the pass, and scored off a snap shot.

“I’ve kept in shape and skated quite a bit over the last while,” the veteran of 1,293 NHL games said. “I was confident in what I could do. This is a tough league. There are some great players here. There are guys here who will get their time in the NHL soon enough. I wasn’t naïve to think it was going to be easy. I know it’s competitive, and that’s what makes it fun.”

Monsters 5, IceHogs 4

The IceHogs nearly pulled off a magical third-period comeback in their rematch with Cleveland, but they fell a goal short in the end. The loss snapped their winning streak at three games.

Brendan Gaunce opened the scoring six minutes into the game by streaking up the left side and beating Collin Delia to the glove hand for his team-leading 10th goal. Dmitry Osipov tied the game from the left dot less than four minutes later. This was his first goal since switching from defense to forward during the offseason. Cleveland regained their lead late in the period. Nicolas Beaudin’s errant pass at his own blue line led to a rush going the other direction. Gaunce fed the puck to Cole Fonstad, who used his backhand to score his fourth goal of the season.

The IceHogs started the middle frame on the power play, but Meyer scored shorthanded just 11 seconds into the period. Rockford received a second power play, and they converted five minutes later. D.J. Busdecker made a behind-the-back pass while falling to Hardman across the ice at the right dot, where he buried a one-timer past Greaves. Meyer struck again just over three minutes later. This time, Tyler Sikura made a nifty backhand pass to him in the slot where he beat Delia for his third goal of the weekend series.

Beaudin got some redemption less than five minutes into the third period with a power-play goal from the point. Late in regulation, Rockford got a 5-on-3 power play for a full two minutes. They pulled Delia to give them the rare three-man advantage, and McLaughlin cashed in with a one-timer from the right dot to get his team to within a goal. Defenseman Alec Regula had the secondary assist for his fourth helper of the night. The IceHogs kept their goaltender on the bench and had some good looks in the final minute but could not find the equalizer.

“The coaches tell us to jump in the rush if we can get up there and be the fourth wave of attack,” Regula said after his huge four-point effort. “As I’ve been playing more games in the league, I’ve been getting more comfortable. Since I’ve been with Rockford, we have been playing our best hockey since Christmas. I feel a lot better out there, for sure.”

Eagles 4, Admirals 3 (SO)

The Admirals fell to the Eagles in a shootout for the second straight night. However, this time around, they were the team the staged a comeback in regulation.

Sampo Ranta gave Colorado a 1-0 lead 11 minutes into the game by beating Cooley with a wraparound shot. On a late first-period power play, Rocco Grimaldi’s 12th goal of the season from the right circle made the score 1-1 heading into the break.

The Eagles jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the second period with goals from Shane Bowers and Megna. Gross assisted on all three Eagles goals for his second straight three-assist night. With time winding down in the middle frame, Mishmash took advantage of a sloppy line change to score his fourth goal and bring the Admirals to within one.

Thanks to a five-minute boarding major on Dalton Smith, Milwaukee received a lengthy power play in the third period. Just past the halfway point of the final stanza, Schneider scored from the bottom of the left circle to force overtime.

After an exciting and scoreless overtime, the two teams headed to another shootout. Like Friday night, Gross and Megna beat Cooley to give the Eagles the extra point.

Sunday, Jan. 16

Stars 6, Checkers 5

A few short hours after Saturday’s loss, the Stars got revenge by beating the Checkers in a Sunday matinee.

For the second straight game, Texas scored in the opening minute. This time, Will Merchant scored his first career AHL goal 32 seconds into the contest. Captain Curtis McKenzie scored a power-play goal off a rebound to double the lead eight minutes later. Charlotte fought back to tie the game before the first intermission with a power-play goal by Connor Carrick, followed by Lind’s second strike of the weekend.

Defenseman Cale Fleury gave the Checkers a 3-2 lead with a second-period power-play goal through heavy traffic. Jeremy Gregoire responded for the Stars with a pair of goals just 14 seconds apart to give them a 4-3 lead after 40 minutes.

The Checkers had yet another answer as Aleksi Heponiemi tied the game seven minutes into the third period off a redirect. Just over a minute later, L’Esperance’s eighth goal of the season off a rebound put the Stars back on top. Ty Dellandrea quickly doubled the lead with a power-play goal off another rebound given up by former NHL All-Star Devan Dubnyk. Lind scored another goal with just over a second left on the clock to finish the scoring. Jurusik made 27 saves to earn his second career AHL win and first for the Stars.

Who’s Hot

The IceHogs have been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the Central this season, but their offense has been red hot of late. They have scored 23 goals over their last four games. A big reason for this has been a resurgent power-play that has at least one goal in each of those four games.

“We’ve been working on it,” Sorensen said of the power play. “Some of it is the personnel. Some guys are finding a little bit of a groove. Things have been going good as a unit.”

Mike Hardman Rockford IceHogs
Hardman had a power-play goal over the weekend. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Moose will need all the help they can get if they want to catch the Wolves. Getting a healthy Johnson back in the lineup will go a long way in this effort. He had been out of action since Oct. 24 due to injury. He has a point in each of his five games since returning on Jan. 7 with two goals and three assists.

Player of the Week

Noesen had a huge week as the first-place Wolves took three out of a possible six points. He started his week with a pair of goals against the Griffins, then had a goal and two assists during the weekend series at Iowa. He is on a five-game point streak. In his last 16 games since Nov. 20, he has 13 goals and 24 points. His 16 goals have him tied for third in the league, two behind Mersch.

Related – Noesen Leading Wolves to AHL’s Best Record

“Our team is rolling,” Noesen said the previous week. “Our line is probably one of the best in the league. We had almost 100 points as a line, which was pretty good heading into the Christmas break. We’ve started up again right where we’ve left off.”

Upcoming Schedule

Monday, Jan. 17
Wolves @ IceHogs
Admirals @ Wild

Wednesday, Jan. 19
Moose @ Wild
Stars @ Admirals

Friday, Jan. 21
Stars @ IceHogs
Wild @ Eagles

Saturday, Jan. 22
Wolves @ Moose
Admirals @ Griffins
Stars @ IceHogs
Wild @ Eagles

Sunday, Jan. 23
Wolves @ Moose

Central Division Standings

Wolves 23-6-1-1 (49 pts, .766%)
Moose 20-9-2-0 (43 pts, .672%)
Griffins 14-11-4-2 (34 pts, .548%)
IceHogs 14-12-1-1 (30 pts, .536%)
Wild 14-13-2-2 (32 pts, .516%)
Admirals 13-18-2-2 (30 pts, .429%)
Stars 9-14-3-1 (22 pts, .407%)
(Standings determined by points percentage, top five teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs)


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