AHL Central News: Griffins & Rampage Riding High

The AHL Central Division provided us with another week of exciting hockey. The division is starting to bunch up as just six points separates the bottom five teams, while the top three teams are just three points apart. The temperature might be dropping outside, but the heat is turning up on the ice.

Wild Retake First Place With a Four Point Week

The Iowa Wild (13-4-3-2) used a successful week of four points in three games to reclaim first place in the AHL Central. Their 31 points have them tied for the second-most in the entire league, just four points behind AHL leading Charlotte Checkers.

The Wild hosted the red-hot Grand Rapids Griffins for their only home game of the week on Monday night. Gerry Mayhew opened the scoring with a late first period, shorthanded goal. His six goals have him just one behind Gerry Fitzgerald and Kyle Rau for the team lead. Despite being outshot 16-6 during the opening period, the Wild took a 1-0 into the first intermission.

The Griffins continued to dictate play during the second period and were finally rewarded with the tying goal about three minutes to the frame. They took a 2-1 with just 1.3 seconds remaining in the period. Iowa’s leading point producer, Cal O’Reilly, came to the rescue with a game-tying goal six minutes into the third period. Defenseman Brennan Menell took a penalty early in overtime and the Griffins grabbed the extra point on the ensuing power play.

Following the loss, the team made its first-ever trip to Loveland, CO for their first two meetings with the Colorado Eagles. In the first game Friday night, defenseman Carson Soucy’s second goal of the year gave the Wild a 1-0 about seven minutes into the contest as he beat goaltender Pavel Francouz with a wrist shot over his left shoulder. This marked the 15th time in the last 21 games where the Wild scored first. The Eagles scored a pair of goals just 24 seconds apart to take a 2-1 lead late in the second period.

The gut-punch ending of the middle frame did not carry over into the third period. Six and a half minutes in, Mike Liambas pounced on a loose puck in front of the Colorado net and slid it over to Colton Beck who slammed it home for his sixth goal. Liambas set a new career high for both assists (6) and points (9) on the play. The Wild headed to overtime for the fifth time in their last six games, but neither team was able to score during the 3-on-3 play. Fitzgerald was able to score in the shootout, but the Eagles scored twice to earn the win.

Everything that could go wrong for the Wild in Saturday night’s rematch in Colorado did. Not only did they fall behind 2-0 after the first period, but they also had to kill off seven power plays, including two extended 5-on-3s. Despite all of this they were able to fight back and eventually tied the game at 2-2.

The comeback started with a Luke Kunin breakaway goal midway through the second period. The Wild tied the game with just over five minutes left in regulation when Dmitry Sokolov went top shelf from the far right hash marks. For the second straight night, the two teams went to a shootout. Justin Kloos would redeem himself for hitting multiple posts in overtime by scoring the only goal in the shootout. The Wild are now riding a franchise record nine-game points streak.

Luke Kunin
Luke Kunin (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Player of the Week: The Wild had a balanced offensive attack during the week with six different players scoring one goal each. The biggest reason they are back in first place is because of the play of rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen. He stopped 92 of the 99 shots he saw this week for a .929 save percentage (save %). His efforts earned him CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for November he went 5-0-3 with a 1.21 goals-against average (GAA), a .960 save % and three shutouts.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 vs Chicago, Friday, Dec. 7 vs Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 8 vs Grand Rapids

Goaltending Keeping Admirals Near the Top

The Milwaukee Admirals (14-7-3-0) split their two games this week within the division. They find themselves tied in points with the Wild, but are in second place because they have the lower points percentage between the two rivals.

The Admirals welcomed the Texas Stars to town on Friday night and their guests were not very kind to the hosting team. The Stars snapped the Admirals four-game winning streak with a dominating 4-1 win. Texas scored the first four goals of the game; one in the first period, two in the second and a final tally about nine minutes into the third. Defenseman Matt Donovan scored his team-high ninth goal of the season to prevent the shutout late in the game. This was the Admirals first loss on home ice since Nov. 9.

Due to a slew of injuries in Nashville, forwards Anthony Richard and Eeli Tolvanen were recalled by the Predators for their game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. The Admirals did not miss a beat in their trip to take on the Blackhawks affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, on Saturday.

After a scoreless first period, the Admirals took control of the game with a couple of fortunate bounces late in the second period. Just over 15 minutes into the period, Connor Brickley redirected a Filip Pyrochta shot from the right point into the Rockford net for his fourth goal of the season. Defenseman Alex Carrier scored his first goal of the season nearly three minutes later. Carrier picked off a clearing attempt at the blue line and fired a shot on goal. He then crashed the net to get to his own rebound and put it back into the net. Justin Kirkland added an empty net goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game to cap off the scoring.

Player of the Week: Goaltending is a major reason why the Admirals are at the top of the Central. After Troy Grosenick stumbled on Friday versus Texas, Tom McCullom stepped it up on Saturday in Rockford. In his first game action since Nov. 16, McCullom stopped all 28 shots he saw and had to make multiple tough saves while the game was still scoreless. It was McCullom’s second shutout of the season and the 11th of his AHL career.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 @ Texas, Friday, Dec. 7 @ Texas, Saturday, Dec. 8 @ San Antonio

Red-Hot Griffins Climbing the Standings

The Grand Rapids Griffins (13-7-0-2) have really hit their stride over the past couple of weeks. They won all four games last week to jump up two spots into third place. They are riding a six-game winning streak and have points in each of their last eight games.

The Griffins began their week with their lone road game; a trip to Des Moines, IA to take on the first place Wild. The road team dominated the first period with a 16-6 edge in shots but found themselves down 1-0. While on a late first period power play, the Griffins gave up a partial breakaway that ended up in the back of their own net.

The Griffins had another dominating period during the middle frame and finally cashed in just over three minutes in when Givani Smith found Axel Holmstrom open at the side of the net for the game-tying goal. They took a 2-1 lead with just 1.3 seconds left in the period. After an offensive zone draw, captain Matt Ford got to a loose puck in front of the net and pushed through the legs of goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen.

The Wild tied the game early in the third period to force overtime. During the extra time, defenseman Filip Hronek won the game with a power play goal. Hronek received a cross-ice pass from Carter Camper and blasted a one-timer over Kahkonen’s blocker. It was the second straight game in which Hronek scored in overtime as he also beat the Chicago Wolves the previous Saturday night.

Filip Hronek
Filip Hronek, (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Van Andel Arena hosted a rematch between the Griffins and Wolves on Wednesday. The Wolves came out of the gates flying and grabbed a 1-0 lead just over nine minutes into the game. Matt Puempel answered less than three minutes later as he ripped a shot through traffic from the left circle after a Dominic Turgeon faceoff win. Ford scored his second goal of the week three minutes later to give the Griffins a 2-1 lead by beating goaltender Max Lagace over the right shoulder.

Midway through the second period, Turner Elson scored his second shorthanded goal of the season to double the lead. The Wolves were all over the Griffins during the first half of the third period. Goaltender Harri Sateri saw nine shots in the first 10 minutes of the final frame and only gave up one goal. The Griffins got a huge insurance goal from Elson with just over three minutes left and Puempel iced the game with a late empty netter. Sateri made 33 saves for the win in his best game of the season and second straight win over Chicago.

The homestand continued with a pair of games versus the AHL’s teams from the Lone Star State beginning with the San Antonio Rampage on Friday night. Special teams were the key to a 4-3 victory as they went 3-for-6 on the power play and killed off all seven penalties on the night. They opened the scoring with their only full-strength goal of the night as Hronek finished off a 2-on-1 rush by one-timing a feed from Elson into the San Antonio net. Just over four minutes later, Puempel scored on a 5-on-3 advantage to double the Griffins lead. Elson extended the lead to 3-0 with a power play goal early in the second period by getting to the front of the net and putting home a rebound off a Filip Zadina shot.

The Rampage got a pair of goals less than four minutes apart to cut the lead to 3-2 before the midway point of the game. However, the Griffins answered with another 5-on-3 goal with less than six minutes left in the second period. This time Wade Megan camped out in front of the net and redirected a Zadina shot past goaltender Villie Husso. San Antonio was able to slip another puck past Patrik Rybar before the second intermission to cut the lead down to a single goal. Both teams were held off the scoreboard during the third period despite the Rampage getting three more power plays.

The Griffins closed out their week by doubling up the Texas Stars, 6-3, on Saturday night. Colin Campbell opened the scoring with his first goal of the season, just over two minutes into the game, by forcing a turnover and quickly getting the puck in the net. Just under eight minutes later, Campbell doubled the lead and his goal total on the season. This time he took advantage of defenseman Ben Gleason’s mishandling of the puck in the slot and beat Landon Bow over the left shoulder.

The Stars would fight back to tie the game late in the period. However, the Griffins would retake the lead in the final minute as Carter Camper’s pass from behind the net was slammed home from the slot by Chris Terry. Texas tied the game again early in the third before the Griffins went on to score the final three goals of the night. Terry scored the eventual game winning goal from the top of the left circle five minutes after the Stars knotted up the game. He then returned the favor to double the lead half way through the third period as he set up Camper in the slot from behind the net. Dominik Shine capped off the scoring with a late empty net goal.

Player of the Week: The Griffins got at least one point from 18 different players last week, with 11 of them scoring multiple points. There were so many players worthy of being named in this section, but defenseman Filip Hronek’s play has been a major factor in the team’s recent success.  He had two goals and six points, including his second overtime goal of the year. He is driving the offense from the back end while contributing to both the power play and penalty kill.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 vs San Antonio, Friday, Dec. 7 @ Rockford, Saturday, Dec. 8 @ Iowa

IceHogs Hanging on as Offensive Woes Continue

The Rockford IceHogs (10-9-1-4) have been struggling to produce goals of late, but are still hanging on to fourth place in the division. They split their two games at home last week. They have lost seven of their last nine games. The only two games that they have won during this stretch are also the only two games in which they score more than two goals.

Even though the IceHogs scored four goals in their win at the Chicago Wolves a week ago Sunday, the momentum was lost before they hosted the Milwaukee Admirals on Friday. They had plenty of chances and even got 28 shots on goal, but they could not find a way to get the puck past Tom McCullom. The IceHogs gave up a pair of goals in less than three minutes, late in the second period, thanks to a redirect and a defensive breakdown after a turnover.

Being that it was the annual Teddy Bear Toss Night, the plan was for the fans to throw their stuffed animals on the ice after the first IceHogs goal. Since they were held off the scoreboard through 40 minutes, the toys were thrown onto the ice during the second intermission. 3,733 stuffed animals were collected to go to local hospitals and charities to help make the holiday season a little bit brighter. The Admirals were not in the spirit of giving as they added an empty net goal to cap off the 3-0 win.

“Overall, for the most part, we had our opportunities,” head coach Derek King said after the loss. “We had a lot of zone time. We had shots. We had breakaways. Back to the drawing board and see what we can do tomorrow.”

The IceHogs got back on the right track on Saturday night 3-2 overtime win over the San Antonio Rampage. After a scoreless first period, Jacob Nilsson’s third goal of the season gave the IceHogs a 1-0 lead about five minutes into the middle frame as he deflected a shot from defenseman Carl Dahlstrom into the San Antonio net. The Rampage took a 2-1 lead less than five minutes into the third period with a pair of goals. Graham Knott forced overtime with his second goal of the season, with less than seven minutes left in regulation, by firing a slap shot past Ville Husso. Dylan Sikura, who many Blackhawks fans want to see in Chicago, won the game in the final minute of overtime by tapping home a nice centering feed from Nilsson.

The IceHogs got some bad news on Tuesday as they learned that defenseman Dennis Gilbert has been suspended for three games thanks to this illegal check to the head:

However, King did indicate that injured goaltender Colin Delia is on pace to return to action this week. In 14 games, Delia is 5-4-4-0 with a 2.35 GAA and .932 save %.

Player of the Week: The IceHogs have been struggling to score goals for the entire month of November so the pressure has been on the goaltenders each and every night. With Delia missing in action, Kevin Lankinen was recalled from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel. He stepped in against the Rampage on Saturday, who have been on a bit of roll, and had his best AHL performance to give the IceHogs two huge points. After going unbeaten in his four-game stint in Indy, Lankinen made a season-high 36 saves in route to his first AHL win.

The Week Ahead: Friday, Dec. 7 vs Grand Rapids, Saturday ,Dec. 8 vs Chicago

Back to the Drawing Board for Wolves

For the first time this season, the Chicago Wolves (10-9-2-1) are on the outside looking in when it comes to a playoff spot. The Wolves have lost four straight games and are now in fifth place as they try to correct their current course.

The Wolves played their best game of the week at Grand Rapids on Wednesday night but fell short thanks to a great goaltending performance by Harri Sateri. The Wolves had eight of the first 10 shots of the game and opened the scoring just over nine minutes in. Brandon Pirri got to the slot and redirected Zach Whitecloud’s one-timer from the point past Sateri for his 10th goal of the year.

The Griffins would score twice before the end of the first period and added a shorthanded goal in the second period to open up a 3-1 lead. Once again, the Wolves dominated play during the first half of the third period. Defenseman Jake Bischoff scored his first goal of the year 11 minutes into the frame by getting to a Curtis McKenzie rebound and one-timing into the Griffins net. Unfortunately, that would be as close as the Wolves would get as Grand Rapids added two goals in the final three minutes to skate away with the 5-2 victory.

The Wolves returned home on Saturday night to host the Rampage in a back-and-forth contest. Keegan Kolesar opened the scoring, early in the first period, by putting a loose puck past former Chicago goaltender Jeremy Binnington. San Antonio tied the game up just over a minute later before opening up a 3-1 lead with two quick goals within the opening minutes of the second period. Tomas Hyka’s second goal of the season, eight minutes into the second period, got the Wolves back in the game at 3-2. Hyka beat Binnington with a backhand shot off a Gage Quinney offensive zone faceoff win. This would be the closest Chicago would get as San Antonio would score twice in the third period to complete the 5-3. Goaltender Oscar Dansk had a rough evening as he gave up five goals on just 15 shots.

Related: Reid Duke: The First Golden Knight Hits His Stride

The Texas Stars came calling on Sunday afternoon to complete the week. The visitors dominated the game from the opening draw until the final horn in a 7-4 blowout. The power play was the lone bright spot for the Wolves as they scored three of their four goals on the man-advantage. Dylan Coghlan, Pirri and Reid Duke all scored on the power play. Matthew Weis added his first professional goal late in the game to draw the Wolves within three.

“If you were to look at any bright spot, the power play did a good job for sure,” said head coach Rocky Thompson. “But the rest of the game…we’ve got to get back to the drawing board.”

In two bits of off-ice news, forward Alex Gallant was given a two-game suspension for his actions against the Stars. Late in the game, James Phelan got in the face of goaltender Max Lagace. Gallant proceeded to skate all the way from outside the blue line down to the side of the net and blindside Phelan with a punch to the head.

Also, Vegas Golden Knights assistant general manager announced that the team will be loaning defenseman Erik Brannstrom to Team Sweden for the upcoming World Junior Championship which is slated to begin on Dec. 26.

Player of the Week: When Daniel Carr was recalled by the Golden Knights on Nov. 19, he led the team with 22 points. Since then, Brandon Pirri has done a nice job filling the offensive void left by Carr. He scored two goals and added two assists during last week’s three games. He leads the team with 16 assists and 26 points and is second in goals with 10.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 @ Iowa, Friday ,Dec. 7 @ Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 8 @ Rockford

Stars Beginning to Shine Brighter

The Texas Stars (10-9-1-1) are starting to look more like the team that went to the Calder Cup Final last spring. They have won three of their last four games and their offense has been rolling. Since Nov. 1, they have been held to fewer than three goals just one time. The recent success has them up to sixth place and just three points out of a playoff spot.

The Stars began their successful week on the road with a dominating performance at the Milwaukee Admirals on Friday night. Erik Condra opened the scoring with his eighth goal of the year, while on the power play, late in the first period by receiving a pass from Justin Dowling and firing the puck into a wide-open net.

Adam Mascherin scored his first of two goals as he jumped on a rebound and snapped the puck past goaltender Troy Grosenick just shy of the eight-minute mark of the second period. Mascherin scored his sixth goal in the last five periods by firing a wrist shot from the left circle just inside the post late in the sandwich frame. Joel L’Esperance got to a rebound on a 3-on-2 rush to give the Stars a 4-0 lead in the third period. A late power play goal spoiled the shutout bid by goaltender Landon Bow, but he made 23 saves in the winning effort.

The weekend trip through the Midwest continued on Saturday night as the Stars traveled to Grand Rapids to take on one of the hottest teams in the league. The game did not get off to the greatest start as the Stars found themselves down 2-0 just past the midway point of the opening frame. L’Eperance got Texas on the board with less than nine minutes left in the first period by skating through a pair of defenders and putting the puck in the net.

Less than three minutes later, Ben Gleason blasted a shot from the blue line and Condra tipped it past goaltender Harri Sateri to tie the game. The Griffins would score again in the final minute of the period to take a 3-2 lead into the first intermission. The Stars drew even 1:39 into the second period as Mascherin struck again from the left circle. Unfortunately, the Griffins would score the final three goals of the game and win going away, 6-3.

The Stars rebounded nicely with a dominating 7-4 win at the Chicago Wolves on Sunday afternoon. Condra stole the show with a career performance by tying a franchise record with five points. He started the scoring early in the first period as the puck bounced off the end boards and found him at the side of the net for the easy tap-in goal.

Condra picked up his first of three assists on the day by sliding the puck across the ice to a wide-open Travis Morin another easy tally. Condra made another great pass to set up Dowling right in front of the net for a second period power play goal. Rookie Nicholas Caamano would add a pair of goals to double his season total to four. Morin capped off the scoring late in the game by collecting a rebound off a Condra shot and putting it into the Chicago net. The only down side to the win was that the penalty kill unit surrendered three power play goals to a Wolves team who had been struggling to score on the man advantage.

Erik Condra (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Player of the Week: The Stars had seven players pick up at least three points last week, but nobody has been hotter than Erik Condra. He had four goals and four assists in three games and earned himself CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors. He is riding an eight-game point streak and is third in the league in scoring with 26 points.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 vs Milwaukee, Friday, Dec. 7 vs Milwaukee

Moose Looking for Consistency out West

The seventh place Manitoba Moose (10-11-1-0) are in the midst of a two-week trip through southern California. Who wouldn’t want to get out of Winnipeg for the warmth of California in December? The Moose have been plagued by an all-or-nothing offense all season long, including the first three games of this trip. They scored fives goals in their first game but then just one goal in their second two games of the week.

The Moose played just their third ever game in San Diego and took down the Gulls 5-1. Logan Shaw, who started the season with the Gulls, scored a natural hat trick with three straight power play goals to open up a 3-0 lead. Seth Griffith picked up an assist on all three tallies and Marko Dano had the primary assist on the second two. Those were Dano’s first two AHL points since Oct. 20, 2016. Peter Stoykewych and Emilie Poirier added goals to give the Moose a 5-0 advantage. Luke Scheen spoiled Eric Comrie’s shutout bid with just 18 seconds left in the game. Comrie made 31 saves for the win, in his 149th appearance which set a franchise record for games played by a goaltender.

The two teams had a rematch on Friday night, but this time the home team got the best of it. The Moose were outshot 10-3 during the first period but were able to grab a 1-0 thanks to Jansen Harkins’ third goal of the year. The lead did not last long as Max Jones put home his own rebound less than a minute later. The second period saw no goals, but it did see 19 penalties dished out for a total of 72 minutes. Sam Carrick was given a match penalty late in the frame for a check to the head of Kristian Reichel. The Gulls won the game on a shorthanded goal by Joseph Blandisi with just over five minutes left in the third period.

The Moose moved on to Bakersfield to take on the Condors Saturday night. They peppered goaltender Shane Starrett with 25 shots but could not get one past him in a 4-0 loss. Meanwhile, the gave up 41 shots and were behind 2-0 after the first period. Logan Day scored a power play goal early in the third period to increase the lead to 3-0. The goal ended a streak of 30 straight penalties killed by the Moose. The Condors added an empty net goal of finish off the scoring.

“I thought our compete level was really good,” assistant coach Marty Johnston said. “Obviously we didn’t like going down 2-0 in the first period, but I thought we bounced back fairly well in the second and really stuck with it right ‘til the end. We had some really good chances in the third period.”

On Tuesday, the club signed two players from the ECHL to professional tryouts in defenseman Dajon Mingo and forward Austin Carroll.

Logan Shaw Ducks
Logan Shaw (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Player of the Week: Logan Shaw played the first seven games of the season with San Diego before coming to the Moose. He has been a huge addition with six goals and 10 points in nine games in Manitoba. He made the Gulls regret letting him go with a natural hat trick on Wednesday night which led to the Moose’s only win of the week.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 @ Bakersfield, Friday, Dec. 7 @ Stockton, Saturday, Dec. 8 @ Stockton

San Antonio Rampaging Back Into the Race

The San Antonio Rampage (9-14-1-0) have been one of the hottest teams in the AHL of late. They have won six of their last night games and are starting to get themselves back in the Central race. They are still in last place, but they are now just six points out of a playoff spot. Not bad for a team that had just eight points a couple of weeks ago.

The road warriors began their busy weekend with a stop in Grand Rapids to take on the red-hot Griffins. The game saw 13 combined power plays with the Griffins scoring on three of their six chances and the Rampage coming up short on all seven of their power plays. This was the difference in a 4-3 loss. The Griffins opened up a 3-0 lead before the Rampage got their offense on track five and half minutes into the second period.

Mackenzie MacEachern picked up his third goal of the season by beating Patrik Rybar to the near post from the bottom of the right circle. Just over three minutes later, Joey LaLeggia found Jordan Kyrou all by himself in front of the Grand Rapids net for an easy tap-in goal. The Griffins answered with their second 5-on-3 goal of the game, but Klim Kostin got in behind the defense and went five-hole on Rybar for his fourth goal on the year to cut the lead to 4-3 before the end of the second period. That would be the final goal of the game as the Rampage could not draw even in the third period despite getting three power play opportunities.

The Rampage moved on to Chicago to take on the Wolves on Saturday night. Three former Wolves, Jordan Kyrou, MacEachern and Jake Walman all scored against their old team in a 5-3 win. Kyrou redirected a Jakub Jerabek shot into the Wolves net to tie the game just over a minute after Chicago opened the scorer. McEachern gave the Rampage a 2-1 lead early in the second period by deflecting a Tyler Wotherspoon shot behind Oscar Dansk. Jordan Nolan made it 3-1 just over a minute later. The Wolves would cut the lead in half, but Jake Walman restored the two-goal advantage late in the middle frame. Chicago cut the lead to 4-2 with just over 8 minutes left in the third, but Nolan scored again on a 2-on-1 to give the Rampage an insurance tally.

After the game, the Rampage made the quick hour trip west to take on the Rockford IceHogs on Sunday afternoon. The Jordans were at it again during the third period. With the Rampage down a goal, Kyrou fired a one-timer past goaltender Kevin Lankinen to tie the game at the 1:20 mark. Nolan gave San Antonio a 2-1 lead three minutes later by scoring from the bottom of the right circle. The IceHogs sent the game into overtime. Shortly before Dylan Sikura scored the game-winning goal for Rockford, Nikita Soshnikov led a 2-on-0 rush but was denied by the pad of Lankinen.

Jordan Kyrou
Jordan Kyrou (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Player of the Week: Jordan Kyrou is enjoying the best stretch of his professional career. He had three goals and two assists in last week’s three games. He has four goals and nine points in his last seven games, but his AHL point streak will have to wait. Kyrou, Nolan and Chris Butler were all recalled by the St. Louis Blues on Monday. Kyrou began the season with the Blues and picked up an assist in nine games.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 5 @ Grand Rapids, Saturday, Dec. 8 vs Milwaukee