Five of the six teams in the American Hockey League’s Central Division finally opened their season over the weekend. The most unique season in the 85-year history of the league got underway with games in Chicago, Iowa and Rockford. This will be a sprint of a season, so getting off to a quick start will be a key for success.
A Lap Around the Central
Before the puck dropped on the weekend’s action, teams around the Central had some last-minute business to attend to. All six teams were supposed to be in action this weekend until the division saw its first postponement due to COVID-19 protocol. The Rockford IceHogs were scheduled to host the Cleveland Monsters on Friday and Saturday, but the games were put on hold. The Chicago Wolves added an extra game and agreed to make the short trip to Rockford on Saturday afternoon. The two rivals then added two games against each other on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16.
The IceHogs also named Garrett Mitchell captain for the season. He is the 13th captain in team history and he also wore the “C” on his sweater for three seasons with the Hershey Bears.
The Grand Rapids Griffins named defenseman Brian Lashoff captain as he enters his 12th season with the team. Also, the Texas Stars made Cole Schneider their captain and the Iowa Wild will have four alternate captains this season.
Friday, Feb. 5
Texas Stars 8, Iowa Wild 4
A crowd of over 3,000 showed up at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, IA, to watch the Wild and Stars play their first game in 311 days. The fans were treated to an exciting game featuring 12 combined goals.
Texas sandwiched a Nick Baptiste goal in between Iowa tallies by Dmitry Sokolov and Joseph Cramarossa. The two sides swapped goals by Riley Damiani and Connor Dewar as the Wild took a 3-2 lead into the final frame.
The Stars scored four goals in a span of 3:26 to open up a 6-3 lead with just over nine minutes to play. Adam Mashcerin and Damiani scored before Nick Moutrey struck twice in his Texas debut. Adam Beckman, playing in his first professional game, got the Wild within two goals before Anthony Louis scored on the power play and Nikita Scherbak iced the contest with an empty-net goal. The Stars are now 10-2-0-0 all-time in opening night games.
Both teams had six power-play chances; Texas scored three times while the home team converted twice. The Stars outshot Iowa 45-27, with 21 of those shots coming in the third period. Iowa rookie goaltender Hunter Jones was treated poorly in his AHL debut.
Wolves 3, Griffins 1
The Wolves opened their 27th season in their temporary home, Triphahn Center, by hosting the Griffins. Kyle Criscuolo put Grand Rapids up 1-0 early in the first period, playing in his first game with the team since the 2017 Calder Cup Finals. Tommy Novak, one of 13 players who played for the Milwaukee Admirals last season, tied the game late in the opening frame.
Seth Jarvis, the 13th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes, gave the Wolves a 2-1 advantage early in the second period with a power-play goal. Defenseman Cavan Fitzgerald joined the fun by giving the Wolves an insurance goal with seven minutes to play. Antoine Bibeau made 22 saves to win his Chicago debut and was returned to the Hurricanes’ taxi squad on Saturday night.
“I thought it was a good game and we competed hard,” new head coach Ryan Warsofsky said. “It’s a very young group, but with some experienced players. I think they were really excited after a long time off.”
Saturday, Feb. 6
Wolves 5, IceHogs 4
The IceHogs got off to a great start on Saturday afternoon with power-play goals by John Quenneville and Chad Yetman to take a 2-0 lead just 8:25 into the game. Jarvis cleaned up a rebound to get the Wolves on the board late in the opening frame before Fitzgerald scored his second goal of the weekend, just 1:02 later, to tie the game.
Wyatt Kalynuk scored Rockford’s third goal on the power play, early in the second period, to put them back up 3-2. The Wolves answered with a power-play goal by Tanner Jeannot less than a minute later. Jamieson Rees then danced through traffic and beat Matt Tomkins to give Chicago a 4-3 lead with his first AHL goal.
Rem Pitlick, who scored 20 goals for the Admirals last season, scored the eventual game-winning goal on a breakaway before the second intermission. Matej Chalupa drew the IceHogs to within one midway through the third period, but they were unable to get the equalizer. He was the fourth player to score his first professional goal on the day, joining Yetman, Kalynuk and Rees. Goaltender Jeremy Helvig made 28 saves for his second AHL win and first since Dec. 8, 2018, with the Charlotte Checkers.
“I didn’t mind our game,” IceHogs head coach Derek King said in his postgame interview. “That’s a good team over there. We had a great start and then a lull there in the second period before regaining the energy in the third. We played a solid third period. We had some opportunities just couldn’t score.”
Wild 4, Stars 1
Iowa won the rematch on Saturday to even up their record with the Stars. For the second straight game, it was Sokolov who opened the scoring. Tye Felhaber drew Texas even late in the first period.
From there, the Wild took over and eventually pulled away. Josh Maser scored his first professional goal in the second period before veteran Gabriel Dumont and Connor Dewar scored in the third period. Dewar’s goal was of the shorthanded, empty-net variety.
“It was a big goal to put us 2-1,” Maser said after the game. “I just want to win out there. Anything I can do; throwing a hit, getting into a fight, scoring a goal. It’s good that I got the goal, but I am more happy that we got the win.”
Netminder Dereck Baribeau stopped 21 of 22 shots to earn his second career AHL victory. The Stars had five power-play chances but could not convert on any of them.
Three Stars of the Weekend
Jarvis showed exactly why the Hurricanes invested such a high draft pick in him. He scored two goals and added an assist in his first two professional games.
“Easily it’s the strength,” he admitted was the biggest difference between the AHL and juniors. “Everyone here is big and strong. I’m a smaller guy so I’ve got to find a way to battle through that.”
He definitely battled through as he was constantly at the front of the net all weekend and both of his goals were scored from in close.
Damiani made a great first impression with a pair of goals and an assist in his AHL debut Friday night. The Dallas Stars’ 2018 fifth-round pick (137th overall) is no stranger to lighting the lamp.
He scored 58 goals in his last two seasons with Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League. He had 163 points over 119 games during his final two junior hockey seasons.
Fitzgerald is another youngster who had two goals and three points in his first two games of the season. The defenseman had a goal in each of the Wolves’ wins with both coming off of a heavy slap shot from the point. He has already equaled his goal total from last season in 25 games with the Checkers.
Upcoming Mid-Week Schedule
Monday, Feb. 8: Stars @ Wild
Tuesday, Feb. 9: IceHogs @ Wolves
Thursday, Feb. 11: Griffins @ Wolves
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.