This was the busiest mid-week of the shortened 2020-21 season, with plenty of action on and off the ice. The American Hockey League (AHL) revealed its plans, or lack thereof, for the postseason while five of the six Central Division teams were in action.
No Playoffs for the Central
On Thursday, the AHL officially announced that there would be no Calder Cup Playoffs for the second straight spring, citing COVID-19 protocol. The league left it up to all five of its divisions to decide their own postseason format. The only division to go ahead with playoffs of some sort was the Pacific Division.
The Central, along with the Atlantic, North, and Canadian Divisions, elected not to play beyond the regular season. The six teams of the Central will duke it out for the Sam Pollock Trophy, which will be awarded to the team with the highest points percentage at the conclusion of the schedule. The Chicago Wolves have a huge lead in this department and look good to bring home the hardware.
The Professional Hockey Player’s Association (PHPA) was not exactly thrilled with the Pacific’s decision.
In other league-wide news, the AHL announced that it plans on a full 2021-22 season to begin on Oct. 15, 2021, and conclude on April 24, 2022. A schedule and division alignments will be announced at a later date.
More Off-Ice Business
On Tuesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that forward Cliff Pu was reassigned to the Cleveland Monsters. They also recalled forward Liam Foudy and assigned goaltender Daniil Tarasov to their taxi squad. The Monsters signed goaltender Justin Kapelmaster to a professional tryout contract (PTO) the following day. He made 16 appearances for the Allen Americans in the ECHL before landing in Cleveland.
The Detroit Red Wings recalled a pair of players for their taxi squad on Tuesday. Forward Hayden Verbeek and goaltender Kaden Fulcher were on the move, with fellow netminder Kevin Boyle returning to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
On Friday, the Iowa Wild signed goaltender Robbie Beydoun from the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets to a PTO. Dereck Baribeau left last Friday’s game after hard contract with Chris Wilkie of the Rockford IceHogs, so he must not be ready to return to action this weekend when the Wild travel to the Wolves.
Goaltenders on the move was a theme this past week. The IceHogs recalled Tom Auburn from the Indy Fuel of the ECHL on Thursday. He made his AHL debut on March 3 when he made a relief appearance against the Griffins.
The Texas Stars added forward Ty Dellandrea back to their roster after a stint in the NHL. The 20-year-old has three goals and five points in 26 games for the Dallas Stars.
Monday, April 26
There was no rest for the weary as the Wolves were right back on the ice after being swept over the weekend by the Cleveland Monsters. This game was rescheduled from March 23 and Chicago’s third in as many days, but they had an extra jump to their step in Grand Rapids.
Rookie Phil Tomasino scored from the slot just over two minutes into the contest. His ninth goal of the season marked the first time the Wolves scored first in the last 10 games. The Griffins got themselves into penalty trouble late in the first period, and it cost them dearly. While on a 5-on-3 power play, Tommy Novak tipped in a pass by Tomasino to double the lead. Just 55 seconds later, Anthony Richard gave the Wolves a 3-0 lead with a heavy slap shot through traffic.
Chicago cashed in on another two-man advantage midway through the second period when Richard scored again from a tough angle just above the goal line. His two goals gave him nine on the season. Before the end of the middle frame, defenseman Dylan McIlrath scored the Griffins’ lone goal on the night by finishing off a give-and-go play with Gregor MacLeod.
Any chance that goal would lead to some third-period heroics were dash 13 seconds into the final stanza when Novak scored his second goal of the night. Defensemen Max Lajoie and Joey Keane each had two assists, while goaltender Antoine Bibeau made 23 saves to earn his fourth win of the season.
“If you give the fourth-ranked power play two 5-on-3s for a full two minutes, it’s not going to pretty,” said Griffins’ head coach Ben Simon. “At the end of the day, it’s about being disciplined and not being down two men for two minutes.
“It’s not a bad thing to play with a little fire in your belly, but you’ve got to make sure you’re walking that line. I don’t agree with some of the calls but, at the end of the day, the calls were made, and you can’t put yourself in that situation. You can’t put your team down.”
Wednesday, April 28
The Griffins continued their busy week by welcoming in the IceHogs on Wednesday night. Patrick Curry made his return to the Grand Rapids lineup for the first time in five games and had an immediate impact by scoring just 1:48 into the game. Dylan McLaughlin evened up the score half a period later with a power-play goal from the left circle. With just over a minute to go before the first intermission, Riley Barber finished off a 2-on-1 rush to give the Griffins the lead with his team-high 15th goal of the season.
The score remained the same until the third period when Mitchell Fossier converted a penalty shot to even up the score. However, MacLeod put the Griffins back on top just over three minutes later with the eventual game-winning goal from the left boards. He pushed his career-high point streak to four straight games.
Later in the period, Taro Hirose had a penalty-shot attempt for the Griffins, but Ivan Nalimov made the stop to keep the IceHogs within a goal. However, they could not draw even after spending the final two minutes of the game with an extra attacker. Boyle made 20 saves on the night to record his sixth win of the season.
“We were a little bit sharper in some areas,” Simon said after the game. “I think we struggled in others that we still need to clean up. It’s always an evolving process. We were much better than we were the other night, but we have to be much better tomorrow.”
Thursday, April 29
The Griffins were right back at it the next night as the Wolves returned to the Van Andel Arena to finish their eight-game road trip. Chicago scored the only goal of the first period when Richard used his speed to get behind the defense and score a shorthanded breakaway tally for his third goal of the week.
Six minutes into the second, David Cotton forced and turnover behind the net and quickly got the puck out front where Tomasino smacked it past Pat Nagle to double the lead. Kyle Criscuolo had a fast response by scoring a power-play goal off a rebound. This was his eighth goal of the season and fourth on the power play versus the Wolves.
Cotton got that goal right back for Chicago just over a minute and a half later. He finished off a 3-on-2 rush after being set up by a wonderful spinning pass by Lajoie from the slot. However, defenseman Joe Hicketts found himself wide open in the slot and scored his first goal of the season with just 23 seconds left in the middle frame.
“It’s always nice to have the puck go in the net, but you want to have it in a winning cause,” Hicketts said during a postgame media call. “I think it was a big goal for our group in that last little bit of the second period. We had a lot of momentum coming out for the third; it just came up a couple of minutes short. It was one of better games in the last couple, so there are some building blocks we can use to build off of this.”
The Wolves defense clamped down in the third period. After allowing 25 shots during the first two periods, they only surrendered six during the final 20 minutes of play. Lajoie iced the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute. Chicago wrapped up their extended road trip with a 3-3-1-1 record after back-to-back wins in Grand Rapids.
The Stars had not played on home ice since April 11, and they made the most of their return to H-E-B Center. They took advantage of another great performance by rookie goaltender Adam Scheel to win the first of three straight games against the Monsters.
After a scoreless first period, defenseman Joe Cecconi scored his third goal of the season from just inside the blue line to give the Stars a 1-0 lead. It looked like Cecconi’s goal would hold up, but Cleveland finally solved Scheel late in regulation. Pu found the puck after it bounced off the end boards with under four minutes to play and snuck it in off of the goaltender’s skate.
Stars were called for a faceoff violation early in overtime, but they killed off the penalty, and the game headed to a shootout. Nikita Sherbak, who had an assist on the second-period goal, was the only player to score in the three-round shootout.
Scheel made 39 saves to pick up his second career AHL win. The undrafted free agent out of the University of North Dakota has made at least 30 saves in five of his six starts on the season.
“The guys in front of me played great,” the young netminder said. “They (Cleveland) had a lot of shots but I don’t think they had a lot of Grade-A opportunities. The guys boxed out well and let me see the puck. It’s a testament to them and team defense.”
Mid-Week’s Top Performer
Lajoie was instrumental in the Wolves’ two wins this week. He started with a pair of assists in Monday’s win, coming off two straight losses in Cleveland. The defenseman followed that up with a goal and two more helpers on Thursday to finish is the week with a team-high five points.
The Ottawa Senators originally drafted the 23-year-old blueliner in the fifth round (133rd overall) of the 2016 NHL Entry. He was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes just prior to the start of the season for forward Clark Bishop. He has five goals and 17 points for the Wolves this season in 22 games. He has already equaled his career-high in points set last season with the Belleville Senators in 48 games.
Central Division Standings
Wolves – 17-5-1-2, 37 pts (.740 pts %)
Monsters – 13-7-1-1, 28 pts (.636 pts %)
Griffins – 12-8-3-0, 27 pts (.587 pts %)
Wild – 12-11-4-0, 28 pts (.519 pts %)
Stars – 13-15-2-0, 28 pts (.467 pts %)
IceHogs – 9-15-1-0, 19 pts (.350 pts %)
Upcoming Weekend Schedule
Friday, April 30: Wild @ Wolves
Saturday, May 1: Griffins @ IceHogs, Wild @ Wolves, Monsters @ Stars
Sunday, May 2: Monsters @ Stars
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.