The American Hockey League dropped the puck on the 2021-22 season over the weekend. All seven of the teams in the Central Division were in action, with five of them playing twice. Six of the seven teams picked up their first wins in the 76-game season. These teams will be in a long battle to see who qualifies for the Calder Cup Playoffs, and we will cover every twist and turn along the way. Let’s get right to the action!
Friday, Oct. 15
Over 10,000 fans packed into the Van Andel Arena to watch the Griffins roll to their biggest opening-night victory in franchise history. Joe Veleno opened the scoring with a power-play goal about 12 minutes into the first period. Josiah Slavin answered for Rockford less than three minutes later as the game went into the first intermission knotted at 1-1.
The IceHogs controlled the play for much of the second stanza, but the Griffins scored three times. Kirill Tyutyayev, who was making his North American debut, picked up his first of two primary assists when his shot was redirected past Malcolm Subban by Tyler Spezia. Turner Elson scored just 66 seconds later to double the lead. Tyutyayev set up Hayden Verbeek’s first goal with the Griffins late in the frame.
Chase Pearson added a second power-play tally early in the third period before Dennis Yan capped off the scoring with under seven minutes to play. Subban had a rough debut for the IceHogs, giving up all six goals on 24 shots. Veteran netminder Calvin Pickard made 23 saves to earn the win for Grand Rapids. The Griffins’ balanced attack got goals from six different players and saw five players rack up two points.
“It’s amazing,” Brian Lashoff, who was honored for playing 500 games for the Griffins before puck drop, said about playing in front of a full house. “We’ve got the best fans in the league. You feel the atmosphere, even when we came out for warm-ups. Everybody missed having them around. They’re a huge momentum swing for us. You can hear them at all times during the game. We’re happy to give them a win in the first game of the year.”
Saturday, Oct. 16
The Moose began their three-game road trip to start the season with an afternoon tilt in Toronto. Things started well for the visitors until Brett Seney gave the Marlies a 1-0 lead with less than three minutes remaining in the first period.
The Marlies doubled their lead thanks to a Josh Ho-Sang goal at 11:30 of the second period. Mikey Eyssimont’s first goal with the Moose cut the lead in half about four minutes later. Ho-Sang added a second goal in the final minute of the middle frame to give Toronto a 3-1 lead. Joey Anderson extended the home team’s lead to 4-1 before Seney added an empty-net shorthanded goal for his second tally of the game.
What a pass🤩— Manitoba Moose (@ManitobaMoose) October 16, 2021
🚨: Mikey Eyssimont
🍎: Cole Maier
🍏: Johnathan Kovacevic pic.twitter.com/PRxVbIBenZ
The Moose outshot the Marlies 35-26 and had 19 shots in the third period, but they could not figure out goaltender Erik Kallgren, who earned his first career AHL victory.
“It’s always nice to get the first one out of the way,” Eyssimont said after scoring the Moose’s lone goal. “I think we put together a pretty good game except for a couple of lapses that cost us. Their goalie played great.”
It had been 584 days since the last time the Admirals took the ice, and they quickly made for the lost time. The Griffins quieted the crowd of over 7,000 with Veleno’s power-play goal 2:30 into the game. Captain Cole Schneider gave the Admirals a 2-1 lead with a pair of goals just 18 seconds apart. In his Admirals debut, defenseman Matt Luff extended the advantage to 3-1 before the end of the opening frame.
In the middle period, Milwaukee’s offense kept rolling early as Zach Solow scored off a deflection four minutes in. Joseph LaBate increased the lead to 5-1 just 1:26 later. Veleno struck again early in the third period, but the Admirals quickly answered with a goal from newcomer Mitch McLain. Riley Barber, who led the Griffins in goals last season, struck on the power play less than three minutes later. Anthony Richard finished off the scoring with a late empty-net goal. Goaltender Devin Cooley made 20 saves for his first win with the Admirals.
The Wolves hosted their first Central Division game at the Allstate Arena since they beat the IceHogs in overtime on March 8, 2020. They picked up where they left off by dominating the first period, outshooting their interstate rivals 16-3. The problem was that goaltender Arvid Soderblum brought his A-game in his first AHL start and stopped everything thrown in his direction.
C.J. Smith broke the scoreless tie with a power-play goal just 18 seconds into the second period. Ryan Suzuki doubled the lead five minutes later with a shorthanded goal. The IceHogs turned the momentum around 80 seconds later with Evan Barratt’s first goal of the season. Lukas Reichel, the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2020 first-round pick, showed off with a speed burst before beating goaltender Alex Lyon to the glove hand for his first North American professional goal. Veteran Brett Connolly gave the IceHogs their first lead of the season less than a minute later.
Alex Nylander, who failed to make the Blackhawks roster out of training camp, scored on a breakaway early in the third period to increase Rockford’s advantage to 4-2. Chicago defenseman Eric Gelinas scored on the power play with just under six minutes to play. However, Nylander answered with another goal, into the empty cage, to ice the game.
“We’ve got to work harder; it’s that simple,” Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky said. “We’ll find out who’s going to show up on Monday ready to practice. We have to learn how to play 60 minutes. Not 18, not 26, not 32, 60 minutes. It’s got to be shift after shift.”
The Wild were very undisciplined in their opening game, taking seven penalties. Usually, this is a recipe for disaster, especially on the road, but the penalty-kill unit and goaltender Andrew Hammond had huge nights.
Kyle Rau broke the scoreless tie five minutes into the second period. After their first goal, the Wild had to kill five penalties before Connor Dewar, who assisted on Rau’s tally, added an empty-netter in the final minute of play. Hard-luck loser Jake Oettinger made 33 saves, while Hammond stopped all 27 shots he faced.
“Obviously, it’s an area we need to work at,” Stars head coach Neil Graham said of his team’s power play. “It changed the complexion of the game. I thought we allowed frustration to seep in. It looked like our timing was off. There were some looks, but nothing sustained. It’s up to us, as coaches, to right the ship.”
Sunday, Oct. 17
After being blown out on Saturday, the Moose flipped the script on Sunday with a big 5-0 win at the Marlies. They came out flying from the opening faceoff, and it led to Greg Meireles’ first career AHL goal less than five minutes into the game. Eyssimont scored his second goal in as many days 11 minutes later to double the lead heading into the first intermission.
Johnathan Kovacevic scored 2:40 into the second period to give the Moose a 3-0 lead. Just past the halfway point of the frame, Austin Poganski scored his first goal since the 2019-20 season when he was a member of the San Antonio Rampage. Kristian Reichel added a power-play goal early in the third period to close out the scoring. Berdin rebounded nicely for his fifth career AHL shutout. The team in front of him made his day easier by limiting Toronto to just 18 shots.
“We played a solid game tonight,” Reichel said outside of a victorious locker room. “We were putting pucks deep and were hard on the forecheck. We didn’t give them much, and we capitalized on their chances. We were the better team tonight.
After going 0-for-7 on the power play and getting shut out on Saturday, the Stars relied on some familiar faces and stellar goaltending to earn a 3-1 win in Sunday’s rematch with Iowa. Nicolas Caamano, in his fourth season with Texas, was credited with the lone goal of the opening period when Ryan Shea’s shot deflected off of him and got in behind netminder Dereck Baribeau.
The AHL’s 2021 Dudley Garrett Award winner for being the most outstanding rookie, Riley Damiani, doubled the lead seven minutes into the second period with a power-play goal. Speaking of rookies, Marco Rossi scored his first professional goal less than a minute later with a wraparound shot to bring Iowa back to within a goal.
Damiani iced the game in the third period by scoring on a 5-on-3 power play. He led the Stars in scoring with 36 points last season and is off to a great start. Oettinger was solid in goal again by making 43 saves to earn his 19th career AHL win.
“I thought we were a lot better,” Damiani said with a smile after the game. “We came together early in this game. We established our forecheck early. Everything we game planned for, we stuck to. The coaches set up a plan for us, we followed it, and good things happened.”
The Griffins’ power play was clicking early and often. After scoring twice on the man advantage against the IceHogs on Friday, that added two more power-play tallies the next night in Milwaukee. They have four goals on 10 chances to lead the Central Division with a 40% success rate.
Oettinger was absolutely terrific over the weekend and showed why the Dallas Stars believe he is their franchise goaltender of the future. The offense let him down in Saturday night’s 2-0 loss, as he gave up just two goals on 75 shots in his back-to-back starts versus the Wild.
“I’m really confident about what I can bring to the table,” the young netminder said on Sunday. “Every part of my game, even off the ice, has changed. I am just trying to be a good teammate and work really hard. We couldn’t have a better coaching staff and group of guys, so it’s fun coming to the rink. I’m looking forward to a great season with these guys.
Subban is a veteran of 82 NHL games, including 16 for the Blackhawks last season. However, once Marc-Andre Fleury came to Chicago via trade, Subban was the odd man out and had to start the season in the AHL. Whether he remains in the team’s long-term plans or not, allowing six goals on 24 shots was not a great way to start the season. For his sake, hopefully, his .750 save percentage can only go up from here.
Not to pick on the IceHogs, but their penalty killing needs some work. They allowed four power-play goals over the weekend, on 11 chances. Their 63.6% success rate is the lowest in the Central, but there is a long way to go to right the ship. Taking fewer trips to the penalty box wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
The Weekend’s Top Performer
Veleno is one of many young prospects that have Detroit Red Wings fans excited for the future. He was one of the last cuts in training camp and looked like he is close to sticking with the big club.
He didn’t let his demotion bring him down by lighting the lamp three times in two nights. The 21-year-old center scored 11 goals in 54 games during 2019-20, his only full season in the AHL, so he is making the best of his time with the Griffins. A couple more weekends like this, and he will be calling Detroit home.
Wednesday, Oct. 20
Moose @ Laval Rocket
Friday, Oct. 22
Griffins @ Moose,
Wolves @ Admirals,
IceHogs @ Wild
Saturday, Oct. 23
IceHogs @ Wild, Admirals @ Wolves, Stars @ Tucson Roadrunners
Sunday, Oct. 24
Griffins @ Moose, Stars @ Roadrunners
Central Division Standings
Admirals 1-0-0-0 (2 pts, 1.000%)
Griffins 1-1-0-0 (2 pts, .500%)
Moose 1-1-0-0 (2 pts, .500%)
Wild 1-1-0-0 (2 pts, .500%)
Stars 1-1-0-0 (2 pts, .500%)
IceHogs 1-1-0-0 (2 pts, .500%)
Wolves 0-1-0-0 (0 pts, .000%)
(Top five teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs)
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.