AHL Central News: The Pack Begins to Tighten

As expected, the temporary reinstatement of taxi squads in the NHL has caused chaos in the American Hockey League (AHL). Teams across the league have been scrambling to fill rosters at the last minute, giving a lot of players from the ECHL a chance to impress and move up a level. A report from Emily Kaplan of ESPN stated that the NHL plans to stop testing asymptomatic players and staff members following the All-Star break. The taxi squads are only supposed to remain in effect until the NHL’s All-Star break, which begins Feb. 3.

Meanwhile, the seven teams of the AHL’s Central Division had another busy week. The gap between first and second place continued to shrink, and the battle for the five Calder Cup Playoff berths is shaping up to be quite the race in the second half of the season.

Off-Ice Business

Before their Monday afternoon game, the Chicago Wolves signed defenseman Derek Topatigh to a professional tryout contract (PTO). The 24-year-old has five goals and 19 points for the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators. The following day, defenseman Joey Keane was reassigned to the team from the Carolina Hurricanes while forward Josh Leivo was recalled. Forward Stefan Noesen was called up to the Hurricanes on Friday, leading the Wolves to sign Chase Lang to a PTO. He has 10 goals and 16 points for the Norfolk Admirals in the ECHL.

The Grand Rapids Griffins started their week with a bevy of roster moves on Monday. Goaltenders Calvin Pickard and Kaden Fulcher returned from the Detroit Red Wings’ taxi squad. Left wing Taro Hirose and defenseman Luke Witkowski were also reassigned to the Griffins. Pickard was right back to Detroit’s taxi squad on Thursday. The Griffins signed former longtime Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader to a PTO on Friday.  He played two seasons with the Griffins between 2008-10, scoring 24 goals and 52 points in 76 games.

Justin Abdelkader, Detroit Red Wings
Abdelkader is back with the Red Wings organization. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The following day, Gemel Smith was reassigned to the Griffins on a conditioning stint after Detroit claimed him off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning. He has yet to play this season due to a lower-body injury. Kyle Criscuolo and Witkowski returned to Detroit’s taxi squad just ahead of Saturday’s game.

The Iowa Wild were happy to receive defenseman Kevin Czuczman, goaltender Hunter Jones and forward Kyle Rau back from the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. Czuczman found himself heading back to the Twin Cities and the taxi squad on Thursday.

On Monday, the Manitoba Moose signed forward Tyler Boland out of the University of New Brunswick to a two-year contract through the 2022-23 season. The team reassigned defenseman Tristan Pomerleau and forward Isaac Johnson to the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers on Thursday.

Matt Luff was reassigned to the AHL by the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, and the Milwaukee Admirals ended up very happy after this move. On Friday, the Admirals inked defenseman Stephen Desrocher to an AHL contract for the remainder of the 2021-22 season and assigned him to the Florida Everblades in the ECHL.

Before their weekend set on home ice, the Rockford IceHogs lost Mike Hardman to the Chicago Blackhawks’ taxi squad. They also got goaltender Cale Morris back from Chicago and recalled forward Chad Yetman from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel. From the medical standpoint, forward Kurtis Gabriel cleared COVID protocol, and Evan Barratt entered protocol. On Saturday morning, defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk and Morris were recalled by the Blackhawks while Hardman returned to the IceHogs.

The Texas Stars received some reinforcements before their weekend in Illinois when the Dallas Stars reassigned forwards Ty Dellandrea and Rhett Gardner and defenseman Thomas Harley to the AHL.

The Week in Review

Monday, Jan. 17

Wolves 5, IceHogs 3

The Wolves dropped back-to-back games in Iowa last weekend, so they tried to get back on track in a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee on Monday. One of the hottest players in the entire league led Chicago back into the win column.

Noesen stayed red hot by opening the scoring at 4:38 of the first period. He extended his point streak to six games by settling down a bouncing puck in the slot and firing it past Arvid Soderblom. Topatigh picked up the primary assist in his first career AHL game. Veteran defenseman Ryan Stanton scored from between the circles to tie the game midway through the frame. It was his first goal of the season and first with the IceHogs since 2013.

Related – Noesen Leading Wolves to AHL’s Best Record

Rockford kicked off an eventful middle period by taking a 2-1 lead just 25 seconds in. Andrei Altybarmakian drove hard to the net, drawing the attention of two defenders, then dropped the puck to Lukas Reichel in the slot where he scored his team-high 12th goal. Less than eight minutes later, C.J. Smith evened the score by redirecting a shot by Eric Williams into the net. Andrew Poturalski scored his 18th goal of the season just seven seconds into a power play a little over a minute later.

The IceHogs got a quick answer as Dylan McLaughlin scored on a breakaway to tie the game 40 seconds later. The Wolves responded with two more goals before the end of the period. First, David Gust snuck in behind the defense to score his eighth of the season. Just over a minute later, while on the power play, Poturalski found Noesen at the left post for an easy tap-in goal, his 18th.

Things settled down in the third period as neither team could find the back of the net. Lyon made 15 saves to earn his 10th AHL win of the season.

“I know it’s cliché, but we’re a north-south team,” Rockford captain Garrett Mitchell said. “We got away from the little things we’ve had success with since coming out of the Christmas break. It’s nothing that we can’t fix. If we simplify the game, we’ll have some success.”

Admirals 3, Wild 0

The Central Division hosted a second holiday matinee on Monday as Milwaukee and Iowa wrote another chapter in their rivalry.

Zach Solow scored the eventual game-winning goal less than three minutes into the contest by beating Zane McIntyre from the right circle. After a scoreless middle frame, Rocco Grimaldi gave the Admirals some insurance early in the third period when he redirected a Dylan Blujus shot for his 13th goal of the season. Former Wild forward Mitch McLain added an empty-net goal in the game’s final minute.

Goaltender Connor Ingram made 35 saves for his second shutout of the season. The Admirals have struggled for much of the season but have won five of the seven games against Iowa so far. They earned four points on this three-game road trip that concluded in Des Moines.

Tuesday, Jan. 18

Griffins 5, Cleveland Monsters 3

The Griffins started their week on the road in Cleveland Tuesday night. They got goals from five different players and a big-time performance from a star in the making.

Jonathan Berggren started his big night by setting up the opening tally less than five minutes into the opening frame. He took a pass from Taro Hirose in the right corner, then sent it right back to him in the slot where he scored his ninth goal of the season. Less than four minutes later, Tyler Angle used the “Michigan” move to put the puck over the shoulder of Calvin Pickard to tie the game. It was an appropriate move to try with a team from Grand Rapids in the building.

Jonatan Berggren Grand Rapids Griffins
Berggren led with a career-high four assists. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Griffins scored a pair of goals early in the second period to open up a 3-1 lead. While skating a 4-on-4, Tyler Spezia beat goaltender Jean-Francois Berube by skating left and shooting right. Just over two minutes later, the visitors cashed in on their first power-play chance of the night when Turner Elson banged home a rebound off a Hirose shot.

Angle scored his second goal of the night with a one-timer early in the third period to bring the Monsters to within a goal. Less than five minutes later, Jon Martin’s first goal of the season restored the Griffins’ two-goal advantage. Criscuolo scored his 12th goal of the season off the rebound from a Berggren shot, giving the first-year pro four assists on the night. Just over a minute later, Adam Helewka beat Pickard with a wrist shot to cut the lead to 5-3, but the Monsters did not get any closer.

Wednesday, Jan. 19

Wild 4, Moose 3

After being shut out by the Admirals on Monday, the Wild rebounded with a big win on home ice of the second-place Moose.

The visitors finished their six-game road trip with a fast start by building a 2-0 lead in the first period. Matt Alfaro opened the scoring when he got his stick on a Simon Lundmark shot for his first AHL goal. Captain Jimmy Oligny doubled the lead with just seven seconds left in the frame, scoring off a drop pass from Greg Meireles.

Midway through the second period, the Wild thought they scored a power-play goal, but after a video review, it was determined that the puck hit the crossbar and stayed out. Iowa scored a goal that needed no review later in the stanza when Mason Shaw beat goaltender Evan Cormier with a backhand shot. Manitoba scored in the final minute of play for the second straight period. This time, with 33 seconds remaining, Lundmark has his shot redirected into the net by Harolds Egle for a 3-1 advantage.

Iowa dominated the final 20 minutes of play. Shaw sparked the comeback with a power-play goal five minutes into the third period. Less than two minutes later, Shaw picked up an assist on Rau’s game-tying goal. He completed his first career hat trick with 31 seconds remaining in regulation as the late-period magic continued. Netminder Zane McIntyre made 21 saves to pick up his second win for the Wild this season and fourth overall.

“There happened to be a lot of traffic,” Shaw said of his game-winning goal. “I just walked up, and there wasn’t much time left on the clock, so I tried to get it to the net. I was fortunate to get a bounce. Sometimes, good things happen with the puck, and it worked out well for me tonight.”

Admirals 4, Stars 3 (OT)

Milwaukee extended their point streak to four games with a big overtime win Wednesday night. They got four-point efforts from a pair of forwards as they thwarted a late-game rally.

Texas scored the lone goal of the opening frame, nine minutes into the contest. Former Admiral Jeremey Gregoire had his shot redirected past Ingram by Fredrik Karlstrom to net the game’s first tally.

The middle frame belonged to the home team as the Admirals scored three times to take a 3-1 advantage into the second intermission. Luff tied the game by scoring off a Grimaldi rebound just over four minutes into the period. Luff set up Grimaldi’s 14th goal of the season seven minutes later to give Milwaukee a 2-1 lead. Luff scored a second goal with about three minutes to play in the frame off a great cross-ice feed from Grimaldi.

The Stars battled back with a pair of third-period goals to force overtime. Six minutes in, Joel L’Esperance found a loose puck in front of the net and put it home for his ninth goal of the season. Nicolas Caamano tied the game 10 minutes later to extend his point streak to three games.

Caamano went from the hero to the goat when he was called for elbowing just over a minute into overtime. This set up the game-winner by team captain Cole Schneider as he followed up on his rebound. Luff and Grimaldi had the assists on both to finish the night with four points.

“As a group, we’ve been successful on our 4-on-3s and 5-on-3s this year,” Admirals’ head coach Karl Taylor said. “We have certain things we’re looking for, depending on how the other team sets up to kill it. We’re going to run some different looks off it. It’s worked out for us. When the game is on the line, your offensive guys are chomping at the bit. When you don’t score on the power play, the other team gets momentum and gets chances against you.”

Friday, Jan. 21

Stars 5, IceHogs 2

The Stars made their next stop on their six-game road trip in Rockford and extended their point streak to three games with a victory over the IceHogs.

Texas got the first goal before the game was even six minutes old. Joseph Cecconi’s shot from the right point went wide of the net. Curtis McKenzie was behind the net and made a nice play to chip the puck out front, where Rhett Garnder deposited it for his second goal of the season. The IceHogs answered with a power-play goal just over three minutes later. Reichel found Teply at the side of the net, where he slammed it home for his third goal of the season. Riley Tufte put the Stars up 2-1 with eight minutes left in the period by beating Collin Delia upstairs shortly after an icing call was waved off.

Gardner struck again early in the second period by getting to the slot and redirecting a pass from Cecconie into the Rockford net to increase the lead to 3-1. The IceHogs took advantage of a miscue to get that goal back late in the frame. Matt Jurusik left his crease and initiated contact with Josiah Slavin behind the net, which allowed him to get the puck out front to Kale Howarth for the easy goal into the vacated cage.

Slavin scored for the IceHogs on Friday. (Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs)

After an ugly incident in the third period, the Stars got an extremely rare seven-minute power play. Garrett Mitchell slashed Jared Rosburg, which caused McKenzie to jump him. At the same time, Dmitry Osipov started throwing punches at Gregoire. When the dust settled, McKenzie and Osipov headed to the locker rooms with game misconducts, and Texas got extended time on the man advantage.

Fredrik Karlstrom scored his sixth goal of the season on the extended power play as he had the time and space in close to beat Delia. It was the only goal the IceHogs let up in seven straight minutes of penalty kill time. Tufte added a second goal in the final minutes, an empty-netter, to ice the game. Jurusik made 32 saves to lock down his first win with the Stars and second of the season. He had a victory with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in December.

“We played with some emotion, but you have to control your emotions, as well,” said IceHogs interim head coach Anders Sorensen. “That was a good lesson for us. Obviously, that seven-minute penalty hurt us. That’s a long time to kill. I thought the guys were doing the right things, but there were some unfortunate bounces.”                                                   

Colorado Eagles 2, Wild 1

The Wild started their weekend at the red-hot Eagles on the short end of a hard-fought 2-1 decision. An outstanding goaltending performance and some timely scoring did the visitors in on Friday night.

Adam Beckman scored the opening tally late in the first period. Turner Ottenbreit jumped on the puck after a turnover at center ice and got it to Beckman, who drove hard through the circle before beating Justus Annunen with a wrist shot for his seventh goal of the season. However, Colorado evened up the score with just nine seconds remaining in the period when Sampo Ranta scored off a rebound.

The Eagles grabbed the lead for good over two minutes into the second period. Defenseman Jordan Gross beat McIntyre with a slapshot from the blue line for his seventh goal on the campaign. The Wild received a 5-on-3 power play for 1:11 in the middle of the period, but Annunen made some huge stops to keep his team in the lead.

Saturday, Jan. 22

Moose 4, Wolves 3 (OT)

The temperature may have been well below freezing outside the Canada Life Centre, but the hockey action inside heated up as the top two teams in the Central Division kicked off their weekend series. The Moose blew a two-goal lead but scored in overtime to gain ground on the division leaders.

The Wolves entered the game with three of the top four scorers in the AHL, but two were missing from Saturday’s lineup. In addition to Noesen’s recall, Smith missed the game due to illness. The Moose struck first midway through the opening period when Thomas Caron scored with a wrist shot from the left circle. Two minutes later, Bobby Lynch scored his first goal of the season by catching goaltender Dylan Wells out of position, who was making his season debut for the Wolves.

Poturalski answered less than a minute later to get his team on the scoreboard with a goal from the high slot. Lynch struck again before the end of the period by beating Wells through the five-hole from the bottom of the right circle.

Maxim Letunov got Chicago to within a goal while on the power play five minutes into the second period. He got the puck on the goal line, then moved around a defender to the front of the net, where he stuffed a shot through Cormier for his eighth tally of the season.

With under two minutes left in regulation, Keane tied the game while Wells was on the bench for an extra attacker. His shot from the left point made it through heavy traffic on its way to the back of the net.

Evan Polei won the game for the Moose just over a minute into extra time by pushing the puck just past the outstretched stick of Wells. Cormier made 38 saves for the victory. The Wolves were not called for any penalties for just the fifth infraction-free game in the franchise’s 28 seasons.

“It’s a tribute to them,” Manitoba head coach Mark Morrison said of his team’s leaders. “They work really hard. Everyone that’s brought into the group seems to be accepted very easily. The core group that’s still there seems to bring them in, and they seem to play for each other even though there are a lot of new bodies. They have a really good work ethic and really good chemistry, and that’s half the battle. They work for each other, and you can see there’s some desperation in their game where they block shots or dive at the blue line to get a puck over. They do a lot of things to try and win the two points.”

Admirals 5, Griffins 2

Milwaukee capped off an undefeated week by snapping the Griffins’ eight-game point streak at the Van Andel Arena.

Defenseman Matt Donovan scored the opening goal of the 200th meeting between these two old rivals. Just over four minutes into the game, he scored his fifth goal of the season off a big rebound given up by goaltender Victor Brattstrom. Dennis Yan beat Ingram with a one-timer from the high slot to tie the game 54 seconds later.

Grimaldi kept his big week going with another goal off a rebound early in the second period. Matt Berry scored the equalizer from the right circle less than eight minutes later, his first tally in 15 games with the Griffins.

The Admirals took control of the game during the third period. Schneider scored the eventual game-winning goal by deflecting a Frederic Allard shot past Brattstrom at 5:30. Grimaldi gave his team an insurance goal late in regulation from the bottom of the right circle. He finished his hat trick and second straight four-point game with an empty-net goal in the final minute of play.

Abdelkader made his season debut for Grand Rapids, breaking the record of the longest time span between Griffins appearances at 4,305 days, or 11 years, nine months, and 12 days.

“We talked about leadership and being vocal for these guys,” he said of what he plans to bring to the team. “I want to go out and play hard. Be hard around the net. Finish my checks, try to do the little things, and just play the type of game I know.”

IceHogs 3, Stars 2 (SO)

The IceHogs needed a third-period comeback and a seven-round shootout to snap their three-game skid, but they got the job done in their rematch with the Stars.

For the second straight night, the Stars struck first. Just over two minutes into the game, former IceHogs winger Anthony Louis found defenseman Ben Gleason streaking to the net and fed him the puck, which he quickly tapped into the net for his sixth goal of the season.

Teply stayed hot with another goal eight minutes into the second period. He found himself in space below the circles, where Andrei Altybarmakian hit him with a pass that he flung past Adam Scheel to even the score. The Stars regained a one-goal lead in the final minute of the frame when the puck found Gregoire at the side of the net for an easy tap-in goal.

Related – Blackhawks Prospects Report: Teply, Commesso, 2021 Draft Class & More

After coming up empty in eight straight power plays against the Stars, Rockford finally got another one through late in the third period. Teply camped out in front of the net and batted home a rebound to force overtime with his second goal of the night.

Neither team showed much urgency to shoot the puck during overtime, so it was off to the shootout. Teply used a next-level move to score in the first round before Louis answered in the second. Soderblom and Scheel kept the puck out of the net for the next four rounds. In the seventh round, defenseman Ian Mitchell tucked the puck around Scheel’s left pad. Moments later, Soderblom snagged Gleason’s shot out of midair to give the IceHogs the victory.

“That was a big effort from us after losing last night,” Sorensen said in his postgame media chat. “Once we got down 2-1 at the end of the second, we just had a belief within the group that we were going to get it done. We kept coming. There was no quit in us. I give the guys a lot of credit.”

Eagles 3, Wild 2

The Wild’s trip to Colorado featured a pair of evenly-matched contests, but they returned home with just one point after a 3-2 loss in Saturday’s rematch with the Eagles.

Andreas Wingerli opened the scoring for the Eagles midway through the first period when he beat Jones from the left circle. Iowa answered less than four minutes later with Nate Sucese’s third goal of the season. Rookie defenseman Alexander Khovanov picked up his first career AHL assist on the play.

Kiefer Sherwood put Colorado back up a goal with a power-play tally seven minutes into the middle period. Marco Rossi drew Iowa even by beating Annunen to the left post for his ninth goal of the season.

The teams appeared to be heading to overtime for the second consecutive night, but Dylan Sikura scored with just 24 seconds remaining in regulation. The game-winner was his team-leading 13th goal. The Wild pulled Jones for an extra attacker but could not tie the game. The Eagles outshot the Wild 17-6 in the final period on their way to their seventh straight victory.

Sunday, Jan. 23

Moose 3, Wolves 1

The top two teams in the Central Division met again on Sunday afternoon. Chicago outshot the home team 41-23 but came out on the short end of the stick. Both rosters were depleted as the Moose had 10 regular players on the Winnipeg Jets’ roster when the puck dropped.

The Moose entered the game giving up the fewest shots on goal in the entire league, but they surrendered 18 during the opening period. Goaltender Philippe Desrosiers was up to the task as he stopped 17 of those shots. David Cotton had the lone goal of the frame at 18:35 when he put a rebound back into the net for his fifth goal of the season.

Despite dominating much of the play for the second period, outshooting Manitoba 12-4, the Wolves allowed the lone goal. Jonathan Kovacevic pounced on a turnover and tied the game on his team’s first shot of the period at 11:10. The goal was his seventh of the season, tying him with Joe Hicketts of the Wild and Jordan Gross of the Eagles for the most in the AHL by a defenseman.

Johnathan Kovacevic Manitoba Moose
Kovacevic is one of the top-scoring blueliners in the AHL. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Nelson Nogier, a defenseman forced to play forward because of the recent call-ups, became the hero in the third period. He broke the tie with seven minutes left to play by driving hard to the net after a faceoff win and pushing his own rebound past Alex Lyon. Shortly after scoring his first goal of the season, Nogier sealed the deal for the Moose with an empty-net goal. Desrosiers made 40 stops for his second AHL win this season and First Star of the Game honors.

“I’m still shaking,” a jubilant Nosier said after the win. “The excitement, the joy, not only on a personal level but as a team level too. This was a really big weekend for us as a team to come in off of a long road trip against the best team in the division and one of the best teams in the league. For us to take all four points, it certainly sets us up in a good position going into a week off.”                                                                                                                          

Who’s Hot

Luff was back in Milwaukee after spending a month in the NHL, dressing in nine games for the Predators. He followed up his four-point game on Wednesday with two more assists in Saturday’s win in Grand Rapids. The 24-year-old winger was on a hot streak before his move to Nashville in early December. He has points in 12 of his last 16 AHL games and is fourth in overall scoring on the Admirals with 22 points.

When the IceHogs game out of their extended Christmas break, Teply was put on the top line with Altybarmakian and Reichel. He has five goals and nine points in the seven games since the move. The second-year pro had just one assist in his first 18 games of the season.

Michal Teply Rockford IceHogs
Teply is finding his groove. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“I’ve learned that hockey here is not all about the points,” Teply said after scoring two goals on Saturday. “You have to do the little things. If you get the opportunity, you’ve got to take it. You have to work hard.”

Berggren has been overshadowed by some of the young players making an impact for the Red Wings at the NHL level, but he is a star in the making. His four-assist game on Wednesday gave him points in three straight games. He has a goal and 10 assists in his last nine games. He is second on the team with 19 assists and 27 points, trailing Hirose by one in each category.

For the first few weeks of the season, the Wolves’ penalty kill was a major issue. Head coach Ryan Warsofsky admitted that finding the right group of guys he could trust shorthanded took some time. Chicago has successfully killed off its last 20 penalties helping the unit rocket up to seventh in the league at 83.7%.

Player of the Week

Back to Milwaukee, where Grimaldi had a huge week to lead the Admirals to three wins. He led all Central Division players with five goals and 10 points. He is riding a five-game point streak and has been held off the score sheet only twice in his last 15 games. He leads the team with 17 goals in 24 games.

Upcoming Schedule

Monday, Jan. 24
Toronto Marlies @ Griffins

Wednesday, Jan. 26
Admirals @ Griffins
Stars @ Wolves
Wild @ IceHogs

Friday, Jan. 28
Griffins @ Wolves
San Diego Gulls @ Wild
IceHogs @ Admirals
Laval Rocket @ Stars

Saturday, Jan. 29
Abbotsford Canucks @ Moose
Gulls @ Wild
Griffins @ Admirals
IceHogs @ Wolves
Rocket @ Stars

Sunday, Jan. 23
Canucks @ Moose

Central Division Standings

Wolves 24-7-3-1 (52 pts, .743%)
Moose 22-10-2-0 (47 pts, .671%)
Griffins 15-12-4-2 (36 pts, .545%)
IceHogs 15-14-1-1 (32 pts, .516%)
Wild 15-16-2-2 (34 pts, .486%)
Admirals 16-18-2-2 (36 pts, .474%)
Stars 10-14-4-2 (26 pts, .433%)
(Standings determined by points percentage, top five teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs)

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