AHL Central News: Playoff Race Heats Up

All seven teams of the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Central Division were back in action after the COVID-19 pandemic caused numerous postponements the previous week. The rosters are still in major flux as the NHL clubs are raiding their AHL affiliates to stock their taxi squads, but that didn’t stop us from getting an exciting week of hockey action.

Off-Ice Business

The first-place Chicago Wolves finally had a full roster of skaters, but they had a revolving door in goal. Just prior to their three-game weekend, Alex Lyon was recalled by the Carolina Hurricanes. Beck Warm, recently recalled from the ECHL, broke his hand during the morning skate. This left Chicago without a goaltender just a few hours before puck drop in Rockford, with Eetu Makiniemi still nursing an injury. They signed goaltenders Michael Lackey and Caydon Edwards to professional tryout contracts (PTOs) to fill out their roster.

Alex Lyon Chicago Wolves
Lyon was back in Carolina over the weekend. (photo courtesy of Chicago Wolves)

Chicago added a little more experience by signing goaltender Daniel Mannella to a PTO on Saturday morning. They needed yet another netminder for Sunday and signed Billy Christopoulos. They also added defenseman Marcus McIvor on a PTO.

The Grand Rapids Griffins started their week by signing center Erik Bradford to a PTO on Wednesday. He has 10 goals and 27 points in 25 ECHL games with the Kalamazoo Wings. That same day, the Detroit Red Wings recalled forward Riley Barber and defenseman Luke Witkowski to their taxi squad.

The Manitoba Moose recalled defenseman Dean Stewart from the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder on Saturday. This season, the right-handed defender has four goals and 11 points in 21 games with Wichita. The following day, the Winnipeg Jets reassigned defensemen Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg from the Manitoba Moose to the taxi squad. They also announced that goaltender Mikhail Berdin had been reassigned from the Manitoba Moose to the taxi squad.

The Milwaukee Admirals announced on Tuesday that their home game, initially scheduled for Dec. 30 against the Rockford IceHogs that was postponed because of COVID protocols, has been moved to April 29. On Thursday, the Nashville Predators reassigned forward Tommy Novak to Milwaukee. In corresponding moves, the Admirals assigned forward Bobo Carpenter and defenseman Jake McLaughlin to the Florida Everblades of the ECHL.

The IceHogs were quite busy before returning to game action Friday night. On Monday, team doctor Dr. Geoff Van Thiel announced that all players and coaches had been removed from COVID protocol. The Chicago Blackhawks recalled defenseman Nicolas Beaudin on Wednesday and assigned him to the taxi squad. In addition, they returned forward Kurtis Gabriel and defenseman Alec Regula to Rockford. That same day, the Blackhawks traded Alex Nylander to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Sam Lafferty.

On Thursday, the Blackhawks recalled forward Mike Hardman and defenseman Ian Mitchell and assigned them to the active roster. They also recalled Gabriel and forward Josiah Slavin, as well as defenseman Jakub Galvas, and assigned them to the taxi squad. This led to the IceHogs recalling forwards Kale Howarth and Riley McKay and defenseman Jake LeGuerrier from the Indy Fuel of the ECHL. Finally, on Friday, in need of some offensive help, the IceHogs signed forward Brandon Pirri to a PTO, who is the franchise’s all-time leader in points (210) and assists (134).

The Texas Stars’ front office had a hectic week. The Dallas Stars reassigned forward Riley Tufte to their taxi squad on Monday. He was back in the AHL the next day, along with forwards Ty Dellandrea and Rhett Gardner and goaltender Adam Scheel, who returned to the taxi squad on Saturday. Dallas reassigned defenseman Thomas Harley to Texas just ahead of their weekend series with Manitoba. The team also announced make-up dates for the two postponed games against the Charlotte Checkers. The games that were originally scheduled for Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 will be played on March 8 and 9.

The Week in Review

Tuesday, Jan. 4

Wild 3, Moose 2 (SO)

Iowa entered Tuesday’s game without the service of their top two netminders and a pair of their best offensive forwards. In the end, they overcame these absences to take down the visiting Moose in the shootout.

The Moose opened the scoring while on an early first-period power play. Defenseman Ville Heinola gained the zone and hit Jeff Malott in the slot, where he beat goaltender Trevin Kozlowski over the shoulder for his team-high eighth goal. The Wild drew even about 10 minutes later when Kris Bennett scored his first career AHL goal by deflecting a Kevin Czuczman shot past netminder Evan Cormier.

Adam Beckman had the lone goal of the middle period. Less than five minutes into the frame, he cashed in off a rebound from a Riese Zmolek shot. Midway through the third period, the Moose tied things up with defenseman Jonathan Kovacevic’s sixth goal of the season.

After a scoreless five-minute overtime period, it came down to the goaltenders in the shootout. Beckman and Kyle Rau scored on Cormier, while Kozlowski stopped shots by Mikey Eyssimont and Austin Poganski to earn the extra point.

“I think we got away from our game a bit there in the second,” Eyssimont said in his postgame chat. “We were trying to do too much and not playing as a five-man unit. When we get away from our game, that’s when bad things happen. We’ve had games where we’ve been down a goal going into the third, and we’re able to just continue to play our game, and it ends up working out for us. We got to overtime, and they beat us in the shootout.”

Wednesday, Jan. 5

Griffins 7, Admirals 2

Grand Rapids scored a season-high seven goals against the Admirals for their second three-game winning streak on the campaign.

The Griffins scored early and often to build a 3-0 lead in the first period. Tyler Spezia tipped a Donovan Sebrango shot on its way by to open the scoring 1:09 into the game. Turner Elson beat netminder Connor Ingram with a one-timer to double the lead just over three minutes later. Dennis Yan gave the home team a 3-0 lead at the 11:02 mark. The Admirals got on the board in the final minute of the opening frame. Graham Knott kicked the puck over to Cole Smith in the slot, where he beat Calvin Pickard for his sixth goal of the season.

Turner Elson Grand Rapids Griffins
Elson had a big night on Thursday. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Before the second period was three minutes old, Yan struck again from above the left circle, causing the Admirals to pull Ingram and replace him with Devin Cooley. Mathieu Olivier deflected a Dylan Blujus shot 42 seconds later to get the goal back for Milwaukee, but this was as close as they would get. Midway through the middle frame, Wyatt Newpower thought he scored from the right circle, but it was waved off. During the next stoppage of play, over a minute later, the refs reviewed the play and awarded him with a goal. Elson had the assist for the 50th of his career with the Griffins.

Jared McIsaac scored on the power-play near the midway point of the third period. Max Humitz picked up his first goal of the season with just over two minutes to play to wrap up the scoring. The following morning, he was released from his PTO and returned to the ECHL.

Friday, Jan. 7

Griffins 3, Wild 1

The Griffins pushed their winning streak to season-high four games with their victory over the Wild on Friday night. Two players who won a Calder Cup with the Griffins in 2017, Joe Hicketts and Dominic Turgeon, played their first games in Grand Rapids as visitors.

Chase Pearson opened the scoring at 7:25 of the opening period with his first goal since Oct. 30. He got to the puck behind the net and beat McIntyre, who was making his Wild debut, to the right post with a wraparound shot. Josh Dickinson doubled the lead with a shot from the slot about six minutes later.

After a scoreless second period, Jon Lizotte got Iowa to within a goal with just under four minutes to play in regulation. With an extra attacker on the ice for a delayed penalty, the defenseman beat Pickard with a slap shot from the right point for his second goal of the season. Taro Hirose sealed the deal with an empty-net goal with just over a minute to play.

Iowa outshot Grand Rapids 36-27, but Pickard made 35 stops to earn his 12th win of the season and First Star honors. Kyle Criscuolo saw his 10-game point streak come to an end.

“We’ve had to do a lot of teaching through video and learning on the fly,” Griffins head coach Ben Simon said about the last couple of weeks. “Some guys have stepped up their game. When you win a couple of games in a row, you play with a heck of a lot more confidence. And it goes the other way when you’re not. The guys have done a great job of playing together and not being denied.”

Admirals 4, Cleveland Monsters 3 (OT)

Milwaukee hosted Cleveland on Friday for a rare contest out of the Central Division and took down the Monsters in overtime to get back in the win column.

The visitors struck first with a goal from Billy Sweezey just 2:35 after the opening faceoff. The Admirals drew even less than six minutes later when Knott stuffed home a rebound off an Anthony Richard wraparound attempt.

Novak scored his first AHL goal of the season early in the second period to give the Admirals a 2-1 lead. While on a power play, he beat goaltender Cam Johnson over the shoulder from the left circle. Later in the period, on another power play, Novak set up Rocco Grimaldi’s 11th goal of the season to increase the advantage to 3-1. Brendan Gaunce answered 25 seconds later to bring Cleveland to within a goal. Less than two minutes later, Josh Dunne scored a breakaway goal to tie the game heading into the final period.

After an exciting second half to the middle frame, neither team found the back of the net during the last 20 minutes of regulation. In the final minute of overtime, Richard got in behind the Monsters’ defense and slipped the puck between the legs of Johnson for the game-winner.

“He’s a fifth-year pro, and there’s a lot of expectations for him,” Admirals’ head coach Karl Taylor said of Richard. “Today was one of his better games. There’s still room for improvement, and he knows that. I want him to enjoy the success he had and reflect on it. I want him to understand why. He used his speed as a weapon and was committed to both ways. When he plays that way, he’s going to be a good player for us.”

Moose 4, Stars 1

On Friday, the Stars took to the ice for their first game since Dec. 18. Despite outshooting the Moose 35-19, they were on the short end of the stick in the only stat that matters in the end.

The Moose scored first for the sixth straight game as Poganski had the only goal of the first two periods. He beat Anton Khudobin to the glove side for his fifth goal of the season. Luke Johnson, who hasn’t played since Oct. 24 due to injury, had the primary assist.

Early in the third period, Alex Petrovic connected with Fredrik Karlstrom on a backdoor play to tie the game. Malott broke that tie six minutes later with a fancy between-the-legs backhand goal. Manitoba iced the game with a pair of late empty-net goals by Nicholas Jones and Poganski.

Jeff Malott Manitoba Moose
Malott leads Manitoba in goals. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“I think we built off last game,” Malott said shortly after the win. “There were still some opportunities that we gave up that we would like to tighten up. I think the last five minutes, we did a good job of sealing that game. Corms (Cormier) has been playing amazing lately, and he kept it up tonight. He really kept us in the game. I think there are things we can clean up, but I think we built on last game as well.”

IceHogs 8, Wolves 0

The Wolves’ 12-game winning streak came to a crashing halt thanks to a blowout loss to their interstate rivals. Chicago dressed a healthy lineup of skaters, but they didn’t do much to help Lackey, who was making his AHL debut after arriving at the arena 10 minutes before warm-ups.  

The IceHogs struck first, while teams skated 4-on-4 early in the first period. Defenseman Alec Regula went below the goal line to retrieve the puck and quickly got it to Lukas Reichel between the dots, where he buried his team-high ninth goal of the season.

Rockford took full advantage of the inexperience of Lackey by scoring five goals in the second frame to blow the contest wide open. Andrei Altybarmakian started the onslaught with his first goal of the season from the slot. Less than three minutes later, Regula spotted Chad Yetman leaving the penalty box and hit him with a stretch pass to spring him on a breakaway, where he beat Lackey for his first goal. Reichel made it 4-0 with a power-play goal just over a minute later. Late in the period, Jakub Pour scored directly off a Garrett Mitchell faceoff win to pad the lead to five goals. Michal Teply became the third IceHog to score his first goal of the season before the period mercifully came to an end for Lackey and the Wolves.

Lukas Reichel Rockford IceHogs
Reichel had a career night versus the Wolves. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Pirri picked up his first point in his season debut by setting up D.J. Busdecker’s third goal of the season to finish off an odd-man rush late in the third period. Cameron Morrison finished off the scoring 15 seconds later. He was the only player to see the puck loose in the crease, and he pushed it home for his first career AHL goal. Collin Delia made 30 saves for his first shutout of the season and fifth of his AHL career.

“That was a game I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Wolves’ bench boss Ryan Warsofsky. “It was embarrassing. I know we want to move forward, and we are moving forward, but as a coach, that’s a game I’ll remember until the day I die.”

Saturday, Jan 8

Monsters 2, Griffins 1 (OT)

The Griffins’ four-game winning streak ended in overtime Saturday night, but they pushed their point streak to six games in a row.

After a scoreless first period, Criscuolo scored his 10th goal of the season late in the second stanza to give the Griffins a 1-0 lead. Brett Gallant tied the game by driving hard to the net seven minutes into the final frame.

Trey Fix-Wolansky won the game for the Monsters just 14 seconds into overtime by getting around the defense and scoring from in between the dots. Rookie goaltender Victor Brattstrom made a career-high 34 saves in the losing effort.

“We’ve had really good looks but haven’t been opportunistic enough to score,” Simon said of his team’s stretch of 1-for-18 with the man advantage. “Tonight, I thought our power play stunk. We were outworked and didn’t execute. We had way too many shots blocked. When you get a four-minute power play in the first minute of the game and muster one shot, you give them momentum. It’s unacceptable.”

IceHogs 6, Admirals 2

On Friday, Rockford carried over their offensive momentum from their eight-goal outburst to score another six times in Milwaukee on Saturday.

Pirri scored twice within the first 3:02 of the game to give the IceHogs an early 2-0 lead. He beat Cooley with a snap shot just 35 seconds into the game for his first goal of the season. Moments later, he added a second goal as Cooley let in the first two shots he saw on the night.

Brandon Pirri Rockford IceHogs
Pirri made an immediate impact on the IceHogs. (Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs)

Things settled down for a bit after the quick start. Egor Afanasyev scored a power-play goal at 8:34 of the second period to cut the Rockford lead in half. Four minutes later, Altybarmakian scored his second goal in as many nights to put the IceHogs back up by two. Defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk scored on the power play to increase the lead to 4-1 just before the second intermission.

Richard got to the bouncing puck in the crease and shuffled it past Delia to bring the Admirals to within two early in the third period. Reichel answered with his third goal of the weekend from the left dot midway through the frame. Pirri finished off his fifth career AHL hat trick with a late empty-net goal. He is now 11 goals shy of catching Jeremy Morin for the most in IceHogs’ history.

Wolves 6, Wild 2

The Wolves were embarrassed on Friday night, and they had a quick turnaround as they returned home to host the Wild on Saturday. They responded with a nice bounce-back victory, showing their depth and tenacity.

After being shut out the previous night, it took the Wolves just 1:28 to get on the scoreboard. Stefan Noesen camped out in front of McIntyre and redirected a Jesper Sellgren shot behind him for his 11th goal. Hicketts scored his 7th goal of the season from the high slot to tie the game just over four minutes later. The game didn’t stay even very long as Sam Miletic scored off a big rebound 89 seconds later to give Chicago a 2-1 advantage.

Early in the second period, Andrew Poturalski put the Wolves up 3-1 with a power-play tally. Moments after drawing a hooking penalty, he tucked the puck under the pads of McIntyre for his team-high 13th goal of the season. Adam Beckman got that goal back for the Wild three minutes later by roofing a shot just under the crossbar. Three minutes after that, Noesen scored again off an Iowa turnover to put Chicago up 4-2.

Related – Wolves’ Poturalski, A Perfect Choice for Captain

Shortly after Noesen’s goal, Lackey headed to the locker room with an injury and did not return. He was replaced by Mannella, who was making his AHL debut. Ivan Lodnia made it 5-2 when he collected a bounce off the end boards and banked it off McIntyre for his first career AHL goal.

Poturalski had the only goal of the relatively uneventful third period as Miletic found him at the front of the net for his second goal of the night. Lackey stopped 11 of the 13 shots he faced before leaving to earn his first AHL win. Mannella kept out all 16 shots thrown his way.

Andrew Poturalski Chicago Wolves
Poturalski is having an MVP season. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“That first goal was obviously important, and we built off of it,” said Warsofsky. “It was a really good 60-minute effort.”

Moose 5, Stars 4

Saturday night’s rematch was an emotional roller coaster as the Moose grabbed a weekend sweep with only a single tick left on the clock.

The game looked to be headed into the first intermission knotted at 0-0, but Todd Burgess scored off a faceoff with just over a minute left to give Manitoba a 1-0 lead. Luke Johnson doubled the lead just 31 seconds into the second period when he scored off the rebound from a Malott shot.

The Stars fought back to even the score before the end of the frame. Josh Melnick got Texas on the board with a shorthanded goal, while Curtis McKenzie served a roughing penalty. Later in the period, Anthony Louis started his big night with a power-play tally.

Louis scored another power-play goal in the opening minute of the third period to give the Stars a 3-2 lead. It was Manitoba’s turn to score on the man advantage about eight minutes later when Isaac Johnson’s first AHL goal tied the score. Cole Maier put the Moose ahead 75 seconds later with a long wrist shot. Louis scored off his own rebound to complete his first professional hat trick and draw Texas even with 1:01 left to play. However, Haralds Egle fired a spinning shot towards the net that beat Khudobin with less than a second left in regulation to defeat the home team in a heartbreaking fashion.

“It was a scrappy game,” Louis said shortly after the tough loss. “We played a strong game, but unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. That’s a tough team to play against. I like the way we’re headed. If we stick to the game plan, we will be fine.”

Sunday, Jan. 9

Wolves 4, Monsters 3

The Wolves closed out their weekend hosting the Monsters. They had to come from behind twice to earn the victory in a very physical contest.

The Monsters scored 35 seconds into the game when Cole Fanstad redirected a Fix-Wolansky shot past Mannella right off a Tyler Sikura faceoff win. The Wolves responded 12 minutes later with a power-play goal as Jack Drury redirected a pass from Poturalski for his 8th goal of the season. Less than three minutes later, defenseman Artyom Serikov’s shot from the left point made its way through heavy traffic to give Chicago a 2-1 lead.

Cleveland scored twice in the sandwich stanza to take a 3-2 lead into the second intermission. The first goal came at 2:33 when Mannella went behind the net to stop a dump-in pass. However, the puck hit off the end boards and went right out in front to Jake Gaudet, who tapped it into the wide-open net for his first career AHL goal. A few minutes later, Joey Keane failed to clear the puck, and Gaunce set up Dunne for a tap-in power-play goal.

Poturalski drew the Wolves even just 24 seconds into the third period. Miletic got the puck from behind the net and passed to the captain right at the top of the crease, where he swept it past Jet Greaves for his 15th goal on the campaign. The Wolves broke the tie while on a power play midway through the frame. C.J. Smith faked his way around an out-of-position Greaves, then put the puck towards the crease where it was pushed over the line by Noesen. From there, Chicago made it impossible for Cleveland to mount a comeback as they held the Monsters to zero shots on goal during the final frame. Mannella made 24 saves to earn his first AHL win.

“I was surprised when I got the call on Friday,” Mannella said of his crazy weekend. “It’s definitely a jump, but at the end of the day, the game is the same no matter what level you’re at. I just try to do what I can and focus on what I can control. The results will take care of themselves if you do that.”

Who’s Hot

Hirose had the primary assist on the Griffins’ lone goal Saturday night to extend his point streak to four games. He has three goals and six points during this streak. He has seven goals and leads the team with 18 assists and 25 points.

Cormier is now 3-0-1 in his three starts since signing a PTO with the Moose on Jan. 2, stopping 107 of the 115 shots he’s faced. He has a 1.96 goals-against average, and a .930 save percentage in his first stint with Manitoba.

Player of the Week

Reichel is the top prospect of the Blackhawks organization, and his performance over the weekend is exactly what they need more of. He followed up his two goals and two assists on Friday with another goal and helper on Saturday. Before the AHL jumped on the bandwagon and named him their Player of the Week, I named him my Prospect of the Week on the latest episode of Prospect Corner.

The 17th overall pick of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft is the first IceHogs player to win the AHL Player of the Week honor since defenseman Adam Clendening during the 2017-18 season.

Upcoming Schedule

Wednesday, Jan. 12
Griffins @ Wolves, Moose @ Admirals

Friday, Jan. 14
Moose @ Griffins, Wolves @ Wild, Monsters @ IceHogs, Admirals @ Colorado Eagles

Saturday, Jan. 8
Stars @ Checkers, Moose @ Griffins, Wolves @ Wild, Monsters @ IceHogs, Admirals @ Colorado Eagles

Sunday, Jan. 9
Stars @ Checkers

Central Division Standings

Wolves 22-5-1-1 (46 pts, .703%)
Moose 18-9-1-0 (38 pts, .655%)
Griffins 13-10-4-1 (31 pts, .554%)
IceHogs 13-11-1-1 (28 pts, .538%)
Wild 12-13-2-2 (28 pts, .483%)
Admirals 13-17-2-0 (28 pts, .438%)
Stars 8-13-3-1 (20 pts, .400%)
(Standings determined by points percentage, top five teams qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs)