AHL Central News: The Stretch Run Begins

The eight teams of the American Hockey League’s Central Division got back to the grind last week following the All-Star break. Even though the week contained a lighter-than-usual workload, it did not prevent us from another exciting week. The top four teams in the division are separated by just six points while the four teams trying to catch them are just five points apart from each other.

Griffins Maintain Their Cushion atop the Division

The Grand Rapids Griffins (26-15-3-4) were able to do something many teams haven’t been able to do a lot of late by winning a game in Texas. They split their two-game trek through the Lone Star State to remain atop the division with 59 points. Before the Griffins returned to game action from the All-Star break, they learned that Michael Rasmussen would be joining the team on a conditioning assignment. The ninth-overall pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft had not played since Jan. 4 due to injury.

The Griffins continued their winning ways at the Texas Stars on Thursday night with a come-from-behind 5-3 victory. After the Stars grabbed an early 1-0, Filip Hronek set up Dominic Turgeon to finish off a 3-on-1 rush to even things up. Texas built up a 3-1 lead with a pair of the power play goals; one late in the first period and another early in the second. Chris Terry scored his 24th goal of the season to draw the Griffins to within a goal just past the midway point of the game.

Rasmussen tied the game with a power-play goal, off a rebound, just two minutes later. The Griffins finished the second period with 23 shots on goal, tying a franchise record for the most shots in a period during a road game.

Michael Rasmussen - Red Wings
Michael Rasmussen is making the best of his contitioning stint in the AHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Dominik Shine scored the eventual game-winning goal less than three minutes into the third period after Axel Holmstrom won a puck battle behind the net and set him up out front. Filip Zadina added an empty-net goal in the final minute of play to ice the game.

Things did not go so well the following night in a 2-0 loss at the San Antonio Rampage. Former Griffins goaltender Jared Coreau stopped all 29 shots he saw to snap the Griffins win streak at five games. They will now return home for a season-high seven-game homestand.

Player of the Week: While Rasmussen is not expected to be in Grand Rapids very long, he sure made an immediate impact. His two goals were the difference in the Griffins’ lone win of the week. He is likely to return to Detroit very soon where he has six goals and 13 points in 41 games with the Red Wings.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Feb. 6 vs Manitoba Moose; Saturday, Feb. 9 vs Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins; Sunday, Feb. 10 vs Chicago Wolves

Wolves Earn Split to Keep Pace

The Chicago Wolves (25-15-5-1) were able to jump into second place by splitting their two games last week. Their 56 points have them three points behind the Griffins as they look for their third-straight Central Division crown.

Chicago returned from the break Friday night by making the short trip west to take on the Rockford IceHogs. The Wolves were unsure if they would have a full lineup as both Tye McGinn and T.J. Tynan are out with injuries and Alex Gallant has taken a personal leave from the team. To make matters worse, Keegan Kolesar had travel difficulties due to the deep freeze in the Midwest and made it to the arena just minutes before pregame warm-ups began.

Despite all the stress, the Wolves came out flying and dominated the first half of the opening period. Daniel Carr picked up right where he left off before playing in the AHL All-Star Classic by opening the scoring about three minutes into the game.

The IceHogs got their legs under them in the second half of the first period and tied the game before the intermission. They then went on to score three straight goals to build a 4-1 lead. Starting goaltender Oscar Dansk was pulled after allowing the fourth goal. Gage Quinney cut into the lead by scoring on the power play in the final seconds of the frame.

Oscar Dansk Golden Knights
Oscar Dansk bounced back nicely after a rough start to the week. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The Wolves put constant pressure on the IceHogs in the third period, but could not draw any closer. Rockford added a late empty-net goal to finish off the 5-2 victory.

The Wolves returned home against the Manitoba Moose on Saturday night and treated the large crowd to a 5-2 win of their own. Tomas Hyka broke the scoreless tie late in the first period by firing a shot from the bottom of the right circle that sneaked its way into the Manitoba net. The lead did not last very long as the Moose knotted things up with a power-play goal less than two minutes later.

Carr continued his MVP-like performance by putting the Wolves back on top just 38 seconds later as he got to the front of the net and batted a loose puck home for his 23rd goal of the season. The Moose tied the game early in the second period with a strange shorthanded goal as a clearing attempt hit off the end boards then bounced off Dansk and into the cage.

Kolesar put the Wolves up for good by scoring off the crossbar from a bad angle two and a half minutes later. Defenseman Zach Whitecloud added to the lead early in the third period by blasting home a shot from the high slot. Quinney scored off a defender’s skate with five minutes left to close out the scoring.

Player of the Week: Carr and Quinney both fished the week with a pair of goals and four points. They have been two-thirds of a dominant line with Brooks Macek, who had three assists in two games. Brandon Pirri was the hottest player in the AHL during December and since his recall to the Vegas Golden Knights, Carr has been a scoring machine. He leads the AHL with 34 assists and 57 points and is second with 23 goals.

The Week Ahead: Saturday, Feb. 9 @ Milwaukee Admirals; Sunday, Feb. 10 @ Griffins

Wild Drop Following West Coast Struggles

The Iowa Wild’s (24-16-4-3) venture out west has not gotten off the best of starts. After losing the first two games of their three-game trek in California, they have dropped to third place with 55 points.

Before the Wild hit the road, the Minnesota Wild traded defenseman Ryan Murphy to the New Jersey Devils for fellow blueliner Michael Kapla. Murphy played in 23 games for Minnesota since signing with the team in 2017. Kapla, a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, had a goal and 16 points in 45 contests with the Binghamton Devils this season.

Iowa got back to business on Friday night with a disappointing 4-2 loss at the Bakersfield Condors. The Wild struck first with a late goal in the opening frame. Seconds after a power play expired, Will Bitten won a puck battle in the corner and got it to Gerry Mayhew in front of the net for his 13th goal of the season.

The second period was unkind for the Wild as they surrendered three goals to the Condors and found themselves down 3-1 after 40 minutes. Mason Shaw cut the lead to one goal by scoring on the power play with about four minutes left in regulation. However, they could not draw any closer and they allowed an empty-netter to cap off the scoring.

It did not go much better following night as the Wild fell 4-1 at the San Diego Gulls. The home team built a 2-0 lead before the game was even six minutes old, putting the Wild behind the eight-ball early. Luke Kunin cut the lead in half with just under five minutes remaining in the first period. Kunin was able to get to a loose puck in front of the net and slip it past the goaltender for his ninth goal on the season.

After a scoreless second period, the Gulls went up 3-1 a minute into the third before adding an empty-net goal in the final minute of the game.

Player of the Week: The Wild only scored three goals last week and Joel Eriksson Ek had the primary assist on two of them. While he has spent the majority of the season in Minnesota, he has been great in Iowa. He is still averaging a point-per-game in the AHL with four goals and nine points in nine games.

Joel Eriksson Ek
Joel Eriksson Ek has been a force to be reckoned with in the AHL this season. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Week Ahead: Tuesday, Feb. 5 @ San Jose Barracuda, Friday, Feb. 8 vs San Antonio Rampage; Saturday, Feb. 9 vs Rampage

Admirals Hanging Tough in Final Playoff Spot

The Admirals (22-17-8-1) picked up two points last week with a pair of overtime losses. They are still holding on to the fourth and final playoff spot with 53 points, but they have a slim three-point lead over fifth place.

Before the Admirals got back to work over the weekend, they learned they would be without forward Colin Blackwell. The Nashville Predators announced on Thursday that they had recalled Blackwell. This is his second stint in the NHL this season after playing in three games for the Predators in January.

The Admirals lost 3-2 in overtime to the Moose in their first game back from the All-Star break Friday night. The Moose held a 1-0 lead after the first period, but Jeremy Gregoire followed up his own shot and scored off the rebound to even things up just 29 seconds into the middle frame. Yakov Trenin continued his hot streak with a power-play goal just over six minutes later to give the Admirals a 2-1 lead.

Yakov Trenin Milwaukee Admirals
Yakov Trenin is putting together a career year in Milwaukee. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Manitoba came back to score two minutes into the third period and then scored the game-winner three minutes into overtime. Goaltender Tom McCollum made 26 saves in the losing effort.

The Admirals welcomed the IceHogs the following night and needed two late goals to prevent Rockford from drawing even closer in their second straight 3-2 overtime loss. The teams battled to a scoreless tie through the opening 40 minutes, but then the action picked up in the third period. The IceHogs scored early in the frame before doubling their lead with less than eight minutes remaining.

The Admirals got a late power play and pulled goaltender Troy Grosenick for a 6-on-4 advantage. The move paid off when Eeli Tolvanen cut the lead in half with a one-timer from the right dot with just 2:38 left in regulation. Head coach Karl Taylor once again elected to pull his goalie for an extra attacker. With just 43 seconds left on the clock, defenseman Vince Pedrie’s shot deflected of Trenin and into the Rockford net to send the game into overtime.

The IceHogs got the only shot in the extra frame and they made it count as the game-winner. Grosenick made 39 saves, including 15 in the third period, to earn the Admirals a point.

Player of the Week: For the second straight week, this honor goes to Trenin. The 22-year-old winger has been coming into his own of late. He scored in both of the Admirals games last week. Trenin has goals in each of his last three games and five over his last five games.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Feb. 6 vs Stars; Friday, Feb. 8 vs Penguins; Saturday, Feb. 9 vs Wolves

IceHogs Continue Their Surge up the Standings

It wasn’t very long ago when the IceHogs (21-19-3-5) were two minutes away from being knocked down into last place in the Central. After back-to-back four-point weeks and a four-game winning streak, the IceHogs are back over .500 and have jumped up into fifth place. Their 50 points have them just three points out of a playoff spot.

Related: IceHogs in Need of Another Magical Run

The IceHogs (21-19-3-5) began their week with some rather surprising news as rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju was reassigned to Rockford by the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday.

Jokiharju made his AHL debut on Friday night versus the Wolves and made an instant impact in a 5-2 win. After Chicago grabbed an early 1-0 lead, Jokiharju ripped a shot from the right point that found its way through traffic and into the back of the next to even things up late in the first period.

Henri Jokiharju had a very successful debut weekend in the AHL. (Dayna Fjord/Portland Winterhawks)

The IceHogs took control of the game with a trio of second period goals. Terry Broadhurst found Alexandre Fortin in the slot for the go-ahead goal less than three minutes into the period. Broadhurst added his fifth point in the last four games by making a similar play to set up a William Pelletier goal just over four minutes later. Victor Ejdsell finished the scoring outburst late in the period by driving hard to the net and cashing in on his own rebound.

The Wolves cut the lead down to two goals early in the third period and kept up the pressure for the remainder of the game. Goaltender Kevin Lankinen came up with quite a few big stops and made 28 total saves on the night. Fortin iced the game with late empty-netter for his second goal of the night.

The IceHogs made the short trip northeast to Milwaukee the following night to take on the Admirals; the team directly ahead of them in the standings. They were able to gain a point on them with a 3-2 overtime win, but they had to feel a little disappointed about winning in regulation.

Dylan Sikura finally opened the scoring 2:40 into the third period. He notched his team-leading 13th goal of the season by driving to the net and putting back a rebound off an Andreas Martinsen shot. Pelletier scored for the second straight night to double the lead, with less than eight minutes to go, by banking a shot off a Milwaukee defender.

The Admirals got on the board with a power-play goal with less than three minutes left in regulation. They tied the game in the final minute when a shot from the point changed direction and got in behind Anton Forsberg.

Darren Raddysh had the only shot on goal during overtime and it would be all the IceHogs needed. Jordan Schroeder entered the zone and found Raddysh heading towards the net where he won the game scoring on the glove side. Forsberg made 26 saves in the win and has now given up two or fewer goals in four of his last five starts.

Player of the Week: Pelletier may not be the flashiest or most talented player on the ice, but you won’t find many players in the league that work harder than he does. An injury kept him off the ice until Dec. 19, but he has been a key addition to the lineup. He scored in each of the IceHogs wins last week and has four goals and eight points in 16 games since returning to the lineup.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Feb. 6 vs Penguins; Friday, Feb. 8 vs Tucson Roadrunners; Saturday, Feb. 9 vs Roadrunners

Light Week Slides the Stars Down

The Stars (22-18-3-2) only had one game last week and were unable to earn any points. They have now dropped to sixth place with 49 points, but are well within striking distance for a postseason berth as we enter the stretch run.

Texas lost a couple of key players before returning from the All-Star break as the Dallas Stars recalled forward Roope Hintz and All-Star Denis Gurianov to the NHL. The duo has combined for 22 goals and 56 points in the AHL this season.

The Stars hosted the Griffins in their lone game of the week on Thursday and the squandered a two-goal lead in a 5-3 loss. Tony Calderone got the scoring started, just over seven minutes into the game, by firing a shot from the left circle that hit the crossbar before going over the goal line. The lead did not last long as the Griffins responded four minutes later.

Joel L’Esperance continued his fantastic rookie season late in the first period by putting the Stars back on top, while on the power play, off a rebound from a Gavin Bayreuther shot. Michael Mersch converted on an early second-period power play to double the lead to 3-1. The Griffins battled back with a pair of goals before the end of the second period to tie the score. They took the lead two and a half minutes into the third period and iced the game with an empty-netter in the final minute.

Player of the Week: L’Esperance was the only player to hit the scoresheet twice in Thursday’s loss by picking up a goal and an assist. He is currently tied for the league lead in goals with 24. He is sixth on the team with 15 assists.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Feb. 6 @ Admirals; Saturday, Feb. 9 @ Moose; Sunday, Feb. 10 @ Moose

Rampage Continue Home Ice Success

The Rampage (23-21-2-0) had a light workload last week with just a single game. They made the best of it by grabbing two points to help them draw closer to a playoff spot. Their 48 points have them in seventh place, but they are just a single point behind the Stars and two points behind the IceHogs as the standings get tighter.

Coreau, who spent five seasons with Griffins, came back to haunt his former team by stopping all 29 shots he faced in a 2-0 Rampage win Friday night. Sammy Blais scored the only goal the Rampage would need on the power play. About seven and a half minutes into the game, Blais took a pass from Jordan Kyrou in the right circle and fired a wrist shot into the Grand Rapids net.

Adam Musil doubled the lead and finished off the scoring less than six minutes later by cashing in on the rebound off a Chris Butler shot. The Rampage is now 13-0-1 in their last 14 home games and their goaltenders have combined for six shutouts on the seasons.

Player of the Week: While Jordan Binnington is off in St. Louis saving the Blues’ season, Coreau has stepped in nicely after being acquired from the Gulls. He has started the last 11 games for the Rampage and has two shutouts in his last three games.

The Week Ahead: Friday, Feb. 8 @ Wild; Saturday, Feb. 9 @ Wild

Improved Moose Looking to Get Back in Playoff Hunt

The Moose (20-20-3-2) split their two games last week and now have at least one point in 10 out of their last 12 games. They are still at the bottom of the division with 45 points, but they are much closer to making things interesting than they were about three weeks ago. They returned to Milwaukee after the All-Star break, the same place they ended the first half with an 8-2 loss last Saturday. The Moose rebounded nicely with a 3-2 overtime victory.

Despite five total power plays during the opening period, the Moose scored the only tally before the first intermission. Former Admiral Felix Girard tipped a shot from the point by Peter Stoykewych into the Milwaukee net just shy of the 11-minute mark. The Admirals evened things up just 29 seconds into the second period. They took their first and only lead of the night less than seven minutes later and hung onto their 2-1 advantage heading into the final frame.

Logan Shaw tied the game on the power play, early in the third period, by firing home a one-timer from the high slot. Shaw now has a goal in each of the five games he has played against the Admirals this season. The Moose dominated the overtime session by outshooting the Admirals 6-0. Jansen Harkins scored his first career overtime goal off a Tucker Poolman rebound to earn the extra point.

The team took the short trip south to Chicago for their fourth meeting of the season with the Wolves. They were able to keep things close for much of the game, but eventually fell 5-2.

The Moose tied the game tied the game less than two minutes after the Wolves opened the scoring. While on a late first-period power play, a Seth Griffith shot went wide and bounced off the end boards right to Marko Dano’s stick who tucked it into the net. The helper extended Griffith’s league-leading assist streak to 11 straight games. The Wolves answered with another goal just 48 seconds later to take a 2-1 advantage into the locker room.

Seth Griffith, Manitoba Moose
Seth Griffith has been an assist machine of late. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Another fortunate bounce off the end boards helped the Moose tie the game early in the second period. While on the penalty kill, J.C. Lipon fired the puck down the length of the ice where it off the back wall, bounced off the net minder and into the cage. The Wolves took the lead for good two and a half minutes later and added a pair of insurance goals in the third period.

Player of the Week: The Moose scored five goals in their two games and Poolman had helpers on three of them. He followed up his first career multi-point game on Friday with a third assist in Saturday’s loss. The 25-year-old defenseman has already set a career high with two goals and 11 points on the season.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Feb. 6 @ Griffins; Saturday, Feb. 9 vs Stars, Sunday, Feb. 10 vs Stars

The teams of the Central Division will all play at least two games this week so the standings could very well undergo yet another shakeup before next week’s update.