The American Hockey League opened up its 84th season over the weekend with plenty of action from coast to coast. The Central Division should be one of the most competitive this season with eight teams battling it out, over 76 games, for four berths in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Wild Sweep Weekend on Home Ice
2018-19 was a historic season for the Iowa Wild as they qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time and won their first-ever postseason series. They got the new season off on the right foot with a pair of wins over the weekend to head to the top of the Central.
The Wild dropped the puck on the 2019-20 season by hosting the Rockford IceHogs on Friday night. They found themselves down 1-0 heading into the third period when veteran Gabriel Dumont tied the game just 24 seconds into the final frame.
After the IceHogs retook the lead less than a minute later, Gerry Mayhew picked up right where he left off last season by tying the game and capping off a stretch that saw three goals in 2:06.
The Wild got a late power play and converted for the first time in five tries with just 15 seconds left on the clock. Veteran J.T. Brown camped out in front of the net and redirected a Nico Sturm shot into the Rockford net for his first tally of the season.
“I didn’t do a whole lot there, it just hit me in the chest,” Brown said of his game-winning goal. “I went from being super scared because I thought it was going to hit me in the chin – and then it went in – to being super excited. So, a quick range of emotions.”
Goaltender Kappo Kahkonen made 24 saves in leading the Wild to their first win of the new season.
On Saturday, Michael Liambas was given a one-game suspension by the AHL for checking from behind, even though the play in question did not receive a penalty on the ice.
Iowa made it a perfect weekend by taking down the Milwaukee Admirals, on home ice, Sunday afternoon. The Wild got goals from five different players in a 5-2 victory. Mayhew led the way with a goal and three points.
Brandon Duhaime evened things up with his first professional goal just 15 seconds after the Admirals scored the opening tally. From there, the Wild got second-period goals from Dumont, Mitch McLain and Mayhew to build up a three-goal lead. Will Bitten capped off the scoring with a late empty-net goal. Kahkonen only faced 17 shots and kept 15 of those out of his net.
Player of the Week: Mayhew led the Wild with 27 goals last season. He signed a two-way NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild during his hot streak in the Calder Cup playoffs which saw him score 11 goals in 11 games. The 27-year-old winger led the way with a pair of goals and two helpers over the weekend. Iowa will need Mayhew to keep playing at a high level now that former captain and leading scorer, Cal O’Reilly, has moved on to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 vs Texas Stars; Saturday, Oct. 12 vs Stars
The New Guys Lead the Way in San Antonio
No team had fewer points in the Central Division last season than the San Antonio Rampage. To say winning their first two games of the new season is a huge confidence booster would probably be a bit of an understatement.
The Rampage kicked things off Friday night against the visiting Manitoba Moose. They got goals from a pair of players making their San Antonio debuts to get past their rivals from the north, 2-1.
Mike Vecchione used the skate of a Moose defender to find the back of the net for the Rampage’s first goal of the season in the opening period. Nathan Walker doubled the Rampage lead, early in the second period, by converting on a breakaway.
Goaltender Ville Husso gave up the lone goal of the night in the final seconds of the middle frame. However, he stopped all nine shots he saw in the third period and made 22 total saves to give the Rampage their fourth straight opening night victory.
The Rampage closed out their successful weekend with a 5-2 comeback victory over the Tucson Roadrunners on Sunday afternoon.
After scoring late in the first period and early in the second, the Roadrunners built up a 2-0 lead before the Rampage went on to score five unanswered goals. Just like on Friday night, Vecchione got his team on the board and his goal was followed by another from Walker.
Zach Nastasiuk scored twice in the third period, with a goal from defenseman Niko Mikkola sandwiched in between, to give the Rampage a 2-0-0-0 start on the new season. They had 10 different players find the score sheet with four them grabbing two points. Husso made 31 saves to pick up his second win in as many starts.
Player of the Week: The Rampage scored seven goals over the weekend with Nastasiuk, Vecchione and Walker all scoring two apiece. The nod will go to Walker who picked up a team-high three points. He had the game-winning goal on Friday and the game-tying goal on Sunday to along with a primary assist. Walker had 17 goals and 39 points for the Hershey Bears last season and has already become a key part of the Ramage’s success.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 vs Chicago Wolves; Saturday, Oct. 12 vs Wolves
Griffins Roll Out Very Talented Roster
The Grand Rapids Griffins might have the most talented team to start the 2018-19 season as they have five recent first-round draft picks on their roster. Many of those Detroit Red Wings prospects made their presence felt in a crazy 8-5 victory at the Chicago Wolves on Friday night.
2015 first-round pick Evgeny Svechnikov, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury, scored the first goal of the night early in the first period. After the Wolves quickly tied the game, the Griffins took a 3-1 lead into the intermission thanks to a pair of power-play goals by Matthew Ford and Michael Rasmussen.
Chris Terry, who lead the Griffins in scoring last season, scored his team’s lone goal of the middle frame as the Griffins held a 4-3 advantage through 40 minutes.
Oliwer Kaski and Ryan Kuffner scored goals just nine seconds apart, early in the third period, to give the Griffins a three-goal lead. The Wolves answered with a pair of goals of their own, but Givani Smith scored to give his team some insurance. Ford added a shorthanded, empty-net goal to seal the deal later in the period.
Calvin Pickard made his Grand Rapids debut and he was quite busy. Even though he gave up five goals, he made a handful of very good saves early on and stopped a total of 35 shots.
Player of the Week: Seven different Griffins had multi-point nights against the Wolves. Ford, a veteran of 665 AHL games, scored two goals and a career-high four points. The soon-to-be 35-year-old has five seasons of at least 20 goals in his AHL career and is off to a good start in getting his sixth.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 vs Admirals; Saturday, Oct. 12 @ IceHogs
Moose Split Their Weekend in Texas
The Moose was one of the hottest teams in the entire AHL the final few weeks of the 2018-19 season, but they fell just short of qualifying for a playoff spot. They started off the new campaign by splitting a pair of road games in the Lonestar State.
The Manitoba offense was not very impressive during their season-opening 2-1 loss to the Rampage Friday night. Defenseman Cameron Schilling cut the Ramage’s 2-0 in half with just three seconds left in the second period, but they were unable to draw even during the final stanza. Mikhail Berdin made 33 saves in the losing effort.
The Moose had very little time to stew over their loss as they made the short trip to Cedar Park to take on the Texas Stars Saturday night. The offense erupted for 19 shots and two goals in the opening period. Jansen Harkins started the scoring just over a minute in the game. Logan Shaw, who led the Moose in goals last season, broke a 1-1 tie in the final minute of the first period.
Logan Stanley doubled the lead early in the second period, on his way to a Gordie Howe hat trick. The Stars fought back to tie the game midway through the third period, but Skyler McKenzie’s goal with just over two minutes remaining proved to be the game-winner. Seth Griffin added an empty netter to finish off the scoring in a 5-3 victory.
“I think we just need to play consistently,” rookie defenseman Leon Gawanke said of the team’s weekend split. “I think we had a really good first period (against Texas) and then the third we picked it up again, but the second was kind of… we didn’t play our game like we wanted. So, we can definitely work on that and we’ll be ready for Friday.”
Player of the Week: Acquiring Shaw from the San Diego Gulls early last season turned out to be a great move for the Moose. He went on to score 27 goals and 46 points in the 63 games after the trade. He’s off to a hot start after his goal and two assists during the Moose’s win in Texas. He leads the team with eight shots on goal and a plus-4 rating through the first two games.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 vs Toronto Marlies; Saturday, Oct. 12 vs Marlies
IceHogs Suffer Heartbreak on Opening Night
The IceHogs were the lowest-scoring team in the AHL last season, but they should be improved in 2019-20. Unfortunately for the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate, we didn’t get to see that improvement in a 3-2 loss at the Wild Friday night.
After a scoreless first period, Matthew Highmore netted the IceHogs’ first goal early in the middle frame with a shorthanded tally.
The third period was quite eventful as the teams combined for three goals in the first 2:30 of the frame. Less than a minute after Wild tied the game, last season’s leading goal scorer, Dylan Sikura, scored from the slot to give the IceHogs their one-goal lead back. The Wild came back shortly afterward to tie the game and then score a power-play goal with just 15 seconds left to steal the victory. Kevin Lankinen made 30 saves in the loss.
“I think we’ve got lots to learn,” second-year head coach Derek King said. “We’ve some work to do, but we did some nice things out there. I liked our compete level. I thought our power play started to go a little better – we got some good looks – and our PK went really well. The key to us even being in this game that was Lankinen, he was outstanding.”
On Saturday, the Blackhawks reassigned defenseman Dennis Gilbert back to the IceHogs. Jack Ramsey was sent to the Indy Fuel of the ECHL to make room for the returning Gilbert.
Player of the Week: A shoulder injury in Oct. limited Highmore to just 12 games last season and he was greatly missed. He showed exactly what he brings to the IceHogs lineup by driving hard to the net and getting his stick on Mackenzie Entwistle’s shot before it crossed the goal line. He plays well in all three zones and can move up and down the lineup. If Highmore can stay healthy, the IceHogs will improve in the Central Division standings.
The Week Ahead: Saturday, Oct. 12 vs Griffins; Monday, Oct. 14 vs Laval Rocket
Admirals Lose More Than Just a Game
The Admirals kicked off their 50th season in franchise history with a Sunday afternoon matinee at the Wild. Unfortunately, their historic season did not get off to a great start as they not only lost the game 5-2 but also lost their starting goaltender to injury.
Troy Grosenick left the game with an injury before the game was two minutes old. He was replaced by Connor Ingram, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning during the offseason. Yakov Trenin redirected a Steve Santini shot to give the Admirals a 1-0 lead midway through the first period.
The lead did not last long as Iowa drew even just 15 seconds later. The Wild scored three goals in the second period to build a 4-1 lead. Mikka Salomaki added a second goal late in the third period, but Milwaukee could not draw any closer. The Wild added an empty-net goal to cap off their afternoon.
Player of the Week: Ingram was not expecting to play Sunday afternoon, but he was called into action before everyone even got their first shift. He went on to play well, making a total of 33 saves. If Grosenick is out for an extended period of time, the Admirals should be in good hands as Ingram posted a 2.26 goals-against average (GAA) and .922 save percentage in 22 games for the Syracuse Crunch last season.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 @ Griffins; Saturday, Oct. 12 vs Rocket
Defending Champs Stumble Out of the Gate
The Wolves started their quest to become the first-ever AHL team to win four straight division titles. However, the reigning Western Conference champions had their hands full during their wild 8-5 loss to the Griffins on Saturday night.
Due to the roster turnover in the offseason, Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson had to dress six rookies, with five of them making their AHL debuts. Lucas Elvenes picked up a goal and three assists in his North American debut.
The Wolves were chasing most of the night. Gage Quinney scored the first goal of the season early in the first period, but they were down 3-1 at the first intermission.
Elvenes scored his first AHL goal in the second period. After the Griffins added a fourth goal, former Charlotte Checkers captain Patrick Brown scored his first goal with the Wolves to cut the lead down to just one.
The Griffins seemed to put the game out of reach with two goals in nine seconds early in the third period. However, the Wolves did not lay down as veterans Tye McGinn and Curtis McKenzie scored to cut the lead to 6-5. The comeback fell short as the Griffins added two late goals to pull away.
Thompson actually had a smile on his face when he came out to talk after the game. He knew it is way too early to be overly concerned.
“I’m not disgusted with the way we played,” he said. “There was a lot of good things that we did. Obviously, it’s the start of the year, so there are going to be mishaps along the way. I don’t think the score was truly reflective of the type of game that it was.”
He did confirm that two of his rookies, Ben Jones and Jonas Rondbjerg, will be out sometime after leaving the game with injuries. Jones was hit up high by Dylan McIlrath as he carried the puck through the neutral zone. On Monday, the team signed forward Brett McKenzie and defenseman Olivier Galipeau to Player Tryout Contracts (PTO).
Player of the Week: Elvenes turned heads with a four-point night in his NHL debut. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft (127th overall) by the Vegas Golden Knights, the 20-year-old winger came to North America after coming up through the ranks in his native Sweden. The Wolves lost their top three scorers from last season, so they will welcome another offensive-minded player to the roster.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 @ Rampage; Saturday, Oct. 12 @ Rampage
Stars Winless After Weekend at Home
The Stars got to spend their opening weekend on home ice, however, their guests were not very welcoming as both the Roadrunners and Moose left Texas with victories.
The Stars dropped their season opener to Tucson, 2-0, thanks to a great performance by Antti Raanta. The Arizona Coyotes netminder is down in the AHL on a rehab assignment and he looked to be at full health with a 19-save shutout. Landon Bow played very well by making 26 saves, but he was let down by his offense.
Saturday was a busy day before the Stars took the ice against the Moose. Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill recalled defenseman Joel Hanley and last season’s leading goal scorer Joel L’Esperance to the NHL. To help fill the void on the roster, signed Conner Bleackley to a PTO.
Bleackley, who played 57 games for the Rampage last season, made an immediate impact in a 5-3 loss to the Moose. He scored his first goal with the Stars shortly after the Moose jumped out to an early lead.
Jason Robertson’s first career AHL goal cut the Manitoba lead to 3-2 just before the second intermission. Bleackley’s second goal of the night tied the game midway through the third period. The comeback effort fell short as the Moose scored a pair of goals in the last three minutes of the game to leave town with two points.
Player of the Week: The Stars were in desperate need of an offensive boost. After L’Esperance was recalled by Dallas, the Stars were missing their top four scorers from last season. Bleackley provided the spark they needed with a pair of goals just hours after signing a PTO with the team.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Oct. 11 @ Iowa; Saturday, Oct. 12 @ Iowa
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.