AHL Central News: A New Sheriff In Town

As we head into the American Thanksgiving holiday, things have tightened up in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. There is a new team atop the standings for the first time in a long time and there are three teams within three points of the final playoff spot. As the temperatures are dropping outside, the action within the division is starting to heat up.

Goaltending Moves Wild into First Place

The Iowa Wild’s (11-4-1-0) very successful week has moved them to the top of the Central Division. Rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen is quickly becoming a shooter’s worst nightmare. He started both games versus the Milwaukee Admirals on Wednesday and Friday and stopped all 58 shots in 3-0 and 6-0 victories.

He now has three consecutive shutouts and has not allowed a goal in (a franchise record) 207:55 of play. Kahkonen’s efforts against the Admirals earned him CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors. He now boasts a 0.79 goals-against average (GAA) and .972 save percentage (save %) in his first five career AHL starts.

The Wild showed off a balanced offensive attack during their dominating sweep of Milwaukee. They got goals from eight different players with Kyle Rau being the only player to score twice; both of those goals came in the third period of Friday’s blowout. Frustration boiled over and tempers flared as the game featured a combined 106 penalty minutes, including five misconducts.

The balanced attack carried into Saturday’s 4-3 overtime win at the Chicago Wolves. After trailing 1-0 through 20 minutes, Gerald Mayhew tied the game on the power play, early in the middle frame, with his second goal in as many games. Rau continued his big weekend by giving the Wild a lead before the horn sounded in the second period.

Dmitry Sokolov broke a 2-2 tie in the third period just 39 seconds after the Wolves drew even. Mitch McLain picked up the primary assist to extend his personal points streak to five games. Halfway through overtime, Gerry Fitzgerald gave the Wild the extra point by beating Oscar Dansk to the glove side. Cal O’Reilly picked up his team-leading 15th assist on the season with the setup feed.

Iowa’s penalty kill entered the game having given up just one power play goal in their last 33 chances. They allowed three power-play goals in eight chances to Chicago. Despite the slip-up, the Wild still boast the third-best penalty kill at 86.5%.

Iowa will spend their first full week in first place on the road, travelling to Milwaukee on Wednesday night and then playing back-to-back games in Manitoba on Friday and Saturday versus the Moose.

Offensive Woes Drop Admirals Down a Notch

Once upon a time, the Milwaukee Admirals (10-6-3-0) had the best record in the AHL. They have now fallen out of first place in the Central Division after their third straight down week.

“We had a good run early where it looked a little easier,” head coach Karl Taylor said over the weekend. “This is more reality here, where every night is a battle.”

Their offense was non-existent during a two-game set at the Wild after scoring seven goals in Chicago their previous outing. They put up a total of 58 shots on goal but lost back-to-back games on Wednesday and Friday by a combined score of 9-0. This marked the first time Milwaukee has been shutout in consecutive games since Feb. 19 and 20, 2005.

The Admirals hosted the Ontario Reign on Saturday night in their annual “Dog Day” contest in which fans were allowed to bring their pups to the game with them. The furry friends in the crowd must have inspired the Admirals as they went on to pick up a 2-1 victory. Eeli Tolvanen and Connor Brickley lit the lamp while goaltender Troy Grosenick stopped 22 of 23 shots to help salvage two points out of a rough week.

“I thought our compete level was really good,” said Taylor after Saturday’s victory. “I thought the guys really responded after, not the game we wanted yesterday or the result. It’s a good sign to see the group respond again. They’ve done it all year when we’ve had a disappointing game so it was outstanding to see them step up.”

The Admirals can seek revenge and try to regain first place when they host Iowa on Wednesday night. They will only have one game after the holiday, a road contest at the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday evening.

Wolves Figure Out Simple is Often Better

The Chicago Wolves (9-5-1-1) had nearly a week to work out the kinks after a disappointing homestand the previous weekend. The Wild came to town on Saturday night in a special teams showcase. This was not ideal for the Wolves as Iowa entered the game with both the AHL’s top-ranked power play and penalty kill. Five of the six goals scored in regulation came on the power play including all three of Chicago’s tallies.

Brandon Pirri picked up the only goal of the first period while on the man advantage. Reid Duke and Pirri both erased one-goal deficits with power play goals in the third period to force overtime, but they were unable to earn the extra point. Goaltender Max Lagace was fantastic with 23 saves is his first game in nearly three weeks because of injury.

reid duke
Reid Duke (CanesCast/WHL)

The Wolves ended their season-high, three-game losing streak with an impressive win over the tired Manitoba Moose, who were playing in their fourth road game of the week. Chicago had their way with the Moose, outshooting them 43-19 in a 4-2 victory. Ryan Wagner, a rookie from nearby Park Ridge, IL, picked up his first goal of the season to open the scoring. Curtis McKenzie and Griffin Reinhart scored in the second period to give the Wolves a 3-0 lead before Pirri sealed the deal with an empty-net goal in the final seconds. Duke picked up a pair of primary assists while goaltender Oscar Dansk made 17 saves to earn his sixth win of the year.

“I thought we were simple tonight. We got pucks in deep. We went to work,” head coach Rocky Thompson said after the win. “Our guys are realizing, even though that’s the right way to play and the way we want to play, it’s an offensive way to play. We generate a lot of shots and a lot of opportunities.

I really liked the way we played today. It’s the way we need to play every game, not just every now and again. So, I’m really happy with our guys today.”

The win bumped the Wolves ahead of the rival Rockford IceHogs for third place in the division. They will start a busy holiday weekend in Rockford on Friday night before returning home for “Star Wars Night” versus Grand Rapids on Saturday and a rematch with the IceHogs on Sunday.

The IceHogs Aren’t Reading the Instructions

The Rockford IceHogs (8-7-1-2) were able to navigate their first week following a coaching change by winning two of three games. However, the second week of the Derek King era was brutal for the Chicago Blackhawks’ affiliate. Not only did they lose all three games, but they were only able to score one goal in each defeat.

A Wednesday morning “School Day” meeting at the Grand Rapids Griffins did not fare well for the IceHogs. Jacob Nilsson picked up his second goal of the season late in the middle frame to tie the game, but the home team went on to score twice in the third period to pull off the 3-1 victory. Rockford had plenty of chances to change the course of the game, including hitting multiple posts and Nilsson failing to convert on a penalty shot.

The IceHogs’ six-game road trip continued over the weekend with a trip to the Lonestar State which began on Friday night at the Texas Stars. Veteran forward Jordan Schroeder, who had been out the lineup since Oct. 24 due to injury, scored his fourth goal of the season to tie up the game late in the second period. The Stars went on to score four straight goals in the third period to win 5-1. After getting nine shots on goal in the first period, the IceHogs finished the game with just 16 total shots and just two in the third period.

Their offensive woes carried into Saturday night’s contest in San Antonio, a 2-1 loss to the last place Rampage. Their lone goal came on the power play from defenseman Carl Dahlstrom late in the middle frame. The IceHogs managed just 15 shots on goal and never had more than six in a period. King said that the IceHogs need to simplify their game in order to create more offense and have to stop trying to be the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

“I’ll put up reminders and these are the instructions for tonight. Read the instructions,” King said on Saturday. “If you’re trying to build a drawer from Ikea and you’re not reading the instructions, good luck getting that put together. We put in a game plan together, let’s follow it. Sometimes we stray from it and that’s what happens.”

Injured forward Matthew Highmore will not return any time soon to help the offense. The 22-year-old winger has not played since Oct. 28 after taking a hard check into the boards. The team announced last week that he underwent shoulder surgery and will be out for the next four to six months.

The recent skid has dropped the IceHogs to fourth-place in the Central. Their long road trip will conclude with a rematch at the Rampage on Tuesday night. They will return home to host the Wolves on Friday night before heading down the I-90 for a rematch in Chicago Sunday afternoon.

Camper, Terry & Zadina Help Griffins Take Flight

The Grand Rapids Griffins (8-7-0-1) got off to a slow start, but a four-point week has them up to fifth place and just two points out of the final playoff spot in the Central Division. Their week began with an early morning “School Day” contest against the IceHogs on Wednesday. Top prospect Filip Zadina picked up his third two-goal game of the season in a 3-1 victory. Turner Elson scored a late empty-net goal to ice the win in a hotly contested game. Goaltender Patrik Rybar made 29 saves.

On Friday night, the Griffins welcomed the Ontario Reign for the first time ever at the Van Andel Arena. The Griffins jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Chris Terry and Carter Camper, but the lead was cut in half late in the opening period. Terry’s opening goal came just seven seconds after the opening faceoff and was the fastest goal in franchise history.

The penalty kill unit let down the home team as the Reign scored three power-play goals in the final period to jump out to a 4-2 lead. Terry’s second goal of the game and 10th on the season trimmed the lead to one goal but it was too little too late for the Griffins.

Chris Terry Griffins
Chris Terry  (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

They did not have long to stew over the loss as the Moose were in town the next night. The Griffins rebounded nicely with a 3-2 overtime win. Terry’s team-high 11th goal of the season tied the game less than a minute after Manitoba grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the first period.

Dominic Turgeon gave the Griffins their first lead of the game in the opening minute of the third period, but the Moose forced overtime with just 35 seconds remaining in regulation. Thirty-five seconds was the magic number because that’s how long it took the Griffins to win the game in overtime, with Terry setting up Camper on a 2-on-1 rush for the game-winning goal.

The Griffins now have points in seven of their last nine games. They will host Milwaukee on Friday for their annual “Teddy Bear Toss Night.” They will then travel south to Chicago to take on another old rival, the Wolves on Saturday night. The Griffins have played these two teams a combined 350 times in their long history.

Related: Griffins’ Man Advantage Is No Advantage

Inconsistency Still Preventing Moose from Making Serious Tracks

The Manitoba Moose (8-8-1-0) have struggled to find a consistent offense all season long. They are the third-highest scoring team in the Central with 57 goals, but they have had an all-or-nothing output through 17 games. They have scored four or more goals five times this season while being held to one or less six times.

The Moose had the busiest week within the Division as they had to play four road games over the span of six days. The first of which was a “School Day” matchup at the Rampage on Tuesday, where they were shutout for the first time this season. Not only did they give up five goals to the lowest scoring team in the league, but forward Felix Girard earned an automatic two-game suspension after he received a match penalty for an illegal check to the head.

Kristian veaslainen
Kristian Vesalainen (courtesy Frolunda HC)

The affiliate for the Winnipeg Jets bounced back the next night with a 5-4 win over the Texas Stars. Seth Griffith’s fifth goal of the season opened the scoring early in the first period. Logan Shaw’s first goal since signing with the team tied the game at 2-2 midway through the second period, but the Stars regained the lead just 17 seconds later.

The Moose scored three straight goals as Kristian Vesalainen, Shaw for the second time, and Skyler McKenzie all found the back of the net. Texas scored with just over three minutes remaining, but the Moose were able to hang on. Vesalainen was recalled by the Jets the following day.

“It was a really good game all around for us,” said McKenzie, who scored the game-winning goal. “I thought we competed a lot harder; we were a lot better in the defensive zone. It was a little bit scary there at the end, but we found a way to come out with the two points.”

Manitoba traveled to Grand Rapids for the first time since eliminating the Griffins from the Calder Cup playoffs at the Van Andel Arena last spring. The home team exacted a bit of revenge with a 3-2 overtime victory as they have now taken two of the first three meetings from the Moose this season.  JC Lipon opened the scoring and Tye McGinn tied the game with just 35 seconds left in regulation, but they fell in the opening moments of overtime.

They wrapped up their busy week with a sluggish effort against the Wolves in Chicago. After falling behind 3-0, Lipon made things interesting by taking advantage of a pair of fortunate bounces off of the end boards to score two more goals. The Moose were putting on plenty of pressure late before an empty-net goal against in the final seconds squashed the comeback attempt. Goaltender Ken Appleby made 39 saves in a losing effort.

The Moose will have no travel issues this week as they will spend it at home with a pair of games against the Wild on Friday and Saturday.

Stars Offense Starting Flex Their Muscle

The Texas Stars (7-6-1-1) got to spend their week at home with a pair of games at the H-E-B Center. The offense showed up for both contests, but the defense struggled on Wednesday night versus the Moose. Just prior to the game, forward Justin Downing was named the sixth captain in franchise history. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season with the team and ranks third in the Stars’ record book with 352 games played.

After falling behind early, Roope Hintz tied the game on the power play with the primary assist going to the new captain. Joel L’Esperance’s seventh goal of the season gave the Stars an early second-period lead. James Phelan regained that one-goal lead just 17 seconds after the Moose tied things up. Manitoba scored the next three goals to open up a 5-3 lead. Colton Hargrove cut the lead down to one with just over three minutes remaining but Texas could not complete the comeback.

In between their two games, defenseman Gavin Beyreuther was recalled by the Dallas Stars so he was not on the roster when the IceHogs came to town on Friday night. This was Rockford’s first visit to Cedar Park since last spring’s Western Conference Final. Hintz scored his second goal in as many nights, while the teams were at 4v4, to give Texas a 1-0 lead.

The game headed into the third period tied at 1-1, when the Stars dominated with four goals and outshot the IceHogs 14-2. Taylor Fedun, Travis Morin, Samuel Laberge and Hargrove all scored during the final 20 minutes. The Stars held the IceHogs to just 16 shots on goal on the night.

Hintz and defenseman Ben Gleason were recalled by Dallas on Saturday morning, both getting their second stint in the NHL. Hintz, a 2015 second-round draft pick, made a case to stay with the big club as he scored his first career NHL goal versus the New York Islanders on Sunday.

The Stars will spend their holiday weekend in their home state as they will sandwich a home game versus the Rampage on Saturday between two trips to San Antonio on Friday and Sunday.

Last Place Rampage Finally Has Something to Smile About

The San Antonio Rampage (5-12-0-0) entered the week with, by far, the fewest wins and goals scored in the AHL. They were the only team not to have hit double digits in points, but an undefeated week finally got them to 10 points and has their spirits up.

The Rampage hosted Manitoba in their “School Day” game on Tuesday morning and the kids in stands were treated to a very exciting 5-0 win. Jordan Nolan scored twice to go along with goals from Samuel Blais, Ryan Olsen and Butler. Nolan and Butler both picked up three points on the day.

Jordan Binnington made 16 saves to pick up his second shutout of the season and San Antonio’s third since opening night. The action was not limited to just in between the whistles as the two teams combined for 74 penalty minutes and 23 total infractions.

Jordan Nolan
Jordan Nolan (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Wearing their lavender jerseys for Hockey Fights Cancer Night, the Ramage had another great defensive effort to knock off the IceHogs 2-1. Austin Poganski opened the scoring late in the second period with his first goal of the season. With the primary assist, Nolan extended his points streak to four games, the longest streak by a Rampage player this season.

The IceHogs tied the game just before the second intermission but Adam Musil scored the game-winning goal just over nine minutes into the third period. Once again, the Ramage did a great job with shot suppression, giving up just 15 shots on goal despite Rockford’s four chances on the power play. The win snapped a four-game losing streak versus the IceHogs. In Jordan Binnington’s last five starts, he is 4-1-0 with a 1.20 GAA and a .951 save %.

The Rampage will have four chances to move up the standings this week without having to leave the state of Texas. They will host a rematch with the IceHogs on Tuesday before a three-game series with the Stars over the weekend. They will host the Stars on Friday and Sunday and travel to Cedar Park on Saturday.