The AHL’s Central Division found a way to get even tighter as it headed into the Christmas break. As the league looks to close out 2018 this week, three teams are tied atop the division with the fourth-place team a point behind them. Only four points separate first and sixth place, so we can expect a lot of flipping and flopping over the next few weeks.
Wolves Ride Hot Streak into First Place
The Chicago Wolves (17-9-3-1) have used an eight-game point streak to get to the top of the Central Division. They are tied with the Grand Rapids Griffins and Milwaukee Admirals with 38 points, but have the highest points percentage of the three teams. The last time the Texas Stars came to town, they embarrassed the Wolves 7-4 in what head coach Rocky Thompson called “our worst game of the year.” He was looking forward to getting some revenge on Tuesday morning.
“I think they were excited about today’s game,” Thompson said after an impressive 6-1 win. “The hair on my arms was standing up yesterday when I was talking about it. I said, ‘I can’t wait to play Texas.’”
The excitement showed early and often as the Wolves built a 3-0 lead before the game was seven minutes old. Defenseman Zach Whitecloud opened the scoring 4:40 into the contest with a blast from the left point. Tomas Hyka doubled the lead about a minute and a half later as a feed from Curtis McKenzie led him right to a wide-open net. Keegan Kolesar continued the onslaught nine seconds later with a shot over the shoulder of goaltender Landon Bow.
The Stars got a goal back with a late first period power-play tally, but that was the only time they found the back of the net on the day. Whitecloud got the crowd full of school children back in the game 35 seconds into the second period. Later in the period, the league’s hottest player, Brandon Pirri, chased Bow from the game by beating him over the glove hand from the top of the right circle.
The Wolves power play put on a display of beautiful passes to finish off the scoring midway through the third period. Pirri, Brooks Macek and Daniel Carr played a game of tic-tac-goal with Carr finishing it off with his 14th goal of the season. The following day, Pirri was rewarded for his play as the Vegas Golden Knights recalled him. His hot streak carried over to the NHL with three goals in his first two games.
It's the most wonderful time for your first of the year 😁 pic.twitter.com/lDzB0IJR19
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) December 21, 2018
The Rockford IceHogs came to town on Friday night for the fifth meeting of the intrastate rivals. The Wolves struck first, midway through the first period, with defenseman Nic Hague’s ninth goal of the season. T.J. Tynan earned the attention of the defenders and found Hague wide open at the right dot where he was able to snipe the puck past goaltender Anton Forsberg.
The IceHogs tied the game just over two minutes later before opening up a 3-1 lead early in the second period. McKenzie cut the lead in half by rocketing a one-timer off a feed from Hyka into the Rockford net. Carr tied the game five minutes later by getting to the front of the net and depositing a rebound off a shot from Whitecloud.
Rockford took a 4-3 lead with less than four minutes left in regulation, but the Wolves had another response for them. With goaltender Max Lagace pulled for an extra attacker, Gage Quinney scored with 1:26 remaining in the third period to force overtime. Chicago had some golden chances to win the game early in the extra time, but their six-game winning streak was snapped in the final minute of overtime.
The Wolves closed out their week with a short trip north to Milwaukee for a battle with the Admirals on Saturday afternoon. Chicago only put 18 shots on goal, but three of those went in and Oscar Dansk was hard to beat in a 3-1 victory. Tynan gave the Wolves a 1-0 lead 14 minutes into the first period by finishing off a give-and-go with Hyka. Reid Duke doubled the lead six minutes into the second period by going top-shelf and knocking the water bottle off the net.
Marco Roy, who is on a professional tryout (PTO), scored his first AHL goal of the season to give the Wolves a 3-0 lead at 12:31 of the second period. Roy took a feed from Hague in the high slot and fired a shot through heavy traffic that reached the back of the net. Dansk was 1:51 away from his second shutout of the season when the Admirals scored with an extra attacker. He made 37 saves and finished his week with two wins and a .967 save percentage (SV%).
Player of the Week: Tomas Hyka has been getting into a nice groove since returning to Chicago after a 17-game stint with the Golden Knights. He finished his week with a goal and four assists, picking up at least one point in all three games.
The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 26 at Milwaukee; Friday, Dec. 28 at Rockford; Saturday, Dec. 29 vs Rockford
Griffins Continue Surge to the Top
The Griffins (17-11-2-2) were one of the three teams tied with 38 points heading into the Christmas break. They are technically in second place as they have one more win than the Admirals. The week started off disappointing with a 3-1 loss to the Cleveland Monsters on Wednesday night. The loss snapped an eight-game home point streak and was their first defeat in regulation at the Van Andel Arena since the week before Thanksgiving.
The Griffins jumped out to a 1-0 lead late in the first period. Dominic Turgeon won a puck battle in the corner and got it to David Pope along the goal line. From there, Pope worked his way back to the front of the net to deposit a backhand shot for his second goal of the season.
The Monsters tied the game with a power-play goal 6:20 into the second period and then took the lead two and a half minutes later. They added a late empty-net goal to cap off the scoring. Goaltender Patrik Rybar had a strong outing in the loss with a 29-save performance. The Griffins headed north for the weekend with a two-game series at the Manitoba Moose. Friday night’s game stayed close much of the way until the Griffins pulled away in the third period for a 4-1 victory.
Matt Puempel gave the Griffins a 1-0 lead before the game was six minutes old by redirecting a shot from Dylan McIlrath. The Moose came back to even things up in the final minute of the opening period. After a scoreless second period, the Griffins exploded for three third period goals. Turgeon scored the eventual game-winning goal at the 5:42 mark with a shot from the left circle. Captain Matt Ford doubled the lead 39 seconds later by jumping on a Moose turnover and driving hard to the net.
Chris Terry scored his AHL-leading 19th goal of the season 1:34 later to increase the lead to 4-1. Harri Sateri made 27 saves for the win, snapping the team’s four-game road losing streak. The Griffins scored the first three goals of the night during Saturday’s rematch as they held on for a 3-1 victory. Terry became the league’s first 20-goal scorer this season when he lit the lamp from the right circle 6:32 into the game.
In his third game with the Griffins, Tyler Spezia scored his first career AHL goal to double the lead about nine minutes later. He picked off a Marko Dano pass, then beat defenseman Sami Niku and goaltender Ken Appleby for the unassisted tally. Axel Holmstrom extended the lead to 3-0 with a power-play goal just over six minutes into the third period. He got a rebound from a Brian Lashoff shot for his seventh goal of the season. Rybar’s shutout bid was spoiled with five minutes left in the game, but he still came up with 25 saves for the win.
Player of the Week: Terry continues his MVP-type season with another pair of goals over the weekend. He is the first player to hit the 20-goal plateau this season and now has a four-goal cushion over Reid Boucher of the Utica Comets and Michael Dal Colle of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the league lead in goals.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Dec. 28 at Cleveland; Saturday, Dec. 29 vs Cleveland; Monday, Dec. 31 vs Rockford
Admirals Slip After a Rough Week
The Admirals (16-10-5-1) are the third team tied with 38 points. If the playoffs started today, they’d have the third seed because they have the fewest regulation wins of the bunch. They earned one point this week and even though they are tied for the most points in the division, they are two points from being out of the playoffs altogether.
They picked up their lone point in a 4-3 overtime loss at the IceHogs on Wednesday night. The loss was a bitter pill to swallow as they had built up a 3-0 less than 14 minutes into the game. Admirals’ leading scorer Anthony Richard got the Admirals on the board while on a power play, 1:51 into the game. Emil Pettersson threw the puck towards the front of the net where it hit off of Richard’s leg and flipped over Forsberg.
Jeremy Gergoire doubled the lead 14 seconds later with a wrist shot from the top of the left circle. Tyler Gaudet’s power-play goal extended the advantage to 3-0 as he got to a rebound and swatted it into the net. The IceHogs got on the board in the the first period. Goaltender Troy Grosenick was lifted for Tom McCullom 6:21 into the second period. Less than three minutes later, Rockford cut the lead to 3-2. The game was tied just over four minutes into the third period before the IceHogs finished off a three-on-one in overtime for the win.
The Admirals had their five-game point streak snapped on home ice by the Wolves on Saturday afternoon. They outshot the visitors 38-18, but lost 3-1 for just their fourth regulation loss at Panther Arena this season. The Wolves got an early first-period goal before adding two more tallies in the second period to open up a 3-0 lead. Nick Baptiste got the Admirals on the board with 1:51 left in the game by ripping home a one-timer from the left circle.
Player of the Week: The Admirals scored four goals in their two games and Pettersson picked up assists on three of them. The 24-year-old center leads the team with 13 assists and is second in scoring with 20 points.
The Week Ahead: Tuesday, Dec. 26 vs Chicago; Saturday, Dec. 29 at Iowa
Goaltending Woes has Wild Trending the Wrong Way
The Iowa Wild (15-8-4-3) are learning the hard way that things can change in a blink of an eye in a competitive division. Two weeks ago, they were in first place and now they find themselves in the fourth and final playoff spot. Just to show tight the Central Division is, Iowa is one point out of first place and just point ahead for the final postseason spot.
The Wild have relied on top-notch goaltending to get the top of the standings, but they have been having a hard time keeping pucks out of their own net the past few games. They gave up 12 goals in a two-game series versus the Stockton Heat and were lucky to escape Friday night’s 8-7 overtime win with two points.
Friday’s crazy affair saw a combined 15 goals, 83 shots and 32 penalty minutes. The game not only set a franchise record for the most combined goals in a game, but Justin Kloos became the first player to score six points in a game in Wild history. He started his night with the primary assist on Dmitry Sokolov’s opening goal 3:33 into the game. Six minutes later, he doubled the lead with a shorthanded goal, his first of the season and the fourth for the Wild.
Curtis Lazar tied the game with a pair of goals before the first intermission. The Heat grabbed their first lead of the night about nine minutes into the second period. Kloos had a quick response 19 seconds later by depositing a Mason Shaw pass into a wide-open cage. 50 seconds after Stockton took a late second-period lead, Kyle Rau evened things up after a pass from Kloos got him in behind the Heat’s defense for a breakaway goal. Rau picked up a primary assist in the opening minute of the third period when Gerry Mayhew deflected his rebound into the net.
Gerry Fitzgerald gave Iowa a two-goal about a minute and a half later with his team-leading 11th goal of the season. Stockton turned the tables by scoring three goals in a span of 1:41 to take a 7-6 lead before the six-minute mark of the final frame. However, for the second time in the game, Kloos erased a Stockton lead 19 seconds after they went ahead. Defenseman Brennan Menell picked up his fourth assist on the night as Kloos completed his hat trick by redirecting his shot from the right point into the net.
After six goals in just over six minutes, the goal light got a break for the remainder of the third period. In overtime, defenseman Louie Belpido won the game with a rocket into the top left corner of the net. The Wild either tied or set five franchise records in the crazy affair.
BELPEDIO'S POPPIN' BOTTLES!!! pic.twitter.com/HA5mJiqCuf
— Iowa Wild (@IAWild) December 22, 2018
Andrew Hammond got the start in Saturday night’s rematch, but he allowed five goals and suffered the loss in his first game since Nov. 17. The night started well for him as the game headed into the first intermission with zeros on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, he gave up the first goal of the game 29 seconds into the second period.
The Wild evened things up about 10 minutes later when Belpido scored his second straight goal after picking up the game winner the night before. Kloos picked up the primary assist for his seventh point of the weekend. Stockton regained the lead just over a minute later and then added three more goals during the third period to cruise to the easy win.
Player of the Week: The Wild scored nine goals over the weekend and Kloos had a hand in seven of them. With three goals and four assists, he was an easy choice for this honor. He is now second on the team in scoring with 21 points after his weekend. He trails Cal O’Reilly by two points for the team-lead in points.
The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Dec. 26 vs Rockford; Saturday, Dec. 29 vs Milwaukee; Monday, Dec. 31 vs Chicago
One-Goal Games are a Way of Life in Rockford
The IceHogs (15-10-2-4) are in the midst of their best stretch of hockey this season. They have points in five straight games and while they remain in fifth place, they are one point out of a playoff spot and two points out of first place. They began their week with a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win against the Admirals on Wednesday night. Forsberg and the IceHogs found themselves down 3-0 before the game was 14 minutes old.
Things changed when Dennis Gilbert dropped the gloves shortly after Milwaukee’s third goal, which seemed to light a spark on the IceHogs bench. Even head coach Derek King was quick to point out how the fight changed the momentum of the game. Jacob Nilsson got the IceHogs on the board in the final minute of the opening period as he located the puck during a scramble in front of the net and sweep it home.
Tyler Sikura made it a 3-2 game in the second period. Gilbert’s shot from the point was blocked in front but the puck went right to Sikura’s stick and he flipped into Milwaukee’s net. Darren Raddysh tied the game early in the third period with a blast from the right point.
Jan Rutta’s first career AHL goal capped off the comeback 1:51 into overtime. He got to the net and finished off a great rush with Alexandre Fortin and Anthony Louis. After the rough start, Forsberg settled down and made 27 saves.
The following day, veteran defenseman Andrew Campbell was named the Western Conference captain for the 2019 All-Star Classic. This will be Campbell’s first All-Star appearance after nearly 700 career AHL games. One-goal games have become the norm for the IceHogs, and Friday night’s game against the Wolves was no different. Their 5-4 overtime win was their 18th one-goal game of the season, second most in the AHL.
Nilsson tied the game 1-1 late in the first period with a power-play goal. Jordan Schroeder fed Nilsson in the high slot where he was able to find the back of the net with a one-timer. Early in the second period, Fortin gave the IceHogs a 2-1 lead with his first goal of the season. He got a fortunate bounce as his centering pass from the dasher boards hit a Chicago defender and got behind Lagace. Three and half minutes later, Fortin got to a loose puck in front of the net and he swept it home to increase the lead to 3-1.
The Wolves clawed their way back with a pair of goals to tie the game before the second intermission. Late in the third period, Lucas Carlsson continued his hot play by showing off his skating and stick handling abilities to get open in the slot and shoot back to his right to give the IceHogs a 4-3 lead.
The Wolves tied the game with 86 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Forsberg made a couple of big saves early in overtime which allowed Raddysh to win the game in the final minute. Louis gained the zone and passed over to Raddysh in the slot where he fired it home to give the IceHogs their first three-game winning streak of the season.
Player of the Week: Nilsson led the way with two goals and four points. He picked up his first career three-point game versus Chicago on Friday night. The good news kept coming as his recent play earned him his first crack at the NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks recalled him on Saturday while Luke Johnson was reassigned to Rockford. Nilsson made his NHL debut versus the Florida Panthers on Sunday night.
The Week Ahead: Friday, Dec. 28 vs Chicago; Saturday, Dec. 29 at Chicago; Monday, Dec. 31 at Grand Rapids
Stars Continue to Hang Around
The Stars (15-10-3-1) earned three out of a possible six points last week. They remain in sixth place, but are three points behind the Wild for fourth place as they continue to inch closer to a playoff spot. The Stars had an early puck drop on Tuesday morning at Chicago and failed to answer the bell. The Wolves, winners of their last five games, opened up a 3-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game, including a pair of goals nine seconds apart.
Travis Morin brought a little life to Texas’ bench with a late first period power-play goal to cut the lead to 3-1. Erik Condra made a nifty pass across the ice to Morin at the left hash mark where he fired home a quick one-timer for his fifth goal of the season.
The Wolves erased any momentum that Morin’s goal may have given the Stars by taking a 4-1 lead in the opening minute of the second period. Brandon Low was pulled from the game after giving up a fifth goal later in the frame. His replacement, Philippe Desrosiers, gave up a third-period goal to close out the scoring on a disappointing day.
The Stars returned home on Friday night for another game with the San Antonio Rampage. Three minutes after the Rampage grabbed an early lead, Texas tied the game while on a five-on-three power play. Joel L’esperance picked up his 15th goal of the season to not only leads the Stars, but also all AHL rookies.
The Rampage regained the lead late in the first period, but Roope Hintz came back with the equalizer 28 seconds later. He was able to get the puck over the shoulder of goaltender Ville Husso with a defender draped over his back. A few moments after Michael Mersch was denied on a penalty shot in the second period, Shane Hanna scored from the high slot. The eventual game-winning tally was Hanna’s first career AHL point.
Early in the third period, Hintz notched his second goal of the night and seventh of the season to increase the lead to 4-2. Colin Markison added an empty-net goal to cap off the scoring. Low bounced back nicely with a 21-save performance. The two teams traveled to San Antonio for a hotly-contested rematch on Saturday. Despite getting 11 shots to the net, the Stars settled for a scoreless tie after the first period.
Adam Mascherin opened up the scoring about two minutes into the second period. Justin Dowling tried a stuff attempt and was denied, but Mascherin was in the perfect place to clean up the rebound for his 13th goal of the season. The Rampage tied things up before the end of the second period. The goaltenders, Low and Husso, put on a show in the third period to send the game to overtime. San Antonio won the game on their fifth shot of overtime.
Player of the Week: Hintz was the only Star to score more than one goal this past week with both of his tallies coming on Friday night. He was a major factor in Saturday’s rematch with the Rampage but was unable to find the scoresheet. He has been back and forth between the AHL and NHL but is still averaging over a point-per-game for Texas.
The Week Ahead: Thursday, Dec. 27 vs San Antonio; Saturday, Dec. 29 vs Ontario Reign; Sunday, Dec. 30 at San Antonio
Rampage Stay Hot on Home Ice
The Rampage (13-16-1-0) finally climbed out of the Central Division’s cellar last week, but they remain in seventh place. They split their weekend series with the Stars and lost a point in the standings to them since their lone win occurred in overtime. They are seven points behind Texas for sixth place and 10 points out of a playoff spot as they try to dig out of the early-season hole they put themselves into.
Friday’s game at Texas started off well as the Rampage held two separate leads in the first period, but they could not make either stick in a 5-2 loss. Sammy Blais opened the scoring with a power-play goal from the top of the right circle just over four minutes into the game. Jordan Kyrou picked up an assist on the play to extend his point streak to seven games, the longest streak by a Rampage player this season.
The Stars answered with a five-on-three goal about three minutes later. This was the seventh five-on-three goal the Rampage have allowed this season. San Antonio regained the lead late in the period as Bobby McIntyre found Connor Bleackley to finish off a two-on-one rush. The goal was Bleackley’s first of the season and first in the AHL since March 30, 2018. Unfortunately, this lead only lasted 28 seconds as the Stars had a quick response. Texas took the lead in the second period and pulled away with two more goals in the third.
The two teams traveled to San Antonio for a rematch the following day. The Stars grabbed an early 1-0 lead and held on to the advantage until 14:56 of the second period. Nolan Stevens led a four-on-two rush into Texas’ zone and hit Kyrou to his right where he fired a wrist shot past Bow. Kyrou has six goals and 15 points during his eight-game point streak.
The game headed to overtime after a scoreless third period where the Rampage dominated much of the play. Stevens scored his first career overtime goal moments after he could not convert on a prime back-door scoring chance. On the game winner, Blais fed the puck into the crease where Stevens slid it past a sliding defender. San Antonio has become a tough place to play in of late as the Rampage have won four in a row and eight of the last nine games at the AT&T Center.
Player of the Week: Stevens has not been a huge offensive contributor for the Rampage this season with two goals and seven points in his first 28 games. He came up big on Saturday with the primary assist on the game-tying goal and the overtime winner to keep the home winning streak alive.
The Week Ahead: Thursday, Dec. 27 at Texas; Friday, Dec. 28 vs Ontario; Sunday, Dec. 30 vs Texas
Moose’s Return to Divisional Play Not a Welcomed One
The Moose (11-16-2-0) continue to struggle to score goals. Their anemic offense only managed a pair of goals during their two-game set against the Griffins. They have scored only 67 goals on the season, the fewest in the AHL. Before the week began, the Moose signed forward Hunter Fejes to a PTO deal on Tuesday. He was recently released from his PTO in Rockford, where he had no points in seven games with the IceHogs.
Friday night’s contest was Manitoba’s first game within the Central Division since Nov. 24. Austin Carroll tied the game in the final minute of the game after the Griffins scored early in the frame. Felix Girard set up the play with a nice no-look pass to Carroll who finished it off with a backhand shot.
The Moose’s penalty kill did a great job keeping the game tied heading into the third period as they killed off 5:24 of consecutive penalty time during the middle frame. The Griffins exploded for three goals in a span of 2:13 early in the last period to pull away.
Saturday’s rematch did not go much better for the Moose as their losing streak was extended to five straight games with a 3-1 loss. This time around it was Peter Stoykewych who scored the lone goal for the home team with five minutes left in the game. Manitoba applied pressure for the final minutes but could not draw any closer.
Player of the Week: It’s hard to look through the stats and find a name that sticks out. Stoykewych will get the nod for his goal, but for also his post-game comments.
“We shouldn’t even have to talk about this,” he said of the team’s compete level. “We’re all professional hockey players. We have to compete for 60 minutes every time we step on the ice. I thought we competed the last two games. We have to find a way to get it done though. Like I said, it’s our job to go out there and win hockey games and we haven’t been doing it. So, that falls on me and some of the older guys in the room to be able to help those young guys and get us to where we need to go.”
— Manitoba Moose (@ManitobaMoose) December 23, 2018
The Week Ahead: Sunday, Dec. 30 vs Colorado Eagles; Monday, Dec. 31 vs Colorado
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.