AHL Central News: Wolves Claw Their Way Into First

The AHL’s Central Division ended 2018 with another exciting week of hockey. The top three teams are now separated by just a single point as are the next three teams who are fighting for the final postseason berth in the division. In 2019, there should be a very exciting race to the Calder Cup playoffs.

Wolves Remain the Hottest Team in the League

The Chicago Wolves (20-10-3-1) have been the hottest team in the Central Division over the past three weeks. They rode an 11-game point streak to the top of the division and took six of a possible eight points last week.

The Wolves had one last present waiting for them the day after Christmas as they took sole possession of first place, with their top line leading the way in a 4-1 win over the Milwaukee Admirals. Brooks Macek opened the scoring late in the first period with his 16th goal of the season by finishing off a 2-on-1 rush with Daniel Carr.

Cage Quinney doubled the lead early in the second period with his linemates Carr and Macek picking up assists. The Admirals brought life to the building by scoring with just 19.2 seconds left in the middle frame, but they could not carry the momentum into the third period.

Carr scored his first goal of the game late in the third period as his shot from the right boards banked off a defender’s stick and was directed into the Admirals’ net. He added a second goal with an empty-netter to cap off the scoring a few moments later. Both Carr and Macek finished the night with four points. This was Carr’s second four-point game of the season; both of them were in Milwaukee.

Goaltender Oscar Dansk continued to be a thorn in the side of the Admirals. In his last two starts versus Milwaukee, Dansk has stopped 61 of the 63 shots.

Chicago’s busiest stretch of the season, with seven games in 11 days, continued at the Rockford IceHogs on Friday night. Curtis McKenzie tied the game late in the first period just a couple of minutes after the IceHogs grabbed a 1-0 lead. McKenzie’s initial shot was blocked but he was able to track the rebound and slide it into the net.

The IceHogs regained the lead early in the second period, but it was all Wolves after that. Keegan Kolesar evened things up at the 7:00 min. mark by camping out in front of the net and knocking home a loose puck.

McKenzie’s second goal of the night, while on a power play, proved to be the game winner as he came out from below the goal line and flipped a backhand shot into the net. Dylan Coghlan added a power play goal of his own with just 14 seconds left in the middle frame to double the lead and finish off the scoring.

The two rivals got together again in Chicago the following night and the Wolves became the first home team to win a game in the season series so far. The Wolves dominated the first period by outshooting the IceHogs 26-6. Macek cashed in on a late power play to finally give the Wolves a 1-0 lead.

Rockford forced overtime with a late third-period goal. The first place Wolves did not let the goal deflate them and were able to pull off the victory in overtime. Late in the extra frame, with the Wolves on a power play, Coghlan drove hard to the net and used his backhand to put a rebound into the goal for the extra point.

The Wolves closed out 2018 with a New Year’s Eve contest at the Iowa Wild. After earning a point in 11 straight games, their streak ended thanks to the play of a hot goaltender and some bad luck. The game got off to a rousing start with a pair of fights within the first three minutes of the game.

The Wild opened up a two-goal lead with a pair of tallies during the second period. The second goal came with just 0.4 seconds left in the period while Iowa was on a 5-on-3 power play.

With the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, T.J. Tynan got the Wolves on the board in the final minute of the game. Unfortunately, a few seconds later, Tynan accidentally mishandled the puck in front of the empty net and deposited the puck into his own goal.

Not only did the loss end the AHL’s longest point streak of the season, but it also marked the first game in which the Wolves did not score at least two goals.

Player of the Week: Brooks Macek was the hottest player on the planet for the first month of the season. After scoring 14 goals in his first 13 games, he scored just one goal in his next 17 games. Macek had a big week with a pair of goals and led the Wolves with six points in their four contests.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 vs Iowa; Friday, Jan. 4 vs San Antonio; Saturday, Jan. 5 vs San Antonio.

Wild’s Goaltending Gets Back on Track

The Iowa Wild (18-8-4-3) have the best point percentage (point %) in the division and are one point behind the Wolves. They benefitted from two big factors to get back into second place last week: their top-notch goaltending and leading scorer Cal O’Reilly made their way back to the ice.

After giving up three or fewer goals in each of his first nine AHL starts, goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen had given up 26 goals over his last five starts. Kahkonen got things back on track with 39 saves in a 4-0 shutout of the Rockford IceHogs on Wednesday night.

Veteran defenseman Mark Bartkowski opened the scoring with his second goal of the season just over three minutes into the second period. About 11 minutes later, Gerry Fitzgerald roofed his team-leading 12th goal of the season to double the lead.

Will Bitten extended the lead to 3-0 early in the third period by redirecting a Brennan Menell shot into the IceHogs’ net for his first professional goal. Matt Read finished off the scoring with a late empty-net goal.

On Friday, the Minnesota Wild reassigned forward Joel Eriksson Ek back to Iowa. The 24-year-old had a goal and four points during his 21 games in the NHL. Before their game on Saturday, Bartkowski was recalled to the NHL and headed to the Twin Cities.

Later that night, Eriksson Ek led the way to a 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals. He notched his first AHL goal of the season 14 minutes into the game while on the power play. After a scoreless second period, Eriksson Ek doubled the lead with five minutes left in the game. This was the first multi-point game of his AHL career and he has six goals and 11 points in 10 games.

Joel Eriksson Ek
Joel Eriksson Ek made an immediate impact in his return from the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Admirals spoiled Andrew Hammond’s shutout bid with their lone goal just over a minute later. Read capped off the scoring with a late empty net goal for the second straight game.

The Wild closed out their week by hosting the Wolves on New Year’s Eve and they used a 3-1 win to cut into their division lead. The first period saw no goals, just seven shots and 28 penalty minutes thanks to a pair of early scraps.

Colton Beck broke the scoreless tie about seven minutes into the second period by redirecting Menell’s shot from the right point into the Chicago net. Eriksson Ek beat the clock by scoring on a 5-on-3 advantage with just 0.4 seconds left in the sandwich stanza.

Kahkonen’s quest for his second shutout of the week was ruined in the final minute of the third period. Landon Ferraro was credited with an empty-net goal a few seconds later after Chicago forward T.J. Tynan put the puck into his own net. O’Reilly picked up a pair of assists in his return to the lineup after missing the last nine games with an injury.

The victory clinched the best record in the Central heading into 2019 for the Wild, and head coach Tim Army will lead the Central Division team at the AHL All-Star Classic later this month.

Player of the Week: The Wild had plenty of candidates for this honor. Both goaltenders were phenomenal, but Eriksson Ek’s three-goal performance was key to a successful week. He scored the game-winning goal in both games he played in. He has at least one point in all six of his AHL games this season.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 @ Chicago; Friday, Jan. 4 vs Rockford; Sunday, Jan. 6 @ Rockford.

Griffins Keep Pace with Central’s Top Teams

The Grand Rapids Griffins (19-11-3-2) dropped from a tie for first place down to third because of how hot the Wolves have been. They captured five of a possible six points to remain just one point out of the Central’s top spot.

Before the Griffins got back on the ice after the holiday break, they signed forward Derek Hulak to an AHL contract. The 29-year-old had been playing on a professional tryout contract (PTO) and has one goal in nine games.

The Griffins traveled to Cleveland Friday night for the first half of a home-and-home series with the Monsters. Libor Sulak opened the scoring early in the first period by hitting the top corner of the net from the left circle.

Carter Camper doubled the lead in the second period by banking the puck off the left post from the high slot for his sixth goal of the season.

Even though the Monsters were held off the scoreboard through 40 minutes of play, Cleveland dominated the game in the third period by outshooting the Griffins 19-1. The Monsters got on the board early in the frame and then tied the game with just 1:39 left in regulation while on a power play. They scored the game-winner early in overtime when Kevin Stenlund beat Harri Sateri from the slot.

The teams headed north for a rematch in Grand Rapids on Saturday night. Chris Terry was the man of the match as he did everything he could to lead the Griffins to a 4-3 shootout victory. Terry started his big night by chipping a great feed from Camper into the Cleveland net midway through the opening period for his league-leading 21st goal of the season.

Axel Holmstrom doubled the Griffins’ lead 36 seconds later on a play that mirrored the previous goal. This time it was Terry who set up the goal with a pass to Holmstrom for the tally.

Cleveland cut the lead in half late in the first period and then tied the game with a power play goal about three minutes into the final frame. Camper, a former Monster, responded with a goal from the left circle less than a minute later. Terry picked up his third point of the night with another primary assist.

The Monsters forced overtime with less than nine minutes remaining in regulation. After a scoreless overtime, the teams headed to a shootout. Goaltender Patrik Rybar stopped all three shots he faced and Terry scored the only goal of the shootout to give the extra point to the Griffins.

The Griffins returned home on Monday for their 22nd annual New Year’s Eve game at the Van Andel Arena versus the Rockford IceHogs. After a scoreless first period, the Griffins cashed in on an extended 5-on-3 power play midway through the second period. Camper fired home a shot from the left circle off a cross-ice slap pass from Terry.

The IceHogs appeared to tie the game a couple of minutes later, but the goal was waived off for goaltender interference. They were able to draw even before the second intermission.

Defenseman Joe Hicketts scored the game-winning goal with less than five minutes remaining in the third period with a slap shot from the bottom of the right circle. Sateri made 31 saves in the winning effort.

Joe Hicketts Griffins
Joe Hicketts picked up the GWG on New Year’s Eve. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Player of the Week: This section might as well be renamed “What Chris Terry Did Last Week”. The Griffins scored seven goals last week and Terry played a part in six of them with a goal and five assists. He also scored the only goal in the shootout win over Cleveland on Saturday night. Terry leads the AHL with 21 goals and is only three points shy of the league lead in points.

The Week Ahead: Friday, Jan. 4 @ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; Saturday, Jan. 5 @ Hershey.

Stars Continue Their Rise in the Standings

The Texas Stars (17-11-3-1) are in a playoff spot for the first time this season after a four-point week. The defending Western Conference champions are tied with the Milwaukee Admirals with 38 points, but they hold down the final postseason position due to a higher point %.

The H-E-B Center at Cedar Park has been a tough place to play for visitors of late and the Stars extended their home ice win streak to five games with a 5-2 victory over the San Antonio Rampage on Thursday night. The Rampage struck first with a power play goal, but the Stars answered with constant pressure. Roope Hintz tied the game less than five minutes later with a shot from the slot.

Michael Mersch gave the Stars an early second period 2-1 lead as he was able to score on his second rebound chance off a Niklas Hansson shot. San Antonio responded with a game-tying goal 90 seconds later.

The game remained even until defenseman John Nyberg scored his first AHL goal with about six minutes left in the second period. After killing off two early third-period penalties, the Stars took control of the game.

Ben Gleason doubled the Texas lead by firing a shot just inside the post less than eight minutes into the frame. Eleven seconds later, the rookie defender scored again as his dump pass from center ice hopped over the glove of goaltender Ville Husso for his third point of the night. Landon Bow made 24 saves for his sixth straight win on home ice.

The following day the Stars made a trio of roster moves. First, the Dallas Stars reassigned defenseman Gavin Bayreuther to the AHL. He scored two goals and five points in 19 games with the NHL club. Dallas also recalled Hintz for the second time this season. Texas also loaned defenseman Brady Norrish to the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL to make room for Bayreuther.

The Stars had a balanced attack to extend their home winning streak to six games with a 5-1 victory over the Ontario Reign on Saturday night. Texas got goals from five different scorers and had 11 players picked up a point in the win.

After a scoreless opening frame, Colin Markinson opened the scoring four minutes into the second period with an unassisted breakaway goal. The lead was doubled with a power play goal about 10 minutes later. Bayreuther’s shot from the point got through goaltender Peter Budaj but stopped short of the goal line before Colton Hargrove swept it into the net. Justin Dowling made it 3-0 shortly thereafter by forcing a turnover and quickly firing the puck off an Ontario defender and past Budaj.

Texas continued to apply pressure in the third period and James Phelan scored off a rebound just over two minutes into the final frame. Less than five minutes later, Joel Hanley got his shot from the right circle through heavy traffic and in behind Budaj.

Brett Sutter put an end to Landon Bow’s shutout hopes a minute later, but he still came up with 21 saves in the winning effort.

The Stars came up short in their final game of 2018 with a 4-2 loss to the Rampage in San Antonio on Sunday. The Rampage took a 2-0 lead into the second period, but Joel L’Esperance cut the lead in half early in the stanza by getting to a rebound and slamming it home. The Stars had 19 shots on goal during the second period but were only able to come up with that one tally.

The Rampage took control of the game with a pair of goals just 33 seconds apart late in the period. L’Esperance struck again in the opening minute of the final frame to cut the deficit to 4-2, but they weren’t able to get any closer.

Player of the Week: Rookie defenseman Ben Gleason is coming off the best week of his AHL career. After his first three-point game on Thursday, he picked up an assist in each of the two games over the weekend to lead the Stars with five points on the week. He is riding a three-game point streak, the longest of his short professional career.

Benjamin Gleason of the Hamilton Bulldogs
Ben Gleason had the best week of his AHL career. (Brandon Taylor/Hamilton Bulldogs)

The Week Ahead: Friday, Jan. 4 vs Manitoba; Saturday, Jan. 5 vs Manitoba.

Admirals Extend Their Downward Trend

The Milwaukee Admirals (16-12-5-1) continue to trend in the opposite direction. They were atop the Central Division just a couple of weeks ago and are now outside a playoff spot for the first time this season.

The Admirals started their short week by hosting the Chicago Wolves on Wednesday night. They fell behind by a pair of goals as the Wolves scored late in the first period and again early in the second.

Freddy Allard got the home crowd into the game when he scored to cut the deficit in half with just 19.2 seconds left in the middle frame. Nick Baptiste entered the zone and found Allard trailing the play on the far side where his slap shot went in off the arm of Oscar Dansk.

Milwaukee put the pressure on for much of the third period, but Daniel Carr scored a pair of late third-period goals to put the Wolves ahead 4-1.

On Friday, the Admirals signed defenseman Desmond Bergin to a PTO. Bergin, a Harvard alumnus, has four goals and 12 points in 21 games for the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL.

The Admirals traveled to Iowa to take on the Wild on Saturday, but, once again, the offense let them down in a 3-1 loss. The Wild scored a power play goal late in the first period to open the scoring. They eventually doubled the lead with just five minutes left in the game.

Just over a minute after Iowa’s second goal, Matt Donovan gave the Admirals some life. Donovan’s shot from the slot beat Andrew Hammond for his 10th goal of the season. Iowa added an empty-net goal shortly afterward to ice the game.

Player of the Week: The Admirals scored just two goals this week so this was a hard choice to make. Since center Joe Pendenza’s secondary assist on Donovan’s goal was his first point of the season in three games, he gets the nod. This is Pendenza’s second stint in Milwaukee after playing 98 games with the Admirals between 2014-16.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 @ Rockford; Saturday, Jan. 5 @ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton; Sunday, Jan. 6 @ Hershey.

IceHogs Need to Find Their Offense

The Rockford IceHogs (15-13-3-4) had a great chance to gain ground last week with four games against teams ahead of them in the standings. Instead, the offense failed to show up and they dropped to sixth place in the division.

The IceHogs began their week with a post-Christmas match at the Iowa Wild on Wednesday night. The Wild and goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen were not in the giving spirit and blanked the IceHogs 4-0, ending their season-high five-game point streak.

Rockford rarely outshoots an opponent, but they finished the night with a 39-20 shot advantage. Even with the big advantage in shots, they could not solve the Wild’s rookie netminder.

On Friday afternoon, Jacob Nilsson was reassigned to the IceHogs after a two-game stint with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was able to make it to Rockford in time to play against the Chicago Wolves.

Later that night, the Wolves made it a perfect six-for-six for the road team in this series with a 4-2 win at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Rockford struck first late in the first period when Jordan Schroeder cashed in on the rebound of a Darren Raddysh shot. The Wolves answered before the end of the first period to send the game into the break tied at 1-1.

Lucas Carlsson continued his hot streak by putting the IceHogs back out front less than three minutes into the second period. Carlsson was on the receiving end of a great back-door pass from Graham Knott, knocking it home for his sixth goal of the season.

Chicago responded with three unanswered goals to close out the period and held on for the 4-2 victory. Anton Forsberg made 33 saves in the losing effort.

The two rivals met the following night back in Chicago where the IceHogs were able to steal a point in a 2-1 overtime loss. Kevin Lankinen was great all night and especially in the first period where he faced 26 shots allowing only one goal.

With Lankinen keeping it close, Nilsson was able to tie the game with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. While on a power play, Nilsson was able to take advantage of Max Lagace being out of position and beating him back to the far post with a wrap-around shot.

In overtime, the IceHogs were caught with too many men on the ice and the Wolves were able to convert for the game-winning goal.

Rockford said goodbye to 2018 with a New Year’s Eve game at the Grand Rapids Griffins. The IceHogs had plenty of chances to take control of this game but they fell short in a 2-1 loss.

The Griffins broke the scoreless tie early in the second period and it appeared that Luke Johnson had tied things up a few moments later. However, the goal was waived off for goaltender interference.

Carlsson did even up the score with about four minutes remaining in the frame. The Swedish-born defender blasted a slap shot from the left point off a faceoff win for his fifth goal in the last eight games.

Both teams had golden chances to take control of the game in the third period, but Joe Hicketts scored the only goal of the period to give the home team the win.

Player of the Week: The IceHogs earned just a single point last week and the only reason they got that one was because of goaltender Kevin Lankinen. The young Finnish netminder was recently recalled from the Indy Fuel of the ECHL after Colin Delia was called up to Chicago to replace the injured Corey Crawford. In his three starts last week, he stopped 83 of the 90 shots for a .922 save percentage (save %).

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 vs Milwaukee; Friday, Jan. 4 @ Iowa; Sunday, Jan. 6 vs Iowa.

Rampage Stay Red Hot on Home Ice

The San Antonio Rampage (15-17-1-0) won back-to-back games to close out their week after dropping their first contest. They are still holding on to seventh place but closed ground on the two teams closest to them in standings.

The Rampage began the week at the Texas Stars on Thursday night. As hot as Jordan Kyrou has been this season, he has yet to score two goals in the same game. That changed versus the Stars, but it was not enough in a 5-2 loss.

Kyrou opened the scoring about nine minutes into the game as he blasted home a one-timer from the left circle while on the power play. The Stars scored late in the first period to tie the game and again early in the second to take a 2-1 lead.

Just 1:14 after Texas went ahead, Kyrou scored his second goal of the night with a wrister from the right circle. The Stars regained the lead with six minutes left in the second period.

The Rampage had some power play time early in the third period but did not draw even. Defenseman Ben Gleason scored a pair of goals just 11 seconds apart to ice the game for Texas. Goaltender Ville Husso was removed late in the third period after suffering an injury. Evan Fitzpatrick made his AHL debut in relief and made the first two saves of his career.

On Friday morning, Zach Sanford was reassigned to San Antonio by the St. Louis Blues. He had four goals and nine points in 23 NHL games and will provide a nice offensive boost to the AHL lineup.

Zach Sanford Blues
Zach Sanford will add some offensive punch to the Rampage lineup. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Later that night, the Rampage returned to home ice to host the Ontario Reign. The visitors took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission after they picked up goals just past the midway point and in the final minute of the opening period.

Austin Poganski started the comeback for San Antonio early in the second period with a shorthanded, breakaway goal. Less than four minutes later, Connor Bleackley got to the rebound of a Niko Mikkola shot to tie the game with his second goal of the season.

Sammy Blais scored the eventual game winning goal midway through the third period by firing a wrist shot from the left dot past Jack Campbell. Fitzpatrick made 19 saves to earn his first career AHL victory.

Nobody is leaving Texas with wins these days as the Stars have a six-game home winning streak and the Rampage extended their home winning streak to six games, as well, with a 4-2 victory over their intrastate rivals on Sunday.

Ryan Olsen opened the scoring nine minutes into the game by redirecting a Mackenzie MacEachern shot into the Stars’ net, snapping a streak of 13 games without a goal. Poganski doubled the lead in the final minute of the period by winning a battle for a rebound in front of the net and sweeping it home.

After the Stars cut the lead in half early in the second period, the Rampage seized control with a pair of goals in 33 seconds. Sanford scored in his first game back from the NHL as he had an easy tap-in goal off a drop pass from Blais.

Bleackley had a bit of luck to increase the lead to 4-1 on his next shift. His centering pass banked off the stick of a Texas defender for his second goal in as many games and third on the season.

The Stars added a second goal early in the third period but could not draw any closer. Jordan Binngington, who was reassigned to San Antonio Sunday morning, made 37 saves for the win. He now has seven wins in his last eight AHL starts.

Player of the Week: Jordan Kyrou continues to be the Rampage’s best player this season. He led the team with two goals and four points last week. He now has at least one point in his last 11 AHL games. He is one game shy of Yanick Lehoux’s franchise record of points in 12 straight games, set during the 2006-07 season.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 vs Manitoba; Friday, Jan. 4 @ Chicago; Saturday, Jan. 5 @ Chicago.

Moose Close Out 2018 on a High Note

The Manitoba Moose (13-16-2-0) are at the bottom of the Central Division because they have the lowest scoring offense in the AHL. However, things improved as 16 different players registered a point during a two-game sweep of the Colorado Golden Eagles.

Sunday’s game marked the first time the Moose and Golden Eagles have ever met. The home team got off to a fast start with a goal just 37 seconds into the game as Skyler McKenzie finished off a 2-on-1 rush for his fourth goal of the year.

Jansen Harkins doubled the lead before the second period was two minutes old by snapping home a shot directly off a Felix Girard faceoff win. Logan Shaw increased the lead to 3-0 by converting on a one-timer later in the period.

Brent Pedersen finished off the scoring with this first AHL goal in the third period. Goaltender Eric Comrie was fantastic all night and made 38 saves for his first shutout of the season.

Defenseman Sami Niku was recalled by the Winnipeg Jets on Monday after picking up a pair of assists in Sunday’s win. The Moose then recalled Jacob Cederholm from the Jacksonville Icemen of the ECHL to take Niku’s spot on the roster.

The Moose got another great performance from Comrie and more balanced offense during their 4-1 win in Monday’s rematch with Colorado. Pedersen scored his second straight goal about five minutes into the opening frame with a wrist shot from the right circle.

Eric Comrie Winnipeg Jets
Eric Comrie was masterful in his two wins over Colorado. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Alexis D’Aoust was setup nicely by Girard for a shorthanded goal just 30 seconds into the second period to increase the lead to 2-0. About six minutes later, Marko Dano scored off his own rebound for his first AHL goal of the season. Comrie’s shutout streak ended late in the frame as Colorado scored their lone goal of the series.

J.C. Lipon came within a fraction of a second away from scoring but the horn sounded on the second period just before his shot crossed the goal line. He added a late empty-net goal to seal the win for the Moose.

Player of the Week: The Moose finally had the week they have been looking for all season when they got both scoring and goaltending. Comrie was nearly unbeatable versus the Golden Eagles and stopped 69 of 70 shots for a .985 save %.

The Week Ahead: Wednesday, Jan. 2 @ San Antonio; Friday, Jan. 4 @ Texas; Saturday, Jan. 5 @ Texas.