Jan. 18, 2011
by Kyle Kujawa - griffinshockey.com
While a game between the Hershey Bears and Adirondack Phantoms may not be followed closely by a Griffins fan, the Jan. 14 contest between the two Eastern Conference clubs was significant for the AHL; it was the 600th game of the 1,200 game schedule, marking the halfway point of the league's 75th season.
Through 43 games, the Griffins have compiled a 19-19-1-4 record. They have some ground to make up in the second half, but not that much. They currently sit sixth in the North Division, trailing the third place Toronto Marlies by just four points. They'll likely have to shoot for at least third place, due to an AHL divisional playoff rule. Normally, the top four teams in each division make the playoffs, but if the fifth place team in the West Division has more points than the North Division's fourth place team, the fifth place team will receive a playoff birth by crossing over to play in the North in the postseason.
With Grand Rapids gearing up for a frantic run to the finish, here's a look at what the competition is doing.
With 51 points, the Hamilton Bulldogs hold a slight lead in the North Division. They begin the second half without the services of their top two scorers, David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, both currently playing with the Montreal Canadiens. While their offense will be missed, the Bulldogs won't need to score too many goals with Curtis Sanford in net. Sanford has an AHL-best 1.74 goals against average, and sits second in save percentage at 0.938.
Two points behind the Bulldogs are the Manitoba Moose, led by top scorers Sergei Shirokov and backed up by the reliable goaltending tandem of Eddie Lack and Tyler Weiman. Manitoba is the only team in the North Division that Grand Rapids won't play in the second half of the season, having completed the season series in early November, winning three of four contests against Manitoba.
Like Hamilton (and Grand Rapids), the third place Toronto Marlies are experiencing top players being summoned to the parent club. The Marlies are without three of their top forwards – Joey Crabb, Darryl Boyce, and the recently streaking Marcel Mueller – all three now with the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, they are enjoying the return of both Nazem Kadri and goaltender James Reimer, as well as a new addition in Fabian Brunnstrom, a player acquired last week by the Leafs from the Dallas Stars.
On the Griffins' immediate radar are the Lake Erie Monsters and Abbotsford Heat, with 45 and 44 points, respectively. Grand Rapids has a chance to control its own destiny, with four games remaining against Lake Erie and three against Abbotsford. It's too early to tell for sure, but with Abbotsford and Grand Rapids meeting three times in April, the Western Conference's playoff picture may be hazy until the very end.
The Monsters are led by their four ten-goal scorers (one behind Grand Rapids, who have the most ten-goal scorers in the division) in Ben Walter, Ryan Stoa, Mark Olver, and Matthew Ford. Also in the mix is former Griffin Patrick Rissmiller, who has 22 points (8-14—22) in 27 games since joining the Monsters. On the other end of the offensive spectrum are the Heat, whose 92 goals are the lowest in the AHL. Goaltending has been the bright spot there, as Leland Irving boasts a 2.30 goals against average and sits second in the league with 17 wins.
The top two teams in the Western Conference so far have been the Milwaukee Admirals (54 points) and Peoria Rivermen (53 points). Linus Klasen continues his impressive campaign with the Admirals, leading the team with 31 points (17-14—21) in 33 games, while rookie netminder Jake Allen continues to be the story in Peoria. His numbers have come back to Earth slightly in the past few months, but he still paces the league with five shutouts and sits tied for a third with a 0.937 save percentage.
Rounding out the top four teams in the Western Conference are the Houston Aeros and San Antonio Rampage. With 52 points on the year, the Aeros have benefited from the strong play of leading scorer Robbie Earl, and defenseman Maxim Noreau, sitting second on the team with 27 points (7-20—27). Meanwhile, the Rampage have fallen hard after leading the Western Conference at the quarter pole, losing eight of their last ten games. Part of the drop-off could be attributed to the team's personnel losses. Top scorers Brett MacLean and Mikkel Boedker find themselves in the NHL with Phoenix, while Petr Prucha bolted to the KHL after posting 21 points (8-13—21) in just 20 games with the club.
The final four teams in the division are still all in the hunt to potentially steal a playoff spot from the North Division. Three teams (Texas, Oklahoma City, and Chicago) currently have more points than Lake Erie, the fourth place team in the North Division, meaning the playoff rule would apply, and the West Division would send five teams to the postseason. Rockford, currently on the bottom of the West Division, is just four points shy of Lake Erie at 41 points, but has some catching up to do in their own division first.
They might be on the outside looking in right now, but Oklahoma City and Chicago employ the Western Conference's two best offenses. Oklahoma City has scored 144 goals on the season, with a pair of 20-goal scorers in former Griffin Alexandre Giroux (who sits second in league scoring) and Colin McDonald. The next closest to hitting that feat, Liam Reddox (18 goals) and Linus Omark (14 goals), are currently playing with the Edmonton Oilers. Omark boasts the best points-per-game average on the team, having put up 31 (14-17—31) points in 28 games.
Sitting at 49 points, Chicago has scored even more goals than Oklahoma City at 147, including the top goal scorer in the AHL, Nigel Dawes (21-15—36). However, the Wolves have allowed an AHL-worst 153 goals. Neither of these numbers should be surprising for fans who saw the highest scoring game in the first half of the season, 18 goals scored in a 10-8 Grand Rapids victory over Chicago on November 27.
The Eastern Conference is home to the top two teams in the AHL so far, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Manchester. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins lead the East Division with a 32-9-0-0 record, also holding the distinction of being the only team in the league who has yet to lose in overtime or a shootout. One factor in this is the continued strong team defense, which has allowed a league-low 94 goals this season. The Manchester Monarchs lead the Atlantic Division with 57 points and a 27-14-1-2 record. The Monarchs' top scorer is Viatcheslav Voynov, whose 32 points (9-23—32) are best among AHL defensemen this season.
Since nine of the league's top 14 offenses reside in the Eastern Conference, it should come as little surprise that the league's top scorer is in the East. Although he's spent some time with the Ottawa Senators this season, Binghamton's Corey Locke got off to a quick start this season and hasn't looked back, pacing the league with 55 points (15-40—55) in 38 contests.
One of the most interesting stories in the AHL this season came when the Hartford Wolf Pack became the Connecticut Whale following the Thanksgiving break. The Whale have been one of the hottest teams in the league since that point, going 15-5-0-2 since the re-branding. The Whale also have the largest collection of former Griffins outside of Detroit. Kris Newbury and Jeremy Williams are the top two scorers on the team that also added Todd White and Jason Williams last month and saw Brandon Wong suit up in six games earlier this season. Even the newest member of the Griffins, goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, played in two games for the franchise in late October.