The month of February will set up the American League’s playoff stretch drive.
AHL clubs face a busy month that will be capped off by the NHL trade deadline Feb. 28. AHL prospects are always at risk of being packaged in NHL deals, so whether or not they’ll be tracking an April playoff berth will depend on what happens over the next three weeks.
Here are some issues and storylines to keep in mind as the AHL’s February schedule starts Thursday with a pair of intriguing games between a couple of chippy rivals – Norfolk at Charlotte and Peoria at Oklahoma City.
There is a lot to like about coach Jim Playfair’s team. They work hard, hit everything that moves and play honest, defense-oriented hockey. But they need goal scoring in the worst way. With Lance Bouma’s recall to Calgary, the Heat only have three players with double-digit goal totals.
CHARLOTTE CHECKERS AND TORONTO MARLIES
Imagine if these clubs could establish a presence on home ice. The Checkers (11-10-0-4) and Marlies (9-9-0-2) have been mediocre at home, to say the least. The Marlies still have half of their home slate remaining and if they are to gain any traction in the standings, they will need to start collecting points at home.
If the Wolves, who have allowed the most goals-against in the AHL this season with 172, don’t start doing a better job keeping the puck out of their own net their path to the playoffs will be much more difficult than it has to be. If they fail to make the post-season, it would be the second time in three years the team missed out. For a club that makes winning Calder Cups, not mere playoff appearances, an annual goal, that development would be stunning.
A club that is perhaps best known for using two monikers has also had two very different sides to its season. Abysmal for much of the season’s opening seven weeks, the club changed its name from the Hartford WolfPack to the Connecticut Whale and promptly tore up the Eastern Conference in December. But, the Whale have recently hit another downturn, so is another upswing in the cards?
Thankfully for the Bulldogs Dustin Boyd appeared on the scene as a scoring force and with veteran Curtis Sanford in net, the club can win on any given night. But managing to be successful without David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty – who are up with the parent club Canadiens – is asking a lot from a team that’s trying to fend off challengers from several directions.
Hershey beat writer Tim Leone reported Thursday that veteran goaltender Dany Sabourin will be out two to three months because of knee surgery. Sabourin has rebounded from a slow start to his season and the club’s goaltending duties will now rest firmly with Braden Holtby. But what if the parent Washington Capitals, who have called up Holtby for two extended stretches this season, run into goaltending problems? The Bears’ February schedule features a stretch where they play nine of 14 games away from home.
LAKE ERIE MONSTERS
Are the Monsters for real? A Western Conference doormat for the past three seasons, the Monsters assembled a strong January, going 10-6. With veteran John Grahame established as the club’s No. 1 netminder, the Monsters have crept up the Western Conference standings. Grahame has a Calder Cup with the Providence Bruins to his name and is still capable of carrying a team. It also helps that the Monsters – who have been strong at home this season – play 10 of their next 13 games in friendly territory.
The Moose have battled injuries and recalls to the parent Vancouver Canucks all season long. Those setbacks have been offset by the club’s excellent goaltending duo of rookie Eddie Lack and steady veteran Tyler Weiman. However, a brutal road ahead faces the Moose. Beginning Friday at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Moose play 15 of 21 games away from Winnipeg.
Coach Lane Lambert’s team can win one-goal games – they have a league-best 16 wins in those contests. They’re also dominant on home ice, so the heavy home schedule that remains plays in their favor. However, Houston and San Antonio, the two division rivals currently tied in points with Milwaukee, do not appear to be going away.
The Falcons have had one playoff appearance over the past 10 seasons and Columbus Blue Jackets AHL affiliates have never exactly been playoff shoo-ins. The Falcons are hanging around the playoff demarcation line, but they desperately need to start winning on home ice. Nine wins over 23 home games will not take them to the playoffs.
THIS & THAT
• Three goals and three assists over two games earned Milwaukee’s Blake Geoffrion player of the week honors.
• Bobby Butler of Binghamton was named the AHL All-Star Game MVP Monday night at Hershey. Butler’s goal and three assists helped set up an 11-8 win for the Eastern Conference.
• The AHL added four new members to its Hall of Fame on Monday. Inducted were the league’s first president (Maurice Podoloff) scorer Mitch Lamoureux and long-time AHLers Harry Pidhirny and Larry Wilson.
From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world’s second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.