The American League playoff push is in full swing.
Only eight clubs in the AHL’s 30-team contingent could firmly be considered solid bets to miss the playoffs, as the league is enjoying its closest playoff race in recent memory. All of 12 points separate the Western Conference-leading Milwaukee Admirals from the 13th-place Abbotsford Heat, who are still just barely in contention.
Here is a look at some of the issues shaping the AHL this week:
Consider this past week to have been a point – or seven – made by the AHL-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Despite having their fair share of doubters because of hits the roster took from injuries and recalls in the second half, the Penguins picked up seven points in a four-game Canadian road swing that ended in fine fashion Wednesday night in Winnipeg. Trailing 1-0, the Penguins blitzed the Moose and Eddie Lack, one of the AHL’s best goaltenders, with four goals in a span of 4:11. The Penguins now return home just three points shy of 100 for the season. The Pens’ success continues despite missing the services of Nick Johnson, Eric Tangradi and leading scorer Dustin Jeffrey.
The Penguins won’t draw a soft touch in the playoffs, though. They could meet the Charlotte Checkers, who sit just one point ahead of Norfolk in the East Division. The high-powered Charlotte offense is missing the likes of Jerome Samson and Drayson Bowman, but still possess top prospects Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, among others.
A SURPRISING RUN
One of the AHL’s biggest disappointments for most of the season, the Grand Rapids Griffins, have suddenly burst into the Western Conference playoff picture. The Griffins have used a 10-2-3-0 push over their past 15 outings to swat aside Abbotsford and Rochester and put themselves squarely in the mix. Now just two points out of a post-season berth, the Griffins’ 2-1 shootout win over Oklahoma City put them three points ahead of the Heat and 10 beyond the slumping Amerks.
Of course, the Griffins are going to have to fend off other competition, namely the Chicago Wolves, who have also been hot. The Wolves have six wins in their past 10 contests and jostled past Oklahoma City and San Antonio into fifth place in the West Division, just a point behind Texas.
The Barons took a serious hit after Wednesday’s shootout loss to the Griffins aside from slipping in the standings. The parent Edmonton Oilers summoned Alex Giroux, Ryan O’Marra and Chris Vande Velde. The trio will join recently recalled Barons Jeff Petry and Teemu Hartikainen with the Oilers.
Hamilton lost the services of scorers Nigel Dawes and Aaron Palushaj on Wednesday as well. Dawes leads the AHL with 33 goals this season.
SPOILING THE PARTY
While some of the AHL’s doormats, namely Bridgeport and Syracuse, have rolled up the tent for the season, other clubs that figure to miss the Calder Cup dance are still influencing which teams will be joining them come April. Albany has won five consecutive games and seven of its past 10 outings. The Devils delivered a crucial 2-1 loss to Springfield over the weekend, which was a tough hit for a Falcons club that has seen its playoff hopes implode this month courtesy of an eight-game winless streak.
Adirondack, once on pace to threaten AHL records for season futility, continues its impressive second-half run. Michael Leighton and the Phantoms handed Binghamton a 5-2 thumping on Wednesday night. The Senators are in a fierce fight to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Meanwhile, out west Rockford will miss the playoffs, but the IceHogs have collected six wins in their past 10 outings and figure to greatly impact the absurdly close race in the Western Conference.
The NHL’s crackdown on reckless hits has trickled down to the AHL, where league disciplinarian Rod Pasma has been busy of late. Hamilton’s Gabriel Dumont received a 10-game ban for a hit on Rochester defenseman Evan Oberg this past Sunday.
Oberg’s teammate, Eric Selleck, also received three games for a hit on Toronto’s Joe Colborne, plus an additional game for a hit on defenseman Matt Lashoff.
As well, Peoria suffered two major losses recently due to suspension. Nathan Oystrick, now on recall to the parent St. Louis Blues, picked up a six-game suspension for leaving the bench to fight Chicago’s Ryan Garbutt. Brennan Evans just returned from a four-game respite.
THIS & THAT
• A six-goal week over four games earned Albany veteran Chad Wiseman weekly honors. Wiseman was the first AHLer since April 1996 (and only the seventh overall) to run up four goals in one period, turning a 4-1 Albany deficit into a 5-4 win over Bridgeport.
• A trade to the Anaheim Ducks has benefited veteran enforcer Brian McGrattan. Since landing with the Syracuse Crunch, McGrattan has piled up five goals in seven games. Prior to the move, he had managed just four goals over 39 games with Providence.
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.