AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, December, 2014

By Tony Androckitis

Anton Forsberg - Columbus Blue Jackets

Photo: Springfield Falcons goaltender Anton Forsberg received his first call-up to the parent Columbus Blue Jackets, a stint that included his first two NHL appearances (courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

 

Now that the 2014-15 AHL regular season is in full-swing, it’s a good time to check in on how those in the league’s Eastern Conference are responding to fast/slow starts. Solid goaltending is more prevalent in this month’s update than in November’s Notebook, but there was also some serious offensive numbers being put up by some talented defensemen.

All stats are through December 15th unless otherwise stated.

Frozen Dome Classic a Success

The Syracuse Crunch hosted the Utica Comets in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY on November 22nd as 30,175 fans united on a Saturday night at the Frozen Dome Classic to break the professional indoor hockey attendance record in the United States. The event was an overwhelming success, and not a bad game to watch either for Crunch fans as Syracuse rallied for two straight goals to defeat the Comets, 2-1.

It’s a big season in the AHL for the state of New York, as the Western Conference’s Utica Comets will host the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic on January 25th-26th.

Good Goaltending Emerging in the Eastern Conference

The East has seen its fair share of young goaltenders come in and make a positive impact already as the first quarter of the season is now in the books for all teams. None have been better than Springfield Falcons rookie goaltender Anton Forsberg. A big part of the Falcons’ recent dominance in the league, the first-year pro recorded 11 wins with MODO in Sweden before coming to North America last spring to get acclimated to the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ system and become familiar with his new teammates in Springfield.

In his first 15 AHL games, he already has 12 wins including two shutout victories, while also not allowing more than three goals in any game all season long – the only starting goaltender in the league with that distinction.

Another rookie turning things around is St. John’s IceCaps goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who despite going 3-2-1 with a 3.11 goals-against average in his first month of pro hockey has since turned things around in a big way. In his last 10 starts, Hellebuyck is 7-2-1 (1.38 GAA, .959 SV%, 2 SO), also grabbing AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending on November 23rd. Hellebuyck made four starts that week and won all four, allowing just three goals on 119 shots (0.74 GAA, .975 SV%) including two shutouts.

Jean-Francois Berube and the Manchester Monarchs have given up the least goals in the league to this point of the season. Berube leads all goaltenders in the conference with 13 wins on the season. Berube has shouldered the workload in his second full season at the AHL level, starting 20 of the Monarchs 25 games and looking to improve on a 28-win rookie season.

While there have been some stellar individual efforts, there have also been some formidable duo’s working well together and getting the job done with a veteran/rookie tandem.

In Wilkes-Barre, veteran Jeff Zatkoff and rookie Matt Murray have each had stretches of playing in a starting role, but it’s a 1A-1B situation in the Penguins net so far this season. Zatkoff got off to a slow start with a lower body injury and Murray was thrown right into the action in late October. Murray responded well and is playing better than his 5-4-2 record suggests, with a respectable 1.99 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and two shutouts. Zatkoff, meanwhile, has been at the top of his game since returning from injury. In his last eight starts, Zatkoff is 5-2-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average, .939 save percentage and one shutout.

The Penguins’ East Division rival Hershey Bears also have a solid tandem in net with Philipp Grubauer and rookie Pheonix Copley manning the net. The two have combined for five shutouts on the season (Grubauer with three) while both boast a goals-against average under 2.25 and a save percentage of higher than .918.

The Crunch have Kirsters Gudlevskis and rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy putting Syracuse in the top four of the conference and second place in their first season as a member of the highly-competitive Northeast Division. Considered the top goaltending prospect in hockey, Vasilevskiy is really appearing to get the hang of things in North America as evidenced by his first and second career AHL shutouts in back-to-back starts, the second of which snapped an 11-game win streak by their division counterparts from Springfield.

Defense Putting Up Offense

Defensemen in the Eastern Conference have been active in all three zones in the first two-and-a-half months, with some talented defensemen putting up points in bunches early on in the 2014-15 season.

Chris Wideman leads all defensemen in the league in scoring after a torrid start to the season (11G-13A in 25 games). He’s done plenty of damage on the power play with five of his 11 goals coming with the man advantage, but Wideman has been able to create offense in all situations and has jump-started the Binghamton Senators’ offense to help turn things around after the team got off to a slow start.

Austin Madaisky is another key to the Springfield Falcons’ early season success. With 23 points (8G-15A) in 28 games, Madaisky is third in the league in scoring among defensemen and on a Falcons team that is currently tied for league lead for most goals scored.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ Ryan Pulock has a booming shot from the point, and the pucks are going in when he releases a shot and it gets through traffic. Already with nine goals from the back end, Pulock is quickly on the New York Islanders radar as a defenseman with a very bright NHL future ahead of him.

Derrick Pouliot started the season rehabbing a shoulder injury suffered in his final playoff run in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks last spring. Since returning and getting into game shape, Pouliot has transitioned smoothly to the pro game so far, especially in the offensive zone. With all the near NHL-ready prospects in the locker room with him in Wilkes-Barre, the competitive atmosphere has brought out the best in Pouliot and he looks to round out his game and earn an NHL recall this season.

Brandon Manning has become the veteran leader on defense for a young Lehigh Valley Phantoms blue line core and is on the ice in all situations. He recently recorded an eight-game point streak from November 14th through November 29th where he scored a goal in each of four straight games before recording as least one assist per game the following four games for a total of 10 points (4G-6A) in eight games.

Eastern Conference Hot List, December 2014

1. Anton Forsberg, G – Springfield Falcons
2014-15 Season Stats: 12-3-0, 1.66 GAA, .940 SV%, 2 SO

Forsberg has been a big part of the Falcons recent 11-game win streak, winning all eight of his starts in November with outstanding numbers in his last 11 starts, posting a 10-1-0 record with a 1.54 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and two shutouts. It will certainly be interesting to see how Forsberg follows up this impressive stretch.

2. Yanni Gourde, LW – Syracuse Crunch
2014-15 Season Stats: 26GP: 11G-11A, +11, 8 PIM

After bouncing between the AHL and ECHL his first two seasons in pro hockey, the third time might be the charm for the former Victoriaville standout. On a Crunch team rich with highly-regarded Tampa Bay Lightning prospects across the board, it might come as a bit of a surprise that Gourde is leading the team in scoring and has 14 points (7G-7A) in his last 11 games. More impressively, nine of his 11 goals have come at even strength this season.

3. Ryan Pulock, D – Bridgeport Sound Tigers
2014-15 Season Stats: 23GP, 9G-5A, -3, 2 PIM

Pulock’s shot from the point is getting conference-wide recognition. Seven of his nine goals have come in his last 11 games. He earned his first NHL recall by the New York Islanders last weekend, but was a healthy scratch and later re-assigned back to the AHL. He’s knocking on the door and will have some time to further develop his defensive game until he’s back with the Islanders.

4. Alexander Khokhlachev, C – Providence Bruins
2014-15 Season Stats: 24GP, 6G-18A, +2, 10 PIM

Leading Providence in scoring, Khokhlachev tallied a nine-game point streak that nearly spanned the entire month of November. In his last 12 games, he has tallied 12 points (1G-11A). The playmaking center really caught fire at the tail end of his rookie season last spring, tallying nine goals in 12 Calder Cup playoff games. It appears as though he’s still riding the waves of success into his sophomore campaign.

5. Derrick Pouliot, D – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 22GP, 6G-13A, Even, 10 PIM

Pouliot started the season on the shelf but is quickly producing points in his rookie season, enjoying a seven-game point streak in November. He has at least one point in 13 games this season, four points (3G-1A) and a +6 rating in his last five games. He’s been especially dangerous on the power play so far this season (3G-8A).

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