As the American Hockey League returns from the All-Star break, several teams are in playoff contention and will be kicking things up a notch heading down the stretch. There have been plenty of standouts throughout the first half of the season, but who will lead the way for AHL teams out West down the stretch?
Barons Best In West
Not only do the Oklahoma City Barons own the West Division’s best record by 11 points at 28-10-2-3, the Barons also own the distinction of being the team with the best record in the entire AHL as teams headed into the All-Star break.
On defense, All-Star Brad Hunt got off to a great start this season with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in his first 11 games of the season. The third-year pro has cooled off a bit since then with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in his last 18 games.
Up front, the Barons have a good mix of talent among veterans and first- and second-year players. Jason Williams leads the team in scoring with 35 points (15G-20A) in 40 games, but rookie Iiro Pakarinen and second-year pro Andrew Miller are providing the secondary scoring touch that has put the Barons over the top in the first half of the season.
A former Florida Panthers seventh round draft pick in 2011, Pakarinen leads the Barons with 17 goals in his first season of North American pro hockey. After starting the season with five goals in his first six games, Pakarinen hit a bit of a mid-season lull but has rebounded nicely in January with 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in 11 games.
Miller is second on the team in scoring with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) and the second-year pro out of Yale is feeling more comfortable at the AHL level this season, especially as of late. Of Miller’s 15 goals on the season, nine of them have come in the last 17 games.
While the Barons are having no trouble putting the puck in the net, Miller said during the AHL All-Star break that timely scoring has been the key to their success in the first half of the season. The Barons are 14-4-0-1 in their last 19 games and have won 10 games in overtime this season.
While the Edmonton Oilers organization hasn’t had much success at the NHL level recently, they’re still developing several talented young players in the American Hockey League.
Comets, Flames Still In Charge in North Division
Much as it has been for most of the season, the Utica Comets remain atop the North Division thanks to their ridiculously hot start after needing 11 games in 2013-14 to pick up their first win of the season in their inaugural year as an AHL franchise.
Three former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forwards in veterans Dustin Jeffrey, Cal O’Reilly and Brandon DeFazio lead the Comets in scoring while highly touted rookies Hunter Shinkaruk (six goals, nine assists) and Brendan Gaunce (four goals, 12 assists) have been able to develop their game at the pro level without having to be heavily relied upon to put up points.
Defensively, the Comets have had to mix things up after seeing two of their top defenders called up to the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks for much of this month. They still have All-Star Bobby Sanguinetti, who leads the Comets in plus/minus with a +15 rating in 34 games played this season.
The Comets are on a bit of a slide heading into the break, losing seven of their last nine games, and have just a four point lead over second place Adirondack.
The Adirondack Flames have been a streaky team this season, with a nine-game win streak in November and a five-game win streak in December, but are in a bit of a slide recently with just five wins in their last 14 games.
The Flames added All-Star forward Drew Shore from the San Antonio Rampage in exchange for center Corban Knight – a former Florida Panthers draft pick – to give the AHL Flames another weapon up front on an already balanced scoring team. Three players are tied for the team lead with 12 goals, while three more have nine tallies apiece on the season.
All-Star Emile Poirier continues to turn heads with his skating ability and offensive instincts, but what is really making him a dangerous player is his adjustments away from the puck. Being smarter in the defensive zone has allowed Poirier to be more effective on offense, evidenced by eight points (two goals, six assists) in his last seven games before the All-Star break.
With seven goals in his last five games, power forward David Wolf is starting to get the hang of things at the pro level and is using his big frame to his advantage in January. The recent streak of goals in his last four games before the break has earned him his first NHL call-up to the Calgary Flames this season.
It seems that anytime the AHL Flames lose players to call-ups, someone else steps up, something needed at the AHL level if a team is going to enjoy consistent success throughout a season. Now only four points behind Uitca, who has been in the top spot in the North Division all season long, the time is now for the Flames to solidify their postseason push.
Western Conference Shines In 2015 AHL All-Star Classic
In Utica, NY this past weekend, the Western Conference All-Stars rebounded from a loss in the Skills Competition with a record-setting 14-12 win over the Eastern Conference All-Stars in the game Monday night. The 26-goal total is a record-high for the annual event.
Three players from the West recorded hat tricks – Hamilton’s Charles Hudon, Milwaukee’s Brendan Leipsic and Rockford’s Mark McNeill – while Hudon (three goals, one assist) and goaltender Jacob Markstrom (16 saves – 18 shots) of the host Utica Comets shared All-Star Game MVP honors.
Rockford’s T.J. Brennan had a game-high five points (one goal, four assists) to lead the West All-Stars in scoring, while Chicago’s Ty Rattie (one goal, three assists) and Charlotte’s Ryan Murphy (three assists, +5) paced the West to the All-Star Game win.
Western Conference Hot List, January, 2015
1. Teemu Pulkkinen, RW – Grand Rapids Griffins
2014-15 Season Stats: 36GP, 21G-22A, -2, 20 PIM
Pulkkinen is an NHL-caliber player tearing up the AHL this season and he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down at this level, with 17 points (10 goals, seven assists) in his last 10 games. It’s his second straight month on the AHL Western Conference Hot List.
2. Viktor Arvidsson, RW – Milwaukee Admirals
2014-15 Season Stats: 41GP, 15G-14A, +3, 22 PIM
Arvidsson is one of several talented rookies with Milwaukee this season, leading the way offensively of late with 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in his last 12 games.
3. Mikhail Grigorenko, C – Rochester Americans
2014-15 Season Stats: 36GP, 10G-20A, -2, 23 PIM
Grigorenko has split time between the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester in January, but has since returned from the NHL and been filling up AHL score sheets. In his last six AHL games, he has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) and was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the week ending 1/18.
4. Richard Bachman, G – Oklahoma City Barons
2014-15 Season Stats: 20GP, 13-3-3, 2.13 GAA, .927 SV%, 3 SO
Bachman has been a big part of the Barons’ success this season, especially in January as he is 5-0-0 on the month while sporting a 1.09 goals-against average and a .960 save percentage to go along with two shutouts.
5. Iiro Pakarinen, RW – Oklahoma City Barons
2014-15 Season Stats: 37GP, 17G-11A, +18, 20 PIM
With 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in his last 12 appearances, Pakarinen is becoming a scoring threat at the AHL level this season for the Barons.
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