AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, February, 2015

By Tony Androckitis
Vladislav Namestnikov - Syracuse Crunch

Photo: Syracuse Crunch forward and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Vladislav Namestnikov (#90) has been an important contributor since returning from the NHL to the AHL’s Northeast Division leaders (courtesy of Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire)

 

There are less than 25 games remaining in the 2014-15 AHL regular season for all Eastern Conference teams, with the division-leading Syracuse Crunch, Manchester Monarchs and Hershey Bears holding the top three records in not only the conference, but in the entire AHL. This month, a look at the Northeast Division race and breaking down the two hottest teams in the league, who both happen to play in the East Division.

Northeast Division A Three-Team Race

The Syracuse Crunch still lead the Northeast Division despite several injuries to the roster and the loss of their top goaltender to the NHL for the season. The injuries didn’t slow up the Crunch, who have now gone 6-2-3-0 since the AHL All-Star break.

The big loss for the Crunch is Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose AHL days were numbered even before the Tampa Bay Lightning released Evgeni Nabokov to make room for him. At 14-5-5 on the season, Vasilevskiy was recalled to Tampa Bay on February 2nd, where he remains to date – prompting the signing of Allen York to backup Kristers Gudlevskis at the AHL level in Syracuse.

Another Russian-born Lightning prospect in Syracuse playing well in the AHL is Vladislav Namestnikov, who was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the week ending February 22nd. In his last three games, Namestnikov has tallied six points (three goals, three assists), helping to push the Crunch into the top spot overall in the entire AHL.

Namestnikov has had help with a solid core in Syracuse. Guys like linemate and fellow 2015 AHL All-Star Classic forward Jonathan Marchessault continues to be an offensive threat at the AHL level, with another point-per-game season this year in Syracuse to add to his resume – his first full season with the Crunch after being acquired in a trade last year.

Chasing the Crunch in the Northeast Division is the Hartford Wolf Pack, who have battled through their fair share of injuries and call-ups to the New York Rangers to go 6-4-1-1 in their first 12 games after the All-Star break.

With Henrik Lundqvist out in New York, rookie goaltender Mackenzie Skapski found himself in the NHL and on February 20th won his NHL debut with 24 saves on 25 shots in a 3-1 win in Buffalo against the Sabres. Skapski actually started the season in the ECHL with Greenville, losing his only start there before making his AHL debut with Hartford at the end of October – a 16-save shutout win over the Norfolk Admirals. In his last full month in the AHL in January, Skapski went 5-1-1 including one shutout (his second of the season) and has had quite the journey in his rookie season of pro hockey after three years in the WHL with the Kootenay Ice.

Oscar Lindberg is enjoying success in his second pro season in Hartford, topped with a recent recall to the NHL with the Rangers. After 18 goals in 75 games last season as a rookie, Lindberg has already tallied 16 in 54 games with the Wolf Pack this season.

After the weekend Lindberg had with Hartford, it’s not much of a surprise that his number was called when the Rangers came calling. On Friday night in Springfield, Lindberg tallied his 14th of the season in the final minute of regulation to force overtime before scoring the deciding goal in the extra session to lift his team to the win. Lindberg followed his heroics from Friday night with the game-winning goal in overtime Saturday night in Allentown against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

Springfield has cooled off after their hot start to the season, going 4-6-2-0 in their last 12 games. Part of that has to do with the fact that Anton Forsberg has been in the NHL since January 24th and was recently re-assigned back to Springfield on Wednesday

It’s been a tough go of things for the Albany Devils since coming back from the All-Star break. After winning their first game after the break against Lehigh Valley, the Devils have gone just 2-8-0-0 in their last 10 games.

Bridgeport is fading even faster than Albany, now dead last in the Eastern Conference as the Sound Tigers are in the midst of a six-game losing streak.

East Division Still A Two-Headed Monster

With eight weeks left in the regular season, only two East Division teams are in the top eight spots in the Conference – division leading Hershey and second place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The Bears have been the league’s hottest team since the start of 2015, going 16-2-1-1 in their last 20 games. Everything has come together for Hershey, from solid goaltending to a good mix of veteran scorers and role players as well as a few star-studded rookies with NHL potential sprinkled in.

Similar to their divisional rival in Wilkes-Barre, Hershey also has a formidable duo in net in Philipp Grubauer and Pheonix Copley.

On the blue line, Connor Carrick has turned around his defensive play while also boosting his offensive production, posting 16 points (3G-13A) in his last 20 games with a +4 rating as compared to a -14 through his first 32 games.

Finally putting it all together on the ice at the AHL level is Stanislav Galiev, who is enjoying a successful first full season in the AHL in his third year in the Washington Capitals‘ organization. Galiev’s timely scoring, especially on the power play, has been a big part of his team’s success the last 20 games.

Much like Hershey has had in the past, this year’s group of veteran players is leading the way offensively. Guys like Chris Conner, Casey Wellman, Kris Newbury and Tim Kennedy are all in the top five in scoring on the team alongside Galiev.

Lost in translation amidst all the winning Hershey has done in the last two months is a veteran addition to the lineup claimed off of AHL waivers . Jim O’Brien picked up at least a point in each of his first seven games with Hershey upon his arrival in early January and has 15 points (3G-12A) in 17 AHL games this season.

If not for an incredible run by the Hershey Bears since the calendar turned to 2015, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins would be sitting pretty atop the East Division. Instead, they’re five points behind Hershey despite going 10-1-1-1 in their last 13 games.

Goaltending and defense is yet again the anchor of a Penguins team that has given up the least goals in the league to date, much to the credit of head coach John Hynes and the coaching staff, and especially to a rookie goaltender who has been a pleasant surprise for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

Matt Murray has been nothing short of fantastic in net this season for the AHL Penguins, leading the league with seven shutouts in only 27 appearances this season. Murray’s goals-against average of 1.72 is also the best among goalies in the AHL. Heading down the stretch, Murray should see a majority of the team’s starts in net. At 15-8-2 so far in his rookie season, the Pittsburgh’s third round pick from 2012 has been a great addition.

You can’t talk about the Penguins and not mention their plethora of talented NHL-ready prospects stowed away in the minors. Rookie Derrick Pouliot has since made his way to Pittsburgh, but prospects like Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin are knocking on the NHL door, too.

Harrington wasn’t overly impressive in his NHL stints to date, but he’s playing big minutes in the AHL in all situations and continues to develop. The second-year pro is a solid two-way defenseman at the AHL level who can move the puck up ice and also be steady in the defensive end. He often goes unnoticed, but that’s a good thing for a defenseman more times than not.

With Pouliot in the NHL, Dumoulin has taken over the team’s power play point duties and is continuing the team’s recent success on the man advantage. Dumoulin is another defenseman, like Harrington, known more for his defensive abilities than offensive output, but that hasn’t kept Dumoulin from racking up points with seven assists in his last eight games.

This season, an influx of rookie forwards has given the AHL Penguins even more speed and energy than in years past. Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson are two rookies who got their first taste of NHL action earlier this season and are now playing big minutes in the AHL and producing well.

Despite being on an AHL contract this season, rookie forward Conor Sheary has been arguably the top forward on the team, currently leading the team in goals with 17 and in scoring with 32 points on the season. Sheary is feeling it as of late, having not been held off the score sheet in the entire month of February to date.

Eastern Conference Hot List, February 2015

1. Matt Murray, G – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 27GP, 15-8-2, 1.72 GAA, .934 SV%, 7 SO

No matter how you look at it, Murray has been outstanding lately. He’s 10-2 in his last 13 appearances, including four shutouts in his last six starts. In the month of February, Murray is 4-0-0 with three shutouts and 109 saves on 110 shots.

2. Nick Cousins, C – Lehigh Valley Phantoms
2014-15 Season Stats: 53GP, 17G-31A, +1, 56 PIM

Cousins was the AHL Player of the Month for January and hasn’t slowed down in February. In his last 11 games, the second-year pro has 18 points (4G-14A) and has consistently been right around a point-per-game player for the Phantoms all season long.

3. Brian O’Neill, RW – Manchester Monarchs
2014-15 Season Stats: 48GP, 16G-39A, +19, 43 PIM

The Eastern Conference’s leading scorer has 11 points (5G-6A) in nine February games and is part of a well-balanced offensive attack with the Los Angeles Kings’ top minor league affiliate.

4. Stanislav Galiev, RW – Hershey Bears
2014-15 Season Stats: 46GP, 20G-17A, +2, 18 PIM

Galiev has found himself producing consistently in the AHL this season, keeping a point-per-game pace in the 2015 calendar year. In his last nine games, Galiev has 11 points (6G-5A).

5. Conor Sheary, LW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 45GP, 17G-15A, +2, 6 PIM

Sheary is having a fine rookie season with the Penguins on an AHL-only deal, in the midst of an eight-game points-scoring streak that has lasted all of February (3G-7A). Another underrated statistic for Sheary is how disciplined he has been, taking only three minor penalties all season long and just one in his last 34 AHL games.

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