AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, March, 2015

By Tony Androckitis
Conor Allen - Hartford Wolf Pack

Photo: Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman and New York Rangers prospect Conor Allen is the top offensive defender for the Wolf Pack, posting 33 points in 63 games (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Manchester Monarchs and Hershey Bears have already clinched berths in the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs and the Northeast Division-leading Syracuse Crunch is closing in on clinching a spot as well. But the fourth through eighth place teams in the AHL‘s Eastern Conference are separated by three points, with the Springfield Falcons four points out of the playoffs heading into the final three weeks of the season.

Portland, Providence, Worcester battling for playoff position in Atlantic Division

The Portland Pirates, Providence Bruins and Worcester Sharks won’t contend for the division title – Manchester leads second-place Providence by 13 points and both Portland and Worcester by 14 – but they are all right in the thick of things in terms of the postseason race.

The Pirates have used a late-season hot streak to surge as high as the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, having won seven straight games from February 28th to March 14th while going 9-1-2 in their last 12 contests before Saturday’s loss to the Bruins. The Pirates have since dropped to eighth in the conference, tied in points with seventh-place Worcester – still in good shape but with plenty of tough games on the schedule including a pair of home games against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Only three teams have given up fewer goals on the season than the Pirates have (Manchester, W-B/Scranton and Rockford), and a big part of that is the experience on the back end and in net.

Goaltender Mike McKenna has been solid most of the season but has seemed to turn things up a notch in March, going 7-1-2 in 10 starts and unbeaten in his first nine before losing a 5-2 decision Saturday night. The 10-year pro added two more shutouts this month to his total of seven on the season.

McKenna is making stops and keeping his team in games, but he’s also getting help from a defensive core that is mixed with youth and experience as well as offensive- and defensive-minded players.

Dylan Reese, Evan Oberg and Philip Samuelsson anchor what is for the most part a veteran defensive core. Undrafted rookie Joel Hanley out of UMass-Amherst is putting together a solid rookie season, picking up right where he left off in his senior season with the Minutemen. Hanley has posted 17 points (2G-15A) in 54 AHL games this season.

Arizona’s seventh round pick in 2012, Justin Hache, is continuing to develop into the defensive defenseman the Coyotes want him to be. The former QMJHL Defensive Defenseman of the Year with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles is still searching for his first pro goal but has six assists and an even rating through 55 AHL games in his first full season of pro hockey.

The Pirates approach to team defense keeps them in a lot of low scoring, tight-checking games and that bodes well for rookie forward Henrik Samuelsson – a skilled two-way forward who can use his 6’3” frame to his advantage along the boards while creating offense off the forecheck. With 14 goals and a +9 rating in 62 AHL games this season, Samuelsson has been adjusting to pro hockey; his confidence is riding high after handling himself well in a two-game stint with Arizona earlier this season – his first taste of NHL action.

A pair of third-year pros pace the Pirates offense in Jordan Martinook and 2015 AHL All-Star Brendan Shinnimin, while 10-year pro Alexandre Bolduc leads the team in scoring with 46 points in 53 games.

The Providence Bruins are a team much like Portland in that they pride themselves on being reliable and accountable in their own end and have a veteran goaltender that keeps things close when the offense is sputtering. Where they differ is in how hard they emphasize being hard on pucks on the forecheck and clogging up the neutral zone.

Jeremy Smith has been solid in net for the Bruins and second-year pro Malcolm Subban continues to mature between the pipes in what has been a pretty formidable AHL duo this season, with both youth and experience and Smith in a mentoring role.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins first round pick Joe Morrow had seen himself traded from Pittsburgh to Dallas to Boston in his rookie season, but has spent the better part of the last two seasons with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate before recently seeing his first NHL action – a six-game stint with Boston earlier this season. The offensively-minded puck mover only has eight points (3G-5A) in 27 AHL games in 2014-15 but has an NHL-caliber shot that can light the lamp at any moment.

Providence also has some offensively gifted NHL prospects in Seth Griffith and Alexander Khokhlachev that have the ability to take over games and be difference makers at the AHL level.

Griffith, Boston’s fifth round pick in 2012, has followed up a 20-goal, 69-game rookie season of pro hockey with a sophomore season split between Boston (30 NHL games) and Providence (33 games). Though Griffith produced just 10 points (4G, 6A) in his 30 games with Boston this season – his first NHL experience in his young career – he’s been a very noticeable player in Providence, producing at nearly a point-per-game pace (27 points in 33 games).

Khokhlachev, Providence’s AHL All-Star representative this season, has played almost exclusively in the AHL in 2014-15 minus a three-game call-up with Boston earlier this season. Much like with Griffith, Khokhlachev is a dangerous player at the AHL level and is having no trouble creating offense in his second full season of pro hockey in North America, posting 41 points (14G-27A) in 55 games.

In their last AHL season in Worcester after 20 years of hockey, the Sharks are vying to make the postseason one last time as the Worcester Sharks before re-locating to San Jose and playing in the same building as their NHL affiliate in 2014-15.

Injuries and call ups have tested the AHL Sharks’ depth, but it hasn’t kept them from winning their last five games – including back-to-back wins over Springfield to leap frog the Falcons in the conference standings and into one of the top eight spots with 10 games left on their schedule. The Sharks have bought into their systems and, along with good veteran leaders like captain Bryan Lerg, are poised to make a run in the postseason.

The Sharks have rallied behind rookie goaltender Aaron Dell, who has a record of 12-5-2, three shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.89 this season with Worcester in his first consistent AHL action of his pro career.

Undrafted rookie Daniel Ciampini, formerly of Union College, has come into the AHL and continued to score like he did in college (118 points in 131 games), with five points (3G-2A) after his first six AHL games with all five points coming in his last four games.

Former Bowling Green State University forward Ryan Carpenter is shaping into a solid two-way forward who can chip in offensively for Worcester in his first full season of pro hockey. With 32 points (10G-22A) in 64 games, Carpenter ranks third among active players on the team in scoring.

After spending the better part of three seasons in the ECHL following four years at the University of North Dakota, 27-year-old rookie Evan Trupp is enjoying moderate success in his first full AHL season with 37 points in 62 AHL games.

It’s very possible that the Eastern Conference will feature four teams from the Atlantic Division in the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Hartford making a playoff push in Northeast Division

The Hartford Wolf Pack remain in good position to qualify for the postseason and, after a goaltending carousel the last month-and-a-half, they’ve received rookie sensation Mackenzie Skapski back from the New York Rangers and look to solidify their position in the postseason race in these final three weeks.

The Rangers’ sixth round pick in 2013 is making some noise in his rookie season between the pipes at the pro level. In the AHL this season, Skapski is an impressive 14-7-3 with three shutouts – one of which came in his first game back with Hartford in over a month after going 2-0-0 with one shutout while at the NHL level with New York.

The Wolf Pack are relatively young on defense with Conor Allen leading the way offensively with 33 points (11G-22A) from the back end in his second year of pro hockey. Allen went pointless in four NHL games this season, but continues to develop his smooth-skating, puck-moving style in the AHL with Hartford. Allen posted nine points (2G-7A) in 11 March games.

The biggest impact in the last month or so might be the addition of forward Carl Klingberg at the trade deadline. In his fourth full season of pro hockey at the AHL level, Klingberg has come into Hartford from St. John’s (Winnipeg) and put up point-per-game numbers (2G-8A in 10 games with Hartford) alongside talented second-year pro Oscar Lindberg and veteran Chris Mueller.

Lindberg has followed up an 18-goal, 75-game rookie season with 22 goals through 67 games this year as he has worked on being a consistent offensive threat at the AHL level. Lindberg also was a point-per-game player in March with 11 points (6G-5A) in 11 games this month.

Still, the Wolf Pack have plenty of young talent up front and another prime example is rookie Ryan Haggerty – a former three-year standout at RPI who played in the ECAC before turning pro. The undrafted forward has been a nice addition to the Wolf Pack this season, and with 29 points (13G-16A) in 67 games leads all Hartford rookies in scoring.

The Wolf Pack will need to continue to get scoring spread out through their lineup if they want to make a serious push towards the postseason, but all it takes for a long run is a talented goalie who has the capability of taking control of games along with timely, clutch scoring – two things Hartford has going for them heading into the final month of the season.

Eastern Conference Hot List, March 2015

1. Matt Murray, G – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2014-15 Season Stats: 36GP, 22-9-3, 1.59 GAA, .940 SV%, 10 SO

Matt Murray has continued to be a dominant goaltender in March after allowing only one goal in four starts in February, going 7-0-1 in March before a loss to Lehigh Valley on March 28th. Murray strong March performance included three shutouts, a 0.99 goals-against average, and .965 save percentage.

2. Jordan Martinook, C – Portland Pirates
2014-15 Season Stats: 58GP, 15G-28A, +12, 35 PIM

Jordan Martinook has the Pirates in good shape heading down the stretch and his 15 points (4G-11A) in 12 March games have certainly helped their cause.

3. Brian O’Neill, RW – Manchester Monarchs
2014-15 Season Stats: 63GP, 22G-49A, +23, 53 PIM

Brian O’Neill has been atop the league’s scoring race most of the season, and with 15 points (5G-10A) in his last 13 games it doesn’t appear he’s ready to give up that top spot among the league’s scoring leaders.

4. Shane Prince, LW – Binghamton Senators
2014-15 Season Stats: 63GP, 23G-31A, +7, 29 PIM

Binghamton might be down and out in the postseason chase, but it hasn’t slowed down Shane Prince – a third-year pro who not only leads his team in scoring but has 12 points (5G-7A) in his first nine games in March.

5. Jeremy Smith, G – Providence Bruins
2014-15 Season Stats: 34GP, 19-9-5, 2.03 GAA, .933 SV%, 2 SO

Though not as many shutouts for Jeremy Smith as the Penguins’ Murray, Smith hadn’t allowed more than two goals in a start since January 18th before Friday’s night’s loss. Smith has gone 5-1-1 in March with a 1.85 goals-against average and .942 save percentage to date.

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