AHL Western Conference Notebook, March, 2015

By Tony Androckitis
Connor Brickley - San Antonio Rampage

Photo: San Antonio Rampage forward and Florida Panthers prospect Connor Brickley has been a productive AHL rookie after struggling with injuries during his NCAA career at the University of Vermont (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Utica Comets and San Antonio Rampage have left their respective AHL divisional opponents behind heading into April, but the Midwest Division is still up for grabs as well as the remaining playoff spots from fourth to eighth place in the Western Conference.

How the West was won

If not for an eight-game winning streak by the San Antonio Rampage coupled with a seven-game winless streak by Oklahoma City, the Rampage would be jostling for a playoff position with the rest of the bubble teams. Instead, the recent surge has San Antonio pushing for the top seed in the Western Conference for the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.

The Rampage have a good mix of prospects and veterans throughout their lineup, and goaltender Michael Houser has been more than solid in net in his second season in the AHL.

Connor Brickley has been a pleasant surprise for the Florida Panthers organization this season, his first full year of pro hockey. The Panthers’ second round pick in 2010 joined the Rampage at the tail end of last season after four years at the University of Vermont, getting in eight games and getting his feet wet. This season, Brickley leads all rookie scorers in San Antonio with 21 goals and 21 assists in 65 games with the Rampage.

Another rookie with NHL potential is Rocco Grimaldi, a speedy, feisty undersized forward who prides himself on being difficult to play against. The Panthers second round pick in 2011 only stands at 5’6”, but has already made his presence felt in his first full season of pro hockey. Grimaldi has appeared in 7 NHL games with Florida, and recorded his first NHL goal earlier this season. While in the AHL, Grimaldi has been a productive player with 40 points (12G-28A) in 58 AHL games for the Rampage this season to go along with a +10 rating.

The Oklahoma City Barons have seen their West Division lead disappear in the last month and have fallen into a bit of a slump, now 0-5-2 in their last seven games including an overtime loss to San Antonio on March 20th.

Laurent Brossoit started the season 13-5-0, but his record has since evened out since an increased workload the past two months – starting the Barons’ last 22 games and going 8-12-2, with a goals-against average of 3.16 in his 13 March appearances.

The depth of the Barons has been tested lately with Anton Lander and Iiro Pakarinen both in the NHL and now Andrew Miller getting his first taste of NHL action with Edmonton.

Miller is the all-time games played and assists leader at Yale University and in his second season of pro hockey, has been a dynamic offensive player at the AHL level – with 56 points (25G-31A) in 58 games this season before being recalled by the Edmonton Oilers earlier this month.

With Miller, Lander, and Pakarinen all up with Edmonton, the Barons depleted lineup has struggled a bit with injuries of their own to deal with.

Rookie forward Bogdan Yakimov has impressed when healthy, but he is currently injured. Another rookie who adds size up front, Jujhar Khaira, has missed the entire month of March and is likely out for the season.

Jordan Oesterle is providing offense from the back end in his rookie season, leading all Barons’ defenders with 23 points (7G-16A) in 58 games this season. The undrafted former Western Michigan University defender hadn’t scored more than three goals or 17 points in any of his three seasons in college but has been a pleasant surprise for Oklahoma City this season.

The Barons will likely get Miller back from Edmonton along with goaltender Richard Bachman, defensemen Brandon Davidson and Martin Marincin, but the current group will need to saddle up if they want to secure a spot in the postseason and hold off the teams currently chasing them.

The defending Calder Cup champion Texas Stars are fighting for their playoff lives, currently sitting at sixth in the conference and three points ahead of three teams all tied and in the seventh, eighth, and ninth spots.

Undrafted rookie Derek Hulak is turning things up a notch down the stretch with nine points (6G-3A) in 11 March games, and up to fifth on the team in scoring with 40 points (18G-22A) in 62 games this season.

On the back end, rookie defenseman Julius Honka is transitioning well to the smaller ice, notching 15 points (5G-10A) in his last 25 games.

Still, the Stars are a much different team than they were a year ago. Players like Maxime Fortunus, Travis Morin, Curtis McKelvie and Brandon Ranford will need to lead by example to push the Stars into the playoffs on a winning note.

Western Conference playoff race heating up

While the top half of the Western Conference’s top-eight appear secured, there are several teams on the bubble looking to sneak into the playoffs with sixth through 12th separated by just eight points:

Western Conference Standings 6th – 12th (through the games of March 30th)

6. Texas Stars: 9 games remaining, 32-21-13-1 = 78 points

7. Chicago Wolves: 10 games remaining, 34-25-6-1 = 75 points

8. Hamilton Bulldogs: 8 games remaining, 32-25-11-0 = 75 points

9. Milwaukee Admirals: 8 games remaining, 32-25-6-5 = 75 points

10. Toronto Marlies: 10 games remaining, 32-25-9-0 = 73 points

11. Adirondack Flames: 10 games remaining, 32-26-6-2 = 72 points

12. Lake Erie Monsters: 10 games remaining, 30-26-6-4 = 70 points

Some teams, like Milwaukee (1-6-2-1 in their last 10 games) and Adirondack (3-4-2-1), are starting to see their playoff aspirations become threatened after stalling the last dozen games or so. Others, like Texas (7-3-0-0), Chicago (6-4-0-0) and Toronto (6-4-0-0), are giving their playoff chances a boost with recent strong play. Regardless of the outcome, the final month of the season will see playoff-like hockey between these teams – many of whom will be facing each other in divisional matchups down the stretch.

The Midwest Division has all five of its teams in playoff contention heading into April, but with most of the remaining games for those teams coming against teams within the division, it is unlikely all five will qualify. Lake Erie’s push towards the playoffs begins right away with a pair of home games against Milwaukee coming this week.

The North Division is in a similar boat, with Hamilton, Toronto and Adirondack in the eighth, 10th and 11th positions heading into the final three weeks of the regular season. None of the three can catch division-leading Utica, barring an uncharacteristic collapse by the Comets paired with a torrid win streak by one of the aforementioned division opponents.

Western Conference Hot List, March 2015

1. Ty Rattie, RW – Chicago Wolves
2014-15 Season Stats: 59GP, 21G-21A, +7, 12 PIM

Ty Rattie was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the week ending on March 29th but has been putting up points most of the month, including a current five-game point streak (4G-6A, +7). Rattie was just recalled to the St. Louis Blues, so the parent team has been taking notice of Rattie’s strong play of late.

2. Andrew Miller, RW – Oklahoma City Barons
2014-15 Season Stats: 58GP, 25G-31A, +12, 14 PIM

The former Yale University standout has produced at nearly a point-per-game rate in his second pro season, with nine points (4G-5A) in 7 AHL games this month before being called up to Edmonton and tallying three points (1G-2A) in his first five NHL games.

3. Ken Agostino, LW – Adirondack Flames
2014-15 Season Stats: 57GP, 10G-21A, Even, 31 PIM

Acquired from Pittsburgh when the Calgary Flames traded Jarome Iginla, Ken Agostino has picked a good time to raise his production, with 14 (5G-9A) of his 31 points coming in 13 games this March.

4. Michael Houser, G – San Antonio Rampage
2014-15 Season Stats: 34GP, 18-9-3, 2.77 GAA, .903 SV%, 2 SO

Michael Houser is a big part of the reason for the Rampage’s recent surge in the win column as the second-year pro went 9-1-1 in March with a 2.14 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout.

5. William Nylander, C – Toronto Marlies
2014-15 Season Stats: 27GP, 8G-11A, +6, 4 PIM

William Nylander is getting more comfortable with every passing shift with the Marlies, putting up 10 points (5G-5A) in 11 March games including seven in a five-game point streak to start the month.

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey