AHL Western Conference Notebook, December, 2015: Griffins on a roll, Montour fitting in nicely in rookie campaign

By Sean Shapiro
Brandon Montour - San Diego Gulls

Photo: San Diego Gulls defenseman and Anaheim Ducks prospect Brandon Montour split his 2014-15 season between the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks, the University of Massachusetts, and the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals (courtesy of the San Diego Gulls Hockey Club)

 

 

The Grand Rapids Griffins are named after a mythical creature – one that is part lion, part eagle — but the Detroit Red Wings prospects season has followed the path of another mythical beast.

Let’s just call them the Grand Rapids Phoenix with how they have burned up and then rebuilt under first-year head coach Todd Nelson.

Grand Rapids started the season in unspectacular fashion with six losses in seven October games. That record eventually ran to 2-8-1 before the Griffins, like a Phoenix, rose from the ashes and forgot how to lose.

Last Sunday, the Griffins broke a franchise record with their 12th straight win of the season in a 3-2 win against the Lake Erie Monsters. Their streak is now up to 14 games heading into the holiday break.

It was one of the few close games during the Griffins’ streak.

Of the 14 games, seven have been at least three-goal victories and only five have been decided by one goal. In total Grand Rapids have outscored opponents 59-24 during the streak.

It has been a well-rounded effort for Grand Rapids, with 13 different players scoring game-winning goals during the streak.

Andreas Athanasiou has been an offensive leader during the streak with 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 14 games, while Eric Tangradi has nine of his team-high 12 goals during the streak.

It’s added some intrigue into the highly competitive Central Division, which has been home to some impressive – and some not so impressive — streaks this season.

Earlier this season, the Milwaukee Admirals set a franchise record with a 10-game win streak that lasted from Nov. 5th through the 24th.

On the other side, the Iowa Wild set a franchise record and lost all 13 games in November.

Mighty Central

While Iowa won’t be in the conversation, the Central Division is in position to send five teams to the playoffs.

As a quick refresher, the AHL has adopted a divisional playoff format this season with a crossover allowed from the Central Division to the Pacific Division. If the fifth place team in the eight-team Central Division has a better points percentage than the fourth-place team in the seven-team Pacific Division, the Central team will claim a trip to the postseason.

That is good news for Charlotte Checkers and Chicago Wolves fans.

While the Rockford IceHogs (.714), Lake Erie (.630), Milwaukee (.661), and Grand Rapids (.660) are all picking up points at an incredible pace, the Wolves and Checkers are primed to snag a crossover playoff spot in a couple months.

In the Pacific Division, the Ontario Reign are a cut above the rest with a .750 points percentage. But, the rest of the division is closely grouped together between .580 and .476, meaning the Wolves (.558) and Checkers (.589) could easily join the Pacific Division playoffs.

“It’s a good group of teams,” Rockford coach Ted Dent said last week. “You really get tested in this division. There aren’t any nights off in the Central.”

And, no, it is not too early to talk about the AHL postseason. Similar to the NHL, the standings around the holidays often reflect the final ledger in April.

Injuries shaking up Pacific

A pair of December injuries could shake up the Pacific Division for the rest of the season.

In Stockton, goalie Jon Gillies has been ruled out for the rest of the season after having hip surgery on Dec. 9th. The Stockton Heat goaltender had not played since Nov. 6th, but had been hopeful of a return before the team announced the season-ending surgery on Dec. 3rd.

It added to the revolving door of goaltenders in Stockton.

Through 19 games the Heat have already used six different goaltenders. They are currently relying on Joni Ortio with Kent Simpson backing Ortio up, while Kevin Poulin has not played since getting hurt on Nov. 21st – just his fourth game after being acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Elsewhere in the Pacific Division, the Texas Stars will be without leading scorer Devin Shore for four-to-six weeks after he suffered an upper-body injury. The rookie and the AHL’s leading goal scorer was injured on a hip check by Ryan Murphy of the Charlotte Checkers on Dec. 11th.

Murphy was not penalized on the play, but he was later handed a three-game suspension by the league for clipping.

Sinking San Antonio

While the Griffins have found their groove, the San Antonio Rampage have gone in the opposite direction.

Once seemingly unable to lose in regulation, the Rampage have lost five straight games to start December and have fallen to third in the Pacific Division. San Antonio has a 2-7-1 mark in its past 10 games and is going to lose star prospect Mikko Rantanen to the World Junior Championship later this month.

Western Conference Hot List – December 2015

1. Brandon Montour, San Diego Gulls, D (25 GP, 5 G, 20 A, 8 PIM)

Brandon Montour was named the AHL Player of the Month for November after putting up 15 points in 12 games in that month. The defenseman is second amongst AHL defenders in scoring and fourth amongst all rookies.

2. Juuse Saros, Milwaukee Admirals, G (13 GP, 10 W, 3 L, 2.43 GAA, .919 SV%)

Back in October, the Nashville Predators prospect allowed five goals on opening night. Since then he has not allowed more than three goals in a single game and has won 10 of his last 12 starts. Saros ranks 15th in the league in both goals-against average and save percentage, while he is tied for sixth with 10 wins.

3. Barclay Goodrow, San Jose Barracuda, RW (15 GP, 8 G, 3 A, 13 PIM)

San Jose Sharks prospect Barclay Goodrow has split time between the NHL and AHL this season, and he has been a difference maker while playing for the Barracuda. The winger was named AHL Player of the Month on Dec. 7th after posting seven points (four goals, three assists) in two games.

4. Brock McGinn, Charlotte Checkers, LW (16 GP, 10 G, 6A, 6 PIM)

Brock McGinn did not sulk after being demoted to the AHL for the second time this season. In his first game back from Carolina he had a goal and an assist against San Antonio. Two nights later, he had two goals and an assist, including a game-winning goal, against Texas.

5. Michael Mersch, Ontario Reign, C (19 GP, 12 G, 3 A, 10 PIM)

The Los Angeles Kings prospect leads the AHL with 93 shots on goal in just 19 games. That’s an average of 4.89 per game, also tops in the league. Mersch made his NHL debut earlier this month and has been sound in all three zones.

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro