As players return from the holiday break with the halfway point of the 2015-16 AHL season approaching, teams from each division in the AHL Eastern Conference have separated themselves from the rest of the field and created a logjam behind them battling for playoff position.
Penguins facing adversity
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins got off to a torrid start to the 2015-16 campaign, going 11-1-0 with little to no problems. Since then, a bevy of changes has the AHL Penguins facing some serious mid-season adversity, and it is showing – they have gone a mediocre 9-6-0-1 in their last 16 games, with three different head coaches in their last seven games.
Mike Sullivan began the season as the team’s bench boss before Mike Johnston was relieved of his duties in Pittsburgh and Sullivan earned the promotion to the parent club. Sullivan’s assistant coach, Jay Leach, took over the AHL Penguins on an interim basis for four games, going 3-0-0-1 including three shutout wins before being named an associate coach when Wilkes-Barre/Scranton announced they had named Clark Donatelli, who had been coaching the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate in Wheeling, their new head coach.
The AHL Penguins have also been decimated by injuries and call-ups almost all at once. Gone to the Pittsburgh Penguins is the team’s leading point getter, Conor Sheary, and leading goal scorer Scott Wilson, in addition to forward Kevin Porter, defenseman David Warsofsky and starting goaltender Matt Murray. Backup goaltender Tristan Jarry was playing well as the team’s new number one goaltender, but suffered a lower body injury after recording a 3-0 shutout win against Lehigh Valley on December 16th.
Still, the Penguins own a five-point lead in the Atlantic Division over second place Hershey with two fewer games played. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to all this adversity piled on at once, as they were shutout in both games this past weekend – losing by a combined score of 8-0 to both rivaling Pennsylvania hockey teams.
Portland, Providence Climbing Out of Atlantic Division’s Basement
Two teams that are rebounding from slow starts in the Atlantic Division are the Portland Pirates and Providence Bruins.
Portland started the season 8-10-0 before going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games – including a current six-game winning streak which has moved them up to fourth place in the division.
Veteran forward Rob Schremp has returned to North American pro hockey and leads the team in scoring at near a point-per-game pace, but rookie Kyle Rau leads the team in goals with 13 on the season. Rau, the former captain of the University of Minnesota, seems to be adjusting to the AHL just fine with seven points (five goals, two assists) in his last nine games. Second-year pro Rocco Grimaldi has split the season between Florida and Portland so far this year with about a dozen games at both the NHL and AHL level. With Portland, he has nine points in 13 games played.
On the back end, former Boston College product Michael Matheson is having a strong start to his rookie campaign. He only has a goal and two assists in 10 December games, but his +14 rating leads the team and is 11th-best in the entire AHL.
The Providence Bruins struggled early in the season with some key injuries to Seth Griffith, Alexander Khokhlachev and Malcolm Subban but appeared to have since recovered before dropping their four most recent contests.
Subban started the season 1-5-2, but has regained his composure in December and is 5-3-1 in his last nine starts with one shutout. He has not allowed more than three goals in any of those nine starts.
Griffith was injured with Boston in the preseason and upon his arrival to Providence became an instant difference maker. He now has 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 24 games this season and is currently on a line with rookie Austin Czarnik, who has 11 of his 19 points on the season in his last nine games.
Toronto Top Dog in North Division
The Toronto Marlies are not only the top team in the North Division with a 13-point cushion on both the Albany Devils and St. John’s IceCaps, but they are also the top team in the Eastern Conference, sitting seven points ahead of the Atlantic Division’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins with three more games played.
The Marlies are being carried by their offensive firepower through their first 32 games, as they lead the Eastern Conference with 128 goals on the season – 30 more than any other team in the conference and averaging four goals per game.
Nineteen-year-old William Nylander is currently representing his native Sweden at the World Junior Championship, but it is possible that, even after he returns to North America, he could still be leading the league in scoring. With 34 points in 27 games, Nylander has four more points than anyone else in the AHL.
The Marlies are not a one-trick pony, however. In fact, they have five other skaters above the 20-point mark on the season in veterans Mark Arcobello, Richard Panik and T.J. Brennan and prospects Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic.
Leivo had nine points in his last nine games before going pointless in two games over the weekend. Leipsic, meanwhile, has benefited from an increased role in Nylander’s absence with six points (three goals, three assists) in his last three games.
Toronto has seen a bit of a revolving door in net due to injuries and call-ups, but Garret Sparks and Antoine Bibeau have handled their AHL starts well through the first half of the season. Sparks caught fire in November, going 6-0-1 with two shutouts before making his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs and continuing his strong play in the NHL.
Eastern Conference Hot List – December 2015
1. Seth Griffith, RW – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season Stats: 22GP, 9G-14A, -3, 20 PIM
After a knee injury in the preseason slowed his start to the year, Seth Griffith has burst onto the scene in December with 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in his last 11 games.
2. William Nylander, C – Toronto Marlies
2015-16 Season Stats: 27GP, 14G-20A,+7, 6 PIM
William Nylander leads the entire AHL in scoring as a 19-year-old and has four more points than any other skater in the league despite a handful fewer games played. He has shown no signs of slowing down, with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in his last eight games before heading overseas to compete in the 2016 World Junior Championship.
3. Tristan Jarry, G – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 Season Stats: 9GP, 8-1-0, 1.50 GAA, .940 SV%, 2 SO
Tristan Jarry was primarily the backup goaltender behind Matt Murray, but after Murray’s recall to Pittsburgh, Jarry has gone 4-1-0 with both of his shutouts coming back-to-back in his last two starts before he sustained a lower body injury.
4. Connor Carrick, D – Hershey Bears
2015-16 Season Stats: 26GP, 8G-7A, +5, 32 PIM
Connor Carrick has been an offensive juggernaut from the back end for Hershey as of late, with five goals and two assists in his last six games. Carrick was called up by Washington on Saturday (12/26).
5. Conor Sheary, LW – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 Season Stats: 24GP, 6G-19A, +8, 4 PIM
Despite being undersized and undrafted, Conor Sheary has made an impact at the pro level – earning his first NHL call-up earlier this month and tallying his first career NHL goal off a feed from none other than Sidney Crosby. Sheary had 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his last 10 AHL games prior to his recall to Pittsburgh.
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