AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, January, 2016: Toronto, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are division leaders at the break

By Tony Androckitis
Austin Czarnik - Providence Bruins

Photo: Providence Bruins forward and Boston Bruins prospect Austin Czarnik s currently second in scoring among AHL rookies with 12 goals and 33 points in 37 games (courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

 

The 2016 AHL All-Star Classic is in full swing in Syracuse, New York, with several of the AHL’s brightest stars taking part in the festivities. But the All-Star break also provides the remaining AHL players a few days off to regroup and prepare for the stretch run.

The playoff races in the Eastern Conference are beginning to heat up, as fourth through eighth place in the Atlantic Division is separated by just 10 points. Meanwhile, the Toronto Marlies are running away with the North Division, but third through sixth place is a logjam of four teams separated by only two points.

Points are at a premium, and the difference between good prospects and great prospects will be determined by who can produce down the stretch and lift their team to the postseason.

Providence and Hartford heating up in the Atlantic

Two teams off to slow starts this season have caught fire mid-season, as the Providence Bruins and Hartford Wolf Pack have been two of the hottest teams in the league of late. The AHL Bruins are on a 11-game point streak (8-0-3) while the Wolf Pack won nine of 10 before the All-Star break.

Providence has overcome some early season injuries to key contributors such as Seth Griffith, Alexander Khokhlachev, Malcolm Subban and the loss of Frank Vatrano to Boston. All of the aforementioned are back in the AHL Bruins lineup, and the addition of David Pastrnak, even on a brief conditioning stint, has Providence fully loaded heading into the stretch run.

The forward core in particular is an especially deep position for Providence as that group boasts six first-year players all making an impact for the team in the first half of the season.

Frank Vatrano has taken the hockey world by storm. The undrafted UMass-Amherst product burst onto the scene this fall in the AHL, tallying 10 goals in his first 10 games of the season before seeing extended time with Boston to the tune of six goals and an assist in his first 30 NHL games. Recently reassigned to Providence, Vatrano is back to terrorizing AHL opponents with points in each of the four games he has played with Providence since his return.

Austin Czarnik is another undrafted forward making a name for himself this season in Rhode Island as only Albany’s Matt Lorito has more points as a first-year player than Czarnik’s 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 36 games.

Swedish-born Anton Blidh is adjusting well to North American hockey as a 20-year-old transitioning to the AHL after two years of pro hockey in Sweden. Colton Hargrove (36 games played – 12 goals, eight assists), Colby Cave (44 games – nine goals, 10 assists) and Providence’s own Noel Acciari (32 games played – six goals, five assists) have all seen significant ice time as rookies.

Hartford, meanwhile, went on an 8-0 undefeated streak after the arrival of forward Nicklas Jensen from the Vancouver Canucks organization. The Wolf Pack haven’t been lighting the world on fire offensively but instead have played solid team defense while receiving strong goaltending from Magnus Hellberg mixed with some timely scoring in the 2016 calendar year.

The combination has been a recipe for success for head coach Ken Gernander’s squad, which has gone from last place in the Atlantic Division to just one point out of fourth place and the final playoff spot.

Jensen was acquired by the New York Rangers in exchange for Emerson Etem, and has been a bit of a good luck charm for Hartford. He is also playing well with the change of scenery, posting points in three straight games before having that streak end in last Wednesday’s game against Atlantic Division-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Hellberg has been nearly perfect in January, winning each of his last eight starts and standing tall, literally, when the team in front of him is hemmed in the defensive zone.

Rookie defenseman Brady Skjei also turned in a recent three-game points streak that ended in Wednesday’s game. In his first full season of pro hockey, the Rangers’ first round pick from 2012 is continuing his offensive production from his collegiate days at the University of Minnesota.

Ryan Graves enjoyed a breakout season in his final year in the QMJHL and is another defender enjoying some success in his rookie year. Graves is representing Hartford at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic this weekend.

Hartford’s defense-first style of play coupled with timely offensive production is a recipe for success down the stretch as scoring and points in the standings will be at a premium.

Toronto Owns The North

It appears that the Toronto Marlies may run away with the North Division title as they lead second-place Albany by 20 points at the All-Star break.

The Albany Devils, meanwhile, are seeing several of their players get some NHL experience midseason, and while development is the top priority, Albany is also providing a winning environment in the North Division.

While the Devils still employ a defense-first style like their NHL affiliate in New Jersey, the AHL Devils feature several skilled offensive players who are putting up near point-per-game totals.

Rookie forwards Matt Lorito and Joseph Blandisi are enjoying offensive success right off the bat, as Lorito leads all rookies in scoring with 35 points in 39 games and Blandisi just returned to Albany after making his NHL debut earlier this month – tallying his first career NHL goal in the process.

Albany also has a good mix with some older players who are valuable contributors to the team’s success. Last year’s AHL regular season MVP, Brian O’Neill, who was claimed on waivers by the New Jersey Devils and was later reassigned to Albany, has 10 points in 15 games. Mike Sislo leads the team in scoring and has been particularly potent in January with 12 points in his last 13 games.

Veteran goaltender Yann Danis has been a steadying force in net this season with Albany, backstopping the Devils with an impressive 17-7-5 record to go along with four shutouts.

Inevitably, the North Division will go through Toronto, but Albany’s strong defensive play gives them a fighting chance in a playoff scenario.

2016 AHL All-Star Classic

The American Hockey League’s 80th season will be celebrated at this year’s destination for the All-Star Classic, Syracuse, New York, home to the North Division’s Syracuse Crunch. The event began tonight with the traditional Skills Competition and continues with a special twist to the All-Star Game on Monday February 1st beginning at 7:00 PM EDT.

The AHL’s All-Star Game will be quite similar to what the NHL is doing in terms of having each division field a team of 11 skaters and two goaltenders who will compete in a round robin tournament featuring six games running nine minutes each. The two divisions with the best records will play in a championship game lasting six minutes.

The format is a little different than the NHL’s in that the first half of each AHL game will be played four-on-four, while the final half of each contest will be played three-on-three.

“I think it’s the first year doing this format so I don’t really know what to expect, but I was reading a little bit about it online and I think it’ll be entertaining for the fans with a lot of back and forth action,” first-time AHL All-Star forward Nick Cousins of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms said of this year’s format. “I definitely wouldn’t want to be a goalie in this one.”

Eastern Conference Hot List – January 2016

1. Chris Bourque, LW – Hershey Bears
2015-16 Season Stats: 44GP, 20G-24A, +10, 30 PIM

The career AHL player is a dynamic player at this level, with 17 points (10G-7A) in 13 January games while becoming just the third player this season to hit the 20-goal plateau.

2. Magnus Hellberg, G – Hartford Wolf Pack
2015-16 Season Stats: 29GP, 16-11-2, 2.48 GAA, .915 SV%, 2 SO

The 6’5” Swedish goaltender has been a large part of his team’s eight-game winning streak, going 8-2-0 in 10 January starts with a 1.88 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and one shutuout.

3. T.J. Brennan, D – Toronto Marlies
2015-16 Season Stats: 46GP, 18G-29A, +20, 35 PIM

With William Nylander out of the lineup from the open ice hit he received at the IIHF World Junior Championship, Brennan leads the Marlies in scoring and has tallied 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in his last 13 games to go along with a +17 rating in January.

4. Seth Griffith, RW – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season Stats: 35GP, 14G-32A, +3, 20 PIM

After posting 17 points (6G-11A) in 11 December games, Seth Griffith hasn’t cooled off in January as he has totaled 19 points (4G-15A) in his last 11 games in January.

5. Matt Lorito, LW – Albany Devils
2015-16 Season Stats: 39GP, 10G-25A, +8, 10 PIM

After just four points in 10 December games, Lorito was on fire in January with five goals and five assists in a six-game stretch to kick off the 2016 calendar year, helping to place Lorito at the head of the AHL rookie scoring parade.

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