This week in the AHL

By Joe Tasca





THIS WEEK IN THE AHL

This past Sunday saw a brawl-fest between Binghamton and Philadelphia. Not surprisingly the talk of the league, the game featured 383 penalty minutes – the most in an AHL game since February 1st, 2002, when New England rivals Bridgeport and Springfield combined for 316 PIM’s.

Despite igniting the fireworks by attacking the Phantoms’ Mike Peluso, Binghamton goaltender Ray Emery received no supplementary punishment, even though he picked up his second game misconduct for fighting this month. Said Emery after the game, “I played junior C when I was 15 or 16 years old, and we had tons of line brawls. This reminded me of that. I think everyone likes it.”

Hulking forward Mike Siklenka was the only true NHL prospect to be disciplined by the league, as he received a six-game ban for leaving the penalty box to join an altercation.

BALEJ BREAKS THROUGH

It was only a matter of time before Josef Balej had a game like the one he had on Sunday.

The 21-year-old Slovakian has been highly-touted since being drafted 78th overall in 2000 by Montreal. After scoring 83 goals in his last two seasons in the WHL, many hockey pundits thought Balej would have cracked the supposedly weak Canadiens roster by now. Nonetheless, after an adjustment rookie season in Hamilton last year in which he managed to pot a mere five goals in 56 games, coupled with a sub-par training camp, the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge brass felt it was more beneficial for Balej to continue his professional development in the minors.

Suffice it to say he’s made the best of it –- and then some. After scoring an AHL-high four goals in Sunday’s game against St. John’s, Balej has propelled himself atop the team scoring lead with 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists), passing the recalled Benoit Gratton. More surprisingly, the right-winger is now positioned fourth in the league scoring race, behind only Jeff Hamilton of Bridgeport, Manchester’s Pavel Rosa, and impressive Cleveland rookie Miroslav Zalesak.

WORKING MY WAY BACK

After being drafted fourth overall by the New York Rangers in 1999, Czech scoring sensation Pavel Brendl was heralded as the next Broadway star. Following three years of utter dominance in the WHL, Brendl had all the tools, including size, speed, and great hands. Even greater expectations were placed upon the youngster in 2001 when he was traded to Philadelphia in a deal that brought Eric Lindros to Manhattan.

Brendl’s two seasons in Philadelphia were tumultuous. He underachieved in his first pro season, scoring only 37 points in 64 games with the Flyers’ farm club. He spent the majority of last season with the big team, but was relatively ineffective, tallying just 12 points. Dissatisfied with his development, Bobby Clarke elected to deal Brendl and defenseman Bruno St. Jacques to Carolina in February for Sami Kapanen and Ryan Bast.

Even though he’s still young, the 2003-2004 season is considered by many to be a make-or-break year for Pavel Brendl. Despite his impressive credentials, he has somewhat faded into hockey obscurity, currently playing with the Hurricanes’ minor-league affiliate in Lowell. But instead of pouting and refusing to report, the fleet skating Czech has welcomed the demotion. Brendl is relishing his increased ice time, and his team-leading 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) indicates he’s beginning to shed the proverbial cocoon.

Last week, Brendl provided a three-game glimpse into his unlimited potential, posting four goals and two assists in just three games. Playing alongside centerman David Inman, who was called up two weeks ago from Charlotte of the ECHL, Brendl’s week culminated in a three-goal performance against arch-rival Providence on Sunday. “The puck bounced my way today,” said Brendl after the game. “I don’t think I’ve changed anything, really.”

In his modesty, Brendl refused to acknowledge one considerable change in his game this year –- the results.

EARNING HIS STRIPES

Even though Portland’s Rastislav Stana captured AHL player of the week honors, Finnish netminder Kari Lehtonen gave him a run for his money. The 20-year-old was stellar over the weekend for the Chicago Wolves, stopping 54 of 55 shots in victories over Western Conference nemeses Milwaukee and Utah. Lehtonen followed up his weekend performances by making 32 saves Tuesday night, preserving Chicago’s 2-2 tie against the suddenly red-hot Houston Aeros.

Selected by Atlanta in the 2002 entry draft behind Rick Nash, Lehtonen has had little difficulty adjusting to North American hockey. As evidence, the Helsinki native has posted an 11-9-1 record in his first pro season. His .927 save percentage is among the league leaders, as is his 2.37 goals against average. Standing 6’3″, 190 pounds, Lehtonen uses his size to cover the net well, and his sound positional play makes him extremely hard to beat with low shots.

With the possible exception of Marc-Andre Fleury, the Thrasher prospect has been the hottest goaltending commodity in recent years. His stellar performance in the under-18 Championships in 2000 demonstrated perhaps his best quality – an uncanny ability to thrive under pressure. Lehtonen’s mental toughness and penchant for pressure play has been tested this season, as he has been a victim of lackluster defense by the Wolves.

After platooning with former Hershey Bear Frederic Cassivi early in the season due to the Finn’s slow recovery from a groin pull, Lehtonen has started in seven of the team’s last eight games. Expect that trend to continue for the remainder of the season as Atlanta wants him to see as many shots as possible.

ONLY THE LONELY

Nobody knows how fast a player can go from the penthouse to the doghouse more so than Fedor Fedorov.

After being called up from Manitoba to play two games for the parent Vancouver Canucks earlier this month, Fedorov was sent down, only to be a healthy scratch for a Moose/Toronto Roadrunners game just a week and a half later. He hasn’t played since.

The 22-year-old Russian started the season on a tear, scoring nine points in just five games (5 goals, 4 assists) for the Moose. Since then, Fedorov has drawn the ire of Manitoba head coach Stan Smyl for inconsistent play, a common criticism of his older brother Sergei.

“We need more out of Fedor,” Smyl said this week. “Right now (scratching him from the lineup) is a coach’s decision that I’ve made and it came from his play last week.”

When the Canucks drafted Fedorov 66th overall in 2001, he was expected to develop into a strong two-way player. Considered to be more physical than his brother, eye and wrist injuries hampered Fedorov’s play during his short pro career. However, his white-hot performance early on this year had some pundits thinking he had finally turned the corner.

Unfortunately, the bulky centerman’s enigmatic play has resulted in his falling out of favor, not only with Stan Smyl, but within the Vancouver organization as a whole. Director of Hockey Operations for the Canucks David Nonis recently confirmed the club’s dissatisfaction with Fedorov’s lack of commitment, leading to speculation the Vancouver is getting ready to trade the former Sudbury Wolf.

Fedorov was put through a grueling individual work-out session prior to Manitoba’s New Year’s Eve game against Cleveland. Rather than designating himself as Smyl’s whipping boy, the Russian offered a tame response to his recent plight. “I just think of it this way — I’m a player, he’s the coach,” said Fedorov. “What he says has to be done and everything works out better that way. So I can’t really say anymore about that.”

Time will tell if everything works out for Fedorov as a Canuck.