AHL Western Conference notebook, December, 2013

By Tony Androckitis

Colton Sceviour - Texas Stars

Photo: Texas Stars forward and Dallas Stars prospect Colton Sceviour’s strong start to the 2013-14 season earned him a December call-up to the NHL’s Stars (courtesy of John Rivera/Icon SMI)

Injuries and call-ups are starting to take a toll on some teams in the American Hockey League (AHL), but out west several first- and second-year players are filling the void and goal scoring is coming from everywhere.

The Rochester Americans hosted the sixth outdoor game in league history, which ended with a 5-4 shootout victory over the Lake Erie Monsters in a truly remarkable hockey game with an exciting finish.

In Abbotsford, the Heat are showing no signs of cooling off and remain the top team in the Western Conference. The Grand Rapids Griffins have seen Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Jurco recalled by the Detroit Red Wings and look to continue their recent dominance in the Midwest Division. The battle going on in the North Division is heating up as now four of the five teams in the division (all but Utica) are separated by just three points.

All stats cover games ending on or before Wednesday, December 18th.

Frozen Frontier = Fantastic Finish

Two teams in the North Division were playing hockey outdoors December 13th as the Lake Erie Monsters and Rochester Americans played in the AHL's Frozen Frontier contest. The game was hosted at Frontier Field, home to Rochester’s AAA baseball team, the Rochester Red Wings.

The teams battled in a classic see-saw tilt. The Monsters held a 3-1 lead halfway through the game. The Americans battled back to take a 4-3 lead of their own, only to have Lake Erie draw even with less than a second left. The game went to a shootout, where the Americans scored on their final three shootout attempts to win the game after trailing 2-0.

For Lake Erie, second year forward Andrew Agozzino tallied three assists, including the pass on Matt Hunwick’s buzzer beating shot in regulation. Hunwick finished with two power-play goals on the night, as the Monsters went 3-for-7 on the power play in the loss.

For Rochester, Johan Larsson has excelled since being sent down from Buffalo, registering seven points in his first six AHL games this season. He’s been held pointless in four December games, but scored in the shootout at the Frozen Frontier. His skill set appears to be NHL-caliber.

Meanwhile, Joel Armia continues to get the strength in his broken hand back to 100 %. Armia has six points (2G-4A) in his first 15 games of his professional career. Something to keep an eye on is Armia’s ability to get the puck to the net, a part of his game he enjoys.

"I like to get the puck to the net,” Armia said. “If you don't get the puck to the net, you can't score."

Heat Stay Hot

The Calgary Flames suddenly have a very talented and young group of forwards playing well and waiting for an NHL opportunity to present itself.

The Abbotsford Heat were a busy hockey club in November, playing 15 hockey games in a 30-day span. They had a large home stand as well as an extended road trip last month, and have received contributions offensively from just about everyone. The Heat are one of only three teams to have scored 100 goals already this season, and they are getting it done with well-rounded scoring depth from younger prospects and seasoned veterans alike.

The veterans lead the way as forward Ben Street (16G-10A) and defenseman Chad Billins (6G-20A) are the team’s leading scorers at their respective positions. They are followed up by rookie forwards Markus Granlund, Ben Hanowski, and Corban Knight.

Street’s 11 goals in November was good enough for the AHL’s Player of the Month award. His 16 goals on the season tie him for second most in the league. Billins is second in the league among defenseman in scoring and his 20 assists are tops among defenders. Granlund has been getting on the score sheet consistently for much of the season and is third among rookies in scoring with 23 points (12G-11A), while Hanowski (9G-12A), Knight (7G-14A) and Michael Ferland (6G-12A) also add a secondary scoring touch.

Grand Rapids Continues Dominance

The Grand Rapids Griffins are another team that has been able to score goals, being another of the trio of teams that has tallied 100 or more on the season so far. What’s more impressive about the Griffins is not only their offensive firepower, but the fact that they have allowed the fewest goals in the league, as well.

Even with the injuries and call-ups in the organization, the Griffins are still leading the division and playing well, winning nine of their last 10 games. With six regulars out of their lineup, it will be interesting to see if their pace slows down. Still, the Griffins continue on with some talented young players looking to make a name for themselves at the beginning of their careers.

Up front, Teemu Pulkkinen leads the way with six points (2G-4A) in five December games. The Griffins also got back one of their offensively-minded forwards at the AHL level in Cory Emmerton, who recorded a four-point game (2G-2A) in his return.

On defense, rookies Ryan Sproul and Alexy Marchenko and second-year defenseman Adam Almquist are progressing nicely with help from veteran defenseman Nathan Paetsch and Brennan Evans.

North Division Up For Grabs

The North Division race has tightened up in the standings with four teams separated by three points.

The Toronto Marlies and Rochester Americans are tied for first place with 30 points. The two clubs are three points ahead of both Lake Erie (27 points in 26 games) and the Hamilton Bulldogs (27 points in 28 games). While the standings may be close, the Marlies hold the lead based on number of wins and could potentially open up a bigger lead when games-in-hand come into play as the Marlies have three in hand over the Amerks.

The Rochester Americans have seen prospects filtering up and down the organization between the AHL and NHL. Looking at the trio recently re-assigned to the minors, highly-touted defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has four points (2G-2A) in his first five AHL games before taking a high hit and being placed on the injured list with a concussion.

"That's what I was looking for when I came here and it was nice to get some power-play time," Ristolainen said after his first AHL game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins adding, "I got so much stuff I can get better, but it was a good start."

Though the Utica Comets are still last in the division and the league, they have been playing much better as of late. After starting the season winless in their first ten games and just 2-10-1-1 through 14 games, they’ve steadily improved and are currently playing better than .500 hockey, going 6-5-0-0 in their last 11 games.

Western Conference Hot List

1. Markus Granlund, C, Abbotsford Heat
2013-14 Season Stats: 25GP, 12G-11A, +5, 12 PIM

Granlund got off to a slow start in the AHL, with four points (2G-2A) in his first eight games, but has turned things around. He’s currently in the midst of an 11-game scoring streak, including points in 15 of his last 16 games. With seven points (4G-3) in four games in December so far, Granlund is off to a good start and an early consideration for Rookie of the Month.

2. Linus Omark, LW, Oklahoma City Barons
2013-14 Season Stats: 29GP, 14G-15A, -7, 18 PIM

Omark has been the most offensively deadly player in the Western Conference of late, producing at a point-per-game rate on the season including 10 points (4G-6A) in his last 10 games. There’s a lot of trade buzz swirling around Omark, who is starting to envision a full-time NHL career elsewhere (Ed. note – Omark has been dealt to the Buffalo Sabres).

3. Ben Street, C, Abbotsford Heat
2013-14 Season Stats: 22GP, 16G-10A, -2, 8 PIM

Street was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for November, and deservedly so. The fourth year pro from Coquitlam, BC has 15 goals and eight assists in his last 20 AHL games.

4. Colton Sceviour, RW, Texas Stars
2013-14 Season Stats: 26GP, 18G-12A, +10, 6 PIM

Sceviour was a goal-scoring machine in the AHL before earning an NHL recall to the Dallas Stars. In his last six AHL games, he had eight points (4G-4A).

5. Joni Ortio, G, Abbotsford Heat
2013-14 Season Stats: 12-1-0, 2.36 GAA, .920 SV%, 1 SO

The Flames rookie goaltender has come in and played well, winning his first eight starts before losing a 3-2 decision to the Utica Comets. He’s a perfect 3-0-0 in December with a 2.00 GAA and a .929 SV%.

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