AHL Western Conference notebook, February, 2014

By Tony Androckitis

Jeremy Morin - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Rockford IceHogs forward and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Jeremy Morin has spent most of the season with the AHL’s IceHogs, but has appeared in 15 games for the Blackhawks in the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Chris Austin/Icon SMI)

While the top nine teams in the East have separated themselves from the pack, the AHL's Western Conference is still wide open heading down the stretch.

After a dreadful start to their first AHL season in Utica, going winless in their first 10 games of the season, the Comets have climbed out of last place and now sit just seven points out of a playoff spot. Even 15th place Lake Erie can quickly contend for a playoff spot, nine points back of eighth place Milwaukee.

With roughly 20 games left for teams in the West, it’s anyone’s game. All it takes is a couple wins one way and a few losses the other way to create what could be a 10-12 team race for the top eight entering the final weeks in April.

All stats from January 28th – February 25th, unless otherwise noted.

AHL West All-Stars Shine in All-Star Game

The American Hockey League's best took to the ice on February 11th-12th at Mile One Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland for the AHL's annual Skills Competition and All-Star Game against Farjestad BK (FBK) from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) in the first international contest in AHL history.

The AHL took the All-Star Game by storm, jumping out in front 5-0 on FBK before the Swedish team adapted to the smaller rink size in the second half of the game, scoring two goals in the third period in a 7-2 loss for Farjestad.

Goaltenders Jake Allen (Chicago) and Dustin Tokarski (Hamilton) were both impressive in net. Allen stopped all 14 shots he faced in the first half of the game and Tokarski stopped 20 of 22 shots in the second half, including 15 saves in the third period.

Brandon Pirri (Rockford) led the way for the AHL All-Stars, tallying two goals and an assist and was named the AHL All-Star Game MVP for his performance. Ben Street (Abbostford) and AHL leading scorer Travis Morin (Texas) each added a goal for the AHL All-Stars in the win.

Rockford’s Fantastic February

No team in the AHL has been quite as hot as the Rockford IceHogs, who 10 games ago were on the outside looking in on the Western Conference playoff picture. After going 9-0-0-1 in their first 10 games of February, the IceHogs have climbed to the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The IceHogs have been winning games, not with defense, but with explosive offense from a number of forwards and defensemen. Rockford has scored 45 goals in their 10-game unbeaten streak, an average of four-and-a-half goals per game.

Up front, All-Star Game MVP Brandon Pirri has split time between the NHL and AHL this season, tallying 11 points (6G-5A) in 28 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks and 23 points (10G-13A) in 24 AHL games with Rockford. Coming off back-to-back 20-goal seasons in his second and third pro campaigns, Pirri has proven to be an elite offensive forward at the AHL level. The next test is becoming an NHL regular, but, after being sent down to Rockford during the Olympic break, Pirri has yet to be recalled back to the Blackhawks.

After 10 points in 13 games in January, rookie Joakim Nordstrom has cooled off a bit. With 28 points (14G-13A) in 47 games, he’s third among rookies on the team in scoring, behind Mark McNeill (16G-13A) and Alex Broadhurst (12G-23A).

Jeremy Morin, no relation to AHL leading scorer Travis Morin, has been the IceHogs deadliest weapon as of late, appearing on the score sheet in all 10 games during his team’s recent streak. In all, Morin has been a point-per-game player for Rockford this season and with 17 points (9G-8A) in his last 10 games, a strong finish to February could nab him Player of the Month honors.

On the blueline, the IceHogs are getting offensive contributions from a pair of second-year pros in Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck. Clendening is continuing his offensive prowess from last season, nearly matching his total from his 75-game rookie campaign in 56 games this season (7G-37A). Clendening’s 44 points lead Rockford in scoring. Dahlbeck has seen a sharp increase in his offensive production after registering six points (1G-5A) in 70 games last season. Dahlbeck has 33 points (10G-23A) in 56 games this season.

The Congested Midwest

The Rockford IceHogs aren’t the only team in the Midwest Division playing good hockey in February. The team that handed them their lone blemish in an otherwise perfect month, the Chicago Wolves, are 7-1-2-0 in their last 10 games.

That, coupled with what looks like a mid-season lull by the Grand Rapids Griffins, has made it a three-team race for the division title. Chicago trails Grand Rapids by one point for first place, with red-hot Rockford now only three points behind them.

With the last place Iowa Wild only four points out of a playoff spot in ninth place in the conference, it’s very possible that four or even all five of the Midwest teams will qualify for the postseason.

Hot List

1. Jeremy Morin – LW, Rockford IceHogs

A surefire candidate for February’s AHL Player of the Month honors with 17 points (9G-8A) in 10 games this month, helping to lead currently the West’s hottest team back into the playoff picture. Morin is currently riding a 10-game point streak, recording at least one point in every game so far this month.

2. Anton Lander – C, Oklahoma City Barons

After going scoreless in 12 NHL games with Edmonton in December, Lander found himself back in Oklahoma City. Instead of sulking about the demotion, though, it seems as though it has lit a fire under him. Lander has been a point-per-game player at the AHL level all season, but has really picked up the pace in February with 14 points (6G-8A) in his last 10 games.

3. Markus Granlund – C, Abbotsford Heat

Granlund had recorded 14 points (6G-8A) in his last 11 AHL games before being recalled by Calgary on February 24th. The rookie forward will look to make his NHL debut in the Flames’ first post-Olympic break game.

4. Roman Horak – C, Oklahoma City Barons

Horak has tallied six points in each of the first four months of the 2013-14 season, but caught fire in February. Another possible Player of the Month candidate, Horak tallied 13 points (7G-6A) in the first seven games of February.

5. Ty Rattie – RW, Chicago Wolves

After a slow start to his rookie season (1G-0A in first nine games), Rattie has turned things around with 35 points (20G-15A) in his last 44 games. He’s scored seven goals in his last 11 games, with all but one coming at even strength.

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