AHL Eastern Conference notebook, March, 2014

By Tony Androckitis

Tobias Rieder - Portland Pirates

Photo: Portland Pirates forward and Phoenix Coyotes prospect Tobias Rieder is tied for third in rookie goal-scoring with 23 so far in the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

It is getting down to the last dozen or so games in the 2013-14 season and still many things are left undecided in the AHL's Eastern Conference, with at least 10 teams still vying for a chance at the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Conference Outlook

With less than five weeks remaining in the regular season, which concludes Sunday, April 20th, there are still playoff spots up for grabs for what looks like a 10-team race in the Eastern Conference.

Of the three division leaders in the top three seeds, Manchester and Springfield have started to distance themselves from their divisional counterparts. The East Division remains wide open with first-place Binghamton (77 points) leading both Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Norfolk by one point.

The St. John’s IceCaps (9-1 in their last ten games), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (5-0-0-1 in their last six games) and Worcester Sharks (winners of six straight games) are the hottest teams in the last month or so. The IceCaps run has solidified their playoff push as they currently sit in fourth place in the conference. The Penguins' recent hot streak has them fighting for a division title and a top three seed in the East, while the Sharks are using their recent success to vault them into a position where they have a chance to make a push for the postseason.

Conference Standings (through 3/19)

*1. Manchester Monarchs (LAK) – 11 games remaining, 88 points

*2. Springfield Falcons (CBJ) – 14 games remaining, 82 points

*3. Binghamton Senators (OTT) – 15 games remaining, 77 points

4. St. John's IceCaps (WPG) – 14 games remaining, 80 points

5. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (PIT) – 14 games remaining, 76 points

6. Albany Devils (NJD) – 13 games remaining, 76 points

7. Norfolk Admirals (ANA) – 13 games remaining, 76 points

8. Providence Bruins (BOS) – 12 games remaining, 75 points

9. Hershey Bears (WSH) – 14 games remaining, 70 points

10. Worcester Sharks (SJS) – 15 games remaining, 64 points

11. Hartford Wolfpack (NYR) – 13 games remaining, 61 points

12. Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NYI) – 14 games remaining, 60 points

13. Syracuse Crunch (TBL) – 15 games remaining, 58 points

14. Portland Pirates (PHX) – 14 games remaining, 54 points

15. Adirondack Phantoms (PHI) – 15 games remaining, 53 points

East Division Race Heating Up

No division in the AHL is as tight as the East Division is right now, with four of the five teams looking at a potential playoff spot, and the top three teams separated by just one point. This division has represented the conference in the Calder Cup Finals the last ten seasons in a row, and the competition within this division all season long clearly defends the sentiment that some of the toughest hockey is played there year in and year out.

The Binghamton Senators have led the division for much of the season with a high-powered offensive attack. With Mike Hoffman floating between the NHL and AHL ranks, a number of players – Stephane Da Costa, Cole Schneider and Matt Puempel to name three – have stepped up and filled the void offensively. The Senators traded their leading scorer at the time in Andre Pettersson for defenseman Alex Grant to boost their offensive production from the back end.

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have employed a defense-first approach that has kept them in many tight, low-scoring games. The Penguins don’t give up a lot offensively but they don’t rack up a ton of goals, either. Their style is best-suited for the postseason where scoring chances are at a premium, a potential recipe for success for a team that likes to roll four lines and wear their opponents down.

Norfolk has been up and down this season and currently sits just one point out of first place. Like the Penguins, the Admirals play pretty solid defensively but boast more offensive talent with highly touted prospects Emerson Etem and Rikard Rakell. Rookie goaltender John Gibson has been solid in net and playoff warrior Brad Thiessen is also backstopping the Admirals with less than 15 games left.

Hershey has had a tough season and, although they’ve tried to make some moves with late season trades and loans, the Bears are fading fast in the divisional race and currently sit five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot at ninth place in the East. The good news for the Bears is that, with games coming up against teams they are chasing, a few wins will have them right back into the playoff picture.

Nine-Goal Frenzy

On Sunday, March 9th, two games were relatively high scoring and one-sided. It’s not often you see a team score nine goals in a night but it’s even more out of the ordinary to have two separate games on the same day result in 9-3 decisions like the Providence Bruins and Springfield Falcons were able to post against the Adirondack Phantoms and Portland Pirates, respectively.

For the Bruins, they were led by the rookie duo of Alexander Khokhlachev and Seth Griffith, who combined for five goals and six assists in their 9-3 win over the Phantoms. Both forwards have been on hot streaks of their own in the second half of the season.

Springfield used a more balanced attack in their 9-3 victory over Portland, with eight different players scoring a goal. The Falcons have been towards the top of the Eastern Conference all season long and have made several moves in advance of the trading deadline to solidify their depth for a postseason run.

Hot List

1. Michael Hutchinson – G, St. John’s IceCaps

After being in the shadows of Niklas Svedberg in Providence last year, Hutchinson has played great as of late with the IceCaps, going 7-1 in his last eight starts with a 1.88 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and one shutout. He had won eight in a row before having lost in his last start on March 14th.

2. Alexander Khokhlachev – C, Providence Bruins

Khokhlachev had a slow start to his rookie season, but is adjusting to the pro game and playing well with his recent surge bringing him to 50 points in 54 games this season. He’s tallied 14 points (5G-9A) in his last eight games, six of which came in the Bruins 9-3 win over Adirondack earlier this month.

3. Seth Griffith – RW, Providence Bruins

Like his Bruins teammate, Griffith is also in his first season of pro hockey and is one goal shy of reaching 20 on the year. The Bruins made some moves swapping AHL players to make room for these two rookies to fill larger roles. Griffith has tallied 13 points (8G-5A) in his last eight games.

4. Stephane Da Costa – C, Binghamton Senators

Da Costa has paced a Senators offense that has been firing on all cylinders for much of the 2013-14 campaign. The third-year pro tallied 12 points (2G-10A) in his last nine games and extended his point-scoring streak to six games in the Senators' 2-1 loss to Albany on March 19th.

5. Tobias Rieder – RW, Portland Pirates

The rookie winger is tied with Andy Miele for the team lead in goals with 23, and has been on a point-per-game pace the last dozen games (7G-5A).

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey