AHL Western Conference notebook, March, 2014

By Tony Androckitis

Teemu Pulkkinen - Detroit Red Wings

Photo: Grand Rapids Griffins forward Teemu Pulkkinen, shown here skating for the parent Detroit Red Wings, is tied for the lead among AHL rookie goal scorers with 27 on the season (courtesy of Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The AHL regular season is about to hit its final month with April just around the corner. The stage is set for a playoff-like atmosphere, with several teams in the Western Conference trying to make a late-season push to get into the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs.

All stats in this article are from February 26th – March 26th, unless otherwise noted.

AHL Western Conference Outlook

The division leaders have distanced themselves from the pack. The Texas Stars have already clinched a playoff spot, and between the Stars and Grand Rapids Griffins – who have continued their pace despite several call-ups to the NHL affiliate Detroit Red Wings – the Western Conference’s 2013-14 champion will likely have to go through one, if not both, of the West’s current powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the sixth thru twelfth positions in the Western Conference are separated by only 11 points with less than a month left in the season. After slow starts to the season, both the Charlotte Checkers (sitting in eighth place, one point ahead of the collapsing Rochester Americans) and Utica Comets (six points out of the playoffs) are right in the thick of things heading down the stretch. Even the 15th place Iowa Wild are within 11 points of the eighth place Checkers with two games in hand on the Checkers.

While the East has what appear to be five teams fighting for four spots in the bottom half of the playoff bracket, the West currently has half the conference battling for the last three playoff spots in the sixth thru eighth seeds.

Conference Standings (through 3/26)

X = clinched playoff spot, * = division leader

X *1. Texas Stars (DAL) – 9 games remaining, 92 points

*2. Grand Rapids Griffins (DET) – 10 games remaining, 88 points

*3. Toronto Marlies (TOR) – 12 games remaining, 83 points

4. Chicago Wolves (STL) – 11 games remaining, 84 points

5. Abbotsford Heat (CGY) – 10 games remaining, 77 points

6. Milwaukee Admirals (NSH) – 11 games remaining, 75 points

7. Rockford IceHogs (CHI) – 11 games remaining, 71 points

8. Charlotte Checkers (CAR) – 9 games remaining, 71 points

9. Rochester Americans (BUF) – 10 games remaining, 70 points

10. Oklahoma City Barons (EDM) – 10 games remaining, 69 points

11. Utica Comets (VAN) – 12 games remaining, 65 points

12. Lake Erie Monsters (COL) – 12 games remaining, 64 points

13. Hamilton Bulldogs (MTL) – 11 games remaining, 61 points

14. San Antonio Rampage (FLA) – 11 games remaining, 61 points

15. Iowa Wild (MIN) – 11 games remaining, 60 points

Charlotte and Lake Erie Overcoming Adversity

Charlotte has had an up and down season, evidenced by a 3-7-1-1 record in February followed by 10-4 run in March to put them one point ahead of ninth place Rochester.

John Muse, an undrafted goaltender formerly of Boston College, started the season in the ECHL. But, after injuries to Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, Muse was signed to a PTO by the Checkers and made an immediate impact, earning shutouts in his first two starts. In his third season in the Carolina Hurricanes organization, Muse is now 24-12-0 on the season, including 7-1 in March with a 2.64 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

Offensively, the Checkers are led by a trio of veteran AHL forwards in Chris Terry, Zach Boychuk and Aaron Palushaj. While all three have been on the score sheet often, Terry has been leading the way in March. The fifth year pro and the team’s leading scorer with 65 points (27G-38A) in 61 games has really brought his game to another level in the last month, tallying 20 points (9G-11A) in his last 15 games.

A midseason lull by the Lake Erie Monsters saw them lose eight straight games in January and fall to dead last in the conference. The Monsters have since climbed out of 15th place and sit seven points out of a playoff spot, having won six of their last nine games – including a pair of shutouts last weekend over Rochester.

Incidentally, Monsters goaltender Sami Aittokallio was named the CCM/AHL Player of Week for the period ending March 23rd, stopping all 48 shots he faced in two games against the division rival Amerks. The two shutouts doubled his perfect game count to four on the season, to go along with a record of 12-11-3, a 2.57 goals-against average, and a .912 save percentage. The second-year AHL pro also has a season of the SM Liga under his belt as he played for his hometown team, Ilves Tampere, prior to coming to North America for his rookie year in 2012-13.

Rookie forward Colin Smith, a four-year forward of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, is enjoying some late-season success in his first taste of professional hockey. Colorado’s seventh round pick from 2012 has 26 points (7G-19A) in 64 AHL games with Lake Erie, including seven points (1G-6A) in his last 10 games.

Hot List

1. Mark Arcobello – C, Oklahoma City Barons

Since being re-assigned to the AHL after 18 points (4G-14A) in 41 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers this year, Arcobello is in the midst of a 15-game point-scoring streak. He’s registered at least one point in every game he has played at the AHL level this season, including 16 points (6G-10A) in his last nine games.

2. Teemu Pulkkinen – RW, Grand Rapids Griffins

Pulkkinen is tied for the league lead in goals by a rookie this season with 27 and has been on a goal-scoring tear lately, tallying eight goals in his last seven AHL games. He’s also earned three NHL recalls in the last month to an injury stricken Detroit Red Wings team, appearing in three NHL games this season, as well.

3. Jack Campbell – G, Texas Stars

After Christopher Nilstorp was recalled by the Dallas Stars at the beginning of March, backup Jack Campbell has stepped in and played great, going 5-1-0 this month with two shutouts, a 1.31 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage. Campbell is a sure-fire candidate for the league’s monthly top goaltender award for March.

4. Miikka Salomaki – LW, Milwaukee Admirals

Salomaki, a rookie forward from Raahe, Finland, has paced the Admirals offense all season long and currently leads the team in scoring with 45 points (19G-26A) in 64 games. He’s been on a point-per-game pace the last 10 games, tallying seven goals and four assists in the last month.

5. Max Reinhart – C, Abbotsford Heat

The second-year pro leads the potent Heat offense in scoring and has scored on a near point-per-game pace for much of the season. His 49 points (18G-31A) in 56 games this season is almost triple the number of goals (7) and double the assists (14) from his 67-game rookie season in 2012-13. In his last eight games, Reinhart has tallied eight points (5G-3A).

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