AHL Eastern Conference Notebook, February, 2016: Marlies maintain lead in North, but Atlantic far from settled

By Tony Androckitis
Frank Vatrano - Providence Bruins

Photo: Providence Bruins forward and Boston Bruins prospect Frank Vatrano scored six goals and added an assist in 30 NHL games in 2015-16 (courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images)



As teams enter the stretch run of the 2015-16 AHL season, points in the standings are at a premium. A good run of wins can help solidify a playoff position while an untimely losing skid can push a team out of postseason contention. The intensity is ramped up in the final eight weeks of the season, meaning every game, period and shift matters.

Atlantic Division full of hot teams

While the AHL’s North Division has teams chasing the red-hot Toronto Marlies, the Atlantic Division has several teams trending up at the right time.

No Atlantic team is making a stronger push than the Providence Bruins, who had not lost in regulation in their last 16 games (12-0-3-1) before their first regulation loss of the 2016 calendar year. Once in the basement of the division, the AHL Bruins have worked their way into fourth place and into the division’s final playoff position.

The Bruins are simply loaded offensively with rookie Frank Vatrano back from Boston and continuing his torrid AHL goal-scoring pace. In only 20 AHL games, Vatrano has 21 goals and 10 assists. Also scoring on a point-per-game pace are forwards Seth Griffith (second in the AHL with 52 points in 41 games) and Alexander Khokhlachev (41 points in 39 games).

Unfortunately for the AHL Bruins, goaltender Malcolm Subban was hospitalized with a fractured larynx after taking a puck to the throat. The Bruins acquired veteran Jeremy Smith from Iowa to form a duo with rookie Zane McIntyre and have kept on picking up points in the standings, including a big 5-2 win over another hot Atlantic Division team in the Hershey Bears.

Before their loss to Providence last weekend, the Bears were on a similar unbeaten streak of 13 games (9-0-2-2) stretching back to early January. With a solid mix of younger and veteran players, the Bears are firing on all cylinders.

Veteran Chris Bourque leads the AHL in scoring, and the addition of long-time NHL forward Scott Gomez has given the Bears even more of a veteran presence up front to help out rookies Travis Boyd and Riley Barber, who are both enjoying success in their first pro seasons.

After nine points (three goals, six assists) in his first 20 games, Boyd has figured things out offensively with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in his last 19 games. Barber has been on a similar hot streak as of late, with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in his last 13 games.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers are on a 10-game unbeaten streak (8-0-1-1) while also trying to make a push towards the postseason. While other teams are getting it done with first- and second-year players, the Sound Tigers are being carried by the play of their veterans.

Forward Alan Quine, the team’s All-Star representative, is riding a 10-game point streak (three goals, nine assists) and playing at his best. The third year pro is nearly a point-per-game player this season with 29 points in 36 AHL games played. Nine year pro Bracken Kearns leads the team in scoring, while fourth-year pro Taylor Beck has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last six games.

Defenseman Ryan Pulock is getting back on track after a minor injury caused him to miss the AHL All-Star Classic at the beginning of the month. While he is not scoring as many goals as the 17 he put up in his rookie season, Pulock has five points in his last 10 games and is playing a much better two-way game than he did last sason.

Though they sit in fifth place in the division currently, the Sound Tigers own a better record than the current fourth place team in the North Division, so they would crossover and become the fourth seed in the North if that is still the case come season’s end in April.

Wolf Pack and Phantoms on the outside looking in

What that leaves in the Atlantic Division is the Hartford Wolf Pack and Lehigh Valley Phantoms entering near must-win territory with 25 games left in the season. The Wolf Pack had won eight in a row and 10 of their last 11 games heading into the All-Star break, but three straight losses coming out of the break has the Wolf Pack on the outside looking in.

Rookie defensemen Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves are getting solid ice time and learning the pro game. Both have put up some points as rookies, as Skjei has tallied 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) in 50 games while Graves has seven goals and 10 assists on the season. While Skjei is more of an offensively minded defenseman, Graves enjoys playing the shutdown defensive role and logs big minutes on the penalty kill, where he uses his big body in the corners and in front of the net to box out opposing forwards looking for rebounds.

Up front, the Wolf Pack score by committee with good depth across their lines bolstered by the acquisition of Nicklas Jensen from Utica. Jayson Megna has split his season between the Wolf Pack and the parent New York Rangers, while Ryan Bourque, Marek Hrivik and rookie Adam Tambellini have all contributed to the offensive depth. Hartford doesn’t fill the net as a team, but play well defensively and find timely scoring when they’re most successful – a team built for the postseason.

The Phantoms have been plagued by injuries all season long and are now seeing their top players recalled by the Philadelphia Flyers in point-per-game center Nick Cousins and veteran defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who at the time of his departure led all AHL defensemen with 31 assists while also being second among defenders in power play assists (17).

Lehigh Valley has promising rookie Danick Martel leading the team in goals with 18 and NHL hopeful Taylor Leier playing a strong two-way game along with rookie defenseman Sam Morin, but the Phantoms need to make a strong run down the stretch similar to their divisional counterparts if they hope to have any chance of playing past April.

North Division playoff picture – a two team race

While the Atlantic Division playoff race is heating up, teams in the North Division are pretty well spread out. Nobody is going to catch the Toronto Marlies, who are running away with the North Division crown with a 15-point lead on second place Albany with two fewer games played than the Devils. In turn, the Albany Devils have a comfortable eight point cushion on the two teams behind them.

It’s certainly looking like the North Division will only have three teams in the postseason, so the third place battle between Utica and St. John’s – currently separated by just one point – is going to be interesting to watch as the season comes to an end.

The Utica Comets made a push to grab third place from St. John’s last week, and are now 7-0-1 in their last eight games. Hunter Shinkaruk has been a big part of his team’s recent success, as he has tallied five goals and two assists for seven points in his last seven games. He leads the team in goals (21) and points (38), and has a larger role on the team this season than he did as a rookie with Utica last season.

Shinkaruk’s teammate and fellow second-year forward Brendan Gaunce has nine points (four goals, five assists) in his last seven games and he too has exceeded his offensive production from his rookie year in just 38 games.

The St. John’s IceCaps, meanwhile, had won only three of their previous nine games before Wednesday night’s win over a struggling Syracuse team that has now lost nine straight games (0-6-2-1). With several of their roster players called up to the Montreal Canadiens, St. John’s is struggling to find consistency from the remaining players in the lineup.

Recently acquired Max Friberg tallied seven points in his first 13 games with his new team, but has been held off the scoresheet in his last five games. Without the services of Sven Andrighetto, Daniel Carr and Jacob de la Rose currently, the IceCaps will be relying on Bud Holloway, Charles Hudon and 6’6” rookie forward Mike McCarron to shoulder the load down the stretch if St. John’s hopes to slide into the postseason.

Rookie netminder Zach Fucale is playing his best hockey of the season right now, coming off AHL Player of the Week honors for a 3-0-0 week that included his first pro shutout and a 32-save performance in a big win over league-leading Toronto. All it takes down the stretch is a hot goaltender to get a team into the postseason, and the IceCaps are certainly hoping Fucale keeps building off his strong starts last week.

The bottom of the North Division features three struggling teams from New York in Syracuse (Tampa Bay), Rochester (Buffalo) and Binghamton (Ottawa). Syracuse and Rochester each sit eight points behind third place Utica for what looks to be the division’s final playoff spot, while Binghamton is about to approach being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention as they are currently 18 points back in last place.

Eastern Conference Hot List – February 2016

1. Frank Vatrano, C – Providence Bruins
2015-16 Season Stats (AHL): 20GP, 21G-10A, +7, 10 PIM

No one has been better than Frank Vatrano offensively since the tail end of January. With 11 goals and eight assists in his last 10 AHL games with Providence, Vatrano is a goal-per-game player in the minors this season.

2. Riley Barber, RW – Hershey Bears
2015-16 Season Stats: 50GP, 16G-20A,+5, 24 PIM

Riley Barber is on fire, riding a seven-game points streak that has seen him notch 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) while helping his team solidify their standing in the Atlantic Division.

3. Will O’Neill, D – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
2015-16 Season Stats: 48GP, 7G-26A, +3, 44 PIM

Will O’Neill has stepped up his game amidst several injuries and call-ups to the Penguins NHL affiliate, tallying 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in his last eight games to help lead the way.

4. Taylor Leier, LW – Lehigh Valley Phantoms
2015-16 Season Stats: 46GP, 15G-19A, +5, 24 PIM

Taylor Leier notched his first pro career hat trick last week and has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in his last 10 games. He already has more points this season than he did in 73 games last year as a rookie.

5. Jordan Subban, D – Utica Comets
2015-16 Season Stats: 42GP, 8G-20A, -3, 25 PIM

The youngest Subban has caught fire offensively in recent weeks, riding a five-game points streak while tallying nine points (three goals, six assists) in his last 10 games as a rookie defender in Vancouver’s system.

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