AHL Western Conference Notebook, March, 2016: Race for top Central slot still tight, potential league award winners

By Sean Shapiro
Mikko Rantanen - San Antonio Rampage

Photo: While his team is in tough to make the AHL playoffs, San Antonio Rampage forward and Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Rantanen has been one of the top rookies in the AHL in 2015-16 (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)



The American Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff picture is going to solidify itself over the next couple weeks.

Teams have less than a dozen games remaining and a handful of key races have developed as the AHL turns its attention to the final four weeks.

In the Central Division, the Grand Rapids Griffins, Milwaukee Admirals, and Rockford IceHogs are jockeying for the division title. Grand Rapids recently had a 13-game win streak snapped by the San Antonio Rampage, which in most cases would have been a good enough effort to secure a division title.

However, Milwaukee has won six of its last 10 games and stayed ahead of the Griffins with a .649 points percentage. Rockford had been just as good but is starting to fall off the pace with just four wins in their last 10 games.

They won’t win the division, but the Lake Erie Monsters will likely grab the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division. That pushes the Charlotte Checkers into a race for a potential crossover spot in the Pacific Division.

If the fifth-place team in the Central has a better points percentage than the fourth-place team in the Pacific it will crossover and play the Pacific Division champion. If the playoffs started today the San Jose Barracuda would make the playoffs, but the San Jose Sharks‘ AHL affiliate has work to do in order to hold off the Checkers.

“The crossover makes everything very interesting,” San Diego Gulls coach Dallas Eakins said. “Looking at how that’s going to impact the playoff race, it’s going to create a little bit of excitement between the divisions.”

If the Checkers do make the playoffs, they will certainly enter the postseason battle-tested.

After games against the Manitoba Moose and Chicago Wolves, Charlotte’s final nine games will consist of contests against the Texas Stars, Rockford, Milwaukee, and Lake Erie – all playoff teams.

In the Pacific Division, the Ontario Reign has clinched the division title, while the San Diego Gulls and Texas have seemingly locked up their first-round playoff series.

The question in the Texas-San Diego race is who will get home ice advantage. The Stars had been holding second for most of the season, but San Diego won seven of its last 10 games to jump into second.

“They get a lot out of the team in San Diego,” Stockton Heat head coach Ryan Huska said. “It’s a team that can play a couple different ways and will be tough to beat late in the season.”

The previously mentioned Barracuda and the Bakersfield Condors are battling for the fourth playoff spot in the division, and desperately trying to hold off the Checkers’ push for that crossover spot.

Technically, Manitoba is the only team officially eliminated from the postseason, but it looks like the Iowa Wild, Chicago, San Antonio, and Stockton seem to be playing out the stretch.

Awards Season

AHL awards ballots are due back to league offices on April 4th, meaning players have limited time to impress the voters before awards are announced over the final two weeks of the regular season.

It’s not an exact science, but the following players have established themselves as front-runners for individual awards.

Eddie Shore Award (Best Defenseman) – In the AHL, the best defenseman honors, for better or worse, often end up in the hands of the AHL’s leading scorer from the blue line. Based on that logic, T.J. Brennan from the Toronto Marlies will take home the award.

And that’s not too much of a stretch considering Brennan’s season. However, Ontario Reign captain Vincent LoVerde should also get some recognition, while it’s hard to ignore Grand Rapids rookie Robbie Russo who leads the league with a +45 rating.

Aldedge Bastien Memorial Award (Best Goaltender) – It seems like a foregone conclusion that Ontario Reign goalie Peter Budaj will get his hands on the “Baz” this season.

Budaj leads the league in games played, wins, goals-against average, and is tied for second in save percentage. Budaj has also been one of the feel-good stories of the season.

Last season with the St. John’s IceCaps, Budaj failed to pick up a win in 19 games.

Louis A.R. Piere Memorial Award (Coach of the Year) – If you went purely on record, Ontario Reign coach Mike Stothers would be one of the favorites. However, Grand Rapids Griffins coach Todd Nelson has made a nice case to claim the award.

Nelson helped turn around a Grand Rapids team that lost seven of its first eight games back in October. Since then the Griffins have pieced together 15-game and 13-game win streaks, which rank first and second in the AHL.

Les Cunningham Award (MVP) – The award will likely go to Brennan from the Eastern Conference. However, if the Western Conference had it’s own MVP award, Budaj from Ontario and Grand Rapids center Andy Miele would be top candidates.

Dudley “Red” Garret Memorial Award (Rookie of the Year) – In what many consider a two-horse race, voters will have to decide between Providence Bruins center Frank Vatrano and San Antonio Rampage winger Mikko Rantanen.

In the West, it’s clearly Rantanen’s award to lose. The Avalanche prospect has 53 points in 45 games with 22 goals and 31 assists. He has also been asked to do more than most rookies on a struggling San Antonio team.

Western Conference Hot List – March, 2016

1. Chris Mueller, C – San Diego Gulls
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 56 GP, 18G, 31A, 12, 48 PIM

The veteran center has helped guide San Diego during its current push up the Pacific Division standings. Mueller has seven goals and three assists in his past 10 games and has provided veteran leadership for San Diego.

2. Robbie Russo, D – Grand Rapids Griffins
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 61 GP, 5G, 32A, +45, 38 PIM

Robbie Russo has made the most of his extended playing time with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Russo leads the AHL with a +45 rating while dishing out 32 assists. Russo recently caught fire offensively and was named the AHL Player of the Week on Feb. 28th after posting seven points (two goals, five assists) in four games.

3. Derek Grant, C – Stockton Heat
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 36 GP, 27G, 18A, +7, 36 PIM

Derek Grant missed almost a month due to injury, but quickly made an impact in his return to the lineup last week. Grant had five points (three goals, two assists) in his first three games back and already has a career-high 45 points in just 36 games.

4. John Muse, G – Charlotte Checkers
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 30 GP, 16-5-4, .913 SV%, 2.54 GAA

John Muse’s overall stats don’t dazzle. But, after being traded to Charlotte from Texas on Feb. 29th, the former Boston College goalie has been lights out. Muse has a 7-2-1 record, 1.83 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 11 games with Charlotte.

5. Kevin Fiala, LW – Milwaukee Admirals
2015-16 Season AHL Stats: 57 GP, 16G, 25A, -17, 66 PIM

The Milwaukee Admirals forward has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in his last 12 games and has really found his groove over the past month. Fiala is on track to finish the month as positive plus/minus player for the first time this season.

Follow Sean Shapiro on Twitter via @seanshapiro