AHL POWER RANKINGS: Nine down, seven to go, 14 in pursuit
Each week, EP Rinkside serves up the AHL Power Rankings, a look at the top Calder Cup contenders across the 31-team circuit and their player development picture.
Nine tickets to the Calder Cup Playoffs have been claimed. Seven invitations remain with 14 teams still alive to fight for them. The Charlotte Checkers’ dominant regular season continues, playoff hockey is back for AHL’s flagship franchise, and a North Division struggle continues. In the Central Division, six teams are battling for three available playoff openings. Out in the Pacific Division, there are two vacancies and three clubs jostling for positioning. Mix in an influx of returning NHL talent and fresh-faced CHL and NCAA talent, and it should add plenty of spice for the final week of the AHL regular season.
AHL TOP 10
1. CHARLOTTE CHECKERS (CAROLINA HURRICANES)
One has to go back to the 1984-85 AHL season to find the last time the Carolina/Hartford Whalers organziation had an AHL regular-season champion, but Charlotte locked down the title last week. They unleashed a 5-0 beating on the Springfield Thunderbirds to finish the weekend. Carolina-Charlotte management invested in the Checkers at the NHL Trade Deadline, and the moves have paid off exceptionally well. Forward Tomas Jurco is 6-9-15 since coming to Charlotte via trade from the Thunderbirds and has clicked with first-round prospect Martin Necas. Back-up goaltending was a lingering issue until Dustin Tokarski arrived from the Hartford Wolf Pack. Aleksi Saarela is sometimes overlooked outside of Charlotte, but he is on track to hit 30 goals after a 25-goal rookie season. They will finish their regular season with a two-game road series against the Cleveland Monsters for one final tune-up. A first-round match-up with either the Hershey Bears or Providence Bruins is looking likely. These Checkers, who have found that always-tricky balance of player development and winning, have had the look of a Calder Cup champion since the fall, and their play down the stretch has done nothing to indicate otherwise.
Last Week: #1 – 18th week in a row
2. CHICAGO WOLVES (VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS)
The Wolves will finish atop the Western Conference in points and give the Golden Knights back-to-back AHL division titles after another exceptional season.
Gage Quinney and Stefan Matteau returned to the line-up from injuries, a big boost along with newcomer Cody Glass. The forward, taken as the sixth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, quickly made an impression with two goals in his pro debut. But Daniel Carr and Brooks Macek remain out of the line-up, and those are significant absences. Max Lagacé’s return from the Golden Knights is another boost for the Wolves, who split a weekend series with the visiting Colorado Eagles. Their regular season will wind down with back-to-back home dates against the Manitoba Moose, a possible first-round opponent. Last season the Wolves flamed out spectacularly in a first-round sweep by the Rockford IceHogs, but they are looking potent this time around.
Last Week: #2 – 2nd week in a row
3. SYRACUSE CRUNCH (TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING)
The good news for the Crunch is that goaltender Eddie Pasquale is back from Tampa Bay. They took road wins against the Belleville Senators and Rochester Americans but stumbled badly in the week-closing game, a 5-2 home loss to the Amerks. Syracuse has a 3-in-3 weekend to finish the regular season, but they look like a team in flux at the moment. They have three games to iron out those issues or an excellent regular season could unravel come playoff time.
Last Week: #5 – (▲+2)
4. ROCHESTER AMERICANS (BUFFALO SABRES)
Rochester is still chasing a North Division title and received a haul from the Sabres. Victor Olofsson’s return puts an elite forward back in the Rochester line-up. Alexander Nylander also is back along with defensemen Lawrence Pilut, Matt Tennyson, and Will Borgen. With change blowing through the Buffalo organization, a good AHL playoff performance is needed for several players. Breaking out of the North Division will not be easy, however. After the Crunch blew them out in Rochester, 6-1, the Amerks repaid the favor a night later at Syracuse and then took a win on the road facing the Cleveland Monsters. The teams have another meeting in Syracuse this Saturday as the Amerks also finish with a 3-in-3 weekend.
Last Week: #3 – (▼-1)
5. BRIDGEPORT SOUND TIGERS (NY ISLANDERS)
Bridgeport continued to chip away at securing home-ice advantage in the first round, splitting a home-and-home series with the Providence Bruins. The Islanders qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Sound Tigers do have 2018 first-rounder Oliver Wahlstrom now. They have a fairly unimpressive closing schedule after a grueling run of opponents. It starts Wednesday when the Laval Rocket visit. The third-place Hershey Bears are still hanging around, however, and are four points behind Bridgeport.
Last Week: #6 – (▲+1)
6. HERSHEY BEARS (WASHINGTON CAPITALS)
The AHL staple of playoff hockey in Hershey is back after a one-year absence. That gives the Washington-Hershey affiliation 12 AHL playoff appearances in their 14 seasons together. Hershey completed a dramatic rise from the bottom of the Atlantic Division at the season’s midpoint and clinched a playoff spot to close out their weekend. Next they face the rival Lehigh Valley Phantoms at home before a 3-in-3 weekend against non-playoff teams, including a pair against the Hartford Wolf Pack. They even have an outside shot at claiming home-ice advantage in the first round from Bridgeport. That would also mean avoiding Charlotte in the first round.
Last Week: #11 – (▲+5)
7. BAKERSFIELD CONDORS (EDMONTON OILERS)
Sometimes winning a division does not yield much of a prize beyond pride. But this year in this division it could mean avoiding a loaded opponent like the San Diego Gulls in a best-of-five series and trying to navigate that challenge. At one point owning an eight-point hold on the Pacific Division lead, the Condors have sagged badly lately with losses in eight of their past 11 games (4-5-1-1). They have taken four consecutive losses, including a two-game sweep by Manitoba and a loss to the lowly San Antonio Rampage. Edmonton has restocked the Bakersfield roster, returning forwards Josh Currie, Joe Gambardella, and Brad Malone. Now they will face the desperate Tucson Roadrunners are home on Wednesday before finishing against a pair of non-playoff teams in the Ontario Reign and Stockton Heat. Locking down the Pacific Division title likely means playing Tucson or Colorado in the first round rather than the Gulls. There is ample talent on this roster to make a deep playoff run, but the AHL’s best-of-five first-round format is very unforgiving against the wrong opponent at the wrong time.
Last Week: #4 – (▼-3)
8. TORONTO MARLIES (TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS)
Head coach Sheldon Keefe had bitten his tongue but finally had seen enough and delivered pointed criticism of his team after a sleepy 3-0 home loss to the Bears. The Marlies responded with a win the next night that clinched a playoff spot before a loss at the Binghamton Devils. They have a home-and-home series with Belleville followed by a visit from the Monsters. However, goaltender Michael Hutchinson’s recall to the Leafs is a major wrinkle and could not have come at a much worse time for the Marlies.
Last Week: #7 – (▼-1)
9. SAN JOSE BARRACUDA (SAN JOSE SHARKS)
The Barracuda continue to swim out of a late-season slump and have taken wins in five of their past six games. They remain in hot pursuit of the Condors for that Pacific Division title, which would be their second in the past four seasons. They visit San Diego to start three games in four nights on the road. A two-game set at Colorado concludes their regular season.
Last Week: #16 (▲+1)
10. PROVIDENCE BRUINS (BOSTON BRUINS)
Providence has taken the magic number down to one. The P-Bruins knocked out two more wins last weekend, both of them at home. Veteran Paul Carey has been potent down the stretch, and his addition from in a January trade from Belleville ranks as one of the top AHL deals this season. He banged out five goals in three games and is up to 21 markers in 29 games since coming from Belleville. Providence lacked a bona fide elite sniper until Carey’s arrival, but he makes them a very dangerous first-round opponent if and when they qualify.
Last Week: #11 (▲+1)
11. GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS (DETROIT RED WINGS)
The Griffins’ losing streak has grown to six games, but a major asterisk is attached to that. They had lost close to a third of their roster on recall to Detroit, but the Red Wings returned eight players to Grand Rapids after the NHL regular season ended. Now they have to stop this late-season slump and snap into playoff mode in the final week of the regular season. Three games against desperate opponents face the Griffins this week.
Last Week: #8 – (▼-3)
12. MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS (NASHVILLE PREDATORS)
Milwaukee added three more wins to take their point streak to 11 games (9-0-1-1) and put themselves in sole control of third place in the Central Division. Four points out of second place with three games to go, they even have an outside chance of securing home-ice advantage in the first round.
Last Week: #16 (▲+4)
13. MANITOBA MOOSE (WINNIPEG JETS)
Manitoba could have really made it an exceptional week before stumbling badly last Sunday afternoon against the Heat. The Moose already had taken a pair of wins against the Condors and then shut out the Heat in the open to a two-game series. But the Heat struck back in the back-end game of the series and hammered the Moose, 6-2. Mikhail Berdin took the loss in that game, but the rookie continues to excel in net. Manitoba sits above the North Division playoff line, but any slip could be fatal to their playoff chances. They also have to play those two season-ending tilts against the Wolves on the road.
Last Week: #18 (▲+5)
14. SAN DIEGO GULLS (ANAHEIM DUCKS)
The trick for the Gulls will be to re-integrate several returnees from the Ducks, including rookie forwards Sam Steel and Max Jones. These late-season hauls can be a tremendous boost, but more than a few AHL teams over the years have struggled trying to re-insert talent from the NHL. Troy Terry’s broken leg while with Anaheim is a major loss as well. But they certainly looked sharp in beating up on Ontario, something that always goes over well in San Diego regardless of the standings. The Gulls still have not locked down a playoff spot, but they are in reasonably good shape.
Last Week: #17 (▲+3)
15. CLEVELAND MONSTERS (COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS)
In a league that touts its cache of prospects, the veterans often still do a lot of the heavy-lifting. Zac Dalpe has carried this team, and back-up goaltender Brad Thiessen has stepped in admirably with Jean-Francois Bérubé out of the line-up. Captain Nathan Gerbe and Sonny Milano both have been out for more than two months. They have a one-point lead on Belleville for the North Division’s fourth and final playoff spot, but they burned their game in hand on Belleville with a home loss to the Amerks. They will finish with back-to-back dates with the visiting Checkers and then have that finale in Toronto.
Last Week: #13 – (▼-2)
16. TEXAS STARS (DALLAS STARS)
With goaltender Landon Bow in Dallas, this looks to be newcomer Jake Oettinger’s net for now. So far, he has delivered for Texas and shown some of the potential that made him a 2017 first-round pick and a standout at Boston University. Three meetings with San Antonio, two of them at H-E-B Center, set the table well for Texas this week. There are no givens in the AHL, but three rivalry games against a last-place opponent is as favorable as the schedule gets with a playoff spot on the line.
Last Week: #15 – (▼-1)
17. BELLEVILLE SENATORS (OTTAWA SENATORS)
Belleville salvaged something from the week with a nearly must-have home win against the Monsters to keep them within one point of the North Division playoff line. They had lost a pair of games earlier in the week against the Crunch and Bears. Now they face and home-and-home series with the Marlies, a team that they have controlled this season. A home matinee against the Amerks finishes their regular-season schedule. Whatever happens, the B-Sens have exceeded all reasonable expectations amid a season of trades, injuries, and constant organizational upheaval around them.
Last Week: #14 – (▼-3)
18. IOWA WILD (MINNESOTA WILD)
Iowa’s dramatic late-season collapse has shown no sign of stopping. Milwaukee pounded them, 5-1, last Saturday night. They have now dropped eight consecutive games and face a punishing final three games. A team that had challenged for the Central Division lead a month ago may very well miss the postseason altogether as the Minnesota organization’s run of AHL futility continues.
Last Week: #12 – (▼-6)
19. COLORADO EAGLES (COLORADO AVALANCHE)
All things considered, grabbing one win on the road against the Wolves is a real boost. The Eagles have a one-point hold on a playoff spot. But they only have two games left, both of them at home against the Barracuda.
Last Week: #19 – 2nd week in a row
20. TUCSON ROADRUNNERS (ARIZONA COYOTES)
With back-to-back wins at Iowa and a four-day break, the Roadrunners could have made it a great week. Instead they finished it out with a 4-2 loss to the Western Conference’s worst team, Ontario. That leaves Tucson one point shy of the Pacific Division playoff line now. The good news for them is that they hold a game in hand on the Eagles. The bad news is that the Roadrunners finish their road schedule at Bakersfield before returning home for consecutive home games against the Gulls.
Last Week: #20 – 2nd week in a row
21. ROCKFORD ICEHOGS (CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS)
The IceHogs got a split in Texas, though they yielded a shootout point to the Stars in the second game. There is a path to the postseason, but it most likely would require Rockford to take care of business in the final three games and considerable help from the Wolves, Grand Rapids, and San Antonio.
Last Week: #22 (▲+1)
22. WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON PENGUINS (PITTSBURGH PENGUINS)
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 16-season playoff streak barely has a breath at this point with Providence’s magic number down to one. A remarkably sloppy road 10-6 loss to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to finish the weekend also most likely finished the Penguins’ playoff chances.
Last Week: #21 – (▼-1)
OUT OF CONTENTION
23. LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS)
Sweeping the Penguins in a pair of games at Lehigh Valley was too little, too late for the Phantoms, whose playoff hopes remain alive in only the most theoretical of ways (they would have to overcome a minus-27 goal differential with Providence). This could be an offseason of considerable change in the organization after missing the postseason at the NHL, AHL, and ECHL levels.
Last Week: #19 (▼-4)
24. UTICA COMETS (VANCOUVER CANUCKS)
Add in two more losses for the Comets, who are on a 3-14-2-0 descent before a disastrous second half comes to an end this week.
Last Week: #24 – 2nd week in a row
25. SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS (FLORIDA PANTHERS)
Another year, another season with a Florida AHL affiliate missing the postseason after a 9-4-0-2 start went down the drain. That makes five misses in the past seven seasons, including three in a row. Florida affiliates have not won an AHL playoff round since 2012.
Last Week: #25 – 2nd week in a row
26. STOCKTON HEAT (CALGARY FLAMES)
As Manitoba found out in a feisty weekend series between the teams, the Heat can score and play an abrasive game.
Last Week: #26 – 2nd week in a row
27. LAVAL ROCKET (MONTREAL CANADIENS)
Laval knocked off the red-hot Bears in Place Bell, at least giving their fans a successful home finale.
Last Week: #27 – 2nd week in a row
28. HARTFORD WOLF PACK (NEW YORK RANGERS)
With Glen Sather stepping aside in New York, who knows who will fill that vacuum and what kind of change might be on the way throughout the organization this offseason. The Rangers organization missed the postseason at the NHL, AHL, and ECHL levels.
Last Week: #28 – 2nd week in a row
29. SAN ANTONIO RAMPAGE (ST. LOUIS BLUES)
With a line-up battered by injuries, the Rampage at least have a chance to put Texas on the sideline with them.
Last Week: #29 – 3rd week in a row
30. BINGHAMTON DEVILS (NEW JERSEY DEVILS)
The day after taking a home win against the Marlies, the Devils went on the road and were blown out by Hartford.
Last Week: #30 – 2nd week in a row
31. ONTARIO REIGN (LOS ANGELES KINGS)
With a new head coach and other change on the way in Los Angeles, Kings prospects have one last week to make an impression this season.
Last Week: #31 – 2nd week in a row