AHL’s California teams driving toward Calder Cup playoffs
Trading deadlines have passed in both the National Hockey League (March 1) and American Hockey League (March 8).
Parent clubs have had a chance to help both themselves as well as their affiliates with last-minute trades to fortify rosters for playoff stretch drives.
AHL teams have also attempted to fine-tune their lineups through inter-league trades.
All concerned teams hope it adds up to a winning formula
There are two exciting playoff races developing among the AHL’s Pacific Division teams as the regular season schedule speeds to a close.
One involves the top three teams in the division standings: the San Jose Barracuda, San Diego Gulls and Ontario Reign. The three California teams are jockeying for home ice advantage in the upcoming Calder Cup divisional playoffs.
The other scenario involves the five remaining teams in the division as they engage in a frantic, last-ditch effort to claim the division’s final playoff berth.
The Barracuda (38-13-2-4) leads the Gulls (37-15-3-2) by three points in the division standings with 11 regular season games remaining for both teams while San Diego is nine points up on Ontario (30-18-10, .603 winning percentage) with one game in hand. There’s still plenty of time for the teams to exchange positions.
San Jose became the first team in the league this season to clinch a playoff berth following its 3-1 win at the Stockton Heat on March 18. The Barracuda leads all 30 AHL teams with a .719 winning percentage.
Meanwhile, the second-place Gulls’ “magic number” to clinch a playoff berth is now down to three. San Diego owns the second-best winning percentage (.693) in the AHL.
The Reign currently occupies third place in the division standings but has eyes on closing the gap between itself and the division’s two front-runners before the regular season is over. Ontario leads the fourth place Bakersfield Condors (28-23-5-1, .544 winning percentage) by eight points.
The Reign’s magic number is 12.
The magic number is the number of points a team needs to clinch a playoff berth. A team’s magic number is reduced when it earns standings points or when the team with the highest possible total points outside the playoff picture fails to earn standings points.
A team clinches a playoff berth when its magic number reaches zero.
Teams challenging the Condors for the division’s final Calder Cup playoff berth include Stockton (27-25-4-1, .518 winning percentage), the Texas Stars (28-30-1-4, .484 winning percentage), fledgling Tucson Roadrunners (24-26-6-0, .482 winning percentage) and the cellar-dwelling San Antonio Rampage (24-32-5-2, .437 winning percentage).
Bakersfield’s magic number is 20 while Stockton’s magic number is 26. Tucson’s magic number is 31 while the magic number for Texas is 33.
San Antonio’s magic number is 39, though the Rampage appears to be a long shot at qualifying for the playoffs at this point of the season.
Regular-season play ends April 15.
San Jose is clearly chasing a dream season.
The Barracuda has claimed points in 21 of its last 23 games (19-2-1-1), including a club-record 14-game win streak and a 15-game points streak. Both are the longest such streaks in the league this season.
Piranhas might be a better nickname for the Bay Area team this season.
Oakland native Roy Sommer is in his 19th season coaching an NHL San Jose Sharks affiliate in the AHL. But during that time he has never guided a team to the Calder Cup Finals. Of course, there is a first time for everything, as the Sharks proved last year by advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Can the Barracuda crash the Calder Cup Finals this year?
Sommer, the AHL’s all-time career coaching wins leader, politely smiled at the suggestion, then got serious.
“We’ve got a team that I think can do it if we stay healthy and don’t get picked apart by the NHL team,” the Barracuda bench boss suggested. “I think we’ve got a team that can do deep.”
If the Barracuda do make it to the AHL’s championship series, the Sharks minor league affiliate will have to navigate some very dangerous waters. The San Jose team will first have to win two playoff series in its own highly competitive Pacific Division, then eliminate the Central Division champion in the Western Conference Finals.
An Ontario team that, for all practical purposes, looked loaded for bear got as far as the Western Conference Finals last year before being eliminated by a streaking Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters squad. The Monsters zipped through last year’s Calder Cup playoffs with a torrid 15-2 run, ousting the Reign in four straight games to win the Western Conference title and then taking down the Eastern Conference champion Hershey Bears four games to none in the best-of-seven Calder Cup Finals.
Goaltender Anton Forsberg stood on his head with nine consecutive wins, a 1.34 goals-against average and .949 save percentage to give the city of Cleveland its first pro hockey championship since 1964.
Ontario head coach Mike Stothers and the rest of his team, which had won 44 of 68 games and posted the top record in the Western Conference during the regular season, were left scratching their heads in their quest to repeat as Calder Cup champions.
Sommer admitted his team’s chief challenger in the Pacific Division – San Diego – is a lot like his own team. A match-up somewhere in postseason play could be quite explosive.
“Both teams are very similar,” explained Sommer, whose only pro championship as a head coach came during the 1994-95 season with the ECHL’s Richmond Renegades. “We’re both fast, have good puck movement and have good goalies.”
“We’re two very good teams, two teams with very good systems,” San Diego center Antoine Laganiere noted. “They’re really fast, have a good amount of skill and good structure. But so do we. It will come down to sticking to our game plan and consistency. It would be a good match-up.”
The Gulls and Barracuda collide March 22 in San Diego in the last of 10 regular season meetings between the teams. San Diego has a chance to close the gap to just one standing point with a win in regulation. The Barracuda, on the other hand, would like to generate some much needed breathing room.
San Jose owns a 5-2-1-1 edge in the nine games played by the teams so far this season.
Both teams remain as hot as they have been over the past two months.
The Gulls are 8-1-1-0 in their last 10 games, have won 13 of their last 16 games (13-2-1), 19 of their last 23 games (19-3-1) and 26 of their last 32 contests (26-3-1-1). They have earned standings points in 25 of their last 28 games (23-3-1-1) and points in 29 of their 33 games since Christmas (25-4-2-2).
San Diego has won 10 of its last 12 games on the road (10-1-1) and earned standings points in 16 of its last 18 road contests (15-2-1). The Gulls are currently working on a club record-tying six game home ice winning streak.
However, for all the statistical excellence, San Diego has yet to overtake the Barracuda (6-2-1-1 in its last 10 games) in the division standings.
The Barracuda is 20-5-1-2 at home, 18-8-1-2 on the road, 19-1-1-1 when leading after the first period and 29-0-1-0 when leading after the second period.
The Gulls are 20-7-1-1 at home, 17-8-2-1 on the road, 24-0-1-0 when leading after the first period and 26-1-2 when leading after the second period.
San Diego has yet to lose at home when leading after the first period (13-0-0-0) while San Jose is 10-0-1-0.
Both teams have shown they’re not to be counted out at any point in a game.
The teams met three times in a week’s span from March 5-12, with San Jose picking up five of six possible points in the standings and the Gulls earning three points.
The host Barracuda erased a 3-1 Gulls lead with the final three goals in the teams’ March 5 meeting to grab a 4-3 overtime win. Rookie AHL All-Star Daniel O’Regan scored with 16 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime and then won the game at the 4:05 mark of the OT period.
“We had an awful first and second period and had a very good third period,” Sommer assessed. “We scored two six-on-five goals and won it in overtime. That says a lot about our team. Our guys have got a lot of fight in them.”
O’Regan leads all AHL rookies in scoring with 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) in 56 games. Included are eight power play goals.
San Diego and San Jose combined for 13 goals in a game unlike either has played this season when the host Gulls tipped the Barracuda, 7-6, in a dramatic overtime encounter on March 8.
The teams combined for eight goals in the first period. The hosts eventually built a 6-3 lead early in the second period. But what looked like a rout early on quickly turned into a nail-biter as San Jose scored the final three goals in the game to send the contest into overtime.
Rookie forward Tyler Morley gave the hosts an extra point in the standings when he scored with 10 seconds left in an exciting sudden-victory five-minute overtime period. However, the one point earned by the Barracuda in the loss stood as a moral victory.
San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins called the contest, in which the Gulls set a club record with five goals in the first period, a “rodeo.”
“I can’t remember ever being part of a game like that for a long time,” he said. “It’s nice to come out on top and hopefully we don’t have too many more games like this one.”
Morley said a definite rivalry is developing between the teams. “Both teams can put the puck in the net,” he said. “One team makes a mistake and it’s in the back of the net.
“Tensions are high. There are lot of good hockey players our there.”
“Both teams are very similar – fast and like to pass the puck,” Gulls forward Kalle Kossila interjected. “We have to be more disciplined when we play them in the future.”
After edging the visiting Roadrunners by a score of 2-1 on March 10, the Gulls then took wing for a Bay Area rematch with the Barracuda on March 12 in a bid to make up even more ground in the division.
However, San Jose answered the call with a 3-0 shutout victory as Troy Grosenick, the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for February, stopped all 25 shots he faced to provide his team with two valuable points in the standings.
Grosenick (26-8-3) tops the AHL with a 2.03 GAA, nine shutouts, 26 wins and ranks second with a .930 save percentage. During February, he was perfect nine starts (9-0) with a 1.88 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. He led his team to 12 victories during the Barracuda’s franchise-record 14-game win streak.
Tight games have become a regular feature in the closing month of the season for just about everybody in the division.
The Gulls faced a red-hot Stockton team, riding the momentum of a five-game winning streak, on March 15. The hosts quickly shot out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Max Gortz and Corey Tropp, but the Heat would counter with goals by Garnet Hathaway and Michael Kostka to tie the game. A late power play goal by Tropp allowed the hosts to skate off with the hard-fought victory.
Both goaltenders – Dustin Tokarski for San Diego and David Rittich for Stockton – kept their respective teams in the game with a flurry of heart-pounding saves.
“That game had a bit of a playoff atmosphere to it,” Eakins admitted. “There were two evenly-matched teams out there and I think the score shows that.”
The Gulls, who have four games still ahead on their schedule against Ontario, picked up three key points on the Reign after sweeping a two-game set in San Antonio March 17-18. The Gulls tipped the cellar-dwelling Rampage, 2-1, in overtime on March 17 and shaded San Antonio, 4-3, in a shootout on Saturday, March 18, after erasing an initial two-goal deficit.
Kevin Roy, assisted by Kossila and Andy Welinski, scored 16 seconds in overtime while Tokarski (15-6-1-1) turned aside 26 of 27 shots he faced to give San Diego the win on St. Patrick’s Day.
Gortz scored the game-winner in the shootout for San Diego while rookie goaltender Kevin Boyle stopped all four shots he faced in the shootout to pick up the win – raise his seasonal record to 10-4-4-1 with a 2.22 GAA and .926 save percentage.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte, N.C., the host Checkers held Ontario to just one point in the teams’ two-game set on the East Coast. Charlotte won, 5-3, on March 17 and slid past the Reign, 3-2, in overtime on March 18.
Ontario’s attempt to close the gap on both San Jose and San Diego has become a frustrating matter for Stothers, whose team has gone 3-5-2 in its last 10 games. The Reign went 1-1-1 in a recent three-games-in-three-nights junket but lost .007 percentage points in the standings.
“We’ve got to put some type of streak together of our own,” the Ontario coach said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make some head way. It comes down to winning, period. If you win a game, you’re going to move up six or seven percentage points. If you lose a game, you lose 15, so it’s hard to make up any ground. Basically, you’ve got to win two games to make up the ground you lost with one loss. It’s not a good way to go.”
AHL All-Star Jonny Brodzinski (25 goals, 22 assists) and T.J. Hensick (15 goals, 32 assists) lead Ontario in scoring with 47 points each. Brodzinski, back in the lineup following a recent injury, tops the Reign with nine power play goals while Hensick has six.
Goaltender Jack Campbell has appeared in 45 games since returning from emergency duty with the NHL Los Angeles Kings at the start of the season. He’s been Ontario’s iron man between the pipes with 36 consecutive starts, winning 22 of them. He sports a 26-13-6 record with a 2.62 GAA and .911 save percentage.
It’s uncertain which team will secure fourth place in the division standings.
Bakersfield picked up four critical points over Tucson by sweeping the host Roadrunners in a two-game set March 17-18 in Arizona. The games were vital to both teams, particularly for Tucson. The Condors posted a 4-0 shutout win on March 17 as goaltender Jonas Gustavsson made 27 saves; the visitors pulled out a 4-3 victory on March 18 as center Anton Lander‘s late power play goal.
Lander previously earned the CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors for the week ending Feb. 26 by scoring five points on seven Condors goals in key wins over Ontario and Stockton to lift Bakersfield into playoff position.
Stockton recorded a key 7-4 victory against the visiting Barracuda on March 17. The Heat swept all three star awards. Kostka earned first star honors with a goal and three assists, Matt Frattin got the second star award with a goal and assist and team assists leader Linden Vey was voted third star with two goals and one assist.
Both Bakersfield and Stockton are riding 7-3-0 streaks in their last 10 games.
Bakersfield holds a narrow three-point advantage over fifth place Stockton heading into its March 24 game against visiting San Diego and an eight-point advantage over seventh place Tucson. The Condors hold a .060 points advantage over sixth-place Texas.
Stockton enters final week of March with a five-point lead over Tucson and a 0.034 points percentage nod over Texas.
It will be interesting to see how things pan out.
The Condors can determine their own playoff destiny with 11 games remaining on the regular season schedule. However, they have just one game remaining against both Stockton and Texas compared to six games against the top three teams in the division (three against the Gulls, two against the Reign and one against the Barracuda).
Bakersfield is 0-3-2 against San Diego, 3-7-1 against San Jose and 3-4-1 against Ontario so far this season while possessing a 7-4-0 advantage over the Heat.
Bakersfield and Tucson will not meet again in regular season play.
Stockton’s schedule isn’t enviable, either. The Heat embarks on a five-game road swing through Texas from March 24-April 1, plays four games in a one-week span against the three division leaders, including two games against division leader San Jose.
Stockton does finish the season with back-to-back home games against Bakersfield and Tucson. The Heat holds a 6-2-0-1 advantage over San Diego this season and is a highly respectable 4-5-1 against the Barracuda.
Stockton’s stock appears to be rising at the right time of the season. The Heat spent a significant amount of time in first place in the division standings through November and December before sliding down as far as sixth place while enduring a 10-game winless spell before bouncing back up.
“That’s hockey,” offered Stockton head coach Ryan Huska, who has coached in more than 700 hockey games in his career, including the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League. “Sometimes you get going on a roll in a positive way, sometimes it snowballs the other way.
“I think our guys have done a better job playing as a group. We’ve simplified a lot of our game.”
As for the Roadrunners?
Tucson may have the toughest challenge to make the playoffs with a two-game road trip through Texas, four games against the front-running Barracuda, two games against the second-place Gulls, and a season-ending five-game road trip that includes two games in Canada against the Manitoba Moose.
Tucson recently completed a consecutive 12-game run against San Jose, San Diego and Ontario with a 3-8-1 record. The Roadrunners are 0-3-1 in games against San Jose and 2-8-0 in games against San Diego.
However, not all is lost. The Barracuda wrapped up the league’s 16th and final playoff berth last season in the league’s final regular season game.
Key roadblocks to hurdle: The Roadrunners remain the lowest scoring team in the AHL and have recorded just nine road wins.
San Jose has allowed the least goals in the league at 145 while San Diego boasts the second lowest at 147.
Stockton is the most penalized team in the division with 977 penalty minutes, followed by Tucson (953).
San Jose has the second-best power play efficiency in the league at 24.9 percent while Ontario ranks third at 24.4 percent.
Bakersfield ranks third overall in the league in penalty kill efficiency at 84.6 percent. San Jose is fifth at 84.2 percent.
The Barracuda has already surpassed last season’s regular season win total of 31. San Diego is two wins shy of last season’s total of 39.
Stockton rookie Mark Jankowski tops the Heat with 24 goals and 46 points in 54 games. It marks the fifth time in the last 12 seasons for the Calgary Flames AHL affiliate that a rookie has scored 20 or more goals.
Tropp has set a new franchise record with his 21st goal of the season while Laganiere is hot on his tail with a personal high 20 goals. The Gulls’ previous single-season record was 20 goals by Chris Mueller, now with Tucson.
Nic Kerdiles became the first Ducks player who grew up in Orange County to play for the NHL team when he received a call-up from San Diego, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, for a Feb. 22 game against Boston. The 23-year-old forward, noted for his two-way play, has appeared in 18 games for the Gulls this season with five goals and 10 points.
The Tucson Roadrunners will host “Cunny Did Night” on March 25 against visiting San Jose to honor team captain Craig Cunningham and the doctors who saved his life after Cunningham suffered an on-ice heart attack last November and underwent novel emergency life-saving techniques.
Cunningham will participate in a pre-game puck drop with Dr. George Haloftis of Carondelet St. Mary’s Hospital – Tucson and Dr. Zain Khalpey of Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.
AHL President and CEO David Andrews will also be on hand for the pre-game festivities.
“It means a lot considering what he’s been through,” Tucson head coach Mark Lamb explained. “He’s our team captain. He’s our leader in all aspects on and off the ice. He’s doing well now. We’re happy about the recovery he’s made. He’s not only an inspiration to us but the whole hockey world.”
The Edmonton Oilers traded forward Taylor Beck to the New York Rangers just before the NHL trading deadline expired on March 1.
Beck had compiled 13 goals and 50 points in 40 games with Bakersfield prior to the trade and is in the midst of his best season in the AHL. The Rangers assigned Beck to the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack where he has since tallied nine points in seven games. He is the AHL’s second-leading scorer this season with 59 points (16 goals, 43 assists) in 47 games.
The Sharks traded prospect Nikolay Goldobin to the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28. Goldobin, who has spent the majority of his career thus far in the AHL, had tallied 41 points in 46 games this season for the Barracuda after collecting 44 points in 60 games the previous season.
The 21-year-old Russian native has scored one goal in three games for the Canucks after appearing in 11 NHL games for the Sharks (with one goal) over the past two seasons. Vancouver GM Jim Benning called Goldobin “a gifted offensive player with good hands and good release on his shot.”
The Anaheim Ducks acquired center Sam Carrick and left wing Spencer Abbott from the Chicago Blackhawks prior to the NHL trading deadline on March 1. The duo had logged a combined 489 career AHL games at the time of the trade.
“Excited for a fresh start in a great city … can’t complain about the weather, either!” Carried tweeted after his first week living in San Diego.
Carrick and Abbott have been paired on the same line and began producing points almost immediately upon their arrival. Carrick admits he has developed chemistry with his former Rockford teammate.
“I thought we had some chemistry right off the bat, I’ve played with Abbott for the most part throughout the year,” Carrick said. “Hopefully we can stay together … It was a nice surprise to see how this team moves the puck.”
Carrick, who had 11 goals and 28 points in 57 games with the IceHogs, has six points (three goals, three assists) in eight games in San Diego. Abbott, who had registered 15 goals and 35 points in 53 games with Rockford, has one goal and five points in eight games with the Gulls.
Former Stockton left winger Kenny Agostino is leading the AHL in scoring with 75 points in 58 games after signing as a free agent with the Chicago Wolves over the past offseason. Agostino racked up 57 points in 65 games last season with the Heat.
By the numbers
Stockton recorded its first home sellout in its two years in the AHL after attracting 9,267 fans to a March 4 game against the Barracuda. The total was just 90 people shy of the all-time Heat attendance record of 9,357 set last season at the Golden State Hockey Rush outdoor game at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
“We are truly blessed to have the best fans here in Stockton and we couldn’t have been happier to see the crowd and the outcome (a 4-2 Stockton win to end San Jose’s record 15-game points streak),” Heat president Dave Piecuch said. “We have had a number of memorable nights this season, but (the March 4 game) may be one of the most memorable games of all time.”
Stockton attracted another big crowd – 7,209 – for its March 18 home game against San Jose.
San Diego continues to lead the AHL’s five California teams in home attendance this season at 8,638, followed by Ontario (7.953), Bakersfield (4,987), Stockton (4,473) and San Jose (4,295). Tucson is averaging 3,978 fans in its inaugural season.
— Phillip Brents