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‘Dog days’ of hockey setting up fierce AHL playoff race

 

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San Jose Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer likes to refer to the middle part of the season as the “dog days” of hockey.

It’s a time, Sommer believes, that usually determines a team’s postseason fortunes.

“The teams that are on top think they have it made and the teams on the bottom think they don’t have a chance,” explained Sommer, the winningest coach in the history of the American Hockey League with more than 700 career victories.

“But this is the time of the season when teams need to get it done. The teams that can get it done, get it done (make the playoffs). The teams that can’t get it done, don’t get it done.”

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Sommer experienced the former last season when the Barracuda won the Pacific Division championship and advanced as far as the Calder Cup Western Conference Finals. The verdict is still out on this season but the San Jose coach knows this is the time for his team to show its true mettle.

Other coaches feel the same way about their respective teams.

San Jose picked up a valuable nine out of 12 possible points (.750 winning percentage) during a key six-game road stretch centered on the midseason AHL All-Star Classic. But the month of February was not kind to the Barracuda as the NHL Sharks’ top developmental affiliate experienced a downward spiral with 2-5-2-1 showing (.350 wining percentage).

The Barracuda ended the month with a 22-22-8-3 record and .500 winning percentage.

However, because the Pacific Division standings are so bunched up, it’s likely that the race for all four playoff berths, notwithstanding the division title, may go down to the final week of regular season play.

As of March 4, all eight teams in the division sported better than .500 records – the only division in the 30-team AHL to boast that distinction. The bottom team was seven points out of a playoff spot. Five standings points separated third place from seventh place in the standings. The top two teams were separated by three points and the top four teams were separated by five points.

The Cuda faced off the mid-winter grind with a run of 19 consecutive games against divisional opponents from Jan. 15 to March 4.

“That’s why those games were so important to us,” noted Sommer, 60, an Oakland native.

Musical chairs

San Jose set AHL franchise records last season with 43 regular season wins, 95 regular season points and a third-round playoff appearance . The Cuda narrowly missed capturing the best regular season record in the league with a .699 winning percentage (finishing just .005 behind Wilkes-Barre Scranton).

So what’s different this season? First off, Sommer noted that 10 players off last season’s Pacific Division championship team earned NHL jobs this season. Ryan Carpenter, last season’s playoff scoring leader, made the NHL parent club’s roster in 2017-18 though he was claimed off waivers in mid-December by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Defensemen Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan, along with forwards Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Barclay Goodrow and Marcus Sorensen, are all with the parent Sharks. Defenseman Mirco Mueller signed with New Jersey during the offseason.

The roster underwent further shuffling prior to the Feb. 26 NHL trading deadline.

Troy Grosenick, the AHL’s outstanding goaltender last season, was traded to the Nashville Predators along with forward Brandon Bollig for a sixth-round draft pick in 2018. Both are now with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators’ AHL affiliate.

Defenseman Daniel O’Regan, the AHL’s Rookie of the Year in 2016-17, was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for forward Evander Kane and a pair of conditional draft picks. O’Regan led all AHL rookies in scoring last season with 23 goals and 58 points in 63 regular season games.

“The back end is what’s really different for us,” Sommer said.

Accounting for all the player movement, the obvious downturn this season for the Cuda has been in scoring. Rudolfs Balcers, a 20-year-old rookie winger from Latvia, had collected 14 goals and 34 points in 51 games to top the team.

“We don’t have the scoring we had last year, especially from the back end and from up front,” Sommer said. “I don’t think we have a player even averaging one point a game.”

O’Regan, a second-year pro, had topped San Jose’s regulars with a 0.81 point-scoring average.

Balcers is averaging .67 points per game in his first AHL season.

Young guns

But the AHL remains all about development, and rosters often fluctuate due to the needs of the parent club.

Sommer, who has coached the Sharks’ AHL affiliate for 21 years, cracks a smile when talking about the talent on last season’s record-setting Cuda squad.

“We had an exceptional group,” the San Jose coach said. “We had a good draft year. They were all real skilled, had a high confidence level and were detailed. Your game is got to be detailed if you’re going to make it in the NHL; if you game isn’t detailed, you’re not going to make it in the NHL.”

The Barracuda finished last season with the fourth-youngest team in the AHL; the team is sitting in the same position this season with nine rookies on the active roster.

Balcers, who impressed in the Sharks’ rookie camp, has proven to be the real deal in his first pro season after playing just one season in the Western Hockey League, collecting 40 goals and 77 points in 66 regular season games with the Kamloops Blazers.

Sommer has coached Balcers from rookie camp onward.

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“He’s fast, he’s fast with the puck and without the puck,” Sommer assessed. “He has a good release. He has played every position for us, from the power play to penalty-killing, and found success.”

Other rookies who have made an impact on the team this season include right wings Manuel Wiederer and Colby McAuley, centers Alexander True and Tim Clifton and defensemen Cavan Fitzgerald, Jeremy Roy, Nick DeSimnone and Michael Brodzinski.

True ranked second among rookies in team scoring with nine goals and 14 points in 52 games while DeSimone (five goals, eight assists) and Fitzgerald (four goals, nine points) had each chipped in with 13 points.

Wiederer had collected 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 36 games.

There are a number of things that Sommer said he looks for each year in developing talent for the Sharks organization.

Developing good habits is at the top of the list, he said.

“They need to have good habits if they are ever going to advance to the NHL level,” the Cuda coach explained.

Those habits include making the right decisions while on the ice and playing a disciplined game – both ways.

“They really have to be disciplined with the puck,” Sommer said. “They have to be disciplined and know how they fit into the the team. If they’re not disciplined enough, they’re going to have a harder time. They need to know their role on the team and play to the best of their ability.”

Honor roll

Goaltender Antoine Bibeau, a fourth-year pro, represented the Barracuda at January’s AHL All-Star Classic. Bibeau has posted a 16-11-2 record in 31 game appearances this season with a 2.17 GAA, three shutouts and .925 save percentage.

Team captain John McCarthy, who has been with the Sharks organization for nine years, represented the Barracuda – and Team USA– at February’s Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

The Americans finished in seventh place among the 12 teams competing in PyeongChang. Team USA just missed advancing to the semifinals with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.

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The Feb. 14-25 Winter Olympic Games stint was McCarthy’s first international experience. He appeared in all five of Team USA’s games, going scoreless with five shots and two penalty minutes.

At the time of his departure for Korea, McCarthy had collected seven goals and 17 points in 44 games for San Jose. He’s excited to get back and see what the remainder of the season holds for the Barracuda.

“It’s tough division,” McCarthy said. “We play each other a lot of times, there’s still a lot of season left. We’re starting to come together as a team. We’re looking forward to the second half.”

Stockton defenseman Cody Goloubef represented Team Canada’s bronze medalist team at the 2018 Winter Games. He picked up two assists with six penalty minutes in six games. Both of his assists came in the Canadians’ 6-4 victory against the Czechs in the third place game.

The NHL parent Calgary Flames inked Goloubef to a two-way contract on Feb. 25 for the remainder of the season.

Trading places

At the time of the trades, O’Regan, a fifth-round draft pick by the Sharks in 2012, ranked third in scoring on the Barracuda with seven goals and 22 points in 31 games while Grosenick had posted a 6-9-2 record with a 2.98 GAA and .902 save percentage.

Grosenick, 28, a native of Brookfield, Wis., became the first player born and raised in Wisconsin to play for the Admirals. He won his debut with the team he grew up watching as a kid by stopping 36 of 37 shots in a 4-1 win at Grand Rapids on March 3.

Grosenick’s NHL debut with the Sharks in 2014 was memorable: He made 45 saves in a 2-0 shutout win over the Carolina Hurricanes. He posted a 30-10-5 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .926 save percentage last season with the Cuda.

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O’Regan, who appeared in 19 games with the Sharks this season with four assists to his credit, scored two goals in his first two games with the Rochester Americans.

Bollig, 31, a former Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, has appeared in two games for the Admirals since the trade, collecting one assist. He logged 45 games this season with the Barracuda with eight goals, 10 points and 68 penalty minutes.

Carpenter, 27, voted the AHL’s Man of the Year in 2015-16, collected 14 goals and 39 points in 54 regular season games in 2016-17 for the Barracuda and tacked on nine goals and 17 points in 15 playoff games. He has since prospered in his new surroundings with seven goals and 11 points in 18 NHL games for Vegas.

Protect the nest

The Gulls were the one team to make a big move upward in the Pacific Division standings during the mid-winter grind. The Gulls tied a franchise record with an eight-game winning streak from Jan. 26 to Feb. 17 as they advanced to within two points of first place.

The team picked up four home ice wins and four road wins during the streak. Special teams made an impact as the Gulls successfully killed off 25 of 27 power plays during the eight-game run – a 92.6 percent kill rate.

Rookie netminder Kevin Boyle picked up six wins, including four consecutive, during the eight-game win streak while veteran Reto “Yogi” Berra collected two wins.

Boyle registered a impressive .964 save percentage during the streak while Berra posted an equally solid .954 save percentage.

Boyle set a single game record with 53 saves in a 5-2 win over visiting Ontario on Feb. 17 in front of a sellout crowd of 12,920.

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Seven players recorded game-winning goals, including a pair by recently-traded Eric Fehr and single goals by Nic Kerdiles, Corey Tropp, Joe Blandisi, Dennis Rasmussen, Kalle Kossila and Keaton Thompson.

Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins stressed wins are important at any point during the season.

“I don’t care that time of year it is, every game is a huge game,” he said. “You live and die with them. It’s certainly nice to get the points here. I have always found March and April to go by very, very quickly.”

Kossila leads the Gulls in scoring with 41 points (14 goals, 27 assists) in 38 games, followed by San Carrick with 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 50 games, defenseman Andy Welinksi with 33 points (10 goals, 24 assists) in 45 games, Tropp with 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) in 33 games and Kevin Roy with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) in 29 games.

Welinski, a second-year pro, had the opportunity to represent the Gulls at the AHL All-Star Classic during a break in the club-record win streak.

Kossila and Roy are also second-year pros.

On the season, Berra is 13-7-0 with a 2.64 GAA and .922 save percentage in 21 games appearances with San Diego while Boyle is 16-9-2 with a 2.79 GAA and .912 save percentage in 27 game appearances.

The Gulls continue to possess the top power play unit in the league at 23.5 percent. Central Division leader Manitoba ranks second in the league at 22.0 percent.

San Jose owns the top PK unit in the Pacific Division at 83.9 percent; San Diego ranks fourth in the division at 82.3 percent.

All-Star Classic

San Diego native Thatcher Demko, a second-round pick (36th overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 NHL Draft, helped guide the North Division All-Stars to the championship title of this year’s All-Star Challenge as part of the Jan. 28-29 AHL All-Star Classic in Utica, N.Y.

Demko, playing in his home building as a member of the Utica Comets, combined with fellow North Division All-Star netminder Linus Ullmark (Rochester Americans) to shut out the Pacific Division All-Stars, 1-0, in championship game to cap the four team tournament.

The All-Star Challenge pitted each of the league’s four divisions in a round-robin format in which each game was played three-on-three for 10 minutes. The top two teams based on round-robin record then faced off in a single six-minute three-on-three contest.

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Demko and Ullmark split time in the four games. Ironically, the Pacific Division All-Stars defeated the North Division All-Stars, 5-3, in the teams’ round-robin opener. Demko allowed three of the five goals in that game but came back to shut out the Pacific Division All-Stars in the championship game.

C.J. Smith (Rochester) scored the lone goal in the All-Star Challenge title tilt.

The weekend was especially memorable for Demko, 22, as his father Brenton made the trip from California to watch him play.

“It’s got to be the coolest part is having him here, it’s an achievement for him as much as it is for me,” the younger Demko told WKTV NewsChannel 2 in Utica. “He’s done so much for me and you know obviously I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Tucson Roadrunners coach Mike Van Ryn coached the Pacific Division All-Star team to an overall 3-1 record at the AHL’s midseason showcase event. The squad, which featured players from all eight teams in the division, qualified for the championship game after defeating each of the other three divisional teams in round-robin play.

The Pacific Division All-Stars featured three players off Van Ryn’s high achieving Tucson club: rookies Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley and Kyle Capobianco.

Van Ryn called the two-day event “a great experience.”

“It was a lot of fun,” the Tucson coach said. “The AHL did a wonderful job putting it on. It was first class. It was fun to get to know some of the players from the other teams. We spent some time with the other coaches. It was definitely nice to have my family, my wife and kids, there as well as my parents. It was a great event and a lot of fun.”

The two-day event, which attracted some of the league’s top young talent, was divided into two parts. The first day featured an all-star skills challenge between the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. The second day featured an all-star challenge tournament between the league’s four geographic divisions.

Merkley led all scorers in the all-star challenge with seven points (two goals, five assists) while Capobianco ranked second with six points (three goals, three assists).

Capobianco (two goals, three assists) and Merkley (one goal, four assists) took charge of the Pacific Division offense with five points apiece in the round-robin opening win over the North Division while San Jose’s Balcers scored two goals.

The Pacific Division defeated the Atlantic Division, 4-3, in its second game. Strome led the way with two goals while San Diego’s Welinksi scored once. Stockton’s Rasmus Andersson and San Antonio’s Rocco Grimaldi each chipped in with two assists while Brett Sutter of the Ontario Reign and Bakersfield’s Ty Rattie each picked up one assist.

The Pacific Division closed out the round-robin with a 4-3 win over the Central Division. Strome collected one goal and one assist while Capobianco scored one goal. Andersson (two goals, one assist) and Grimaldi (three assists) led the team in scoring with three points each.

The North Division defeated the Atlantic Division, 4-3, in comeback fashion to earn a berth in the championship game.

Ontario rookie goaltender Cal Petersen finished the tournament with a strong showing by allowing just one goal in each of the four games.

Sutter served as the Pacific Division team captain.

Van Ryn said he didn’t do anything special to account for the Pacific Division team’s success.

“We just played, I just coached them,” he said. “It was like minor hockey – they went in one door and out the other, so it was all (about) the players.”

“It was a good time,” Strome related. “It was a lot of fun meeting new players and getting to showcase our skills.

“The games were a lot of fun. The crowd was pretty into it. It was fun to play three-on-three. It was a lot of fun, a lot more open ice. We enjoyed it. We got to play with some new players, players I had never even met before. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it.”

Strome said once on the ice, the players’ competitive fire took control.

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“If you’re a hockey player, you want to win,” the Tucson rookie standout explained. “You want to do the best you can, so we tried our hardest and had a lot of fun. We beat that team in the round-robin but lost to them in the final. But it wasn’t too serious; it was all fun.”

The Eastern Conference defeated the Western Conference by a score of 18-12 to win the preceding day’s skills competition.

Alexandre Grenier of the Eastern Conference’s Springfield Thunderbirds won the hardest shot competition at 104.1 mph. It was the third-hardest shot ever measured in an AHL skills competition.

John Gilmour of the Eastern Conference’s Hartford Wolf Pack won the fastest skater award with a lap of 13.633 seconds.

The Eastern Conference won the breakaway relay by a score of 8-3 while the teams finished in a 2-2 standoff in the puck control relay.

The Western Conference won the pass and score competition by a score of 6-2.

The Reign’s Petersen and Jordan Binnington of the Providence Bruins shared the top goaltender award as each turned aside 16 of 18 shots on the evening. Petersen did make history by becoming the fifth goaltender ever to stop all 10 attempts in the rapid fire contest.

Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears and Chris Terry of the Laval Rocket shared the accuracy shooting award by each breaking four targets in five attempts.

Andersson (101.5 mph) tied for third best overall among Western Conference shooters in the hardest shot competition.

Welinski recorded the second-best time of 14.010 for the Western Conference in the fastest skater contest and turned in the fourth-best mark of 97.8 mph for the Western Conference in the hardest shot competition.

“It was fun, it was a great experience,” Welinski said. “They did a good job of mixing guys together. You got to meet guys from other teams. A lot of those guys are going through similar situations, so it’s fun to hear how their seasons are going.”

Welinski called the assembled talent “pretty impressive.”

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“You follow guys on the stat sheet but it’s fun to see them in person,” he said. “We there to have a good time and put on a show for the fans. I think we did a good job of that.

“Three-on-three is something you don’t play that much, except for overtime. You don’t get to do that too much. The pace and intensity weren’t too high but it was definitely fun to see the other players out there and have all the ice to make plays.”

Frozen Friendly

Ontario hosted the International Frozen Friendly on Feb. 13 between the AHL Reign and Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears), two AEG Sports franchises operating on separate continents.

The meeting was the first by an AHL club and an international opponent since 2014 when the Toronto Marlies hosted Färjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League. It was a highlight of the Reign’s 10th anniversary season.

The game, which featured a 6-3 victory by the Reign, attracted 8,749 fans to Citizens Business Bank Arena, including a sizable contingent from Germany who traveled to watch their team play in the unique contest.

Eisbären Berlin, seven-time champions in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) and one of the storied hockey teams in Germany, spent the week viewing the LA Kings facilities and sight-seeing throughout Los Angeles prior to the exhibition game.

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Both the German and American national anthems were sung prior to the Feb. 13 game. The ceremonial puck drop at center ice featured both teams captains accompanied by Kings president Luc Robitaille, AHL president-CEO Dave Andrews, Eisbären managing director Peter John Lee and the Reign’s Hero of the Night, 13-year-old John Martinez.

The game was, in some respects, similar to an international soccer match with Berlin fans boasting choreographed chants, 40-square-foot flags and a conga line that spanned through three sections of the arena’s concourse.

Reign president Darren Abbott called it a unique event the AHL club was proud to host.

The game marked the return of Sean Backman, the all-time AHL Reign leader scorer, who signed with Berlin during the off season.

The game also cemented a first-hand working relationship between the AEG Sports franchises.

“We are continually looking for ways in which our three hockey clubs can work together and this is a great example of that synergy,” Kings Chief Operating Officer Kelly Cheeseman noted. “Eisbären Berlin are the flagship in German club hockey and with the Kings and Reign we are continuously working on improving and growing that brand.”

Drawing a crowd

The Gulls attracted their fifth sellout crowd (12,920) of the season for a March 2 game against the arch rival Ontario Reign. The Gulls won 5-4 in overtime to delight the large gathering.

San Diego continues to lead the AHL in average attendance (9,312). Ontario ranks second among Pacific Division teams with a 7,397 per game average.

Stockton attracted 7,753 fans to its March 3 game against visiting Bakersfield on Star Wars Night.

Bakersfield attracted 7,054 fans to a Feb. 23 game featuring youth jersey night. The Condors Blackout Cancer jersey auction garnered $17,500 for the Kern County Cancer Fund.

Demko photo/Utica Comets
Frozen Friendly photo/Jessica Harsen Photography
Additional photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents

(March 6, 2018)