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Record point streaks boost AHL’s Gulls, Barracuda

 

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The push for the Calder Cup playoffs traditionally begins after the American Hockey League’s midseason All-Star Classic.

Please forgive the San Diego Gulls and San Jose Barracuda for getting a head start.

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The Gulls took a nine-game (8-0-0-1) point streak into the All-Star break and added three more wins to record the league’s longest point streak this season at 12 games (11-0-0-1).

The Barracuda took a three-game winning streak into the All-Star break and has since yet to lose while extending its season league-best winning streak to 12 games.

It’s been an amazing adventure for both teams.

The lengthy hot streaks have allowed the Gulls and Barracuda to displace the Ontario Reign atop the Pacific Division standings. In games through Feb. 20, San Jose owned sole possession of first place with a 31-11-1-3 record (.717 winning percentage) while San Diego was in second place with a 28-14-2-2 record (.652 winning percentage).

Ontario, last year’s Pacific Division champion, is in third place with a 26-13-8-0 record (.638 winning percentage).

Though the standings continue to remain fluid, the three front-running teams appear to have gained some measurable separation from the rest of the five teams in the division. The Tucson Roadrunners (22-18-5-0, .544 winning percentage) are currently in fourth place while the Texas Stars (24-20-1-2, .531 winning percentage) are just percentage points behind in fifth place.

The Bakersfield Condors (20-20-5-1, .500 winning percentage) are sixth deep in the standings, followed by the Stockton Heat (19-21-4-1, .478 winning percentage) in seventh place and the San Antonio Rampage (21-27-4-1, .443 winning percentage) in eighth place.

The top four teams in the division standings qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs; it’s still much too early to predict the final order of finish in a season that has been dominated by parity.

Many facets have contributed to the unprecedented success on the ice for the two California-based AHL teams.

“When you get on a roll like this, it’s something different each night – it could be our penalty kill one night, sometimes it’s our power play, the execution of our systems or our goaltender,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins explained. “There’s been a lot of bright stars along the way.”

San Jose head coach (and Oakland native) Roy Sommer would likely echo those comments.

Unquestionably, the brightest stars for both teams have been their respective goaltenders.

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San Diego’s Jhonas Enroth, acquired by the parent NHL Anaheim Ducks in a Jan. 11 trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, earned recognition as the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for January after posting some jaw-dropping numbers. During the month, which included one game with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the 28-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, recorded a 6-0-0 record, 1.17 GAA and .957 save percentage while allowing just seven goals on 163 shots.

San Jose netminder Troy Grosenick (pictured at top), a participant January’s AHL All-Star Classic, is fresh off receiving the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award for the week ending Feb. 19. Grosenick won two games during the coverage period by allowing just one goal on 49 shots in wins over Tucson and Ontario.

A fourth-year pro out of Union College, Grosenick (19-8-2) sports a league-leading 1.97 GAA, .934 save percentage and league-leading seven shutouts.

The 27-year-old native of Brookfield, Wis., has compiled some unreal numbers during his team’s record win streak: 10 consecutive wins, a 1.40 GAA, .954 save percentage and two shutouts. He’s held opponents to one goal or less on seven occasions.

San Jose backup Mantas Armalis (2.85 GAA, 12-3-2 record, .895 save percentage) also has posted two wins during the 12-game win streak.

Fish tale

San Jose won its club-record 12th straight game by slipping past the Texas Stars, 5-3, in a President’s Day match-up on Monday, Feb. 20, at the SAP Center. By virtue of the win, the Barracuda topped the 30-team AHL for the first time in franchise history with its league-leading .717 winning percentage. Atlantic Division leader Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is second in the league with a .713 points percentage.

Daniel O’Regan earned top star honors with two goals and one assist, while John McCarthy, who recently played in his 500th career pro hockey game, earned second star honors with two goals.

Grosenick stopped 28 of 31 shots to earn his 10th consecutive win between the pipes, while Marcus Sorenson, Ryan Carpenter and Joakim Ryan each picked up two assists.

The win, witnessed by a home crowd of 4,261, was San Jose’s sixth consecutive on home ice. The Barracuda is working on an eight-game road-winning streak. San Jose has the best home record in the AHL at 17-4-1-1.

Sommer, who is in his 19th as coach of the NHL San Jose Sharks AHL affiliate, picked up his AHL record 679th regular-season coaching win. He said the 12-game win streak has been a bit uncanny considering the harsh travel schedule the team has endured.

Take note

The Barracuda began its marathon record-winning streak with a 5-0 victory at Stockton on Jan. 25 and then swept a two-game road trip to the Upper Midwest by defeating the Central Division’s top teams — Grand Rapids (4-1 win on Jan. 27) and Milwaukee (4-2 win on Jan. 28). The win in Milwaukee served as a homecoming for Grosenick.

Following the AHL All-Star Classic, San Jose engineered a two-game sweep on Canadian soil of the Manitoba Moose (4-1 win on Feb. 3 and 5-4 win on Feb. 4).

The Bay Area team returned home to end the Gulls’ franchise record 12-game points streak with a 2-1 win on Feb. 8 as Grosenick was superb in the net by making saves on 38 of 39 shots. The Barracuda then took two big games from Ontario, the team that eliminated them in last year’s Calder Cup playoffs.

The Barracuda topped the visiting Reign, 4-1, on Feb. 12. That game was noteworthy in that the San Jose team returned home at 1 a.m. that morning after a long bus ride from Bakersfield following a 4-3 overtime win over the host Condors the night before.

San Jose won its 11th straight game by edging host Ontario, 2-0, on Feb. 18. Grosenick stopped all 20 shots he faced to pick up his career record ninth consecutive win between the pipes, while Adam Helewka and McCarthy each scored goals.

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Between those two key wins over the Reign, the Barracuda posted a 4-1 win over visiting Tucson on Feb. 14 and topped host Stockton, 5-4, on Feb. 17. The Barracuda’s ninth consecutive win on Feb. 14 set a new Sharks’ affiliate record.

Sommer said despite the rigorous travel, it’s been rare that his team has come out, in his words, “stale,” during the streak.

San Jose jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Stars despite playing their third game in four days.

The Barracuda has made a habit of winning on weary legs, especially in back-to-back contests.

The wins, regardless of the conditions, have simply kept coming.

The Barracuda has won games against teams that play a variety of styles. The San Jose team racked up three power play goals in its latest victory. It was the third time during the streak the Barracuda has scored three power play goals in a game.

San Jose is 14-for-43 (32.6 percent) during the streak and eight-for-17 (47.1 percent) over its last four games.

Grosenick describes the team as “tight-knit.” He said part of the team’s success is that everyone is “playing for each other.”

Certainly, his teammates have to have a lot of confidence every time they step onto the ice knowing that he’s in the net.

After posting his ninth straight win, Grosenick led the AHL with a stingy 1.93 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and seven shutouts.

San Jose wrestled first place away from Ontario on Feb. 7 and has tacked on seven key wins to remain in the division lead.

With 12 rookies on the active roster (16 over the course of the season), Sommer’s team has been winning with youth as well.

“I like it,” the Cuda coach explained. “We’re fast. We’re young. I think we’re the youngest team in the American Hockey League but they sure don’t play like it. They play hard.”

Sharks prospect Nikolay Goldobin has racked up three game-winning goals during the team’s current 12-game winning streak, while Ryan has posted two game-winners. Rourke Chartier, Tim Heed, Barclay Goodrow, Sorenson, Nikita Jevpalovs, Helewka and O’Regan each have contributed one game-winning goal during the Barracuda’s surge to the top of the division standings.

Of those players who have scored game-winning goals during the team’s record winning streak, four are rookies: Chartier, Sorenson, Helewka and O’Regan. Armalis, who has contributed to the Cuda’s league-high nine shutouts this season, is also a rookie.

O’Regan, who joined Grosenick at this season’s midseason All-Star Classic, leads all active AHL rookies with 45 points (16 goals, 29 assists) in 43 games. Heed, in his first year with the Barracuda, is not far behind with 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) in 38 games.

Heed leads San Jose with seven power-play goals, while Goodrow and McCarthy each have notched two shorthanded goals this season.

San Jose leads the Western Conference with an 85.5 penalty kill percentage that ranks third overall in the league.

But statistics tell only part of the story.

There’s also something else present: call it mystique.

Playing in the shadow of last year’s Stanley Cup Finalist Sharks has to be a major confidence booster. Seventeen players on last season’s Sharks roster came up through the team’s AHL development pipeline. Nine players saw action with both the Sharks and Barracuda last season; seven were recalled for the playoffs.

“It was exciting and fun,” Sommer reflected of his many years of developing players to the NHL. “It was a good ride. I was proud of all those guys who put in all their years (in the AHL). They were two games away from winning the Stanley Cup.”

It’s been much of the same this season. The Barracuda has won while dealing with 10 different player call-ups over the course of the 2016-17 campaign. The San Jose AHL franchise is unique in the Pacific Division in that it plays in the same building as its NHL parent club. Thus, a readily available talent pool is always at hand.

Carpenter, last year’s AHL Man of the Year award winner, had been with the NHL team since Jan. 16 before being reassigned to the Barracuda on Feb. 10. Carpenter has appeared in 11 games with the Sharks in this season with two goals and four points. In 35 games for the Barracuda, Carpenter has recorded eight goals and 25 points.

Goldobin, Sorenson and Kevin Labanc were assigned to the Barracuda on Feb. 20 in time to take part in the Cuda’s latest victory.

In other words, it’s all been good.

Protect the nest

The Gulls swept a three-game series in Tucson in late January to storm into the AHL All-Star break on an 8-0-0-1 run. It turned out that was just the start. The Gulls won three more games after coming off the break to improve the league’s longest points streak this season to 12 games (11-0-0-1).

The wild ride, which began with a 3-2 win over the visiting San Antonio Rampage on Jan. 7, propelled the San Diego team from sixth place in the Pacific Division standings to a showdown for first place with San Jose on Feb. 8.

The Barracuda won that game by a score of 2-1 to hand the Gulls their first regulation loss in 32 days. The loss ended the Gulls’ club-record nine-game road unbeaten streak that began Dec. 29 in Texas.

But the San Diegans didn’t dwell on the setback for too long. The Gulls promptly won their next game, 4-1, at Ontario on Feb. 10, to get back in the win column and shut out visiting Bakersfield, 4-0, on Feb. 12 to start a new winning streak.

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The Gulls made it three wins in a row – and six consecutive home ice wins — after defeating the visiting Iowa Wild, 5-1, on Nov. 14. San Diego extended its latest win streak to four games after downing the Condors in a road game, 3-2, on Feb. 17.

A 5-2 loss to the visiting Tucson Roadrunners on Feb. 18 finally cooled down the Gulls’ torrid run that had seen them win 17 of their past 21 games (17-3-0-1) and earned standings points in 16 of their last 18 games (15-2-0-1) and 20 of their past 23 games (17-3-1-2) since Christmas.

The Gulls’ 12-game points streak is the longest since Grand Rapids went 15 consecutive games without a regulation loss from Nov. 18 to Dec, 26, 2015. It also set a San Diego franchise record, eclipsing the team’s 11-game points streak from Feb. 19 to March 16, 2016.

The Gulls won two overtime games, two one-goal (regulation) games and posted two shutout victories during their league-best 12-game points streak. Featured prominently were three victories, including a key home-and-home sweep, against Ontario, which had led the division since the end of December.

San Diego also hung losses on the Stockton Heat (5-3 on Jan. 11), Rockford IceHogs (3-2 in overtime on Jan. 13), Iowa Wild (3-1 on Jan. 16), San Jose (5-1 on Jan. 20) Tucson Roadrunners (8-1 on Jan. 25, 2-1 on Jan. 27 and 3-0 on Jan. 28), Ontario (4-3 in overtime on Feb. 3 and 2-0 on Feb. 4) and Bakersfield Condors (4-2 on Feb. 7).

Impressively, seven of the team’s 11 wins during the points streak came on the road. Six came in come-from-behind fashion.

Eakins called his team a “special group.”

“They are one cohesive unit,” the San Diego coach emphasized. “They all get along; they are all passionate about their sport. They work hard, whether it’s on the ice or in the weight room. When all those elements come together, good things happen.”

He said the team’s primary attribute is its ability “not to give up no matter what the circumstances are.”

“We’re a hard team to match up with right now,” Eakins acknowledged. “Our makeup as a team right now is excellent. Everybody is firing on all cylinders, and there is a real selfless commitment in all areas on the ice.”

Six players collected game-winning goals during the team’s 12-game points streak. Antoine Laganiere racked up three game-winners, while Brandon Montour, Scott Sabourin and Chris Wagner each had two game-winning goals. Corey Tropp and Ryan Garbutt each scored one game-winner during the streak.

Laganiere has moved into the team goal-scoring lead with 15 (and power play goal lead with seven); Tropp continues to pace the Gulls in point scoring (37 points).

Montour, who received his second call-up to the Ducks this season on Feb. 4, notched both OT winners during the Gulls’ lengthy points streak. He scored the winner in San Diego’s 4-3 OT victory at Ontario on Feb. 3; he then caught a red-eye flight to the East Coast where he scored his first NHL goal the next night in Anaheim’s 3-2 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Other contributors during the Gulls’ record run include Max Gortz and Wagner, who each tallied two assists in the 4-3 OT win at Ontario. It was the first multi-point game for Gortz with San Diego since being acquired from the Nashville Predators on Jan. 19. It was Wagner’s third multi-point game of the season.

Nic Kerdiles made his return to Gulls during the Jan. 28 game in Tucson. The second-round pick by the Ducks in the 2012 draft scored his first goal with the Gulls since April 2, 2016, in the Feb. 3 OT win at Ontario.

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Kerdiles picked up an assist on the game-winning goal at Bakersfield on Feb. 12, scored the game-winning goal in Bakersfield on Feb. 17 and tallied both goals in the Gulls’ 5-2 loss to the Roadrunners.

Since his assignment by Anaheim, Kerdiles (who had 27 points in 45 games with San Diego last season) has produced nine points (four goals, five assists) in 10 games.

“My success comes from having great linemates,” offered Kerdiles, who grew up in Irvine. “We have a lot of chemistry right now and the numbers show that. We know where one another are on the ice and we’re getting chances every night.”

There are more bright spots. Finnish import Kalle Kossila ranks second in team scoring with 34 points (10 goals, 24 assists) and co-leads the team with an impressive +20 plus-minus. Fellow rookie Kevin Roy has moved up to third in team scoring with 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists).

“We have four good lines that are really skating,” Kossila explained. “We have a great team chemistry. I think it’s even better than last year.”

Among San Diego’s biggest wins during the 12-game points streak were the three victories against the archrival Reign after Ontario had won three of the teams’ initial four match-ups to face off the 2016-17 season. The Gulls outscored their archrivals 10-5 in those three contests as the teams switched positions in the standings.

“When you get punched like that, it’s nice to punch back,” Eakins said in regard to the teams’ intense Southern California rivalry.

There’s no doubt that Enroth proved to be the backbone of the Gulls’ 12-game point streak. He won his first eight starts with the Gulls to highlight the team’s marathon point streak and compiled a 9-1-0 record in his first 10 games with his new team. Enroth’s numbers with the Gulls in those 10 games included a 1.20 GAA and .954 save percentage.

Eakins said Enroth’s sizzling play has imparted a great sense of confidence in the team’s players.

“It definitely drives your team and it should certainly drive your practices,” the San Diego head coach explained. “There should always be a comfort level in the game that you have somebody back there who can stand tall.”

“We knew he was a good goalie coming in and he’s proven that since he’s been here,” Laganiere added. “For sure, you know he’ll come up big in (close) games. He’ll keep you in it. That helps a lot.”

Enroth, who has appeared in 162 AHL games during his nine-year pro career, made an instant impression with the Gulls when he stopped 22 of 23 shots at Iowa to pick up a win in his first game with his new team. Enroth turned aside 30 of 31 shots to pick up his second win with the Gulls in outdueling Grosenick in his home ice debut on Jan. 20.

In the ensuing three-game sweep over the host Roadrunners, Enroth stopped 74 of 76 shots he faced for a 0.67 GAA and a rather intimidating .974 save percentage.

The Swedish international became the first goaltender in Gulls history to earn a point when he assisted on Montour’s game-winning goal in the overtime victory at Ontario on Feb. 3.

Enroth, a silver medalist with Team Sweden at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, called his career move to San Diego “a new opportunity” after posting a 3.94 GAA, 0-3-1 record and .872 save percentage in six games with the Maple Leafs. He said his goals in the AHL are to refine his game and work on new techniques.

So far, it’s been a hit – and season-changer for the Gulls.capmbell

All-Star Classic

The AHL’s 2017 All-Star Classic took place Jan. 29-30 at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., home arena of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The Pacific Division team included eight players off the AHL’s five California-based teams, including three players from Ontario (forward Jonny Brodzinski, defenseman Vincent LoVerde and Jack Campbell), two players from San Jose (O’Regan and Grosenick) and one player each from San Diego (Montour), Stockton (forward Mark Jankowski) and Bakersfield (defenseman Jordan Oesterle).

Oesterle (17 points in 22 games) was a late replacement for Condors teammate Taylor Beck, who was unavailable for the event.

The Pacific Division All-Star team also included two players from the Tucson Roadrunners (forward Christian Fischer and defenseman Kyle Wood) and one each from the Texas Stars (forward Matej Stransky) and San Antonio Rampage (forward A.J. Greer).

Ontario head coach Mike Stothers served as the Pacific Division coach at the league’s mid-season showcase.

The two-day event, played before sellout crowds of 8,451, featured an All-Star skills competition on Jan. 29 and a four-team round-robin All-Star Challenge on Jan. 30.

The Western Conference prevailed over the Eastern Conference, 15-11, to win the skills challenge. The seven events included puck control relay, fastest skater, rapid-fire, hardest shot, accuracy shooting, pass and score, and breakaway relay.

Wood captured the hardest shot competition with a shot registered at 99.3 mph while Oesterle won his heat in the puck control relay.

Greer finished runner-up to Wood in the hardest shot competition at 99.2 mph while Fischer hit four of the six targets (tied for second) in the accuracy shooting competition.

Wood said it was the first time his shot had been measured. “It was a fun week back there,” he said. “It was a cool event.”

Brodzinski (13.787 seconds) finished third in the fastest skater competition while O’Regan was fifth (13.845).

Brodzinski and Oesterle each scored goals to help the West win the breakaway relay competition 5-0.

Grosenick and Campbell each made four saves in the rapid-fire drill; Grosenick made three saves in the pass and score competition while Campbell made two saves.

Grosenick, Campbell, Cleveland Monsters’ Anton Forsberg and Charlotte Checkers’ Michael Leighton combined to deny all 20 Eastern Conference shot attempts in the final event of the evening, the breakaway relay.

The All-Star Challenge featured six 10-minute mini-games in round-robin format, plus a six-minute championship game. All mini-games were played three-on-three.

The Pacific Division All-Stars faced each of the other divisional all-star squads. The Pacific Division dropped a 6-3 decision to the North Division in its opener, then fell by a 6-1 score to the Atlantic Division and 5-3 to the Central Division.

O’Regan paced the Pacific Division All-Stars with three goals while Wood collected two goals and one assist, Fischer also notched three points on one goal and two assists. Greer collected one goal and one assist while Stransky contributed two assists.

LoVerde, Brodzinski, Oesterle and Montour each picked up one assist in the three mini-games.

Grosenick and Campbell each split time in the net. Grosenick allowed nine goals on 13 shots while Campbell allowed eight goals on 18 shots.

The Central Division All-Stars repeated as challenge champions after recording a 1-0 victory against the Atlantic Division All-Stars on a goal by Grand Rapids Griffins forward Matt Lorito in the fourth-round of a shootout.

Taylor Leier of the hometown Phantoms received the MVP award while leading the Atlantic Division All-Stars with three goals on the evening; Chris Bourque of the Hershey Bears led all scorers with five points (one goal, four assists). Providence Bruins goaltender Zane McIntyre posted an event-best .923 save percentage.

The final 2017 All-Star rosters featured 41 first-time participants, 13 AHL rookies and 14 former first- and second-round NHL draft choices. Also, 27 of this year’s All-Stars had already received call-ups to the National Hockey League this season.

The AHL honored Tucson captain Craig Cunningham with special No. 14 warm-up jerseys at this year’s event. AHL president and CEO David Andrews said the league wanted to bring Cunningham to the All-Star weekend but couldn’t because of travel restrictions.

Cunningham, 26, collapsed during a pregame warm-up in November and underwent new and advanced techniques to save his life. Part of his left leg had to be amputated due to infection during his recovery process, ending his hockey career.

Fischer called it a “classy move by the AHL.”

“Craig probably saw it on social media, he’s probably smiling,” Fischer said. “It’s a pretty nice tribute from the (league).”

Player of the Week

San Antonio forward Rocco Grimaldi, a 23-year-old native of Rossmoor (located between Seal Beach, Los Alamitos and Long Beach in Orange County), earned recognition as the CCM/AHL Player of the Week ending Jan. 29 after collecting four goals (two of them game winners) and one assist for five points in three games for the Rampage. Grimaldi recorded his first three-point game of the season in a 6-2 win over visiting Rockford on Jan. 25. He netted two more goals, including the game-winner in overtime, in a 5-4 victory against visiting Ontario on Jan. 27.

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In 50 games this season, Grimaldi, a second-round pick (33rd overall) by the Florida Panthers in the 2011 draft, leads San Antonio in scoring with 37 points (20 goals, 17 assists). The former University of North Dakota collegian has appeared in 28 career NHL games with the Panthers and Colorado Avalanche, with four goals and two assists to his credit.

He has played in more than 160 career AHL games.

What’s trending

San Jose is 12-0-0 in its last 12 games while San Diego is 10-2 in its last 12 games. Ontario is 4-4-2 in last 10 games while Bakersfield is 5-1-1 in last 10 games.

Stockton is 0-9-1 in its last 10 games. Tucson, which snapped a five-game losing streak with the road win at San Diego on Feb. 18, had been 1-8-1 in its prior10 games, to fall percentage points behind Texas in the battle for fourth place.

Of note, both Tucson and Stockton spent considerable time in first place during the first half of the season.

By the numbers

San Diego attracted back-to-back 12,000-plus crowds for the first time in franchise history when the team drew 12,275 to its Feb. 4 game against the Reign following a 12,920 sellout the previous game on Jan. 20 against San Jose. The Gulls attracted their third sellout in franchise history for its Feb. 18 game against Tucson.

San Diego is averaging 8,611 fans in 2016-17 – second most in the AHL after Hershey’s 8,991 average gate.

Ontario continues to pack ’em in as well with a 7,922 attendance average. Next up among California teams is Bakersfield (5,059), followed by Stockton (4,372) and San Jose (4,308).

Pacific Division newcomer Tucson is averaging 3,969 fans in its maiden season.

San Diego’s Fox 5/KSWB-TV delivered a ground-breaking over-the-air broadcast of the Gulls’ Feb. 12 game against Bakersfield. The in-house attendance numbered 9,627 fans. The telecast was the first of an undetermined number this season and the first telecast of an AHL Gulls game since the team moved into the San Diego market last season.

“We’re excited to enter a groundbreaking partnership with FOX 5 San Diego to extend our reach to Gulls fans and hockey fans throughout San Diego,” explained Matt Savant, Gulls president of business operations. “FOX 5 San Diego provides leading sports coverage throughout our region, and our partnership will broaden the access of hockey to our community by televising the highest level of the sport San Diego has ever seen.”

Photos/Phillip Brents

— Phillip Brents