📝 by Patrick Williams
No time is left for Taro Hirose to mince words, not with the American Hockey League regular season nearing its end.
A trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs is at stake for Hirose and the Grand Rapids Griffins, who sit below the Central Division playoff line going into play this weekend. They can take a step toward that postseason goal tonight when they host the powerhouse Chicago Wolves in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (7 ET/4 PT).
The Griffins (32-32-6-2, .500) are battling Rockford, Iowa and Texas for the final two playoff spots in the Central, and have just four games left to reach at least fifth place. However, three of those games will come against the Wolves (46-15-5-5, .718), who have already secured their fifth division title in six years and who are now trying to catch the Stockton Heat for the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular-season champion. After tonight’s meeting at Van Andel Arena, the Griffins visit the Wolves on Sunday afternoon and again next Thursday.
“I think it’s great for us, great for the team, group, everyone involved,” said Hirose of the Griffins’ situation. “These games are tough down the stretch. It’s not easy making the playoffs in any league. And when you’re on the outside looking in, you really have to dig deep, and there’s no nights off for us now.
“We’ve got to be ready to play every night.”
Grand Rapids did score a crucial victory Wednesday night in Rockford, using three third-period goals to nail down a 5-3 win; Turner Elson netted the game-winner with just 55.2 seconds remaining. For his part, Hirose chipped in two assists, giving him a four-game scoring streak and 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) in 58 games on the season. The third-year pro out of Michigan State also has one goal and three assists in 12 games with the Detroit Red Wings this year.
Just back from Detroit, Riley Barber scored twice on Wednesday, running his scoring streak to 13 games (11 goals, six assists). It is tied for the longest such streak in the AHL this season, and is the longest by a Griffins skater since Donald MacLean’s 19-game run in 2005-06.
“[Barber is] a guy who plays with confidence,” Hirose said. “I think he gives the rest of the team confidence. He can score at will sometimes when he is hot like he is now.”
Grand Rapids, which finishes its regular season in Cleveland next Saturday, has not missed the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2012.
PLAYOFF RACES REACH HOME STRETCH
This weekend’s schedule figures to complete more of the Calder Cup Playoff picture.
At least some of it.
To date, the Charlotte Checkers, Providence Bruins, Springfield Thunderbirds, and Utica Comets have clinched Eastern Conference playoff berths. The Comets also have claimed the North Division title. In the Atlantic Division, three playoff spots remain while the North Division still offers four slots still to be taken.
In the Western Conference, the Manitoba Moose and Milwaukee Admirals have joined Chicago in locking down Central Division playoff invitations; two spots still remain there for the taking. The entire Pacific Division field is set with the Abbotsford Canucks, Bakersfield Condors, Colorado Eagles, Henderson Silver Knights, Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls, and Stockton Heat all through to the postseason.
Meanwhile, 14 teams remain very much alive for the final nine spots, and this weekend’s schedule will provide multiple head-to-head battles to further shape the postseason picture.
Hartford has a chance to set aside a late-season slump with three big weekend games, including a critical Saturday night visit to Bridgeport. The Wolf Pack trail the Islanders by three points for the sixth and final playoff position in the Atlantic, and both clubs wrap up their season schedules this weekend.
Over in the Central Division, Texas’s two-game visit to Wells Fargo Arena in Iowa could go a long way toward settling the fifth and final berth. Iowa enters the series with a one-point lead over the sixth-place Stars.
The regular season ends next Saturday, April 30.
TYNAN CHASING 100
Ontario’s T.J. Tynan is attempting to become the first AHL player in a dozen years to reach 100 points, and he needs four points in the Reign’s final three games to do it.
The most recent 100-point players in the AHL were Keith Aucoin (106 points) and Alexandre Giroux (103) with the 2009-10 Hershey Bears. Tynan has 96 points in 59 games with games in Colorado tonight and Saturday before finishing the season in Henderson on Apr. 30.
Tynan (14 goals, 82 assists) is also seven away from the AHL record for assists in a single season; George “Red” Sullivan recorded 89 assists in 69 games for Hershey in 1953-54. Riding a 12-game scoring streak, Tynan tallied a goal and three assists in Wednesday’s 5-3 win at Colorado, his first game back at the Budweiser Events Center since winning AHL MVP honors with the Eagles last season.
Tynan has opened up a five-point lead over Chicago’s Andrew Poturalski (25 goals, 66 assists) for the league scoring title. Poturalski and the Wolves have five games remaining.
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Rochester forward JJ Peterka continues to own the rookie scoring lead with 63 points (24 goals, 39 assists) in 66 games. It is the most points by an AHL skater in his U20 season since Patrik Elias had 63 points for the Albany River Rats in 1995-96; Peterka turned 20 on Jan. 14.
🏒 With a career-high 42 saves Wednesday in a 3-1 defeat of Tucson, Stockton rookie Dustin Wolf ended a personal three-game slide and earned his league-leading 33rd win of the season. Wolf is 20-2-3 at Stockton Arena this season with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
🏒 Eagles defenseman Jordan Gross collected six more assists in three games over the last week and continues to lead AHL blueliners in both points (65) and assists (55). His 65 points are the most by an AHL defenseman since 2015-16 (T.J. Brennan, 68), and his 55 assists are tied for the most since Mike Gaul had 57 from the Hershey blue line in 1999-2000.
🏒 With AHL leading goaltender Troy Grosenick on recall to Boston, Brandon Bussi broke into the pro ranks by winning the AHL Player of the Week award. Bussi, a Western Michigan University product signed by Boston to a one-year contract for next season, had 28 saves in his AHL debut last Saturday night at Lehigh Valley. The following night he returned in net and blanked Hershey, 1-0, with 26 saves.
🏒 Abbotsford is sporting an eight-game point streak (7-0-1-0) after knocking off the Gulls in overtime on Wednesday, 4-3. Justin Bailey provided his fourth career AHL hat trick ― including two shorthanded goals ― and Sheldon Rempal reached 30 goals for the first time in his career while also adding in two assists. Rempal, who had 23 goals in 140 career games entering 2021-22, is up to a career-best 64 points (30 goals, 34 assists) in 51 games for the Canucks.
🏒 Utica wrapped up the North Division title with a 4-3 win in Cleveland on Wednesday. It is the first division championship for a New Jersey Devils affiliate since Albany won the Empire Division in 1997-98. The victory was also Kevin Dineen’s 363rd as an AHL head coach, moving him into sole possession of 10th place all-time.
🏒 Hershey has been shut out a franchise-record seven times, including in each of their past two games. The Bears are scoreless in their past 131:11 and have not scored an even-strength goal in 238:43.
🏒 Charlotte is bidding for its second Atlantic Division title in its last three seasons of play. Now affiliated with the Florida Panthers and Seattle Kraken, the Checkers captured the 2018-19 division crown as a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate before going on to win the Calder Cup.
🏒 Since moving into the Dollar Loan Center earlier this month, Henderson has gone 4-2-1-0 on home ice, including back-to-back wins over division-leading Stockton last weekend. Brendan Brisson, a 2020 first-round pick by Vegas, has six points (three goals, three assists) across his first four pro games for the Silver Knights.
🏒 Toronto’s Nick Robertson extended his point streak to seven games (six goals, two assists), scoring twice Wednesday night in Belleville. Robertson is up to 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists) in 24 games with the Marlies.
🏒 Akil Thomas posted a hat trick in Wednesday’s 5-3 Ontario win at Colorado. David Hrenak had a 25-save shutout in his pro debut for the Reign last Friday, a 3-0 win against San Diego; the Slovakian netminder played five seasons at St. Cloud State.
🏒 Four points (two goals, two assists) from forward Nick Swaney carried Iowa to a 5-2 win over Grand Rapids on Tuesday. In that same game, Marco Rossi set a team rookie record with his 51st point of the season. Rossi, who has 18 goals and 33 assists in 60 games, went ninth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft to the Minnesota Wild.
🏒 Bridgeport forward Simon Holmstrom supplied a pair of goals along with an assist in last Saturday’s 6-5 setback at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Chosen 23rd overall in the 2019 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, the 20-year-old has 42 points (12 goals, 30 assists) in 66 games.
🏒 San Diego’s Lucas Elvenes had his fourth three-point night (one goal, two assists) this season Wednesday in a 5-4 home shootout loss to Abbotsford. Elvenes has 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) in 39 outings since joining the Gulls in January.
🏒 Belleville’s Viktor Lodin continues to produce since joining the club from Timra of the Swedish Hockey League, with four goals in his last four games. Lodin scored twice on Wednesday, including the go-ahead goal with 1:19 remaining, as the Senators came from behind to defeat Toronto, 5-4.
🏒 Back in the Texas lineup after missing seven games, forward Jordan Kawaguchi scored twice in Wednesday’s win at Milwaukee.
🏒 Newly signed out of Ohio State, forward Georgii Merkulov has a goal and two assists in his first three pro games with Providence.
🏒 Tucson’s Rasmus Korhonen frustrated Colorado last Friday to earn his first AHL win, making 37 saves in a 4-3 victory. The 19-year-old from Oulu, Finland, was a fourth-round pick by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2021 draft.
🏒 Charles Hudon recorded Syracuse’s fourth hat trick this season, doing so in last Saturday’s 5-1 home win against the Marlies. Hudon’s 27 goals are one off his career high and tie him with captain Gabriel Dumont for the Crunch team lead.
🏒 With five seconds to go in last Saturday’s back-and-forth Colorado-Tucson game, blueliner Jacob MacDonald’s goal gave the Eagles a 6-5 win. The Roadrunners had overcome a 4-0 hole after the Eagles buried four goals in the opening 7:39 of play.
🏒 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton blueliner Juuso Riikola rang up four assists in last Saturday’s win against Bridgeport, setting a career game high.
ON THE MOVE
🏒 Five more AHL players made their NHL debuts in the last week, bringing the season total up to 136.
Thomas Bordeleau played his first NHL game last Sunday, notching an assist for the San Jose Sharks at Minnesota. He had made his pro debut with the San Jose Barracuda four days earlier, posting three assists.
Iowa forward Mitchell Chaffee debuted with Minnesota on Tuesday night, skating against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Chaffee, 24, has 37 points (22 goals, 15 assists) in 45 games for Iowa as a second-year pro.
Lehigh Valley defenseman Linus Hogberg played his first NHL game after being recalled to the Philadelphia Flyers and earned an assist in a 6-3 win at Montreal on Thursday. The 23-year-old has seven assists in 57 games for the Phantoms this season.
After being recalled from the Utica blue line, Nikita Okhotiuk’s NHL debut came with the New Jersey Devils on Thursday and he scored a goal in a 5-2 loss to Buffalo. The 21-year-old Okhotiuk has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) through 63 games for the Comets in his second pro season after being taken as a 2019 second-round pick by the Devils.
Texas forward Fredrik Karlstrom picked up an assist in his NHL debut last night for the Dallas Stars in Calgary. Karlstrom has 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists) in 65 games for Texas in 2021-22.
🏒 Milwaukee leading scorer Cody Glass has returned from a stint in Nashville. Glass, 23, has 60 points (14 goals, 46 assists) in 63 games for the Admirals.
🏒 A pair of top rookies are back with their respective AHL clubs. The Chicago Blackhawks returned forward Lukas Reichel to Rockford. Reichel, the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, is tied for seventh in rookie scoring with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) in 51 games. Tucson received forward Matias Maccelli from the Arizona Coyotes. Maccelli has 55 points (14 goals, 41 assists) in 43 games, fifth-most among rookies.
🏒 Wolves goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov is on emergency recall to Carolina. The 22-year-old has gone 13-1-1 in 15 games and owns a 2.09 GAA and .921 save percentage with Chicago. He was named the AHL Rookie of the Month in March.
🏒 University of Denver forward Carter Savoie has signed an amateur tryout contract with Bakersfield and could make his debut this weekend. The 20-year-old, a 2020 fourth-round pick by the parent Edmonton Oilers, ranked fourth in the NCAA with 23 goals in 39 games for the 2022 national champions. He also provided 22 assists for 45 points.
🏒 Buffalo Sabres forward prospect Josh Bloom has joined Rochester on an amateur deal after signing his three-year entry-level NHL contract. The 18-year-old had 60 points (30 goals, 30 assists) in 66 games for Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League. Buffalo took him in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft.
🏒 Defenseman Gannon Laroque and forward Daniil Gushchin have joined the San Jose Barracuda on amateur tryouts. The 20-year-old Gushchin recorded 71 points (41 goals, 30 assists) in 51 games for Niagara of the OHL. He went to the parent Sharks as a 2020 third-round selection. Laroque, an 18-year-old fourth-round pick by the Sharks in 2021, had 52 points (10 goals, 42 assists) in 63 games with Victoria of the Western Hockey League.
🏒 University of Massachusetts defenseman Colin Felix has signed with Lehigh Valley for next season. The 23-year-old is the son of the late Chris Felix, who was the head athletic trainer of the Philadelphia Phantoms from 1996 until 2004. Colin won a national championship with UMass in 2021.
🏒 College signees Trevor Cosgrove (Northern Michigan), Koby Bender (Minnesota-Duluth) and Jimmy Lambert (Michigan) will remain with Bridgeport next season on AHL deals. Lambert is the nephew of New York Islanders associate coach Lane Lambert.
🏒 San Diego has added forward Logan Nijhoff on an amateur tryout deal from the Western Hockey League. The 20-year-old captained Regina for the past two seasons and had 49 points (25 goals, 24 assists) in 57 games in 2021-22.
🏒 Charlotte concludes its regular-season schedule with games in Hartford tonight and in Providence on Saturday… Hershey and Lehigh Valley meet tonight in Allentown and Saturday in Chocolatetown… The Bears complete their season schedule by hosting Syracuse on Sunday… The Crunch will take an eight-game home winning streak, the second-longest in team history, into play this weekend, hosting Belleville tonight and Laval on Saturday… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has a three-game New England swing this weekend, hitting Providence, Springfield and Hartford… Toronto is in Laval tonight before hosting Belleville on Sunday (4 ET, NHL Network) in their regular-season home finale… Rochester is in Utica tonight before a home-and-home series with Cleveland on Saturday and Sunday… Manitoba visits Rockford on Saturday and Milwaukee on Sunday… Stockton hosts Abbotsford tonight before traveling to Bakersfield on Saturday… Colorado closes out its regular-season slate with two more against Ontario… San Jose wraps up its 2021-22 season with a two-game visit to Henderson.
“I think our third period was good, but our first two were stinkers. The lesson is, if we develop bad habits, that will translate into Game 1 of the playoffs, and we’ll go home real soon. Hopefully that’s a lesson that we take.”
― Chicago Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky to the team website after Tuesday’s loss to Rockford, on the challenge that awaits the Central Division regular-season champion. The Wolves will have a first-round bye.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.