The race to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs is on for several Canadian affiliates.
Six of the seven affiliates of Canadian NHL teams are jostling for position while keeping an eye on what their parent teams may or may not do for next Wednesday’s NHL deadline as well. The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions qualify for post-season play.
In the Eastern Conference, the St. John’s IceCaps (Montreal Canadiens) and Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) are above the North Division playoff line. Chasing them are the Binghamton Senators (Ottawa Senators) and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks).
Heading to the Western Conference, the Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers) and Stockton Heat (Calgary Flames) each are trying to revive rapidly fading playoff hopes. The Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets) are the lone Canadian affiliate mostly out of contention.
The Marlies continue an impressive second-half push that has them nibbling around the edges of first place in the North Division.
They visit Binghamton on Friday with an opportunity to build on a four-game winning streak and a 13-3-1-0 charge going back to Jan. 20. Third in the North Division, they have moved to within two points out of first place in the division after a come-from-behind 3-2 overtime victory against the Syracuse Crunch on Wednesday. The Marlies and Senators meet four times in the next four weeks, including a March 24th date at Canadian Tire Centre.
Toronto management has long proven adept at finding hidden talent. A more recent find has been undrafted forward Brett Findlay, who spent parts of the past three seasons in the ECHL and played 29 more games there this season with Orlando. He notched the overtime winner Wednesday, has six points in his past four games, and has a seven goals and 12 points in 17 AHL games this season.
Another addition has been playmaking winger Seth Griffith, who was 24-53-77 with the Providence Bruins last season. The Maple Leafs added him via waivers from the Florida Panthers in January, and he has been a massive addition, going 4-14-18 in 16 games since joining the Marlies.
A crucial two-game home series starts Friday for the fourth-place IceCaps when the Albany Devils arrive. The set will conclude a six-game homestand for the IceCaps before they begin another six-game road trip through the heart of the North Division.
The IceCaps’ blue line continued its mid-season makeover this week when they picked up defenceman Keegan Lowe from the Charlotte Checkers for fellow blueliner Philip Samuelsson, who had struggled to establish himself with the IceCaps after signing with Montreal this past off-season. Samuelsson is the third IceCap defender to have departed in the second half of the season, joining Mark Barberio, who was lost on waivers to the Colorado Avalanche and Jonathan Racine, who is now with Syracuse after a trade to the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
The five games remaining in the IceCaps-Marlies season series could further shape the division’s playoff picture.
Still hanging around are the fifth-place Comets, four points out of a playoff spot. After a dismal start to the season, a January surge pushed the Comets back into playoff contention. However, they have slowed down over the past month, going 3-6-1-0 and face a rather challenging schedule down the stretch.
Binghamton is hovering on the fringes of the North Division race but will need a big March to break into the top-four. The AHL Senators are six points behind the IceCaps, though they hold a game in hand.
A once-promising season has been crumbling around the Heat lately.
Stockton ended a 10-game losing streak Wednesday with a 5-1 home win over the Texas Stars, their first win since Jan. 20. Adding to the good news for Stockton lately was the addition of defenceman Brett Kulak and forward Garnet Hathaway from Calgary.
But the past month has been a grind for the Heat, who have fallen to seventh place in the Pacific Division. The Heat have not won away from home since Dec. 17, going 0-9-2-0 in that period. The day before that most recent road win, the Heat led the Pacific Division with a 14-6-1-1 record.
To make a playoff push the Heat need to start putting the puck in the net. In the 10-game crash opponents shut out the Heat three times and held them to one goal in three other games. Veteran Linden Vey has a goal in each of his past two games after a 21-game goalless stretch. Top forward prospect Hunter Shinkaruk has tallied once in his past 17 games.
Joining Stockton in a four-team hunt for fourth place in the Pacific Division is Bakersfield. The Condors and Heat along with Texas are chasing the fourth-place Tucson Roadrunners. The Condors start a three-game homestand Friday night against the Ontario Reign. The Heat come to town Saturday.
Much like Stockton, sixth-place Bakersfield is trying to dig out of a recent rut. Before winning at Stockton this past Saturday, the Condors had lost five games in a row. That skid had followed a surge of five wins in six games.
Manitoba is 14 points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. The Moose, who lost 50 games last season, sit last in the Western Conference and 29th in the AHL going into a weekend home series with the San Antonio Rampage. Manitoba has won five of its past 22 games.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Binghamton coaches and players got a look at their new home this week.
Ottawa will be relocating its Binghamton affiliate to Belleville, Ont. next season after 15 seasons with Binghamton. The new Belleville Senators will play in the renovated Yardmen Arena. The set-up will provide Ottawa with an affiliate two and a half hours away; keeping with an AHL-wide trend of establishing geographically convenient affiliations for NHL clubs.
Belleville hosted the Ontario Hockey League for 34 seasons. The Belleville Bulls departed for Hamilton after the 2014-15 season.
Binghamton’s visit to Toronto for a meeting with the Marlies this past Monday provided an opportunity to make a trip north to Belleville for an open practice on Tuesday. Belleville fans got to see Binghamton goaltending coach Kory Cooper, a Bulls alumnus, participating in the on-ice workout.
However, Binghamton fans will still have AHL-calibre hockey next season. The New Jersey Devils are taking Albany to Binghamton.
Ottawa putting its affiliate in Belleville is not the only Canadian move for next season. Montreal will have the IceCaps in Laval, Que., where they will play as the Laval Rocket.