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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hockey at the All-Star Break

Congratulations to the AHL, ECHL and UHL All-Stars. Time to look around at the first part of the season.

The Chicago Wolves enter the All-Star break seemingly headed for the top playoff spot in the division, but with trouble, too, on their plate. The team is the highest scoring team in the league, with 217 goals scored, but it is also the fifth highest team for goals scored against at 157. Six points separate it from its closest opponent, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. However, the Knights have an advantage: they’ve played four games less than the Wolves.

Further down in the West Division there is a race for fifth place. At this moment, if the playoffs started, the fifth place Western team has more points than the fourth place North Division team, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Plus, again, the Peoria Rivermen, in fifth place, have two games on the Griffins. That would mean the Rivermen or another West Division team, is poised to knock the fourth place North Division team out of the playoffs and take their place.

Nine points separate the Rochester Americans from the second place North Division team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. As previously discussed in this blog, the Americans have had a good record playing West Division teams. In fact with only twelve games lost all season, it is interesting to look at just who has defeated the Amerks: The Syracuse Crunch on 10/27 & 12/8; Milwaukee on 11/22 OT; Hamilton on 11/25, 12/15 and 12/26; Grand Rapids on December 1, 2 & 31; Toronto Marlies on 12/22; Manitoba Moose on 1 /4, 1/5; and Omaha on 1/20. Hamilton has lost two additional games to the Amerks, the Moose four. The Griffins remain undefeated by the Amerks.

In the Eastern Conference, the Amerks have faced the Crunch, the Binghamton Senators, the Springfield Falcons, the Manchester Monarchs and the Albany River Rats. Only the last place Crunch have beaten the Amerks in 15 Eastern Conference contests. Still, it must worry the Americans that the Griffins have the Amerks number and the Bulldogs have done so well against them.

In the Eastern Conference, the big story is how tight the race is in the Atlantic Division. Now, granted, these puppies have to play a bus league schedule. The last Atlantic Division team to survive the playoffs to the Calder Cup was the Hartford Whalers in the 1999-2000 season. So, who is to say that these teams could even compete in a tournament with teams that travel?

The point spread in the Atlantic division from the first place team, the Monarchs, to the last place team, the Falcons, is only 20 points. From the Hartford Wolfpack, the second place team, to the Falcons it tightens considerably to 12 points. Six teams within twelve points of each other. Only the Falcons have a losing record in this division. (But in the odd math of hockey, only seven of the teams in the league have losing seasons in any case).

We can assume the Monarchs, with good goal tending, will be in the playoffs as their fortune would need to reverse considerably to drop from playoff contention. But who else will play?

The East Division is being led by the Norfolk Admirals in what looks like their last year of affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks. Everything you assume by watching the Blackhawks play is proven false in Norfolk. The Admirals have only lost ten games all season. They have the best record in the league, the second best goals for and an average goals against. However, this is a tough division, the Hershey Bears follow them by four points with a game in hand, Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton Penguins another four off the chase.

A way back, nearly twenty more points back from the Penguins, lies most of the rest of the division.

Over in the ECHL, the Gwinnett Gladiators are topping the American Conference and the Southern Division, though they are in a race. A week ago they were tied with the Texas Wildcatters for first, now they lead the Texans by one point. The South Division is a big division of eight teams, and six of them are within six points, currently, of the Gladiators. The Florida Everblades are a special threat, as they have three games in hand on the Gladiators and are three points back.

The Gladiators offense has been anchored by Brad Schell, Scott Mifsud and Colton Fretter, the number one, two and six scorers in the ECHL. Sounds like the Wolves top line, doesn’t it? Fretter is a rookie. The authoritative Internet Hockey Database doesn’t list Fretter or Mifsud as Atlanta prospects. Though there is strong evidence elsewhere they are in the Atlanta system.

Like the Wolves, the Gladiators have a strong power play, ranked number one in the ECHL at a scorching 26.2 percent. At least on the ECHL and AHL levels, Atlanta seems to be developing a high scoring team down the road with a mighty power play.

With only nine points separating the top team of the ECHL North Division from the last place team of the division, it seems up for grabs. Likewise, in the National Conference, the top team and the fourth place (of five) team are just six points apart.

But in the West Division the Alaska Aces look assured of another run at the Kelly Cup with 13 points separating them from the next team. They are the top team of the ECHL and look likely to play for the final again. In a rematch Monday of the Kelly Cup finals in Gwinnett, the Aces defeated the Gladiators 5-4 OT. They play again Saturday in Gwinnett.

At about this time of the year I begin to pay attention to the United Hockey League. The Muskegon Fury are leading the League by 19 points. It is almost a shoe-in for them to be in the playoffs. The Fort Wayne Komets are leading the Western Conference, but there is competition, with the Rockford IceHogs, now in their last days in the UHL, following at 52 points. The top two goalies of the league are in Muskegon, Clayton Pool with a 93 percent save and a GAA of 2.13, and Keven St. Pierre in Fort Wayne with a 92.7 percent save and a GAA of 2.22.

What strikes me, probably because I’ve only been to Chicago Hounds games, is that the penalty minutes for this league are greater than the average for the AHL and the ECHL, 19.98 minutes in the AHL, 22.76 minutes per game for the ECHL and 25.02 minutes for the UHL. The action this year, at least at Hounds games, is soft, with virtually no hitting.

Finally, there is another team in town, the Chicago Blackhawks. Last in power plays, they have also managed to be in last place in the Western Conference Central Division. That’s quite a trick. The competition for last is pretty tight, with losers Columbus BlueJackets and the St. Louis Blues in contention.

The Blackhawks are 27th in the league, leading the Los Angeles Kings and the Philadelphia Flyers (by 13 points!). They have only won one of the last ten games they’ve played, losing two others after regulation. What makes this worse, is that they play the Blues and the BlueJackets so much. It is pathetic hockey to watch, when it is even available. Thankfully their fans don’t even bother to tell me about major league versus minor league hockey. I don't know how they put up with it. They don’t suck enough to get the number one draft pick and yet they suck. They consistently and year after year are among the worst hockey has to offer.

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