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First-half wrap

Ben Walter leads the surprising Lowell Devils in scoring this season with 13 goals and 30 points through 44 games. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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Ben Walter leads the surprising Lowell Devils in scoring this season with 13 goals and 30 points through 44 games. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The American League is chugging toward its mid-season point. Next week's AHL All-Star Classic will serve as a brief break for most players and coaches before clubs make their push to the Calder Cup playoffs.

Only a handful of teams are realistically out of the playoff picture at this point. With that in mind, here is a look at the AHL's first half.

TOP TEAM
The Hershey Bears continue to terrorize the AHL. Mark French's club rattled off a franchise-record 12-game winning streak and is beginning to pull away, perhaps for good, in the Eastern Conference race. Barring injuries, major slumps or an opponent loading up its roster for the playoffs, it is rather easy to envision the Bears making a return to the Calder Cup final.

TOP GOALTENDER
Manchester's Jonathan Bernier is living up to his first-rounder pedigree. The Monarchs' workhorse goalie has delivered loads of minutes in net and been nearly impenetrable. Bernier, a 21-year-old taken 11th overall in the 2006 NHL draft, has four shutouts in his first 31 games after producing five shutouts all last season.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Hershey's Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux are dominating opposing defenses again this season, while Corey Locke of Hartford is playing like his usual dependable self. But a team without a stout goaltender probably will not do much damage in the regular season, let alone the playoffs. So, Bernier it shall be.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
San Jose took Worcester's Logan Couture ninth overall in the 2007 NHL draft, establishing the former Ottawa 67's’ credentials long ago. But his 14 goals through a first half abbreviated by an NHL call-up are impressive. The center is probably not long for the AHL.

BIGGEST SURPRISE
Expectations are always going to be tempered for an AHL affiliation that has not sampled playoff hockey in nearly a decade. However, the long-troubled New Jersey affiliate, the Lowell Devils, have emerged as a legitimate post-season threat with a very dangerous power play and an ability to deliver offense. Perhaps the Devils' division is a bit shaky, but new coach John MacLean has guided a mix of prospects and veterans nicely.

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BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
The always-aggressive Chicago Wolves re-tooled over the summer and began the season with a talent-packed roster. But a 1-5 start to the season left coach Don Granato out of a job after just six games. Since Don Lever took over the Chicago bench, the situation has stabilized. But a club owning the talent the Wolves do should not be struggling to reach the playoffs halfway through the year.

THIS AND THAT
Toronto GM Brian Burke will serve as the keynote speaker at the AHL All-Star Classic luncheon Tuesday. The ceremony will also honor Byron Dafoe and Ken Daneyko, who both spent time in the AHL with Portland clubs...

Chris Brown will serve as referee for the All-Star Game, his first appearance in that capacity. Linesmen Mark Messier and Jack Millea will also work their first All-Star Game...

Providence veteran goalie Dany Sabourin made 51 saves at Worcester last Saturday night, a high for AHL goalies this season. Sabourin was a hard-luck netminder, however, as the Sharks struck twice in the final three minutes for a 4-3 win...

Speaking of Providence, Adirondack's John Grahame made his first AHL appearance this season in Rhode Island last week. Grahame played for Providence nearly a decade ago and carried the Bruins to the 1999 Calder Cup...

After scoring only four times in his first 21 games, Colorado prospect Ryan Stoa went on a tear that generated 13 tallies in 18 games with Lake Erie.

From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiling prospects destined for the next level. It appears every weekend only on TheHockeyNews.com.

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