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Looking at the playoff drive

Robin Lehner was picked by Ottawa in the second round (46th overall) of the 2009 draft. (Photo by JustSports Photography)

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Robin Lehner was picked by Ottawa in the second round (46th overall) of the 2009 draft. (Photo by JustSports Photography)

Only a month remains in the American League’s regular season.

The NHL trade deadline has passed, Clear Day rosters are set and clubs are now making their final push toward a playoff spot. Here is a look at some pressing issues this week in the NHL’s top developmental league.

HERSHEY GOALTENDING

Top prospect Braden Holtby’s all-too-frequent unavailability of late - be it to injury or NHL recall to the parent Washington Capitals - and Dany Sabourin’s knee injury gave the Bears fits for much of February. ECHL recalls Todd Ford and Jared DeMichiel failed to provide any relief, so the Bears finally opted to go a different route last week.

In a mostly barren goaltender market, Hershey managed to land AHL veteran Nolan Schaefer on loan from the Providence Bruins, just in time for what is a brutally difficult March schedule. Schaefer, a significant off-season signing for Providence who had fizzled with the Bruins, became expendable when the club acquired prospect Anton Khudobin. Schaefer is a solid, if unspectacular veteran, who did not cost the Bears a roster player.

Schaefer will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but he provides the Bears with a solid alternative unless and until Holtby’s AHL availability can be secured. What is certain is the Bears’ goaltending issues must subside in order for the club to make a solid run toward a third consecutive Calder Cup.

NET PRESENCE IN BINGO

The uneasy relationship between winning and player development is a perennial thread in AHL circles. In Binghamton, journeyman goaltender Barry Brust has spun an impressive season so far and has the Senators in a relatively solid position to return to the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time since 2005. However, the parent Ottawa Senators are undertaking a full-fledged rebuilding effort and a major part of that plan involves rookie goaltender Robin Lehner. While Lehner has put together a solid rookie season at just 19 years old, he also has appeared in just 18 games with Binghamton this season. While Lehner may be Ottawa’s goaltender of the future, this season’s Binghamton club is clearly Brust’s team and the veteran is well suited for a solid playoff run. Which element - winning or development - will win out?

WESTERN CONFERENCE SPACE CRUNCH

Thursday night’s Oklahoma City-San Antonio tilt is the latest chapter in an exceptionally close Western Conference playoff race. The Barons and Rampage both possess talented rosters and winning records, but they would also miss the playoffs if they started today. A mere eight points separate those clubs from the first-place Milwaukee Admirals in the West Division. With the exception of the long-since-forgotten Rockford IceHogs, every club in the West has a legitimate chance to win the division - or miss the playoffs altogether.

In the North Division, the crush is equally tight. Five points separate the first-place Manitoba Moose from the fifth-place Abbotsford Heat. Further complicating the playoff picture is that a West Division club is eligible to cross over to the North Division and snag a playoff spot. If the season ended today, the hot Chicago Wolves would cross over to the North Division, knock Lake Erie out of the playoffs and push the Toronto Marlies down one spot in the playoff seeding.

ANGST IN NEW YORK STATE

The New York State Thruway links two of the most disgruntled fan bases and front offices in the American League. Seasons ranging from mediocre (Rochester) to horrendous (Syracuse) could threaten the future of the clubs’ NHL affiliations. The strife between Rochester and the parent Florida Panthers has been well documented and a split between the two seems likely after this season. In whose arms the Panthers and Americans land remains unknown.

As for Syracuse, a club in its first season of affiliation with Anaheim, its relationship with the parent club is already showing severe signs of strain. Anaheim left Ducks farmhands Jason Jaffray and Joel Perrault with the Manitoba Moose, prompting Crunch owner Howard Dolgon to publicly blast the Ducks. A divorce after just one season would be extremely unusual and available alternatives are few.

ANOTHER QUIET SPRING IN SPRINGFIELD

A recent 0-3-1-0 stretch has left the Springfield Falcons’ playoff chances in serious jeopardy. The Falcons, in the first year with the Columbus Blue Jackets as their parent club, owned a winning record as recently as the end of February. Springfield has had three NHL affiliates since 2004 and desperately needs a playoff appearance to generate some box-office buzz for next season. The Falcons have had one playoff appearance since 2000, but that stretch of futility seems likely to persist yet another year as the club sits seven points out of a playoff spot with 16 games to play.

 

THIS & THAT

• Providence veteran Trent Whitfield collected weekly player honors for a four-goal, seven-point effort in a pair of Providence wins.

• Adirondack sniper Denis Hamel has recorded his ninth AHL season with 20 or more goals. Houston’s Jon DiSalvatore hit the 20-goal mark for the eighth consecutive season.

 

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 profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.

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