Dustin Tokarski is 21-19-4 with a .903 SP and 2.60 GAA for Norfolk this season. (Photo by John Wright)
The final weekend of the American League’s regular season has arrived.
However, the playoff picture in the NHL’s top developmental circuit remains murky. Only 12 of the 16 available playoff spots have been claimed, with just four days to go before the season closes.
Reaching the Calder Cup playoffs offers top prospects a valuable opportunity to experience pro-level playoff hockey and make a final push for organizational standing before NHL training camps commence next fall.
Here is a look at the playoff situations in both conferences.
In: Binghamton, Charlotte, Hershey, Manchester, Norfolk, Portland and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
NORFOLK - The Admirals wrapped up their first playoff berth since 2007 earlier this week. This spring’s trip to the playoffs will be the first for a top minor league Tampa Bay affiliate stocked solely by the Lightning since the old International League’s Atlanta Knights competed in the post-season in 1996. Reaching the playoffs caps a regular season that brought new hope to Norfolk fans who had been plagued by a sour affiliation in recent years. First-year coach Jon Cooper and a crop of prospects led by goaltender Dustin Tokarski have guided a club that has prospered despite playing in what is the AHL’s best division. A first round date with Hershey, Portland or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is a likely possibility for the Admirals, but they will have to fend off Binghamton this weekend. A Sunday date at Connecticut will be crucial.
BINGHAMTON - On Wednesday night, long-suffering Senators fans saw their club clinch its first playoff invitation since the NHL lockout-influenced 2004-05 season. That year, a stacked Senators entry bowed out weakly in the first round to rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Years of playoff misses had strained the Ottawa-Binghamton relationship and a visit to the playoffs is critical for rebuilding the clubs’ ties. On the ice, a pack of prospects will sample playoff hockey, gaining valuable experience in an Ottawa organization that is undertaking a rebuilding process of some degree. Norfolk has a game in hand of the Senators and sit one point in front, but Binghamton has a weekend slate with non-playoff clubs Rochester and Adirondack on the menu.
CONNECTICUT and WORCESTER - The Whale have been a streaky club all season. In mid-November, the then-Wolf Pack owned a 4-10-2-2 mark and were looking like a club on its way to an early burial. However, they rebounded and would be a dangerous, if unpredictable, opponent in the playoffs. One point ahead of the Worcester Sharks and with a game in hand, the Whale, in theory, should be able to hold off Worcester for the final available playoff slot. Connecticut has a home-and-home series with a woeful Bridgeport club, while Worcester has to take on a tough Charlotte club on the road.
In: Hamilton, Houston, Lake Erie, Manitoba, and Milwaukee
TEXAS and PEORIA - With 90 points apiece, the Stars and Rivermen are both in relatively good shape to claim two of the remaining three playoff slots in the Western Conference. Texas has a game in hand of Peoria and the Rivermen will not have an easy dance card this weekend. Peoria hosts Chicago, a club one point behind Oklahoma City for a crossover slot, Friday night. Peoria’s regular season closes Saturday night with a visit from the conference-leading Milwaukee Admirals. Texas has a similarly difficult schedule. The Stars visit Milwaukee and then head home to meet Oklahoma City for a Saturday tilt with a Barons club in a desperate playoff push. To close the regular season, the Stars will host San Antonio on Sunday.
OKLAHOMA CITY - With 87 points and clinging to the crossover slot, can the Barons become the first full Edmonton affiliate to reach the Calder Cup playoffs since the long-forgotten Toronto Roadrunners in 2004? Coach Todd Nelson has had to navigate a difficult final stretch of the regular season as injuries with the parent Oilers have ravaged the Oklahoma City roster. Six major players in the Barons lineup dressed for the Oilers Wednesday at Calgary. Oklahoma has three games to go, a trio of dates at San Antonio, Texas and Houston.
CHICAGO - Despite an uneven season, this deep Wolves squad is still very much in the AHL playoff race. Chicago has 86 points, placing it a point behind Oklahoma City and a point ahead of San Antonio. A date in Peoria and home appointments with San Antonio and Rockford loom.
SAN ANTONIO - The Rampage will start the weekend at 85 points. San Antonio has contended with a depleted roster for some time now, as Brett MacLean, Petr Prucha and Mikkel Boedker have all departed. Still, for a team that was looking like a Calder Cup contender earlier this season, it is startling to see the Rampage desperately chasing what will be the final available playoff slot in the West. Home games against Oklahoma City and Texas, with a road game at Chicago sandwiched in between, set up San Antonio’s weekend; it would be best for the Rampage to win out.
THIS & THAT
• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes claimed top coaching honors, while Portland’s Marc-Andre Gragnani was named the league’s top defenseman. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Brad Thiessen won top league honors in net.
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.