SPRINGFIELD, MA- New Year’s Day has now come and gone, and as the calendar flips to 2018, playoff races in the AHL are beginning to heat up. Over the next 13 weeks teams from San Diego, California to Laval, Quebec will fight tooth and nail as they battle to be among the 16 teams that qualify for postseason play.
With the season already at its midpoint, now is a good time to take a step back and look at the standings. Before we look at the standings, however, we should remind ourselves of the AHL playoff procedures for 2017-18.
The AHL’s 30 teams are divided into two conferences, which are then each broken up into two divisions. There are 15 teams in each conference, with the East divided into the Atlantic (eight teams) and North (seven teams), and the West split into the Pacific (eight teams) and Central (seven teams).
The top four teams in each division will advance to the playoffs. There is no wildcard in the AHL, so it is simply the top four in each division facing each other, with the top team playing the fourth place team and the second place team facing the third. The first round will be a best-of-five, while the Division, Conference, and Calder Cup Finals are all best-of-seven.
The way the standings are sorted is a little different in the AHL, as points percentage is the determining factor for positioning rather than strictly points gained. The reason for this is because not all teams end up playing the same amount games at the end of the year. While most teams play 76 games, Tucson and the five California teams only play 68 a season. This means you have to use points percentage to rank the teams, which is simply what percentage of your total possible points you can accumulate.
Now that we have refreshed ourselves on the rules we can move on to the fun part, and take a look at where each division sits heading into the second half of the year. We will go thru each division one at a time, and go over everything you need to know for the second half of the season. The standings will list, record, points, points percentage, goals for, and goals against, in that order. So now without further delay let’s jump right on in, starting with…
ATLANTIC DIVISION (EAST)
The Providence Bruins currently sit on top of a tight Atlantic Division, but they will need to continue to play well to hold off streaky W-B/Scranton squad. The Penguins have won five straight to pull within .009 of the Bruins. Before that W-B/Scranton had lost 10 of 14 after going 12 straight with at least a point, as consistency has been hard to come by for the Pens. Lehigh Valley has also had a nice first half led by T.J. Brennan, who was named to his fifth straight All-Star Game and tallied his 400th career point in 600 games.
Another team to watch in the second half will be the Hershey Bears. The Bears have been uncharacteristically hovering around .500 this year, but have picked up points in five of the past six. They look to be rounding into form with the return of Nathan Walker, and the addition of Tyler Graovac. They’re in the midst of 13 consecutive Atlantic Division contests through mid-February, including the Capital BlueCross Outdoor Classic against Lehigh Valley on January 20th. These four-point games will give a Hershey a chance to get right back in the race.
There are only four tickets to the postseason dance available for six teams that look contenders. It should be a fascinating race to see who gets in, and who is left out in the cold.
NORTH DIVISION (EAST)
The North has been the least competitive of all the divisions thus far, with the top two teams have created some separation from the rest. Toronto and Rochester have combined to go 48-19-3-3 in the first half and look like they will be fighting each other for the division crown.
Defending Eastern Conference Champion Syracuse is sitting in third place and will try to gain ground on the top two, without losing ground to Utica. The Crunch trail Rochester by .080, and lead Utica by .085. Utica currently holds the final playoff spot, and have created a little bit of separation from fifth place Laval.
The Laval Rocket could still have something to say if they can get hot, but right now the North seems to know who its four playoff teams are likely to be. Home-ice and seeding are still up for grabs, however, so there is still plenty to play for even if the top four continue to separate themselves.
CENTRAL DIVISION (WEST)
The Central is an interesting division, with teams 2-6 separated by just four points and .068 of each other. There is serious separation at the top and bottom, however, with Manitoba a full 12 points and .183 ahead of second, and Cleveland 13 points and .119 behind the rest.
Manitoba can’t just sit back and coast to the division title, though, as the Chicago Wolves have been playing exceptional hockey recently. The Wolves struggled to overcome adversity early, using five goaltenders and watching players like Alex Tuch go to NHL Vegas and never come back, and found themselves in last place in the Central after 33 games. Now the Wolves have gone 14 straight games without a loss, and have used the momentum to climb all the way to second. This is a talented team that never should have been in last, and is every bit talented enough to chase down Manitoba should the Moose take their foot off the gas.
There will also be a great race for the final two playoff spots, as there are four teams fighting for it who are currently within two points of each other. Milwaukee is in the best shape, having played only 35 games to accumulate their 40 points (.571), while Grand Rapids has the most work to do of the four. The Defending Calder Cup Champion Griffins are in sixth and have needed 38 games to gain their 39 points (.513). Iowa and Rockford are the two currently tied for the fourth and final spot, with identical point percentages of .554. This promises to be a close race to the finish as we wait and see who had a chair when the music stops.
PACIFIC DIVISION (WEST)
The Pacific has been the league’s tightest and toughest division during the first half. Every team in the division is .515 or better, and all eight teams are within .102 of each other. This is also the league’s most interesting division because it is the reason the AHL uses point percentage instead of simply points alone. The five California teams, as well as Tucson, only play 68 games a season, while Texas and San Antonio play 76 like the rest of the league. This is done to help ease the travel burden on left coast teams, as the vast majority of AHL teams are East of the Mississippi River. It can lead to a confusing race if you don’t realize this and try to look at points as you would in the NHL. Texas and San Antonio are likely to lead in points as they play eight more games, so the league handles it the best they can under the circumstances.
As for the race itself, Tucson and Stockton are currently fighting for first place, with the Roadrunners ahead by just .008. Texas used a great December to shoot into first place; however, they are just 2-4-3-0 in their last nine and have slipped to fifth. Their point percentage of .568 is just .010 behind the third place Gulls, and .015 behind second-place San Antonio. The Stars defense has started to slide again after playing well in their December run, and they have now allowed a Western Conference high 126 goals. Landon Bow, and just as importantly the defense in front, must return to December form for Texas to make the playoffs.
San Diego had to deal with injuries early, both to themselves and parent club NHL Anaheim, and with a depleted roster struggled to put wins and points together. They are healthy now, though, and have won eight of ten to climb up to fourth and the final playoff spot. Do not take your eyes off of this race; it promises to be immensely entertaining!
Now we turn our focus to the action on the ice and watch to see just who will be the teams to continue their season in the playoffs. There are some incredible races to keep track of, and lots of tense moments of your team is one on the edge.
Enjoy the action, live the ups and downs with your team, and then come here to The Sin Bin to read all about it! We’ll have coverage at the Capital BlueCross Outdoor Classic at Hersheypark Stadium on January 20 at 7 PM be sure to follow @SinBinBears and @SinBinPhantoms for all the latest on the AHL’s primetime event.