HERSHEY, Pa. – The 2021-22 AHL season ends in nearly a month and the battle for the Calder Cup will heat up with the springtime weather as teams look to push for positioning ahead of postseason play. Each division has storylines and close battles, but perhaps the most intriguing battle lies in the Atlantic Division as the expanded playoff field has teams once considered out looking to make some noise beyond their regular season schedules and others looking to improve their positions and solidify themselves as contenders. Another factor in creating intrigue is the points percentage, which judges positioning with an uneven amount of games played between teams in the division.
Here’s the outlook for each of the division’s eight teams as the stretch run gets underway.
The Springfield Thunderbirds lead the division standings thanks to a strong set of months after their NHL affiliate in St. Louis recovered from their issues in December and early January with COVID-19 protocols. The large amount of NHL experience on their roster has helped, with the surprise assignment of veteran forward James Neal leading the charge as well as strong seasons from Nathan Walker, Matthew Peca, Sam Anas, and Charlie Lindgren in goal. The Thunderbirds are by far the safest team in the standings race with a 0.619 points percentage going into the last weekend of March, and it seems very likely they will earn a bye from the first round of the postseason in one of the top two slots. Despite their current placement, the remaining schedules for most teams are nearly entirely set with divisional opponents and the T-Birds will have to take care of business to emerge as a top team.
On their heels and looking to challenge are the Providence Bruins, who sit in second place with a 0.602 points percentage and tied for the most remaining games this season with 18. Most recently, the Bruins used a strong surge in the month of February to leap their way to second, but don’t have much breathing room from third place. The Baby B’s are mired in an 0-3-0-3 skid over six games, and each decision impacts their points percentage a bit more than teams playing 76 games. The Bruins are coming off of an unusual statistic of losing three straight shootouts to the Charlotte Checkers in three straight games at Bojangles’ Coliseum going into action this weekend.
The aforementioned Charlotte Checkers are on fire as of late, 0.002 points percentage behind the Bruins and are 8-1-1-0 in their last ten games, good to lift them from close to the bottom of the standings to challenging for second. It’s a good reminder that any team of this group can hit a hot streak in this stretch and upend the field, but Charlotte must place value on their remaining schedule being tied for the fewest games to play with 12. The Checkers play five games straight at home before five straight on the road to conclude their season with all of their games in April against division foes looking to collect points against them. The fewer games to play this season places an increased impact on their points percentage. Charlotte has shown that they can win games in a variety of ways, with their aforementioned shootout success against the Bruins highlighting that streak, and have handled their long road swings as well as possible with three weeks of road games from late February to mid-March.
Hartford Wolf Pack
Moving to fourth place, the Hartford Wolf Pack find themselves in a tough stretch after once contending for the division crown with just three wins in their last ten games. The Pack struggled in a recent road trip north of the border, which saw them lose four of five games and allowed four or more goals against in each of those losses. They returned home this past Wednesday and dropped a 3-1 decision to the Springfield Thunderbirds, and their recent road struggles give way to some concern about a seven-game road trip in early April, with eight of their last ten games away from home. The Wolf Pack have an unusual immediate schedule, with five games in eight days, including matchups with Springfield, Utica. and Hershey, who took advantage of Wednesday’s game to close the gap on them a bit to just a 0.006 difference heading into play. A hot streak would help Hartford join the conversation of the top three or even the elusive top two spots, but any more struggles could see them fall further in the standings.
Also once a top contender at one point this season, the Hershey Bears have had difficult times with injuries in their lineup that caused some struggles in February and at times in March, coming off of three straight losses against Canadian opponents. Despite this, the Bears still have a chance to climb in the division race with 15 games left to play, 14 of which come within the division. A win against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Wednesday, where the Bears scored five goals, was a step in the right direction for a team desperate for a breakout. The Bears’ next win will be the 3,000th in team history for the senior franchise of the American Hockey League, and a loss for Hartford on Wednesday leaves the Bears in position to try and pass them for fourth place. Hershey needs a strong stretch in order to keep from being passed by the Penguins or even teams like the hot Bridgeport Islanders, but their fate is very much in their control in this stretch run.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were once one of the worst teams in the AHL, as recalls and injuries plagued a team with some potential and some interesting prospects. Thanks to some strong play in February, the team moved above the .500 mark and are poised to be a first-round threat, provided that they can hold off the surging Bridgeport Islanders. Getting some key players, along with a quality goaltender in Louis Domingue, make the Penguins a threatening team. Like many teams jockeying for positioning in the division, Wilkes-Barre has a heavy amount of divisional play that will more than likely determine their fate in such a precarious position. A four-game homestand followed by a five-game road trip to end the season as the Penguins play every team in the division, including twice against the fifth-place Bears, to cap off that difficult stretch. The road to get into the playoffs for the Penguins will perhaps be the most challenging task of a tough season in northeast Pennsylvania.
Don’t look now, but the Bridgeport Islanders aren’t going away anytime soon. One of the other teams with a tough season, the Islanders are on a hot streak right now and are attempting to usurp the sixth spot from under the Penguins with a 7-2-1-0 record in their last ten games and five straight with at least a point (4-0-1-0). Their most recent win brought them back to the .500 mark for the first time in a while, but their margin for error is considerably small tied for the fewest games remaining with 12. Much like every team in the division, the Islanders will be doing a lot of scoreboard watching and hoping they can take care of business when they hit the ice from here on out. Two matchups with those Penguins still sit on the calendar in April as playoff-type battles, along with three games against Lehigh Valley and one more with Hershey before all is said and done. The resilience by the Islanders has been impressive, and is proof that no team has truly been out of contention this season.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms and their parent club, the Philadelphia Flyers, seemed to double down on the healthy AHL club to make the playoffs. Since the season has been extremely difficult in Philadelphia, the Flyers are hoping some of their NCAA prospects joining the Phantoms will be enough to lift them to a playoff spot with 18 games remaining (tied for most). The Phantoms have been lighting the lamp with greater frequency of late, but once again ran dry against the Bears on Wednesday with just one tally in their last three games against the Chocolate and White, who account for four more games between the two teams on the season schedule. Those games, as well as head-to-head matchups with the Islanders (three games), Penguins (three), and Bruins (three) account for the majority of the schedule and are essentially playoff games at this juncture, getting some of those young Flyers prospects very meaningful games to play. The Phantoms have plenty of home cooking left in that time as well, and it’s safe to say their fans will be trying to push them to a late-season surge. Forward Wade Allison has led the charge with 11 points (four goals, five assists) in four games since returning to duty for the Phantoms.
As the season winds down, each of the eight teams in the Atlantic Division will have plenty of meaningful hockey to play this season, and every team has a true opportunity to earn the right to play in the postseason to contend for the Calder Cup. There’s still a strong chance that there will be a team who just narrowly misses the postseason, but the schedule leaves plenty of time for playoff-like games in April and plenty to be determined until the season ends. No team is completely safe from having their seat upended entirely, which should create great battles all the way through April 30.
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