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Atlantic Division Race Likely to End in Photo Finish

Photo Courtesy: Carl Minieri/ Field Pass Hockey

Atlantic Division Race Likely to End in Photo Finish

HERSHEY, Pa. – The Atlantic Division is often regarded as one of the American Hockey League’s most notorious grouping of teams for its sheer difficulty, and for a good reason. The team that emerges from the division in the Calder Cup Playoffs is always a heavyweight, and quality competition quickly tests the mettle of any club looking to host a championship at this level.

This year’s edition of the race is officially set after the four teams competing in the opening best-of-three round clinched their spots on Saturday. All four teams have nearly identical records and point totals, with three or fewer games to play. With the light at the end of the tunnel nearly blinding, what’s on the line for the playoff-bound teams in the Atlantic?

The teams taking part in the play-in round at the time of writing, sorted by placement, are the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Springfield Thunderbirds, the Charlotte Checkers, and the Hartford Wolf Pack. Despite a few of those teams losing on Saturday, they clinched spots due to the mathematical elimination of the Bridgeport Islanders, who went out with little more than a whimper in an 8-2 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. It was a wildly perfect spread of points in all inter-divisional play on Saturday, with the Phantoms, Wolf Pack, and Hershey Bears earning wins to keep the other teams at bay and bringing three teams completely even at 80 points.

The prize on the line becomes home-ice advantage and favorable matchups in the postseason. The top two teams in Hershey and Providence are duking it out for the top spot in the division and the Eastern Conference as a whole. Winning that top spot gives them home-ice advantage in almost any situation except playing the Calgary Wranglers or the Coachella Valley Firebirds for no less than the Calder Cup.

The other teams are posturing for matchups and home ice, with third and fourth place earning the consolation prize of having two of three games in their barn in the play-in round. The added value to those two spots is a bye in the chaotic first round, a best-of-three series that both of this season’s top teams fell victim to a year ago in its inception.

Although the Wolf Pack are in the sixth spot right now, they’re arguably the team that no one wants to play, with a clear route to perhaps finishing as high as third place. They’re at a disadvantage on paper with only two games to play rather than three, but if they can take care of business in games against Wilkes-Barre and Springfield, they’d be able to leap up from their sixth-place spot as high as third.

Look at Charlotte as another example at the other end of the spectrum. Once flirting with jumping into the top two spots in the division, their stock has fallen significantly recently, with a record of 3-5-2-0 in their last ten games and currently at the bottom of the tiebreaker for third place. Losing out on home ice would be tough for them as more significant travel may put them at a disadvantage.

It’s also the latest justification for the AHL’s new playoff format, which places two teams outside the Atlantic Division’s cutoff. In that setup, teams would feel slightly more nervous about missing out on the postseason entirely due to factors beyond their control. In this instance, despite the details being up in the air, two more sets of teams can sleep a little better this week, knowing they’ll be able to leave it on the ice, albeit in a dangerous best-of-three format.

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, for example, missed out on the 2019 playoffs by only two points. It wasn’t enough despite a five-game winning streak to conclude their season. Now, they’ve clinched a spot for the first time since 2018 and can jockey for an advantage at home in PPL Center. It’s a situation that used to be sudden death but now has the potential to bring sudden life.

The good news for the folks at home looking for some good hockey? It’s all divisional play from here until the season’s end in a week. Even the top teams in the division in Hershey and Providence, who have long since secured playoff spots and byes for the first round, are still competing for positioning, with only one point separating the two teams from the top spot. The Bruins play a set of three games in as many nights, with two games against the contending Springfield Thunderbirds as an early playoff preview. It’s more than likely those games will garner plenty of eyes from teams looking to see where their positions will be set all the way to the final moments of the AHL’s season. It’ll be highly likely that the standings order will be in flux until the last moments of the regular season.

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