The North Division was down and out in the AHL All-Star Classic until a comeback and an improbable win in the final set them up to win the round robin formatted mini tournament.
The format is similar to the NHL’s in that it is three-on-three and is contested between the league’s four divisions. However, the AHL does things a little bit differently. Each division plays each other at least once in a round robin-style tournament with the two teams with the best record facing off in the final. The Binghamton Devils play in the North Division.
The pregame ceremonies involved a former Devil in a prominent role. Scott Pellerin, who was drafted by the Devils in 1989 and played 52 games for New Jersey between 1992-93 and 1995-96 and played in Utica for the AHL’s Utica Devils in the early-90s, was the honorary captain for the Eastern Conference. In addition, Binghamton Devil Bracken Kearns was the playing captain for the Eastern Conference.
The tournament got kicked off with the Pacific Division meeting the North Division. The Pacific won this one, 5-3. The Pacific got goals from Rudolfs Balcers, Kyle Capobianco and Nick Merkley in the first five minute half while the North saw Matt Taormina and Reid Boucher score. Capobianco and Balcers added one more each in the second half while Mitchell Stephens scored for the North. In goal, for the Pacific, Antoine Bibeau made six saves on eight shots and Cal Petersen made four saves on five shots. For the North, Linus Ullmark made two saves on four shots while Thatcher Demko was 2-for-5.
In the second game of the evening, the Central Division (who has won both of the previous two AHL All-Star Classics under this format) began the defense of their title against the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic won 5-2. Goal scorers for the Atlantic were Chris Bourque, New Jersey-native TJ Brennan (who had two), Alexandre Grenier and John Gilmour. Matt Puempel and Matthew Highmore scored for the Central. Between the pipes, Michael Hutchinson was 4-for-6 and Anders Lindback was 2-for-5 for the Central while Jordan Binnington allowed two goals on both shots he faced and Christopher Gibson saw no shots in his half of play.
The Central took on the North in the third game and the North won, 4-2. The Central actually got off to the quick 2-0 lead when Matt Lorito scored just eight seconds in and again at the 3:50 mark. But the North scored four unanswered: CJ Smith scored (with an assist to Binghamton’s Jacob MacDonald), then Gabriel Gagne. MacDonald added one of his own and Boucher put the game away as the North completed the comeback with an empty netter. For the Central, Hutchinson made six saves on seven shots while Lindback saw two shots and let in both. For the North, Ullmark let in two of the four shots he faced while Demko turned aside all seven shots he saw.
Game four saw one of the closer games of the tournament with the Pacific defeating the Atlantic 4-3. The Atlantic got a goal from Mitchell Vande Sompel just 51 seconds in to the contest, but the Pacific answered back with four straight. Dylan Strome, Andy Welinski, NIck Merkley and Strome again scored. The Atlantic added another from Vande Sompel and one from Austin Czarnik, but it was too little too late as the Pacific had done its damage. Bibeau turned away six shots on eight shots while Petersen stopped two of three for the Pacific. For the Atlantic, Binnington stopped 5-of-6 and Gibson 2-of-5.
Next up, the Pacific beat the Central 4-3. Capobianco got the scoring started at 2:50 into the first for the Pacific. The Central answered with Puempel scoring at 3:41. The Pacific then scored the next two with Rasmus Andersson and Strome scoring in succession. Cameron Schilling netted one for the Central right before time ran out in the first half. TJ Tynan then tied things briefly in the second when he scored at 2:55. But Andersson scored his second of the game at 4:48 to give the Pacific the win. For the Central, Hutchinson made one save on two shots and Lindback made two saves on five shots. Bibeau was tested six times and equal to four of them for the Pacific and Petersen stopped one of two faced.
The final game of the round robin featured an Eastern Conference battle as the Atlantic Division took on the North Division with the North winning 4-3 on an amazing comeback. There was no scoring in the first half, setting up a wild second. The Atlantic scored the first three from Vande Sompel, Czarnik and Brennan before the North came roaring back. Boucher scored at 2:09 to start the comeback, then Stephens scored, followed by the game tying goal from CJ Smith. Finally, Matt Taormina was the hero, scoring at 4:47 to give the North the win and to propel them into the final. Goaltending saw Binnington stop all three shots he saw in the first for the Atlantic while Gibson gave up four goals on eight shots. For the North, Ullmark stopped all of his four challenges in the first while Thatcher stopped two shots on five faced.
That would set up a six minute final game between the Pacific Division and the North Division with the North completing their comeback by winning 1-0 to take the tournament. CJ Smith scored the game winner at 2:40 into the first three minute half. Ullmark and Thatcher each faced two shots and turned them aside, with Thatcher, of the hometown Utica Comets, making a few amazing acrobatic saves. For the Pacific, Bibeau faced no shots while Peterson faced three and stopped two in taking the hardluck loss.
CJ Smith of the Rochester Americans was awarded the MVP of the tournament for his role in helping the North Division to victory.
Overall, it was an exciting weekend in Utica for the AHL All-Star Classic. It is always cool to see some of the up-and-coming youngsters on display with some veterans who may not have gotten much of a chance at the NHL level all being rewarded for their hard work and to see some wonderful hockey on display as well.