North Division Wins AHL All-Star Classic on Home Ice

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.

Eastern Conference Wins AHL All-Star Skills Competition

The American Hockey League held their All-Star Skills Competition in Utica, New York at the Adirondack Bank Center. It consisted of seven events that netted individual winners and a team winner in the Eastern Conference. This was just the second time in the last seven years that the East has won this event and the first time since 2015.

The Binghamton Devils were being represented by Bracken Kearns (who is also the captain of the Eastern Conference for tomorrow’s AHL All-Star Game) and Jacob MacDonald. There was also a former New Jersey Devil in the form of Reid Boucher (now of the Utica Comets, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks) participating.

The first event was the Puck Control Relay, which consists of two rounds of a team of three players grabbing a puck at one end of the rink and skating through a course. The final two rounds are one-on-one with one skater representing a side.

The West won the first round, with Matt Lorito (Grand Rapids Griffins), Emil Pettersson (Milwaukee Admirals) and Mason Appleton (Manitoba Moose) giving them the lead. The East won the second three-man round as Mitchell Stephens (Syracuse Crunch), Justin Holl (Toronto Marlies) and CJ Smith (Rochester Americans) claimed victory.

The final two rounds, both one-on-one races saw Chris Terry (Laval Rocket) win for the East and Boucher win for the West. At the end of the first event, the Eastern Conference and Western Conference were each tied at a “goal” apiece. A goal being earned for a victory in each event.

Next up was the Fastest Skater event. Here, a goal was awarded to the player with the best time’s team and to the team with the best average time. John Gilmour of the Hartford Wolf Pack of the East won the individual time challenge with 13.663 seconds around the perimeter of the rink. The East also gained a point for having the fastest average time, as Warren Foegele (Charlotte Checkers) – 14.506 and Stephens – 14.072 were also faster than their Western counterparts.

Next was the Rapid Fire event where a goalie faces two shooters one-on-one. The Conference with the most saves gained a goal. The East won this one 32 saves to 30. East netminders included Jordan Binnington (Providence Bruins), Linus Ullmark (Rochester), Christopher Gibson (Bridgeport SoundTigers) and Thatcher Demko (Utica). The East was up in the overall competition 5-2.

Event four was the Hardest Shot competition. This one is like the Fastest Skater competition, as there was an individual winner and the team with the best average shot also gaining a goal. The individual winner was Alexandre Grenier of the Springfield Thunderbirds with 104.1 miles per hour, giving the East a goal. However, the West won the average as Brady Austin (Cleveland Monsters) – 101.5 MPH, Andy Welinsky (San Diego Gulls) – 97.8 MPH, Cameron Schilling (Manitoba) – 102.0 MPH and Rasmus Andersson (Stockton Heat) – 101.5 MPH had the better aggregate. MacDonald took part in this event, with 98.0 MPH being the better of his two shots.

The next event was the Accuracy Shooting. This is still similar to how the NHL used to do things, with players shooting at styrofoam targets and breaking them, the player who breaks all four targets in the fewest shots wins. The team that does so also gains a goal. There were co-winners of this one, both from the East. Chris Terry and Chris Bourque (Hershey Bears) were the individual winners, each breaking the four targets in five attempts. The East gained a team win too, taking 25 shots to break 16 targets. The other shooters for the East were Valentin Zykov of Charlotte (4/7) and Boucher (4/8).

The next event was every goalies nightmare: the Pass and Score challenge. Basically, three skaters come down on the goaltender 3-on-0 and the goalie has to stop them as many times as they can in three tries. The West won this one 6 goals to 2. Binnington made two saves on three shots for the East in round one. In round two, Anders Lindback (Milwaukee) stopped two of three shots (MacDonald was shooting for the East in this round) for the West. Ullmark gave up goals on all three shots he faced in round three for the East. Antoine Bibeau (San Jose Barracuda) stopped all three East shots he saw in round four. Round five saw the West score once on Gibson against two saves. In round six, Cal Petersen of the Ontario Reign made a stop on three shots. Round seven saw Thatcher Demko of Utica give up a goal to the West. And, finally, in round eight, Michael Hutchinson of Manitoba made all three stops against an Eastern onslaught that included Bracken Kearns of Binghamton.

After six events, it was the Eastern Conference 10 and the Western Conference 9 on the total scoreboard.

The final event was the Breakaway Relay, where every All-Star got a chance to break in on a goalie in eight rounds. The East won this event 8-3, giving them the overall title. Binghamton’s MacDonald scored a goal against Bibeau in round four that the NHL Network announcers called the goal of the night, a real compliment in a skills competition, for sure. Kearns went up against Hutchinson in round eight and was stopped.

So, the Eastern Conference came away with the overall win, 18-12. The fans in Utica and the players really seemed to be enjoying themselves in what was a fun event to witness.

We will see you back here tomorrow for the AHL All-Star Classic.