Sunday, 9 December 2012

Columbus' Future Looks Good

If you had to pick one team in the AHL right now that's dominating their opponents, one of the last teams you'd pick would be the Springfield Falcons. This is a team that hasn't been very good over the past few years, and their association with the Columbus Blue Jackets has been a two-way street of shuffling players back and forth between them and their struggling NHL affiliate. However, amassing a pile of high draft picks has allowed the Blue Jackets to build a solid nucleus of young players, and the Springfield Falcons are getting the benefits of this lockout by being one of the best teams in the AHL this season.

The Falcons have the league's best winning percentage at 72.7% as they have won 14 of 22 games thus far this season. They've only dropped four games in regulation time, and are playing some inspired hockey this season. After sweeping both games against the St. John's IceCaps this weekend, the Falcons sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with 32 points and a game in-hand on the second-seeded Syracuse Crunch. While there may be no hockey in Columbus, the coaches and staff there are probably ecstatic with the job being done on the farm.

Winger Cam Atkinson is having an outstanding season as he sits two goals back of the AHL lead with 13. Of those 13 goals, five have been game-winning goals to lead the AHL in that category. Combine that with his 12 assists, and Atkinson is having himself an excellent start to the season. He's currently tied for sixth in AHL scoring.

Tied with Atkinson is linemate Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. Audy-Marchessault has seven goals, but his 18 assists thus far are good for third-best in the AHL. He's also a +14 this season, another third-best total in the AHL overall. While Audy-Marchessault and Atkinson have led the way offensively, there are also seven other players in double-digits for points, showing that the Falcons just aren't a one-line team.

Tim Erixon, one of the players received in the Rick Nash trade to the Rangers, has four goals, ten assists, and is a +10 on the season - pretty solid numbers for the young defenceman. Ryan Johansen has eight goals and ten assists to go along with a +10 rating, and the Blue Jackets have to be happy to see their young player doing so well after scoring just nine goals and 12 assists in his rookie NHL season.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, has been the play of career NHL backup netminder Curtis McElhinney. While there was never any doubt that he could play the position well after a stellar 62-15-8 record at Colorado College, but he's been platooned behind some pretty solid goaltenders. He couldn't knock Miikka Kiprusoff off as the starter in Calgary, and was eventually dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for Vesa Toskala. He found himself playing behind Jonas Hiller for a couple of seasons in Anaheim, and bounced between Tampa Bay, Ottawa, and Phoenix for a couple of seasons. After being signed by Columbus, it appeared he may have a chance at a starter's job considering the recent struggles of Steve Mason.

With the lockout, Columbus sent McElhinney to Springfield where the veteran could buoy the goaltending situation for a team that hadn't had a lot of solid netminding. What Springfield got, however, was a goaltender who has been anything but a journeyman.

McElhinney sits with the fourth-best goals-against average at 1.92, but he's played the most games of all the goalies in the top-twenty at 18 appearances. Toss in a sparkling 13-2-2 record and a .940 save percentage, and we're looking at a major reason why the Falcons have been so good. McElhinney, in his 18 games thus far, has already tied the franchise's season record for shutouts with five, and will undoubtedly set the new record at some point in the future.

While Springfield's overall record of 14-4-4 looks impressive, they have yet to win more than three games in row this season. It's not like this record was built off one early season winning streak - the Falcons are legitimately battling for wins still. Aside from a 10-2 win over the Connecticut Whale on November 4, 11 games that the Falcons have played in have been decided by one goal, and another six games have been decided by two goals. It's not like the Falcons are this offensive juggernaut that can't be stopped, but they continue to play solid defence while scoring timely goals, and that's a recipe for success in hockey.

Thus far in the AHL's Eastern Conference, there are some very good teams in Syracuse, Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Worcester, and Providence. The Falcons have a combined 2-2 record thus far (1-1 against both Providence and WBS), so they still have to play some of the stronger AHL clubs coming up. However, there's never a bad time to build up some wins against lesser foes, and the Falcons have done that on the strength of some timely offence and solid defence and goaltending.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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