Minor League Weekly: Puempel Powering Griffins, LaValle-Smotherman on Fire, SPHL MVP Contenders

AHL

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Photo by Icon Sportswire

-It’s taken the Grand Rapids Griffins a while to get going, but with points in eight of their last ten games– they’ve regained their championship form. A lot of that success is due in part to the play of Matt Puempel, who’s in the midst of a nine-game point-streak (6g 7a), while having 40 points in 35 games with the Griffins and putting Puempel fourth in the AHL in scoring. This season is looking to be Puempel’s best in the AHL. With 43 points (19g, 24a) already this season, Puempel is only five points away from tying his AHL high, which he set in his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Binghamton Senators.

-When it comes to Thatcher Demko, it’s a matter of when he’ll get the full-time call-up to the Vancouver Canucks. His play this season has been stellar (17-7-5, 2.27 GAA, .929 Sv%) and will give the Canucks an interesting move late in their season– whether to call him up to get some NHL playing time, as he’ll luckily move into that role next season– or will they allow him to stay with Utica for the rest of the season and get a taste of a playoff run??

ECHL

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-Since the turning of the calendar, Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman has turned on his game big time with 11g, 12a in 14 games in 2018. The Monarchs forward has been on quite the roll with multi-point games in six of his last season, which has quietly put him in second spot for league leaders in points (52) and second in the league in goals (26). Not bad for a guy getting back into the North American game full-time after traveling around Europe from 2011 until towards the end of the 2016-17 season.

-There might be a chip in Joe Cannata’s shoulder because his play right now is really telling the Colorado Avalanche he wants to be promoted. The minor-league vet is 16-2-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .934 Sv%, which puts him 2nd and 1st respectively in the league. After years of being in the AHL– whether it being the veteran back-up or the stop-gap veteran– he’s in the ECHL full-time for the first time since 2014-15. With a championship team in front of him, he could be marking his way for when the Eagles move up to the AHL next season.

SPHL

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-While Jake Hauswirth has had a great season– it’s going to be hard-pressed for him to go ahead and win the MVP on a non-playoff team. For me, Berkley Scott could be the front-runner, especially with the month he just had in January (9g, 7a)–which earned him Player of the Month honors. Tomas Shall should also get some kind of recognition for the year he’s had with Evansville thus far with a 14-2-2 record, while ranking top-five in GAA and save percentage.

Minor League Weekly: Utica Heating Up, Joe Cox Making His Mark, Final SPHL Spot Shuffling

AHL

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Photo by Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets Facebook

-Heading into hosting the All-Star Game, the Utica Comets are amongst one of the hottest teams in the league with points in nine of their last 10 games (7-1-1-1) and four-straight wins. Even with leading scorer Reid Boucher (20g, 17a) on the shuttle from Utica to Vancouver, the Comets are still fighting in the playoff hunt. Thatcher Demko has continued to improve in the system with the Comets (16-7-5, 2.28 GAA, .929Sv%), but will need a lot of goal support to help. Despite Boucher’s 20, no other comment is in double-digits for goals. To keep their hot streak alive and hope to get a playoff berth, something will need to be done offensively to help Utica out.

-While things aren’t going great in Glendale, the Tucson Roadrunners are giving Coyotes’ fans some hope of what’s to come, mostly due to rookies Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley, who have commanded the offense for the Roadrunners in the first half of the season. While veterans Michael Bunting and Mike Sislo have helped out, the youth is being quite served– especially with Hunter Miska leading the team in wins (12-3-0), but his GAA (2.98) and save percentage (.898) leave much to be desired.

ECHL

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Photo by Florida Everblades Facebook

-One player that could be lost in the Florida Everblades season could be the second-half play, thus far, of rookie Joe Cox. The Michigan State product is on a seven-game point streak (3g, 10a) and has provided a much needed punch for the secondary scoring for the Everblades already dynamic offense. It just goes to show the time it takes players to develop, as Cox’s best season before this was in the USHL when he had 20 goals and 20 assists for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, while his junior year at MSU was his most productive with 11 goals and 23 points in 35 games. Around an All-Star line-up as he is, the protection could allow Cox to flourish throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

-At the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Wheeling Nailers have gotten a lot of their offensive from their first-year players. While Cody Wydo continues to be a constant, the emergence of Reid Gardner has been a welcome for the Nailers. Gardner leads the teams in goals with 21 and power-play goals with six. Couple that with another rookie in Cam Brown leading the team with 39 points (12g, 27a), the Nailers continue to churn out talent for the Penguins organization. The offensive will need to be strong, as the by-committee goaltending has a combined 3.14 GAA on the year.

SPHL

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-The race for the eighth-seed is still hot and heavy between a second-year Roanoke team who changed coaches to change fortune, the rebranded Fayetteville Marksman with one of the top players in the league in Jake Hauswirth on the team, while the expansion Birmingham Bulls are only three points out and have Mavric Parks being second in the league in minutes played and 7th in the league in save percentage (.911) despite a 3.32 GAA. When it comes to this playoff format, too, it should be interesting to see if the traditional 1st vs. 8th seed get picked because who knows how the top seed will look at these teams, who are already in playoff mode as it is.

REPORT: ECHL Tabs St. John’s as Latest Market

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According to David Salter, the former Director of Communications for the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL, there’s going to be an ECHL team coming to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador in the near future. Salter said that a source from outside the area was the one who told him that it will be happening. Salter also stated that the franchise will be affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens, while trying to use the IceCaps name.

Of course, this brings up a host of other questions. With the Canadiens going to this new St. John’s team, who would the Brampton Beast turn to in order to be an affiliate?? There are two options– one of which being the Toronto Maple Leafs– who have the Marlies feet away from their doorstep, why not have their ECHL team there rather than in Orlando?? Of course, Orlando runs a nice little ship there and the Leafs may like that a little better. The other option is the Ottawa Senators, who moved their AHL team to Belleville, which is two hours west of Brampton. Currently, the Senators are without an ECHL affiliate and it would make sense to keep the teams in Ontario if you’re going to go that route.

Another question is what to do with travel. Even with the Northeast expansion, St. John’s would be 1,200 miles away from their nearest rival in Portland, which is something I wrote about a month ago when this idea first started to get legs. According to Salter, Dean MacDonald is in fact the man who will own the team, so you can bet that he or his group will have to find a way to off-set costs for teams to travel there. It would most likey follow the Alaska Aces method of having three-game weekend sets up there and then they tour around the Northeast and what-have-you.

While nothing has been set in stone, the fact that sources outside of the local area are reporting it should give it plenty of legs to make it happen. The domino effect could be something that could become very interesting down the line, especially for teams who are already involved with ECHL franchises and the possibility for flipping affiliations.

Minor League Weekly: Anas Going Wild, Wings Sneaky Good, Defiel Stepping In Solidly

AHL

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Via Iowa Wild Trading Card Set

-I’ve barked a lot about Sam Anas in the past and now he’s really showing the AHL what he’s made of. The Bethesda, Maryland product hold the longest goal-scoring streak of the season with seven goals in six straight games, while on top of that, setting a franchise record with points in the last nine games (8g, 5a). Anas currently leads the team in points with 23, while he’s only five points away from surpassing his points total from his rookie season.

-With four-straight wins and points in nine of their last 10, the Rochester Americans are hitting their groove in the mid-point of the season. Being led by rookie CJ Smith, the Amerks are right behind the Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference and North Division in points percentage. The Amerks have also gotten plenty out of their veteran defensemen in Zach Redmond and Stuart Percy, who are not only putting up points offensively, but also protecting Linus Ullmark defensively. Ullmark, also, is posting the seventh best save percentage in the AHL with a .924 mark.

ECHL

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Photo from Kalamazoo Wings Facebook

-Keep an eye out on the Kalamazoo Wings in the new year. They’re an interesting team with both goalies having an above 3.00 GAA, but still ninth in the ECHL for total goals-against on the season. Their offense isn’t that grand either, ranking 19th of the 27 teams in the league for goals for, but somehow they’re still two points back of fourth in the Central with six games in hand. Veteran Justin Taylor is on a pace to break his career-highs in goals, assists, and points– all of which he set last year, while second-year Wing Tyler Biggs has been a solid compliment offensively to Taylor.

-It seems that if the Norfolk Admirals wanted to win, they need to play the Orlando Solar Bears almost every game. The two teams have faced off for their past five games with Norfolk coming out on top in four of the five. The Admirals have also won six of their last 10, which coincides with the announcement that the Nashville Predators terminated their affiliation. They’ve seen to temporarily leveled out the uneasy ship, but they’ll need just a bit more help to get back into playoff contention, though there’s plenty of time left.

SPHL

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Photo from Pensacola Ice Flyers Facebook

-After Sean Bonar signed in the ECHL and Greg Dodds bad luck in net, Gordon Defiel has stepped in to help out the Pensacola Ice Flyers between the pipes and keep their top standing in the SPHL. Defiel hasn’t lost in regulation in seven games and ranks second in the league in GAA and save percentage behind his teammate Dodds. With a solid two-goalie system in waiting, the Ice Flyers are set-up nicely to keep their top spot in the SPHL.

MINOR LEAGUE MONDAY: P-Bruins Rolling, Williams Pride of the Monarchs, DeLaVergne is All or Nothing

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-The streaky team of the week is the Providence Bruins, who have won their last seven games. After getting embarrassed 8-2 by Charlotte on November 25th, the P-Bruins haven’t lost and have won four of the seven game in extra time. While Kenny Agostino hasn’t been able to get into a rhythm that got him the MVP last year, Austin Czarnik has been picked up the scoring with 21 goals in 18 games. There’s a tough patch for the P-Bruins, who won’t play on home ice until January 5th as they go on an eight-game road swing.

-Despite being minus-six in the goal differential category, the Texas Stars have still managed to be one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference. With eight wins in their last ten, including their current three-game winning streak, the Stars are looking to add a little more punch to their game. However, they’ve taken a hit with Jason Dickinson getting called up to the NHL. While Travis Morin and Curtis McKenzie hold down the fort, the Stars will need to get more consistent secondary help, as well as some key stops from their goaltending. Rookie Landon Bow has been solid with 10-4-0 record, but the hope is that he’ll improve on his 2.65 GAA as the season goes on and he continues to adjust.

ECHL

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-Charles Williams is a great story. The rookie goalie from Manchester has been a great addition to the every day line-up, leading the ECHL in GAA (1.98) and save percentage (.936) while being tied for second in wins (10) . This is after he had an amazing season at Canisius College (21-7-5, 1.82, .949) after transferring from Ferris State due to lack of playing time. With a chance to get playing time, Williams got into the top-10 in voting for the Hobey Baker Award and was Canisius College men’s player of the year. Williams went a perfect 3-0-0 when he joined the Monarchs at the end of last season.

-While he hasn’t gotten any weekly or monthly awards, Michael Joly out of Colorado should be getting plenty of recognition. Sure, he’s a Cy Young nominee (many more goals than assists)– but his 19 goals and six power play goals lead the league. With the help of Matt Register and Drayson Bowman, Joly and the Eagles are in prime position to defend their Kelly Cup title in the franchise’s last season in the ECHL.

SPHL

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-Mike DeLaVergne is an interesting subject. He leads the SPHL in GAA (1.98) and save percentage (.944), as well as being undefeated in regulation– but in his two losses he’s given up three and five goals a piece, but in his wins– it’s one or less. DeLaVergne is really an all-or-nothing goalie. It will help the Huntsville Havoc for DeLaVergne to push Keegan Asmundson and maybe get more time between the nets. For a team in the middle of the standing– it’ll probably come down to the goaltending to get them into a better spot in the playoffs.

Minor League News: Re-No and New Found Land for ECHL in St. John’s??

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There has been some news out on the ECHL in the past couple days when it comes to markets that are looking to get into the league. One of the stories is good, the other– not so much.

The bad news first in that the mirage of the Reno market for the ECHL continues. It seems that Reno has been in the mix for the ECHL for the better part of a decade. There seemed to be some traction when the Reno Puck Club came to be in 2016, but since then– there has been some personnel turnover on the city of Reno side which has stalled a team getting into the market, while the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor’s Authority is looking to get out of managing the possible Events Center that the team could be playing in. While some in Reno think this is just a formality before a team gets there– especially with Vegas being in the NHL and a perfect link to affiliation– I wouldn’t hold the collective breath of the area.

However, one interesting story popped up about a group trying to bring the ECHL to St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labarador of all places. Since the St. John’s IceCaps are no more after Montreal moved their AHL operations to Laval, the Mile One Centre has been bare. There are two groups trying to get hockey back to the area, though– one of which is trying to get the QMJHL back into the arena, while there’s a second group looking to get the ECHL into the area. In fact, it seems that Dean MacDonald, the man heading up the ECHL St. John’s effort, thinks that he could ice a team in the ECHL for 2018-19 if all goes to his plan…which seems really quick and really quiet for all involved.

This story has had some rumors come out of it, but it’s never really taken serious considering how much of an outpost that St. John’s has been when it comes to minor league hockey. The fan base there is second to none when it comes to support, but at the same time, even with the Northeast expansion the ECHL has had– St. John’s would still be over 1,200 miles away from their closest competition, the newly-minted Maine Mariners. That’s been the problematic part with St. John’s being in the AHL and possibly the ECHL.

In all honesty, the QMJHL makes sense since there is a Maritime Division and there would be much closer rivals. Not only that, but the QMJHL could bring a little better profit with the shorter distance to travel, less player payment, and probably better turnout for hockey. The ECHL seems like something that would be lost on Canadian fans. There’s only one team currently in Brampton and only two in the history of the league– lest we forget the Victoria Salmon Kings.

Yet, the fact that focus is on the ECHL shows that there’s a really good business model that owners want to get into. Sure, the lack of other leagues help– but there hasn’t been much of anything to say that the ECHL doesn’t have the best model to go by. That’s one of the reasons why the Utah Grizzlies haven’t jumped ship back to the AHL and that’s due to how the ECHL works out for them dollars and sense-wise.

While we patiently wait for Reno and eyebrow-cock St. John’s, the fact that more people want to get into the minor league hockey business is a good problem to have for the league looking to keep growing from their 27 teams right now.

Minor League (Not) Monday: Sommer at the Summit, ECHL North Heating Up, SPHLers Moving on Up

AHL

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-A big congratulation to Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda for getting his 700th AHL career win this past weekend. Sommer has been a soldier for the San Jose Sharks organization since he came in as an assistant coach in 1996-97. He has coached San Jose’s AHL affiliate since 1998 from Kentucky to Cleveland to Worcester and now San Jose. For a guy who has never coached in the NHL, he should be considered for the Hockey Hall of Fame when he’s done, not only for the wins record in the AHL, but for being 3rd all-time for most games coached in the professional ranks, currently at 1,833– behind only Barry Trotz and Scotty Bowman.

-The hottest team in the Eastern Conference is the Syracuse Crunch. With a six-game winning streak, the Crunch have been able to get back into the North Division playoff picture. Though Cory Conacher is up with the Lightning, Michael Bournival and Matthew Peca have been able to pick up the slack. A balanced attack on offense has been able to help, as well, with 13 players potting at least three goals on the season.

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-The North Division could be one of the races to look at as the season goes along. All the teams are sitting at .500 or better to start the season, with only five points separating the fifth spot from the top spot. While the Manchester Monarchs are trying to get some distance with their four-game winning streak, Wheeling is right behind them with three of the top-ten in scoring on their roster (Cody Wydo, Reid Gardner, and Garrett Meurs). Reading, Adirondack, and Brampton are still contenders and who knows what Worcester could be doing as they keep going along.

-Though they are following Toledo in the standings, Cincinnati has a strong scoring presence, with both Shawn O’Donnell (10pts in seven games) and Justin Danforth (9pts in six games) with two of the longest point-scoring streaks in the league. With Eric Knodel helping out on the power play and Anthony Peters holding down the fort in net– the Cyclones are in a prime spot to battle Toledo for top-spot in the Central.

SPHL

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-One of the biggest stories is how the downfall of the affiliation in Norfolk of the ECHL plucked a lot of players from the SPHL. Max Cook (Fayetteville), Nick Miglio (Peoria), and John Rey (Birmingham). As the season goes on, depending on the fate of the Admirals, more names could be going that way. While it’s good for those players and the league to be a developmental asset, the teams may feel the crunch, especially if it’s late in the season and they lose a top guy when they need them the most.

Minor League Monday: Marlies Rolling, Herbert Streak Snapped, Sholl Leading Thunderbolts

AHL

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Photo by Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com

-With seven-straight wins, the Toronto Marlies are again atop the AHL in points, which should be no surprise. The past few years, the Marlies have been the favorites as the season went on, though they have no Calder Cup to show for it…yet. Andreas Johnsson has led the way for the Marlies with 17 points on the year, which includes his current seven-game point streak (4g, 5a). Garret Sparks has dazzled in net with a 1.50 GAA to go with his ten wins on the season.

-The team chasing the Marlies for league supremacy is the Manitoba Moose. After finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference their first two years back in the AHL, the Moose have been quite a surprise this year with their young stars finally getting the hang of playing in the pros. Both second-year pros Jack Roslovic (11g, 11a) and Brendan Lemieux (5g 6a) are better than a point per game– 1.05 and 1.10 respectively– while veteran Mike Sgarbossa (8g, 12a) and Buddy Robinson (7g, 7a) have provided solid secondary scoring. A bigger surprise is the bouncing back of Eric Comrie (8-4-1) who has been solid in net for the Moose with a 2.30 GAA and .927 save percentage in 13 games.

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-A round of applause to Caleb Herbert, who finally had his 17-game point-streak snapped on Friday night. The Swamp Rabbits’ forward had 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points during the streak that began since the beginning of the season. Herbert, unsurprisingly, leads the ECHL in points, with teammate Allan McPherson two points behind him before a trio of Wheeling Nailers pop up– Cody Wydo, Reid Gardiner, and Garrett Meurs.

-With points in seven of their last ten, the Colorado Eagles are making the most of their last season in the ECHL in their title-defense season. Michael Joly is leading the way in the ECHL in goals with 13 and has only one of his 16 games has been held pointless. Matt Register has helped out on the back-end quarterbacking the power-play and holding down play in his own end. All the while, Joe Cannata has been a near-perfect 7-0-1 on the year since being placed in Colorado by the Avalanche from San Antonio.

SPHL

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-Quietly, the Evansville Thunderbolts are having a great sophomore season in the SPHL. The play of Tomas Sholl since he came from Macon, he’s been solid with a 4-1-0 record with a 2.00 GAA in Evansville. Justin MacDonald is leading the league in goals with nine, while MacDonald, along with Dylan Clarke and John Scorcia are point-per-game players. The Thunderbolts also boast a great road record with points in six of their eight road game on the season (5-2-1). With one more road win, Evansville will match their entire road win output from last season.

Minor League Monday: Baby Pens Rolling, Pat Nagle’s Dominance, RiverKings Looking For Crown

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-It’s about time to talk about the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. With only one shootout loss in their last 11 games, the Baby Pens are the class of the AHL so far this year. The interesting part is that there’s not one Penguin in the top-20 in scoring. That said, Daniel Sprong has been great this season with nine goals in 14 games. After major shoulder surgery kept him out most of last season, his first full pro campaign has been off to a good start. Casey DeSmith has also been a great find for the Penguins, going 8-0-1 this season and in the top-five in GAA and save percentage.

-The Chicago Wolves are feeling the expansion crunch. While they have some players still from the St. Louis Blues, the Wolves do have the majority of Vegas Golden Knights prospects– though they are not the top of prospects. Sure, it doesn’t help that both goalies were plucked from Chicago to get into Vegas and they had to scramble to get Kasimir Kaskisuo from Toronto to make sure they had someone to play. The play of quadruple-A player Teemu Pulkkinen has been one of the small bright spots, but unless Maxime Legace or Oscar Dansk come back soon– it could be a huge uphill climb from the basement for the Wolves.

ECHL

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-Pat Nagle is continuing his solid play in the ECHL, but this time it’s with the Toledo Walleye. After signing with the Grand Rapids Griffins this summer, Nagle was assigned to Toledo and since then, hasn’t lost in regulation. With a 10-0-2 record to start the season, Nagle is filling the void that was left when Jake Paterson was not given a qualifying offer. It’s hard to say that Nagle hasn’t been the top ECHL goalie over the past four years, as he is 93-29-17-4 since the start of the 2014-15 season, which includes playoffs.

-In a very top-heavy South Division, the South Carolina Stingrays are possibly the underappreciated team of the top-four. With points in eight of their last 10, the Stingrays have gotten it done in every way possible. The return of Jeff Jakaitis hasn’t been as great as his record shows, while having him post a 5-1-1 record, his GAA and save percentage are among the worst in the league (3.13/.884). However, Steven Whitney and Nick Johnson has created the goals with six a piece, while Joe Devin and Kelly Zajac have provided the set-ups.

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-Quietly, the Mississippi RiverKings are putting together a great start to their season. Tied for first in the league, the 7-2-0 RiverKings have gotten contribute from all-around, especially from the newcomer Donald Olivieri, who has three goals in his three games with Mississippi. Both Devin Mantha and Derek Sutliffe lead the team with four goals a piece, while Tyler Green is 5-1-0 and tied for wins in the league.

Minor League Monday: Checkers, Gladiators Streaking Upward, Bulls Not So Much

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-It may not be because of the move to the Eastern Conference, but the Charlotte Checkers are out to one of the best starts in the AHL this season. Despite only Lucas Wallmark being in the top-20 in points, they are tied for most goals in the league. Valentin Zykov and Warren Foegele are in the top-15 in goals this season, while Alex Nedeljkovic has taken over the reigns from Jeremy Smith and has not lost a game in his seven starts yet this year.

-After missing the playoffs their first two years back into the league, the Manitoba Moose are looking to change that this year. With points in eight of their last 10 games (6-2-1-1), the Moose are atop the Central Division. After finishing up last season with 11 points in 10 games, Jack Roslovic is continuing to lead the Moose with eight goals and 17 points in the first 15 games for the Moose.

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-Following an 0-4 start, the Atlanta Gladiators have woke up and put together a 7-0-0-1 record since the first four games. Phil Lane and Thomas Frazee have been a huge factor, both of whom have had a nine-game scoring streak with Frazee’s being snapped on Saturday (4g, 10a), while Lane’s (8g, 6a) continues on.

-Despite being at the bottom of the Mountain Division, the Rapid City Rush have won four-in-a-row, including a weekend sweep of the Kelly Cup champion Colorado Eagles. Kenton Miller has been the offensive leader with seven goals and 11 points, but the real question going forward is how their goaltending is going to fare. Even with Adam Vay and Steve Michalek getting the last four wins, you have to wonder if they can keep up the solid play and lower that team GAA of 3.76.

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-The start of the revamped Birmingham Bulls is probably not what everyone thought was going to happen…or maybe it was for an expansion team. Through six games, the Bulls are winless and only have six goals for the entire season while giving up 22. If there is a bright spot, it might– oddly enough– be in their goaltending. Mavric Parks has the most saves in the SPHL and is fourth in save percentage (.914) even though he sports an 0-5-0 record.

-Pensacola is still undefeated and it’s interesting that they aren’t the top scoring team in the league. Their balanced attack has put three players in the top-10 in points (Stephen Hrehoriak, Garret Milan, Jessyko Bernard) while also having a great goaltending tandem in Sean Bonar and Greg Dodds. If they can stay healthy– they will be the class of the league once again.