Saturday, December 12, 2009

Worcester Sharks Battle in Tough Atlantic Division

In an effort to promote the American Hockey League and their quality players, The Voice of Sport will look at teams in the AHL every Saturday throughout the season. The teams in the AHL play an exciting brand of hockey and with a mix of veterans and NHL draft picks; the league is a great place to watch some tremendous hockey at a reasonable price. This week's team - the Worcester Sharks...

The Worcester Sharks (15-11-0-2), currently second in the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division, missed an excellent opportunity to catch up with the first place Manchester Monarchs (19-7-1-2) on Friday, losing by a score of 6-3. Despite losing ground in the division to the Monarchs, the San Jose Sharks affiliate in Worcester is 7-2-0-1 in their last ten games. The Atlantic Division has become one of the tightest races in the AHL, as Worcester, Bridgeport, Providence, Lowell and Portland are all within one point of each other.

The Sharks are towards the bottom of the league statistically on the power play and penalty kill, 20th and 22nd respectively but the team has played well and earned every victory while providing San Jose with some of their best talent. The team’s leading scorer, Logan Couture, has split the season between the AHL and NHL. The Sharks first round draft pick in 2007, Couture has played 16 games in Worcester, scoring 9 goals and adding 13 assists. In the NHL, Couture has hit the ice in 11 games, scoring one goal and one assist on the high-powered San Jose team.

Tied with Couture for the team scoring lead with 22 points this season is Utica New York native Steve Zalewski. A former Clarkson University player in the NCAA, Zalewski is in his second full season in Worcester. Selected in the fifth round of the 2004 entry draft, he is well on his way to surpassing last year’s 39-point season; in 27 games this season; he has 8 goals and 14 assists.

Third in team scoring, with 19 points is LaSalle Quebec’s Danny Groulx. In his first year with the Sharks after several seasons on various teams in the AHL (Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Hamilton and Rockford), Groulx has 3 goals and 19 points in 28 games. In 2007, he was a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs squad that won the Calder Cup with Carey Price in nets and his playoff experience will help the Sharks through the lengthy AHL season.

While Worcester has given up 87 goals and scored 78 after last night’s action on the ice, they have relied on several call-ups themselves to replace the players currently in San Jose. A bright spot for Worcester is a rookie goaltender from St. Paul Minnesota, Alex Stalock. A fourth round pick by San Jose in 2005, Stalock is in his first season of pro hockey after three years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. In his final year in the NCAA, he played in 42 games, with a 2.13 goals against average and .924 save percentage. In Worcester, Stalock is continuing to improve his play; in 21 games, he has a 13-7-1 win/loss record with a 2.41 GAA and .910 save percentage.

For hockey fans in Canada, there is an interesting connection between the Sharks organization and the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s. San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson was a member of the 67’s during his junior career and played under Hall of Fame coach, Brian Kilrea. Wilson knows from personal experience that Kilrea gets the most out of his young squads and has produced many NHL calibre players during his three decades behind the bench in Ottawa.

Besides Couture, a member of the 67’s for four seasons, there are several other prospects in the Sharks organization that honed their skills in Ottawa. Julien Demers, a fifth round pick in 2008, is back in Ottawa this season playing defence for the 67’s but should find himself in Worcester next season. Once there, he will join Arnprior Ontario’s Will Colbert on the Worcester blue line. Colbert started the year in Kalamazoo in the ECHL after four years at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia but played his way onto the Worcester roster; scoring two goals in six games with the Kalamazoo Wings. Colbert has played in 12 games in his rookie season with Worcester and has one assist. (*Look for my interview with Will Colbert in early 2010*)

Other former 67’s that have spent time in Worcester this season but are now in San Jose, Derek Joslin (10 games in Worcester, 19 games in San Jose) and Jamie McGinn (5 games in Worcester, 27 games in San Jose).

The Sharks are idle until Friday, December 18th, when they take on the Manchester squad they are chasing in the division. Their next five games will be at home in the 14,800 seat DCU Center, starting with Manchester and then the Adirondack Phantoms (10-12-2-0) come to town on the 19th. After the Christmas break, the Springfield Falcons (10-12-4-2) will be the visitors on the 26th, the first of three consecutive games against division rivals. They wrap-up the home stand against the Lowell Devils (14-11-3-0) on the 27th and Manchester is back in town on the 29th. Victories against Springfield, Lowell and Manchester will go a long way in helping the Sharks gain ground on first place in the Atlantic Division.

Next week’s team, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons... Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by Dinur on Flickr

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