To those who pay close attention to the NHL, it probably seems a little early to start seriously considering how the playoffs will look. But, the AHL, having had the benefit of a full 76 game season, is now 75% of the way over. The teams have anywhere from 17 to 23 games remaining on their schedules and each game is starting to count more and more. Tensions start to boil over and rivalries get even worse.
The AHL is split into two conferences, each of which contains three divisions of five teams. For the second straight season, the AHL has two full conferences and all thirty franchises are active. For that reason, the playoffs in the AHL look like they used to in the NHL before the realignment. The top team in each of the six divisions automatically gets into the playoff. They are seeded 1, 2, or 3 in either the east or west conference based on whoever has the most points. Then, the remaining seeds of 4 through 8 are taken from the five teams in the conference with the most points.
It’s still much too early to count any team completely in or completely out of the playoffs. However, there are definitely teams worth mentioning. In the East, the Syracuse Crunch and the Springfield Falcons have been dominate and have spent most of the season battling for the top spot in the conference. The Crunch, AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, won the Calder Cup last season when the prospects were playing for the Norfolk Admirals. Lately, the Providence Bruins have been on a hot streak, going 7-1-0-2 in their past 10 games. Nobody can be counted out of the East, though, with only 6 points currently separating 6th place in the conference from 11th place.
In the West, there has been a struggle between two teams in the same division, not just the same conference. The Texas Stars and the Charlotte Checkers, both part of the South division, are currently first and second in points in the conference. Texas has been struggling a little, being held without a win in their last four, while Charlotte has gone 7-3 in their last ten. Only one can earn top honors, though, and the other will hope to get one of the at-large playoff spots as a team that did not win their division. Similar to the East, the West is a tight race with only 7 points separating 5th place and 12th place.
The AHL season ends on Sunday, April 21st. Although that might still seem far off, all the players, coaches, and teams know exactly how many games they have left. They know their positions in relation to the teams that they play going into each game. Every team, even those at the bottom of the conference, hopes that they might get a chance for some postseason hockey. In the coming weeks, it will start to get clearer about who has guaranteed a spot and who will not be lucky enough to play after April 21st.