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2018 AHL All Star Classic Wrap: Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens represents the Syracuse Crunch

Syracuse forward Mitchell Stephens was the lone Crunch representative, and helped the North Division win the All-Star Challenge.

The 2018 AHL All-Stars line up for introductions prior to the Skills Competition on Sunday night.
Tracey Lake

While the NHL was busy with their All-Star Weekend in Tampa, their AHL counterparts were preparing their own two day All-Star celebration.

For the second time in three seasons, the city of Utica, New York, played host to the All-Star Skills Competition and the All-Star Challenge the following day. Syracuse Crunch forward Mitchell Stephens was the lone selection from the team, replacing the recalled Matthew Peca.

And now, a recap of all things AHL All-Star from the last two days:

Sunday, January 28th: AHL All Star Skills Competition

The Eastern Conference would defeat the Western Conference 18-12 in the weekend’s first event, the Skills Competition.

In Round 1, the Sher-Wood Puck Control Relay, both conferences would win at least one group and individual round. The East trio of Stephens, Justin Holl of Toronto, and C.J. Smith of Rochester would win their heat.

The East would dominate event #2, the CCM Fastest Skater. Stephens would finish with 14.072 seconds, but Hartford’s John Gilmour would take the individual win with a time of 13.663. The East would also earn the win for fastest average time.

On your mark, get set...
Tracey Lake

The Eastern Conference would also take event #3, AHL Live Rapid Fire. In this event, one goalie faces 10 shots from two opposing players. Ontario Reign goaltender Cal Petersen would be the only goaltender to stop all 10 shots faced. The East goaltending contingent of Utica’s Thatcher Demko, Rochester’s Linus Ullmark, Bridgeport’s Christopher Gibson, and Providence’s Jordan Binnington would combine for 32 saves over the four rounds.

Former Crunch defenseman Matt Taormina, now with Laval, taking Rapid Fire shots on San Jose goaltender Antoine Bibeau.
Tracey Lake

In the fourth event, the CCM Hardest Shot, three out of four West skaters would crack the 100 MPH mark. But, it would be Springfield’s Alexandre Grenier taking the individual honor, with an insane 104.1 MPH shot.

The East would win event #5, the Turning Stone Resort Casino Accuracy Shooting. Hershey’s Chris Bourque and Laval’s Chris Terry would each go 4 for 5, while as a team the East would go 16-for-25. Matt Lorito of Grand Rapids was the only Western skater to hit all four targets, going 4 for 6.

The West would dominate event #6, the Turning Stone Resort Casino Pass and Score. Three skaters had to make at least one pass to their teammate before finally taking a shot on the opposing goaltender. Antoine Bibeau of San Jose and Michael Hutchinson of Manitoba would each go 3 for 3, while Ullmark was the only goalie to not get any saves. Western skaters would combine for 6 goals total, the East just two scores.

The best event of the night was saved for last: the Dunkin Donuts Breakaway Relay. Every skater would get one last shootout attempt on an opposing goaltender. Stephens would lead off the second round and connect against Milwaukee goaltender Anders Lindback.

Stephens preparing to lead off the Breakaway Relay.
Tracey Lake

As an aside: Let’s all just take a moment and admire this straight fire shot from Binghamton’s Jacob MacDonald:

At the end, the East would take the relay 8 to 3, giving them the overall Skills title.

Binnington and Petersen would share the CCM Top Goaltender prize, after both would go 16 for 18 in saves.

Monday, January 29th

First on the agenda: the annual State of the League address from AHL President David Andrews. A few highlights:

-Other than the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles joining the league next season as the 31st franchise, no team movement to other cities is being discussed. Several unnamed markets have contacted the league about coming in, but per the president, “there is no vacancy.”

-Realignment of teams is expected sometime in the spring.

-Every AHL game next season will use the 2 referee system.

Later, the league inducted its 2018 Hall of Fame class: Jim Bartlett, Don Biggs, Brian Kilrea, and Glenn Merkosky.

Later in the day, it was back to the rink for the All Star Challenge.

North (in green) and Atlantic Division (in white) line up.
Tracey Lake
And on the other side, Pacific (in red) and Central Division (in blue)
Tracey Lake

Poor Stephens. Out of every player introduced, he would be the only one jeered. Welcome to the rivalry, kid.

For those unfamiliar, here is how the Challenge works:

Four teams representing the four divisions—Atlantic, North, Central, and Pacific—play 10 minute three-on-three games, round-robin style. Each game is broken into two five-minute periods, in which after the first “period” the teams switch sides. The winning team gets two points. The two teams with the most points after six games play for the title in a six-minute game.

So how did each division do? Let’s take a look at each round:

Game #1: Pacific 5, North 3

Leading off the night was the Pacific Division, who had yet to win a round in any of the last 2 Challenges, against the default host North Division. Former Crunch defenseman Matt Taormina, now with Laval, would be the first All Star to score, with an assist from Stephens, 1:36 in for a 1-0 North lead.

Twenty-six seconds later, Rudolfs Balcers of San Jose would tie the game up at 1. Utica’s Reid Boucher would then get the home crowd into it with a goal for a 2-1 North advantage. Then a pair of Tucson Roadrunners-Kyle Capobianco and Nick Merkley-would score 19 seconds apart late in the first half to put the Pacific ahead 3-2.

In a span of 26 seconds to start the second half, Capobianco and Stephens would trade goals, then a late empty netter by Balcers would seal the Pacific victory. Bibeau and Petersen would stop 10 of 13 North shots, while Demko and Ullmark combined for 4 saves. Merkley and Capobianco lead all skaters with 5 points apiece.

Game #2: Atlantic 5, Central 2

The Central Division was looking to defend their second straight title in their first game against the Atlantic. Bourque and Lehigh Valley’s T.J. Brennan would both score within the first 1:26 of the contest for a fast 2-0 lead.

The Central would cut the lead in half with a goal from Matt Puempel of Grand Rapids. Rockford’s Matthew Highmore would tie the game at 2, but Brennan’s second goal with 45 seconds remaining in the first half would put the Atlantic back in front.

In the second half, the Central could not get one shot on goal, while Grenier and Gilmour would each score to give the Atlantic the win. Binnington would give up both Central goals, the only shots he faced, while Gibson was merely a spectator—no shots faced. Lindback and Hutchinson combined for 6 saves on 11 chances. Charlotte’s Warren Foegele led all skaters with 3 assists.

Game #3: North 4, Central 2

In the second game of the evening for each side, it would be the Central getting off to a fast start. Lorito would score twice in the first 3:50 of the game for a 2-0 Central lead. Smith would then cut the Central lead to one late in the first half.

The North would dominate the second half of the game, as goals from Gabriel Gagne of Belleville, MacDonald, and Boucher would seal the North’s first win. Ullmark and Demko would go 9 for 11, while Hutchinson and Lindback went 6 for 9.

After the third game, a very cool moment: Both teams and fans came together for Hockey Fights Cancer.

Game #4: Pacific 4, Atlantic 3

In a matchup of unbeaten teams in the challenge, it would be the Atlantic getting the early 1-0 lead on a goal from Bridgeport’s Mitchell Vande Sompel 51 seconds into the contest. Then the Pacific would take over the match, scoring four unanswered goals.

Vande Sompel and Providence’s Austin Czarnik would score late in the second half, but it would not be enough to overtake the streaking Pacific. Tucson’s Dylan Strome scored twice for the winners, while two other had two assists each. Binnington and Gibson would go 7 for 11, while Bibeau and Peterson were 8 for 11.

Game #5: Pacific 4, Central 3

It would be a seesaw battle the undefeated versus the winless in the West for the next round. Capobianco would put the Pacific ahead 1-0 2:50 into the contest. The Central would tie the game at 1 41 seconds later, only to have the Pacific jump back up by a goal within 10 seconds. Strome would extend the lead to 3-1 with 31 seconds remaining in the first half, only to have Manitoba’s Cameron Schilling cut the lead to 3-2 as time ran out.

The Central would tie the game at 3 with 2:05 left in the second half, but a clutch goal by Stockton’s Rasmus Andersson with 12 seconds left would give the Pacific the win and a spot in the final. Bibeau and Petersen would go 5 for 8, while Hutchinson and Lindback would combine for just 3 saves.

Game #6: North 4, Atlantic 3

So who in the East would face the Pacific for the title? Game six sought to figure that out. The game started out with a rare scoreless first half. The second half would then prove to be the best matchup of the entire tournament.

In the first 2:02 of the half, Vande Sompel, Czarnik, and Bourque would all connect for a commanding 3-0 Atlantic lead. Then, the North would take over the second half of the period. Boucher and Stephens would each connect to cut the Atlantic lead to 3-2 with 1:12 remaining. Smith would then tie the game at 3 with 29 seconds to go. Sixteen seconds later, Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson would finish off the unlikely North comeback, giving the “hosts” the other spot in the final. Ullmark and Demko combined for 6 saves, and Stephens lead the way with a goal and two assists.

Championship: North 1, Pacific 0

So which division would end up taking it all? It would be the North. Smith’s goal 2:40 into the final contest would stand up as the game winner. Ullmark and Demko would combine to stop all 4 Pacific shots.

For picking up the winning goal in the final, Smith was named the Most Valuable Player.

Stephens would finish the night with 2 goals and 3 assists in 4 games played.

Overall, it was a fantastic 2 day experience. Special thanks to the Utica Comets, the AHL, and Turning Stone for being excellent hosts!