Central Division Claim Inaugural AHL All-Star Challenge

(Photo Credit: @ManitobaMoose // Twitter)
Frédérick Gaudreau and Dean Evason appear to have made a few new friends within the heated Central Division. Why not? The Milwaukee Admirals and their Central Division comrades became the first ever AHL All-Star Challenge Champions tonight in Syracuse. (Photo Credit: @ManitobaMoose // Twitter)

Milwaukee Admirals’ All-Stars Frédérick Gaudreau and head coach Dean Evason both came away Champions of the inaugural AHL All-Star Challenge. The Central Division All-Stars nearly swept the tournament ending the night winning three of four games. They matched-up against the Atlantic Division in the final and shut them out 4-0 to become the first ever AHL All-Star Challenge Champions.

[Editor’s Note: You can watch the full video highlights of the 2016 AHL All-Star Challenge on AHL Live right here]

In the opening contest the Pacific Division played against the North Division and immediately the new format had a heavy sigh moment. As the 4:30 time stamp was about to hit, signalling the end of four-on-four hockey to three-on-three, Mikko Rantanen sprung Brandon Montour off on a breakaway and the horn sounded before the shot was unleashed. The game stayed scoreless until 26.7 seconds remaining when Josh Leivo beat Peter Budaj for a 1-0 win.

(Photo Credit: @mkeadmirals // Twitter)
(Photo Credit: @mkeadmirals // Twitter)

The Admirals and friends were up next with the Central Division matching up against the Atlantic Division. Once again, the four-on-four format resulted in no goals for either team and it was left up to the the three-on-three portion to decide it. Pat Cannone scored five-hole on a breakaway to give the Central Division a lead but, after a failed empty net bid for Derek Ryan, Chris Bourque beat Michael Leighton with a bomb from the right wing with less than a second remaining. What happens when games in this format end tied such as this? They are decided in a three-round shootout. Gaudreau was the first man up for the Central Division but his shake and bake deke and turn to the backhander was stopped by Mike McKenna. The lone shootout goal scored came from the man who put the Central Division out in regulation, Cannone, who buried a snapshot off the post and in for a 2-1 shootout win.

After a small break the two winning teams of the opening games squared off. The Central Division popped in two goals from four-on-four play. Cannone scored a beauty of a backhander on a breakaway that slid through the five hole of Yann Danis. The bad times kept going for Danis, as well.. After a big save by Eric Comrie down at the other end of the rink Danis let in what appeared to be a misplayed pass by Jake Dowell and it rolled in through his legs to make it 2-0 through the first half. Dowell would open up three-on-three play with a two-on-naught breakaway and scored a hard wrister through the wickets of Kristers Gudlevskis to make it a 3-0 Central Division lead. This would be followed by two rapid fire goals for the North Division. Leivo whipped a wrister off the near post and in. Then Matt Taormina passed off to Mike McCarron and he scored to make it 3-2. The game would be polished off by a brilliant empty netter by Ryan Hartman. He banked a shot off the boards in neutral ice that perfectly angled in to the empty net to give the Central Division a 4-2 win.

The following game between the Atlantic Division and Pacific Division started quickly with a wing-to-wing goal finished off by Alan Quine. Then Seth Griffith was racing in on an odd man rush, skated right wing while looking left wing the whole way in on goal, and snapped a shot top shelf to give the Atlantic a 2-0 lead through the four-on-four segment. Anthony Stolarz put on a show in net during the three-on-three but would eventually get beaten on a slap shot by Sean Backman to set up an empty net frenzy that would go begging for the Pacific Division. The Atlantic Division would survive with a 2-1 win.

(Photo Credit: Milwaukee Admirals // Twitter)
(Photo Credit: @mkeadmirals // Twitter)

The loss for the Pacific Division meant the follow-up game wouldn’t do much for them. They were eliminated from the Final. That didn’t stop them from pounding the unbeaten and Final bound Central Division 3-1 in the four-on-four portion of their game. Derek Grant scored twelve-seconds into the game. Xavier Ouellet was able to level things at 1-1 with a nasty backhand-forehand breakaway finish. Nick Ritchie slid a puck undearneath Comrie to give the Pacific Division their lead back and, after Dowell rang iron on a breakaway, Rantenen scored a sick backhander to make it 3-1. With three-on-three play opening up ice T.J. Tynan tagged the left wing rush of Jeff Hoggan to make it 3-2 nine-seconds into the pond hockey frame. Ritchie would respond to that by adding his second of the game from a left wing breakaway finishing with a backhander that went five hole on Comrie. The punches kept coming as André Benoît scored a hard wrister through the legs of Budaj. And, with 27.1 seconds remaining, Dowell scored to level the game at 4-4 just as Comrie made it to the bench for the extra attacker. Sadly, the Central Division would be handed its only loss of the round-robin tournament as Grant scored Pavel Datsyuk-style with 3.7 seconds to go to end the game at a 5-4 Pacific Division final.

The game to decide who would play the Central Division in the Final was next, the North Divison against the Atlantic Division. This contest was pretty much all Atlantic Division as Rob Schremp and Bourque scored quickly to make it a 2-0 lead. A brilliant play by Mike Angelidis allowed for a feed to be delivered to the tape of Mike Sislo to get the North on the board. That would be it though. Quine added another and Schremp would score an empty netter to put the Atlantic Division into the Final after a 4-1 win.

The Final of the 2016 AHL All-Star Challenge was all Central Division all day and all night. Leighton, who had just tied the AHL’s all-time record for career shutouts, pitched a shutout in the Final as the team in front of him scored four goals to crown the Central Division as the first ever AHL All-Star Challenge Champions.

Gaudreau was a trigger man on three of the four goals in the Final. He was the tic of a tic-tac-toe goal between himself, Benoît, and Hoggan. Gaudreau then had a primary assist on a crafty goal for the man that would be named the AHL All-Star MVP, Cannone. Ryan of the Charlotte Checkers scored a phenomenal pull back wrister near post and under the crossbar. And the Gaudreau was able to assist on the empty netter by Ouellet that finished the AHL All-Star Challenge at a 4-0 final.

What did you think of the brand new AHL All-Star Challenge format? Do you think it would be easier if the AHL just adapted what the NHL showcased yesterday or is it fun to have two different All-Star formats such as this?

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