The Colorado Eagles look to battle back into playoff contention with series against Chicago

Ryan Loberger

With the postseason drawing near the Colorado Eagles will be back on the road for a weekend series with the Central Division leading Chicago Wolves. The playoff picture in the Pacific has heated up to a feverish point, with three teams now fighting for the final two playoff spots.
Colorado was knocked out of the fourth and final spot as the Tucson Roadrunners rallied for a 4-3 win over the Iowa Wild in overtime. The Eagles, Roadrunners and San Diego Gulls all lay within a point of each other — at 73, 74 and 75 respectively — with 64 games played a piece.

“Basically we’re in playoffs already, so this weekend is gonna be a big start for the last four games of the season, seeing where we stack up and how hard we wanna play, because we need four wins and we can only control the games that we have with everything going on around us.” -MARK ALT

Colorado is coming off a series in Tucson that yielded a split  — with Colorado winning 4-3 in a shootout, followed by a regulation loss 5-2. Forward Scott Kosmachuk scored the shootout winner to give Colorado a crucial extra point in the standings. While Colorado managed to stay ahead of Tucson in the standings they know they’ll have to bring a better effort this weekend when they face Chicago in order to claw their way back into that spot.

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“Take away (from the Tucson series) would be discipline, we talked about it a lot this week,” Eagles’ captain Mark Alt said. “Saturday we didn’t really give ourselves a chance to win when you take that many penalties. That’s number one… then two, we know going into this weekend we have to simplify our game, especially offensively — getting pucks deep, putting pucks on net and crashing. Sometimes we get a little fancy and it costs us a little bit.”

The AHL playoff seeding is a little quirky in that the Pacific Division only plays a 68 game schedule while the rest of the league plays 76 games. The Eagles’ promotion to the AHL this year balanced the Pacific Division for the first time so all teams in the division will play 68 games. Previously seeding in the West was based on points per game rather than total points.

Colorado will have their work cut out for them this week against Chicago, who possess the third best record in the AHL and sit atop the Western Conference at 42-20-5-3 for 92 points in 70 games. Chicago took both games in Loveland earlier in the season, all the way back in the Eagle’s season opener in October. This game will serve as a measuring stick for the Eagles.

“Basically we’re in playoffs already, so this weekend is gonna be a big start for the last four games of the season,” Alt said. “Seeing where we stack up and how hard we wanna play, because we need four wins and we can only control the games that we have with everything going on around us.”

A new Eagles player will make their debut this week as Colorado Avalanche prospect Shane Bowers is expected to crack the lineup. Bowers signed an entry-level deal with the Avalanche and will be under an amateur tryout agreement with the Eagles, preventing him from burning the first year of an entry-level deal that will start next season. Eagles’ Head Coach Greg Cronin gave his thoughts on Bowers after the first week of practicing with the team.

“I always say the players generate their own identity by the visibility they have in a practice or in a game,” Cronin said. “He’s obviously a gifted skater, he can skate, he’s long — he’s 6’2 — and he’s got good stick skills, so those all translate into being a good hockey player. The issue is how’s it gonna work this weekend against Chicago in the American Hockey League?”

Bowers was a 2017 first round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators and was sent to Colorado that year as part of the trade that made Matt Duchene an Ottawa Senator. Bowers is a talented and versatile forward that possesses the necessary skills of an NHL centerman and will step in at a crucial time to help the Eagles playoff push.

“I’m not sure what the lineup is gonna be,” Bowers said. “I know that if I’m in there I’m gonna do my best I can to help this team and do whatever it takes to help this team make the playoffs. We’ve got four games left to make a push and (this weekend) is gonna be huge.”

The Eagles roster has seen a lot of change late in the season. With the addition of Bowers, the team also announced Thursday that they have signed forward Nick Henry — a 2017 fourth round draft pick of the Avalanche who recently finished a five-year junior hockey career, and defenseman Sasha Larocque — a four-year Ohio State University hockey player who recently won a Big-10 championship and was named Big-10 Defensive Player of the Year along with an All-Star Second Team award.

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Those additions are joined by some movement of more familiar players. Forward Kale Kessy was released from his amateur tryout, signed to an AHL contract and reassigned to the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, where he will join the team for a run in the Kelly Cup playoffs. The Eagles will also be without starting goaltender Pavel Francouz, who has traveled back to his native Czech Republic for the birth of his first-born child. It is unsure when Francouz will return, but he will be absent for the Eagles trip to Chicago this week. The Eagles have called up goalie Joe Cannata from the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, Cannata will most likely serve as the backup for Spencer Martin, who is expected to start in goal this weekend. 

Puck drop will be on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

Ryan Loberger can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @LobergerRyan.