The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have followed a script that is similar to the one being written by the parent Penguins during the first half of the 2007-08 campaign. Led by second-year Head Coach Todd Richards, the Baby Pens stumbled along in the early going for a 12-12 record. Then, once the calendar turned to December, the team heated up, currently riding a seven-game winning streak as part of an eight-game unbeaten string.
Wilkes-Barre’s current surge has seen their record improve to 19-12-1, good enough for 39 points, which places them third in the East Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Baby Pens are now only three points behind the second place Albany River Rats and six points behind first place Philadelphia. Wilkes-Barre holds a one point advantage over the fourth place Hershey Bears.
While the Baby Pens have struggled to score goals early in the 2007-08 season (94 total), another similarity they have in common with their parent club, they have allowed the second fewest goals in the entire AHL with 75 goals against. This comes despite having to use rookie backstops John Curry and David Brown due to Ty Conklin’s promotion to the NHL.
It was mentioned above how this team has struggled to score goals during the first half. That did not appear to be the case early in the season following a 5-4 opening night win over Hershey. Second-year speedster Tyler Kennedy sparked the team’s early success with three goals and four assists in seven games. Kennedy won AHL Player of the Week honors for the first week. But Kennedy’s success earned him what has been a permanent promotion to Pittsburgh, and until recently not many players have stepped up to fill the void.
After struggling to put points on the board early in the campaign, newcomer Tim Brent has rebounded to take over the team scoring lead with six goals and a team-high 23 assists for 29 points in 32 contests. Brent has really been on fire recently, riding a seven-game scoring streak.
While top prospects Jonathan Filewich and Ryan Stone have struggled to score in 2007-08 (a combined ten goals in 60 games), veteran Chris Minard has picked up the slack with a team-leading 12 goals. Minard is tied for the team goal-scoring lead with Jeff Taffe, who has spent the past two weeks with the NHL Penguins after recording 12 goals and nine assists in 27 games. Taffe was the team’s top offensive players prior to his recall.
As mentioned, Filewich and Stone have struggled during the first half, but appear to be climbing their way out of funks. Stone’s numbers are the better of the two, with five goals and ten assists in 31 games. He has also continued to display his usual feistiness, as evidenced by his 67 penalty minutes, which are third on the squad. Filewich, who lead the team with 30 goals and 56 points a season ago, has only five goals and six assists in 29 contests. Even with their struggles, management has gone on the record again within the past week reiterating that the two still have a prominent place penciled in on next year’s NHL team.
One other forward whose play deserves mention is winger Connor James. James has scored six times with12 assists in 30 games. He also remains a dependable two-way threat with a plus-9 rating. His work earned him a promotion to Pittsburgh in early December, where he dressed in a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Dec. 15, during which he registered a shot on goal.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton began the campaign with two of the top prospects in the Penguins organization manning the blue line. Kristopher Letang notched a goal and six assists during ten games, but then was brought up to the big club when some of their veterans were struggling. The other top youngster, Alex Goligoski, remains with the Baby Pens, and has six goals and six assists in 32 games. Goligoski’s solid play includes a plus-seven rating and five power-play goals. He was named along with fellow blue liners Ryan Lannon, Alain Nasreddine and Derek Engelland as players who could be in line for a promotion due to the Mark Eaton injury.
Nasreddine, the former captain of the Baby Pens, returned to the team following Letang’s promotion. The veteran has provided a steady influence on the rest of the defense core.
A difference between the parent Penguins and the Baby Pens has been the play between the pipes. Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin, the top two in Pittsburgh, have been plagued by inconsistency, while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has gotten great performances from Ty Conklin, John Curry and David Brown.
Conklin began the campaign as the go-to guy, but his departure for Pittsburgh left a huge void in the Baby Pens net. Rookies Curry and Brown have stepped up to fortify the ship. Curry, a free-agent signee from Boston University, has seen more of the action thus far, and his numbers are sparkling. In nine games, Curry has posted a 5-3-1 record, a .926 save percentage and a 1.87 goals-against average. If he can continue his hot play, then Curry should remain the top netminder through late January when Fleury’s return could mean either Sabourin or Conklin returning to Eastern Pennsylvania.
If Curry is unable to match his early performance, then fellow rookie Brown could take more of his minutes away. Brown has only appeared in five games thus far, but his 3-1 record suggests that he has not been out of place in the AHL. While Brown’s stats aren’t as gaudy as Curry’s, he has posted a well above average .917 save percentage to go along with a 2.54 goals-against average.
Either way, the play of these two rookie backstops will be the biggest determiner in whether or not the Baby Pens can hold on to one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
To say that the Wheeling Nailers have struggled through the first 31 games of the 2007-08 season would be an understatement. Their 9-19-1-2 record and 21 points are the worst marks of the seven teams in the North Division. They are tied for next-to-last in the American Conference. Wheeling has given up the third most goals in the conference and scored the third fewest. In their past ten games, the Nailers have a 1-8-1 record.
To get a feel for how bad of a season it has been in northern West Virginia thus far, consider that the best news that the team has received thus far is defenseman Paul Bissonnette, who hasn’t played in Wheeling since Dec. 11, being named as the team’s only all-star representative.
Part of the problem for the Nailers has been a lack of stability in goal. The Nailers share an affiliation with both the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, and Martin Houle (PHI) has gotten a bulk of the playing time, but has responded with a 2-9-2 record, 3.40 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage. He is one of six goalies to see action for the Nailers.
Rookies Curry and Brown, now with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, were getting the job done early. Curry had a 4-2 record and a .899 save percentage in seven appearances, while Brown was 5-5-1 and possessed a .920 save percentage in eleven contests before their promotion.
Another problem for Wheeling has been the loss of several key players besides Curry and Brown due to recalls. Forwards Mark Letestu, who had a goal and three assists in six games was joined on the Baby Pens by the aforementioned Bissonnette, who sitting second overall in the ECHL among defensemen with 17 points (3 goals, 14 assists) at the time of his promotion.
Veteran Sean Collins leads the team in scoring. Sitting right behind Collins is Ned Havern, who leads the squad with 12 goals, in addition to his 10 assists.
The Nailers have gotten a spark from Joe Jensen, a player who spent 18 games with the Baby Pens (1 goal, 1 assist) and has come down to record three goals and an assist in his six games. Jensen is a former eighth-round selection of the Penguins.
Two other players whose NHL rights are owned by the Penguins and have played significant time in Wheeling are Aaron Boogaard and Jonathan D’Aversa. The rough and tumble Boogaard, who could one day be a replacement for Georges Laraque, has four goals and four assists in 25 games. More importantly, he has 38 penalty minutes, although that figure does not show the toughness he provides as much like with Laraque, fellow players are leery of fighting Boogaard, whose brother Derek is the Minnesota Wild’s enforcer. D’Aversa brings an offensive element to the Nailers’ defense core, and has seven assists in 15 games.