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AHL Notebook: Penguins affiliate finding ways to win

by Patrick Williams

Even a 16-2-0-0 start does not mean avoiding some dicey moments along the way for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, American Hockey League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Cruising to a 3-0 second-period lead against the rival Hershey Bears at home last Saturday, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton controlled the game against an opponent it had defeated 7-0 on the same ice surface two weeks earlier.

A Hershey goal with 14 seconds left in the second period made it 3-1. Then Penguins rookie goaltender Tristan Jarry allowed a soft goal 5:39 into the third. Suddenly the Bears had the home team in a bind.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has gone 16-2-0-0 to  start the season. (Photo: KDP Studio)

From there, however, Jarry shut down the Bears, including on a 6-on-4 power play in the final 2:26. The 20-year-old finished with 13 third-period saves and the Penguins had a 3-2 win.

"The most important thing is that you respond the right way, and [Jarry] did," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "That's the type of mentality, that's the type of mental toughness that you need to succeed in pro hockey."

That is how it has been this season for Sullivan, a long-time NHL assistant coach in his first season with the Penguins.

Be it holding a lead, overcoming a blown lead, coming from behind or simply blowing out an opponent, the Penguins have done it all.

In the finale of three games in less than 48 hours, the Hartford Wolf Pack led the Penguins 5-1 in the first period Nov. 15 at XL Center. Six goals later the Penguins left Hartford with a 7-6 overtime win.

One night after their Penguins-record 11-game winning streak ended, the Albany Devils erased a 3-1 Penguins lead midway through the third period Nov. 21. But 6:22 later Penguins forward Scott Wilson scored his team-leading 11th goal and the Penguins departed with a 5-3 win.

Life at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza has been equally successful for the Penguins, who can add to their record 10-game home winning streak with two more games there this weekend. They are 10-0-0-0 at home and averaging 4.2 goals per home game.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has blended exceptional goaltending, well-rounded scoring depth and special-teams success on its way to an AHL-leading 32 points.

The Penguins are tied with the Texas Stars for the AHL scoring lead at 4.0 goals per game, and Their 2.06 goals-against per game rank second. A 22.9-percent conversion rate on the power play is and their 86.8-percent penalty-kill rate is sixth-best.

They also know how to avoid the penalty box; their 12.39 penalty minutes per game are the eighth-fewest in the AHL. Two teams have been shorthanded less than the Penguins have.

Jarry and Matt Murray each have a 1.94 goals-against average. Murray, who won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the top rookie in the AHL and the Aldege "Baz" Bastien Award as its top goaltender last season, continues to press for an NHL job. He is 10-2-0 with a .937 save percentage, third-best in the AHL. Jarry is 6-0-0, has a .928 save percentage and is the only rookie goaltender in the league that has not lost a game yet.

Rookie Dominik Simon and Conor Sheary share the Penguins lead with 19 points. Defenseman Derrick Pouliot, the eighth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, has four goals and 10 assists in 17 games. Fourteen Penguins have at least two goals.

"I think this team has shown an ability to win different ways," Sullivan said. "I've said it all along; I think our strength is in our numbers. We have balance throughout our lineup. We try to use our whole bench each night and I think that serves us well."

Showing the way: Jarry, Murray, Pouliot, Sheary and Wilson headline Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's long list of top prospects, but veterans are playing key roles.

Leading the way is captain Tom Kostopoulos. A seventh-round pick (No. 204) by the Penguins as a 20-year-old in the 1999 NHL Draft, Kostopoulos began his pro career with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before playing 630 NHL games.

After stops with six NHL teams, Kostopoulos elected in 2013 to begin winding down his long career back in the same city where it started.

Kostopoulos, 36, played his first four pro seasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and he is in his third season on his second tour through the AHL. In 18 games he has four goals and seven assists.

Other experienced players on the roster are defenseman Steve Oleksy and center Kevin Porter.

"For me, I think it starts with the leadership in the [locker] room," Sullivan said. "I really believe that a lot of this game is about the mindset going in and how you react to the adversity during the course of a game or during the course of a weekend. Things don't always go your way."

Offense awakened: Maybe all the Grand Rapids Griffins needed to jolt their season from their six-week slumber was a cameo appearance by forward Tomas Jurco.

The Detroit Red Wings sent Jurco to Grand Rapids on a conditioning assignment when they were 2-8-0-1. Jurco had a hat trick and an assist Nov. 20, his second game with Grand Rapids.

Since Jurco arrived the Griffins have a six-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 26-8. The Red Wings recalled Jurco the day after a 6-0 win against the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday. Jurco had five goals and four assists in five AHL games.

Jurco's time in Grand Rapids awakened the rest of the Griffins' offense.

Andy Miele, who was second in AHL scoring last season. He started this season with two goals in his first 12 games but has three goals in his past six games. Mitch Callahan scored once in his first 12 games but has five goals during the six-game winning streak. Another key part of the Grand Rapids attack, Eric Tangradi, has four goals in his past six games.

AHL Game of the Week: The Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues have a long-standing rivalry, and for their AHL affiliates, the Milwaukee Admirals and Chicago Wolves, respectively, that rivalry is no different. After the Admirals' record 10-game winning streak ended last Friday at home, they are tied atop the Central Division with the Lake Erie Monsters and Rockford IceHogs; they started the season with two wins in their first seven games. Milwaukee makes the trip to Allstate Arena to continue their season series with Chicago on Saturday in the first of three December games between the teams.

November awards: The AHL announced Tuesday that Milwaukee forward Viktor Arvidsson is the CCM/AHL Player of the Month, San Diego Gulls defenseman Brandon Montour is the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month and Toronto Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks is the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month. Arvidsson had six goals and eight assists for 14 points in 11 games in November. His 13-game point streak, the longest in the AHL this season, ended last Friday. Montour had four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 12 games for San Diego. Sparks, who had a shutout Monday for the Toronto Maple Leafs in his NHL debut, was 6-0-1 in seven games, allowing nine goals on 188 shots with a 1.39 goals-against average, .952 save percentage and two shutouts.

Around the AHL: The San Antonio Rampage have 28 points, most in the Western Conference. … William Nylander of the Toronto Marlies leads the AHL with 24 points in 19 games. … Texas rookie Devin Shore's 15 goals lead the AHL. His 23 points put him in a three-way tie for second place. … Ontario Reign goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.60 goals-against average is best in the AHL. Lake Erie rookie Joonas Korpisalo's .941 save percentage tops all goaltenders. Rockford veteran Michael Leighton has an AHL-best 11 wins. … Albany goaltender Yann Danis made six saves in shutting out the Binghamton Senators 4-0 last Friday. Binghamton is last in the Eastern Conference with 12 points. … Trying to end an 11-game losing streak, the Iowa Wild owned a 4-1 lead entering the third period at the Charlotte Checkers last Saturday. But four Charlotte goals in a 5:40 span erased Iowa's lead and sent the Wild to a 7-4 loss. Their losing streak has since grown to 13 games (0-11-0-2), and they are tied for last place in the AHL at 10 points with another Central Division counterpart, the Manitoba Moose. … Five more AHL players played their first career NHL game last week, bumping the season total to 52 players.

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