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WBS Penguins Continue Record-Breaking Season

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Adversity has a ripple effect through a professional hockey organization.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins are struck with the injury bug and have to recall players from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, their American Hockey League affiliate, WBS, in turn, has to deal with having their top players out of the lineup.

But even playing the majority of the season without their top players couldn’t ground the high-flying WBS Penguins, as they set a new franchise record with 52 wins when they topped the Hershey Bears, 3-2, on Sunday.

“It is really an organizational thing,” WBS head coach John Hynes said of his team’s success this season. “As far as the NHL team has gone through some adversity also, but the way that they’ve battled and competed I know was great to see for our players. And to see (our) guys to be able to go up and have an impact and play well, that, in turn, motivated our players to stay the course.”

With Sunday’s win over the Bears and an 8-2 loss by the Norfolk Admirals against the Charlotte Checkers on Sunday, WBS has clinched their third East Division regular-season title, guaranteeing the team home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs.

“I’ve been so impressed whenever I go down there just by their work ethic and their compete level,” Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill said. “They’ve taken on the mindset of ‘Whoever we have in the locker room tonight, we’re going to go out there and have success.’”

WBS has achieved that success despite having their top seven scorers in Pittsburgh at one point, along with seeing players like Dustin Jeffrey bounce back and forth between the two teams a total of 11 times since the beginning of December.

Penguins management has done an excellent job of creating an environment for players to thrive in WBS by building a team around both prospects and veterans.

Botterill said that philosophy centers around ensuring their players know that they’re in a competitive situation in order to earn their shot at the NHL, but that they’re not going to be put in situations where they’re in over their heads.

“The bottom line is that the American Hockey League is a tough league,” Botterill said. “You want our prospects to understand the competitive nature that they have to have, but you also want them to eventually succeed. ... (Their success) is a combination of our veterans doing their job, and then our prospects continuing to develop.”

Hynes said this mindset has been the reason why WBS has so much depth, spearheaded by contributions from prospects like Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, Keven Veilleux, Dustin Jeffrey, Nick Johnson and Eric Tangradi, as well as veterans like Ryan Craig, Brett Sterling, Andrew Hutchinson and Corey Potter.

“(The prospects) have guys in the room that are out there playing with them, teaching them things away from the rink,” Hynes said. “It’s been a great mix of younger players that are willing to learn and listen and have good talent, but also the veterans with their leadership and attitude.”

But Botterill noted that Hynes and his staff are doing a phenomenal job of leading the team as well.

The Penguins have been at the forefront of hiring good, young coaches with an enthusiasm and passion for the game, starting with Todd Richards, Dan Bylsma, Todd Reirden and now Hynes.

“It’s a great succession down there,” Botterill said. “All of them have an unbelievable enthusiasm for the game, a passion for the game, a passion for teaching. I think that’s just where our players down there benefit so much, whether you’re a six-year pro trying to get over that hump to become a National Hockey League player, or a first-year pro who’s just trying to survive in the American Hockey League.”

And much like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has kept his Penguins competitive in Pittsburgh through a rash of injuries, Brad Thiessen has done the same for his Penguins in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He has a league-leading 32 wins and 1.88 goals-against average, while his seven shutouts are tied for the league lead and established a single-season franchise record.

“Brad’s played excellent,” Hynes said. “The thing you notice this year is just his mental maturity. He’s an athletically-gifted player and he’s got talent, but it’s his mental makeup where he doesn’t get too high or too low. Whether he gets three or four wins in a row, he’s practicing the same way. He wants to continue to get better.”

The WBS Penguins plan to bring that same competition level and attitude they’ve had throughout the entire regular season to the Calder Cup playoffs, and hope to find the same success they’ve been enjoying despite the amount of adversity they’ve faced.

“I think (our success) speaks volumes about the depth of players we have,” he said. “They’ve been able to step up and capitalize on their opportunities of increased ice time and that’s been great to see.”
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