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Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Quarterly Report

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

The first 20 games of the season for any team in the Penguins organization – whether it’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or Pittsburgh – are viewed as a learning curve.

The organization’s philosophy is that during each club’s first chunk of games, the coaches are essentially getting all of their players on the same page. They’re implementing systems that come with habits and details that may be unfamiliar to many of the players – not to mention the guys are getting to know each other. Mistakes are going to come as a result of that process, and that’s OK – at least until regular-season game No. 21.

“But once you get to that 20-game mark, during the next 21-80 games it really comes down to accountability,” WBS head coach John Hynes said.

That mark has arrived for WBS of the American Hockey League, which played its 20th game of the season on Dec. 1, a 5-3 win over St. John’s that brought the Penguins’ record to 13-7.

Overall, it’s been an interesting 20 games for the Penguins, who got off to a rocky start by dropping their first four contests of the season.

A combination of factors contributed to that, starting with the amount of new players on Wilkes-Barre’s roster. Not only did they have a number of rookies who had to adjust to professional life both on and off the ice, but the Penguins also had a number of veteran free agents who had to get used to their new teammates and style of play.

“We had so many new players, and the players really didn’t know each other,” Hynes said. “As people we didn’t have a lot of chemistry with the group right off the bat. It was a really introductory phase. There was no NHL training camp and we only had a week of AHL training camp before regular-season games. There was a lot of newness to us as a group and there was a lot of newness systematically with how we wanted to do things.”

But after their 0-4 start, WBS gutted out a gritty 5-4 overtime win vs. Rochester to get a mark in the win column – which would turn out to be the first of many.

WBS has won 13 of its last 16 games, going a stellar 10-2 in the month of November, and is currently riding a five-game winning streak.

So what’s been working for the Penguins?

“As a team, we’ve had a work ethic and compete that we’re getting throughout our lineup – whether it is the most talented players on the team or the guys that have to work hard to stay in the lineup,” said Hynes, who earned his 115th victory with the Penguins on Dec. 1 – tying him with Glenn Patrick for first on WBS' all-time wins list.

At the start of the season, WBS’ diverse roster helped contribute to its slow start. Now, it’s what’s helping drive their success.

“We have a nice combination of experience and rookies that all bring a little something different,” Hynes said. “The way the team is structured we have a little bit of everything. We have very good special teams players and we’ve been able to play very well as a team 5-on-5.”

Hynes also credited his goaltending, which has been outstanding.

Netminder Jeff Zatkoff, in his first season with the Penguins organization, was named the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for November as he went 8-1 with three shutouts, a .955 save percentage and a 1.21 goals-against average. Brad Thiessen has also played well when he’s gotten the call, winning three of his five starts.

“We've got excellent goaltending,” Hynes said. “Both guys have been able to come in and play very well, which has helped us work through some of the mistakes and breakdowns, particularly early in the year. Our goaltenders have been there for us.”

Another group who helped WBS work through its slow start is their veterans. During the offseason, the Penguins acquired forwards Benn Ferriero, Trevor Smith, Philippe Dupuis, Warren Peters and Riley Holzapfel along with defenseman Dylan Reese through unrestricted free agency to add experience and leadership to their roster.

Those players have been bringing all of that and more. They’ve been invaluable mentors to a lot of young and talented newcomers – including rookies Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh’s 2011 first-round pick), Beau Bennett (2010 first round), Jayson Megna and second-year pro Simon Despres (2009 first round) – while making an impact on the ice.

Ferriero leads the team with 12 assists and ranks third in scoring with 14 points, Smith is tied for second in goals with seven and Reese leads all D-men with 11 points (3G-8A).

“They’ve done a great job,” Hynes said. “Their work ethic and leadership helped us get through the tough start. They’re really starting to be good leaders and excellent players for us.”

Other notables include forwards Eric Tangradi and Paul Thompson and rookies Bennett, Dominik Uher and Tom Kuhnhackl.

- Tangradi leads WBS with nine goals, but that’s not what has impressed Hynes the most about what the third-year pro has done so far this season.

“His goals are a bonus and it’s nice that he has them,” Hynes said. “But the way that he plays the game, he’s been very consistent. He’s using his assets. He’s a step faster. He has a lot of drive to his game. He’s very strong on the puck. He’s getting in on the forecheck. He’s a physical presence. He’s got a great attitude and has a leadership role on the bench. It’s just a combination of what he brings to the table. He brings a different level of commitment, a different level of maturity. That’s been his biggest difference this year.”

It’s worth noting that five of Tangradi’s goals have come on the power play, where he has been using his 6-foot-4, 232-pound frame to wreak havoc as a net-front presence.

“He’s scored most of his goals within five feet of the net,” Hynes said. “He’s done a great job of creating traffic, creating screens and from those screens and rebound situations he’s been able to score goals. He has quick hands and a high compete level.”

- Oct. 3 marked Bennett’s first real game action in 10 months after a wrist injury that required surgery ended his 2011-12 season with the University of Denver on Dec. 8, 2011 – just 10 contests in. So while Bennett was adjusting to the intensity of the bigger, faster, stronger professional game, which is hard enough as it is, he was simultaneously trying to get his timing, shot and strength back to normal.

Well, the rookie winger has accomplished all of that with flying colors. He’s already got five goals, leading WBS with 16 points in 20 games, and is on the team’s top power-play unit.

“(Bennett) has been very good,” Hynes said. “He’s made a big impact. He’s done a good job. He’s very talented. He’s consistent. He’s a smart player and has a very good work ethic.”

- After experiencing some growing pains his rookie year, Thompson has been thriving in his second professional season. He scored the overtime goal that gave WBS its first win and potted a natural hat trick on Nov. 4 in a 5-3 win over Bridgeport.

“He’s learned how to be consistent,” Hynes said of Thompson, who was named the Hockey East Player of the Year his senior year at New Hampshire after scoring a league-leading 52 points. “He has combined his ability to compete at this level with his offensive talent. A year ago he was relying on his offensive talent to get through games and create scoring chances. Now he has more of a driving pace to his game. He plays our style of play very well. That combined with his talent and consistency has helped him grow as a player.”

- WBS’ blue line is packed with talent and potential. There are steady veterans in Reese, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Joey Mormina and there are promising young players in Despres, Morrow and Brian Dumoulin – and it’s been a balance trying to get them all adequate playing time. Despres is the only one out of nine defensemen who has skated in all 20 games.

“The challenge really is a credit to the players because they’ve all played well,” Hynes said. “They all belong in the lineup. Whether we rotate guys in and out, sat guys with whichever group that we put in the games, particularly this month, they’ve all performed well and gave us a chance to have success and for guys to develop.”

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