At one point last month, when injuries among forwards reached an unusually high level, the Penguins had recalled the top seven scorers from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton minor league team. A few remain on the NHL roster.
Wilkes-Barre has not missed much of a beat and continues to lead the American Hockey League with 90 points in 63 games.
How? The same way the Penguins have remained competitive despite lingering injury issues -- a strong and relatively intact defense, and nearly unbeatable goaltending.
In particular, Brad Thiessen has established himself as a gangbusters prospect who helps make Wilkes-Barre the favorite to win the Calder Cup.
He hasn't gotten playing time or headlines with the Penguins because he plays goaltender, where the Penguins not only are healthy but also are set with All-Star Marc-Andre Fleury and rock-steady backup Brent Johnson.
If Thiessen were a forward, he would have gotten his shot with the Penguins by now.
He leads the AHL in wins (27), shares the lead in shutouts (six, breaking Fleury's team season record), is second by 0.01 in goals-against average (1.94), ninth in save percentage (.921) and in February was the league goaltender of the month for the second time (he shared it with teammate John Curry for October).
"He's a good prospect," said Gilles Meloche, goaltending coach for the organization, likening Thiessen to former Penguins goaltender Johan Hedberg.
While the Penguins get ready to face Montreal Saturday at Consol Energy Center, Thiessen, who turns 25 next week, is with Wilkes-Barre on a tour of western Canada that begins tonight at Abbotsford, British Columbia, not far from his hometown of Aldergrove.
"This year's been a good year for me, getting a chance to play a lot more and be on a really good team," Thiessen, a second-year pro out of Northeastern University, said.
Thiessen is so good that it was almost shocking when he got pulled Tuesday after giving up three goals on 11 shots in what eventually was just his seventh loss, 5-2, to Hershey.
"I can't say they were bad goals, but he didn't make the save," said Meloche, who was visiting Wilkes-Barre at the time.
Thiessen, a 5-foot-11, 171-pound butterfly goalie, usually is much more stingy -- in February he stopped 199 of 211 shots -- because his base is strong positional play. Throw in above-average puck-handling skills and a growing willingness and ability to make an athletic save when needed, and he has a solid repertoire.
"He's a very intellectual goalie," said Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill, who doubles as the Wilkes-Barre general manager. "He knows that, especially when you get up to [the NHL] level, you have to be extremely good positioning-wise."
Thiessen is, to the point where he almost looks lackadaisical. Or lucky.
"I like to categorize my game as simple, gain position, not scramble around, not too many acrobatic saves," Thiessen said.
Meloche said Thiessen has the perfect goaltenders' demeanor, steady and low key, and that's reflected in how he plays.
"He won't overreach," Meloche said. "He plays the same, game in and game out -- let the puck hit him. Sometimes, it looks like he's not doing anything, but he's always at the right place."
Thiessen's play is well suited to the system employed by Wilkes-Barre and the Penguins.
"We try to move the puck quickly up the ice," Botterill said. "He's good at that, almost starting our breakouts at times."
With Fleury, 26, entrenched as a franchise goaltender, and Johnson, who turns 34 Saturday, signed through the 2011-12 season, it would seem that Thiessen might be hitting a ceiling in the organization after proving that he can be dominant in the AHL.
"You've just got to continue your game at that [AHL] level," Botterill said. "To get a job in the NHL, it's a big jump. He has to be ready and sharp. It's one injury away from a situation that might open things up in the National Hockey League."
Botterill pointed to the center position, where the Penguins are considered to be well-stocked. Yet because of various injuries and opportunities, rookie Mark Letestu was able to stick with the Penguins out of training camp, rookie Dustin Jeffrey seems to have earned a permanent spot, and prospect Joe Vitale was here long enough to play in nine games.
Thiessen, matching his calm exterior in games, isn't sweating the future.
"It's not really in my control as far as at the end of the season," he said. "Marc-Andre Fleury's not going anywhere. He's a Stanley Cup-winning goalie. I'm happy watching him play."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721 First Published March 11, 2011 5:00 AM