Despite frequent call-ups, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins dominate AHL
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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has clinched the best regular-season record in the American Hockey League, has home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and boasts the coach of the year and the league's top goaltender.
With three regular-season games remaining, the Baby Penguins (56-20-0-1) also have equaled the franchise record for most points (113) in a season and wrapped up the Eastern Division title.
It is a pretty amazing accomplishment, given that 11 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players have been called up by their club's parent team, the NHL's Penguins, this season because of injuries.
Those players, which included nine of the top 10 scorers at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, have played a combined 140 games with the NHL Penguins.
"More than half of our team has had a taste of Pittsburgh this year, and that kind of pushes guys, and makes them feel like they are part of the success throughout the organization," said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton center and captain Ryan Craig, who accumulated 22 penalty minutes in six NHL games with the Penguins.
"Despite all the call-ups, our staff hasn't changed. Our goals haven't changed. And our system never changes."
Rookie coach John Hynes, who served as an assistant last season with the Baby Penguins under Todd Reirden, was named AHL coach of the year Wednesday. Reirden is currently an assistant with the Penguins.
Under Hynes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton not only has topped the franchise's previous mark of 51 wins in a season, its 56 victories are tied for the third-highest total by any AHL team.
"It's a great honor, being named coach of the year, and to be able to have such a good season," said Hynes, 36, and the youngest coach in the AHL. "I think it's a direct result of the type of players that we have, the staff, and the management.
"It's not a one-man show. You need a team effort.
"You have to have the right commitment. You have to have consistency, and [have] a little bit of luck."
Goaltender Brad Thiessen, signed as an undrafted free agent by the Penguins in 2009 after playing at Northeastern University, was named the AHL's goaltender of the year earlier this month.
With a 34-7-1 record, he leads the league in victories and is tied for the top spot in both goals-against average (1.93) and shutouts (seven).
Thiessen, also named a first-team all-star, had a brief three-game stint as a backup with the Penguins last month but did not play. He said there is not much difference between the dressing rooms in the NHL or AHL.
"All the guys have the same mentality at both levels -- they want to win," Thiessen said. "The coaching staffs are pretty similar.
"They use a lot of the same philosophies here as they do there, and the guys are focused."
Thiessen also got a chance to rub elbows with Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, himself a former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farmhand, and came away impressed.
"He's a very friendly guy," Thiessen said.
"He's a guy you admire because he's had such a great year with all the injuries up there.
"Anytime I want to ask him a question, he's always there and is very helpful."
Left wing Brett Sterling, who had three goals and two assists in seven games with the Penguins, leads Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 25 goals and 50 points. Craig is second with 19 goals and 47 points.
The Baby Penguins rank fourth in the AHL in scoring offense (3.27 goals per game) and first in defense (2.30 gpg).
"I spent four years in Atlanta's organization before signing with Pittsburgh [last summer] and there weren't many guys getting called up to the NHL, and it was tough," said Sterling, who played in 19 NHL games with the Thrashers.
"But here a lot of guys have gotten an opportunity to play in the NHL this year, and have made some really good impressions. That drives you to work hard down here."
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins' AHL affiliate since 1999, will wrap up its regular season this weekend.
The Baby Penguins will play a home-and-home series against rival Hershey tonight and Saturday before closing out their season Sunday afternoon against Adirondack at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Baby Penguins, who open the Calder Cup playoffs April 15, are 7-1 this year against Hershey, the two-time defending league champion. Hershey's parent team is the Washington Capitals.
"The Hershey Bears are the best and, if you're ever going to do anything in this league, you have to get through those guys," Hynes said.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has failed in its three previous trips to the Calder Cup final.
"We got a chance to do something real special here right now and we kind of have our mind set on that," said defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, a third-round draft pick of the Penguins in 2007.
"We want to finish this off right."
First Published April 8, 2011 12:00 am