AHL Weekly: Quick start has Pens thinking big

AHL standings || Scores and schedules || League leaders

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins boast eight consecutive playoff appearances and Calder Cup Finals trips in 2001, 2004, and 2008, but they have yet to hoist the AHL’s championship trophy. Through this season’s first four weeks, though, the 2010-11 edition of the Penguins have been an unstoppable force in the East Division as they look to position themselves for another run at postseason glory.

Under first-year AHL head coach John Hynes, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is riding an eight-game winning streak to begin the season. Included in those eight victories are three decisions over the arch-rival and two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, after the Pens finished 2-9-0-1 against Hershey in 2009-10. The Pens’ red-hot start has been marked by a balanced offense (no skater is among the AHL’s top 50 in scoring), a defense which has surrendered a league-low 1.88 goals per contest, and a top-ranked penalty-killing unit (93.0 percent) which enters the new week having denied 31 straight opponent power plays.

Returning goaltenders John Curry (4-0-0, 1.72, .940) and Brad Thiessen (4-0-0, 1.96, .930) have each appeared in four games and won them all, earning the tandem a share of Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month honors for October. Curry, a 2008 AHL All-Rookie Team member who backstopped Wilkes-Barre to the Finals that year, is on his first four-game winning streak since Oct. 16-29, 2009. Meanwhile, Thiessen shows an 11-3-0 mark in his last 14 regular-season appearances dating back to 2009-10.

Nick Johnson (3-5-8) and Dustin Jeffrey (2-6-8) share the Penguins’ scoring lead in the early going after each set career highs in goals and points for Wilkes-Barre a season ago. A former teammate of Thiessen’s at Northeastern University, Joe Vitale totaled just six goals (6-26-32) in 74 games as a rookie last season but has already racked up a team-best five markers (5-1-6) through eight contests this year, including a league-high three game-winning goals and a pair of shorthanded markers. Chris Conner, who enjoyed a career-best 56 points for the Pens in 2009-10, is coming off a two-goal, one-assist effort at Hershey on Saturday and has 2-4-6 overall. Fellow returnees Tim Wallace (3-2-5), Robert Bortuzzo (1-4-5) and defensemen Brian Strait (0-3-3) have also made early contributions.

The organization complemented its returning corps by adding former Calder Cup champions Andrew Hutchinson (2004, Milwaukee) and Brett Sterling (2008, Chicago) over the summer. Hutchinson, who also reached the Finals with Texas last spring, has contributed six points (2-4-6) on the Wilkes-Barre blue line in between call-ups to Pittsburgh, and Sterling registered three points (1-2-3) in four games before suffering an injury from which he is expected to return next weekend. Forward Ryan Craig (1-1-2) joined the Pens after his 23-22-45 totals led Norfolk in scoring last year, and veteran defenseman Steve Wagner (2-3-5) is already halfway to the four goals he scored in 66 AHL games split between Peoria and Wilkes-Barre in 2009-10.

The 1984-85 Rochester Americans own the AHL record for wins to start a season with 11, and this year’s Amerks will have two chances to stop Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s streak as the Penguins visit Rochester on Friday and Sunday (with a home date against Syracuse on Saturday in between). Wilkes-Barre enters the weekend one victory shy of the franchise record for consecutive victories (nine), achieved four times.

DEVILS PROSPECTS EARNING SHOTS … The hockey season is not yet a full month old, and already nine players have appeared in at least one game for the Albany Devils and their NHL affiliate in New Jersey. That is well ahead of the organization’s 2009-10 pace, when a total of 13 players played at both levels.

The group which has shuttled between Albany and Newark thus far includes five players who made their NHL debuts: Alexander Urbom, Alexander Vasynuov, Olivier Magnan, Brad Mills and 19-year-old forward Jacob Josefson, the 20th overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft. Matt Corrente, Tyler Eckford, Tim Sestito and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond have also appeared for both Albany and New Jersey this season, and the list doesn’t even include defenseman Matt Taormina, who is tied for New Jersey’s goal-scoring lead (three) after ranking second among AHL rookie defensemen with 50 points in 2009-10.

Over the course of the 2009-10 regular season, 320 players played in both the AHL and NHL, an average of 11 players per AHL squad.

BRIGHT LIGHTS … TThe Hamilton Bulldogs and Binghamton Senators will hit NHL ice this Friday when they do battle at the Bell Centre in Montreal, home of Hamilton’s NHL affiliate, the Montreal Canadiens. Face-off is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

It marks one of seven AHL games on the 2010-11 schedule which will take place in National Hockey League rinks. The Bulldogs and Senators battle again on Nov. 26 at Scotiabank Place, home of the Ottawa Senators, and Hamilton returns to the Bell Centre again on Feb. 25 to take on Adirondack. Pittsburgh’s new Consol Energy Center is set to host the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears on Dec. 30, which will serve as an appetizer to the Bridgestone/NHL Winter Classic two days later featuring the teams’ respective NHL affiliates. Elsewhere, Adirondack tangles with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Philadelphia on Jan. 21; Houston battles Peoria in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 12; and Abbotsford takes on Oklahoma City in Calgary on Feb. 17.

Three Bulldogs games played in Montreal over the past two seasons have drawn a total of 44,677 fans, including two of the eight largest crowds to see AHL games in 2009-10.

ETC. … Charlotte opened its inaugural AHL season with eight of its first 10 games on the road, but Tuesday’s tilt vs. Portland opens a stretch in which the Checkers will play 10 of their next 11 contests at Time Warner Cable Arena… Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 6-2 win in Hershey on Saturday was the Penguins’ first win in 11 tries at Giant Center (including regular season and playoffs), and marked the Bears’ first home loss by more than one goal since Nov. 25, 2009 (also including regular season and playoffs)… AHL leading scorer Keith Aucoin (5-14-19) of Hershey has been named Reebok/AHL Player of the Month for October in two of the past three seasons… Syracuse’s Kyle Palmieri leads all AHL rookies with seven goals (7-2-9), and teammate Nick Bonino’s seven assists are tied for the league rookie lead… In Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Springfield, Hartford rookie defenseman Tomas Kundratek notched his first career goal and Devin DiDiomete scored his first in the AHL since Apr. 1, 2009, vs. Portland… Rockford rookie defenseman Nick Leddy, a first-round draft pick (16th overall) by the Minnesota Wild in 2009, registered his first three career AHL points (1-2-3) in two games last weekend… Signed by Adirondack on Monday, Denis Hamel ranks fourth among active players with 555 points (290-265-555) in 710 career AHL games… After racking up 26 goals in its first six games (5-1-0), Peoria has managed only five goals in its last five outings (2-3-0)… San Antonio’s Mathieu Beaudoin has a point in eight straight games (4-5-9), while teammates Alexandre Picard (6-3-9) and Viktor Tikhonov (2-6-8) are each riding seven-game scoring streaks for the 7-2-1-0 Rampage… Oklahoma City is 0-4-0-1 when scoring two or fewer goals this season but a perfect 7-0-0-0 when reaching the three-goal plateau… Houston is 4-0-0-0 when leading after the first period this season and 0-3-0-0 when trailing after 20 minutes… Manitoba entered the new week 0-3-0-0 against Grand Rapids, but 5-1-0-0 against the rest of the AHL… Toronto is the only team yet to play an overtime game this season… Lake Erie has scored more shorthanded goals (two) than power-play goals (one)… Hershey is outscoring its opponents 17-4 in the third period and overtime.