SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Winners of seven in a row heading into their New Year’s Eve game, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have finally emerged from mediocrity to make a run at the top spot in the East Division.
The Penguins had not been more than two games above or two games below the .500 mark all season until their recent streak, during which they have outscored their opponents 29-10. Head coach Todd Richards’ club has closed to within six points of first-place Philadelphia with contributions up and down the roster, including a pair of rookie goaltenders thrust into the spotlight.
An injury to Marc-Andre Fleury, reportedly expected to keep him out of the lineup into February, led to Ty Conklin’s recall to Pittsburgh and left Wilkes-Barre’s goaltending duties in the hands of first-year pros John Curry and David Brown. In their last eight starts, the pair are a combined 7-0-1 with a 1.36 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage. Curry, 23, was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award at Boston University last season, while the 22-year-old Brown led the nation in wins (30) and GAA (1.58) at Notre Dame.
Tim Brent and Nathan Smith have both recorded points in each game of the seven-game winning streak. Brent, who has three goals and 10 assists in those seven contests, leads the Penguins with 27 points on the season, just three short of the career high he set with Portland last season. Smith, a first-round draft pick in 2000 who spent his first five AHL seasons with Manitoba, is one back with 26 points. Third-year forward Kurtis McLean has added 10 points – including three game-winning goals – in the Pens’ last seven games after notching seven points in his previous 22 outings.
Jeff Taffe, like Smith a first-rounder in 2000, had a team-high 12 goals for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his NHL recall by Pittsburgh on Dec. 19. After scoring 32 goals for Lowell a season ago, Chris Minard has 11 goals so far for the Penguins, including eight in his last 16 games. Blueliner Ben Lovejoy leads Wilkes-Barre with a plus-12 rating, good for fourth among AHL rookies, while Alex Goligoski’s six goals are tops among rookie defensemen in the league.
The Penguins, who are driving for their sixth consecutive appearance in the Calder Cup Playoffs, begin the new year with three interconference games against North Division foes, starting Wednesday when Syracuse visits the Wachovia Arena at Casey Plaza. The team record for longest winning streak is nine games, set in October 2005.
|Scores and schedules|
STILL HOG WILD … The Rockford IceHogs ran their points streak to 16 games last week, bringing an impressive 11-0-1-4 run into their New Year’s Eve meeting with Milwaukee.
Martin St. Pierre has 19 points in 14 games during Rockford’s ride, and his personal 12-game scoring streak (through Dec. 30) was the longest in the league this season. Kris Versteeg managed 17 points in 13 games, Troy Brouwer led the club with eight goals and Corey Crawford had a personal 10-0-4 streak snapped in a 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago on Dec. 27.
AERO DYNAMIC … After platooning with Barry Brust for much of the first six weeks of the season, Nolan Schaefer has seized control of Houston’s number-one goaltending job and has piloted the Aeros into the thick of the West Division playoff race.
Schaefer, who totaled 14 wins and three teams in 2006-07, is 10-1-0 with a 1.52 goals-against average, a .944 save percentage and three shutouts in his last 12 starts. He begins the week second in the AHL in GAA (2.01) and first in save percentage (.928). Houston, meanwhile, is 13-6-0-2 in its last 21 games overall and 9-0-0-1 in its last 10 at Toyota Center.
|AHL Team Records – 2007 (thru 12/30)|
The New England Division placed three teams in the top four overall in 2007, with Hartford (52-23-1-4, .681) and Manchester (46-25-5-1, .636) following the Bruins. Manitoba (45-22-4-2, .658) owned the best record in the Western Conference.
ETC. … Gabe Gauthier scored twice in the final 3:11 of regulation and completed the hat trick at 4:19 of overtime as Manchester rallied past Worcester on Saturday, 3-2… The first four-goal game of Jean-Guy Trudel’s AHL career led Peoria to an 8-3 win at Iowa on Friday… Brett Sterling had consecutive overtime goals in Chicago’s wins on Dec. 22 and Dec. 27… Joel Kwiatkowski scored three power-play goals in the second period of the Wolves’ 4-3 win at Milwaukee on Friday night… Nigel Dawes, who has 25 points (10g, 15a) in his last 13 AHL games, scored two of Hartford’s five second-period goals in a 5-2 win at Manchester on Sunday… With another goal on Saturday, Providence’s David Krejci is now 6-for-6 on shootout attempts this season and 16-for-20 over his two-year career… Ryan Russell, Mathieu Aubin and Mathieu Biron all netted their first goals of the season in Hamilton’s 3-1 victory over Manitoba on Dec. 27… One night later, Malcolm MacMillan and Patrick McNeill scored their first career AHL goals in Hershey’s 4-1 win over Norfolk… Krys Kolanos registered a hat trick in Quad City’s 5-2 win over Chicago on Saturday… Rochester snapped a franchise-record-tying 10-game losing streak with a 4-1 decision over Hamilton on Saturday… After going nearly two months without back-to-back wins, Lowell took a four-game winning streak into New Year’s Eve.