AHL Weekly Release: Pens scripting fitting end to 2008


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … Before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will look back fondly on 2008 as a year that saw them secure their third straight 100-point season, make the third Calder Cup Finals appearance in franchise history and see several alumni play for the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh.

Now, with a new head coach and one of the league’s most potent offenses, the Pens are steadily climbing the East Division standings as they gear up to defend their Eastern Conference championship.

Under the tutelage of rookie bench boss Dan Bylsma, an assistant during Wilkes-Barre’s run to the Finals last season, the Penguins enter the new week at 20-11-1-1, good for 42 points and third place in the East Division race. The Penguins are on a season-high four-game winning streak and show points in 11 of their last 13 contests (10-2-1-0).

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s offense is averaging 3.58 goals per game – the AHL’s third-best mark – and a big reason for that has been the dangerous duo of Chris Minard and Jeff Taffe.

Minard, who has joined Michel Ouellet as the only players in franchise history to post back-to-back 25-goal seasons, leads the AHL in goals (25), power-play goals (12) and game-winning goals (7); ranks second in the circuit with 39 points in just 27 games; and has netted a goal in a franchise-record six straight outings (9-1-10).

Taffe is third in the league with 38 points (16-22-38) in 28 contests and has 14 points in his last six AHL games, including three separate four-point nights.

Janne Pesonen, in his first North American season after playing the last five years in his native Finland, ranks third on the club with 31 points (8-23-31) in 27 games, and is one of 12 Wilkes-Barre players to play for the parent Penguins in Pittsburgh already this season. Fourth-year pro Ryan Stone has eight goals and 24 points through 31 contests and is well on pace to set career highs in both categories. Connor James shows 10 goals (10-7-17) in 31 games this season, including an AHL-high four shorthanded markers, and second-year pro Mark Letestu has chipped in 14 points (5-9-14) in 26 games thus far.

Rookies Luca Caputi (9-9-18) and Dustin Jeffrey (4-13-17) are also out to strong starts after getting acquainted to the pro game during the Penguins’ long playoff run last spring.

Second-year defenseman Ben Lovejoy, whose plus-16 showing led the Penguins in 2007-08, is pacing the entire AHL with a plus-20 rating to go along with his 17 points (4-13-17) this season. Other rearguards making an impact for Wilkes-Barre include Jon D’Aversa (1-13-14), Joey Mormina (plus-14), Jean-Philippe Cote (plus-10) and Danny Richmond (1-9-10).

The Penguins’ tandem of Adam Berkhoel (12-5-1, 2.37, .920) and 2007-08 AHL All-Rookie goaltender John Curry (7-5-0, 2.82, .906) has combined for five shutouts on the season, tying Grand Rapids for the most in the league. Berkhoel alone has posted four whitewashes, including three in a row from Nov. 7-19, while Curry has also gone 2-1-0 in his first three NHL career appearances for Pittsburgh.

Closing out a year on a high note is nothing new for the Penguins: Wilkes-Barre is 57-19-2-3-4 (w-l-t-otl-sol) in the month of December since 2002. They ring out 2008 on Tuesday night when they host Philadelphia, the team which has handed the Penguins each of their last three regulation losses.

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AIN’T OVER ’TIL IT’S OVER … Shut out for the first 57-plus minutes of the game, the Houston Aeros came alive late on Sunday and stunned the Peoria Rivermen with a 4-3 shootout victory at Carver Arena.

Houston was staring at a 3-0 deficit before Paul Albers ended a 61-game drought with his first goal since Jan. 18, getting the Aeros on the board with 2:36 remaining in regulation. Then with six attackers on the ice, Peter Olvecky made it 3-2 at the 19:00 mark and Corey Locke potted the buzzer-beating equalizer with just two-tenths of a second showing on the clock.

After a scoreless overtime period, Nolan Schaefer relieved Barry Brust for the shootout and denied all four Rivermen attempts to secure the win for Houston.

That wasn’t the only three-goal deficit to be erased over the weekend. In its first visit of the season to the Allstate Arena on Saturday, Milwaukee trailed 3-0 before scoring five times in the third period – including a 4-for-4 effort on the power play in the frame – to come away with a 5-3 win over a Wolves team that had been 15-1-0-0 when leading after two.

And while Houston’s comeback was going on Sunday, Hamilton also dug out of a 3-0 hole to squeak out a 4-3 shootout victory over Rochester.

QUICK STRIKES … Twelve days after his recall from Manchester, Jonathan Quick was named one of the NHL’s Three Stars for the week ending Dec. 28. Quick was 2-1-0 with a 0.67 goals-against average, a .958 save percentage and his first two NHL shutouts in three games for Los Angeles last week.

A second-year pro, Quick is 6-5-2 in 14 games for the Monarchs in 2008-09, including 5-0-1 in his last six AHL decisions.

Also earning NHL recognition for his play last week was 2008 Calder Cup champion Bryan Little. The Atlanta Thrashers forward scored six goals in three games, including his first NHL hat trick on Dec. 26.

DEADLINE LOOMING … Sunday marks the deadline to determine the second head coach for the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Charter Communications. The team with the best points percentage after play on Jan. 4 will send its coach to guide the Canadian team at the event in Worcester.

Entering the week, eight coaches remain in mathematical contention for the honor, led by Hershey’s Bob Woods (.734), Manitoba’s Scott Arniel (.694), Milwaukee’s Lane Lambert (.683) and Bridgeport’s Jack Capuano (.682). By virtue of the Chicago Wolves’ 2008 Calder Cup championship, Wolves head coach Don Granato has been selected to lead the PlanetUSA team in Worcester.

Sunday is also the last day for fans to participate in the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic Fan Balloting presented by Reebok. Fans have until 11:59 p.m. ET on Jan. 4 to cast their votes and help determine the starting lineups for the event.

ETC. … Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, who leads AHL rookies with 33 points (17-16-33), earned his NHL recall of the season on Friday and suited up for the Flyers that night in Chicago… The assignment of Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers to Springfield on a conditioning assignment from Edmonton should spell relief for Devan Dubnyk, who has started 32 of the Falcons’ first 33 games this season… Steve Downie has recorded eight points in the first three games of the Norfolk-Philadelphia season series: four assists in one game as a Phantom, and three goals and an assist in two games as an Admiral… Downie’s hat trick vs. Philadelphia on Saturday extended his scoring streak to eight games (5-10-15)… Wilkes-Barre’s Chris Minard has at least one point in each of his 14 road games this season (13-9-22)… Joe Motzko has scored 10 goals in his last 10 games for Chicago… Grand Rapids has posted three shutouts in its last four games, including back-to-back efforts by Daniel Larsson… Binghamton’s 4-1 win at Hershey on Saturday was their first at Giant Center since Jan. 23, 2005, snapping a 16-game winless streak at Giant Center (0-12-2-2)… Toronto defeated Lake Erie on Friday, 3-1, for its first regulation win against the Monsters in six tries this season, and then snapped a five-game losing streak to Manitoba with a pair of victories over the Moose… Beginning with Monday’s make-up of a snowed-out game vs. Portland, the Worcester Sharks have five home dates in seven days this week… More than 186,000 fans attended AHL games over the Boxing Day weekend, including consecutive five-digit crowds in Hershey on Saturday (10,057) and Sunday (10,347)… Houston embarks on a season-high eight-game road trip on Wednesday, which takes the Aeros to eight different cities in a 12-day span.