I tend to focus on the player development aspects of minor-league hockey for this weekly recap, and for good reason. While I certainly prefer for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Wheeling Nailers to do well in the standings, I’m a Pittsburgh Penguins fan first and foremost.
Certainly a “winning atmosphere” in the minors has some value, but the only thing that really matters to the big club is whether the prospects blossom. Coaches in the lower levels of pro hockey are judged primarily by how well they develop young talent, especially in the American Hockey League.
Still, for the players and other members of the organization, from front office to support staff, winning is still critical. If a team is to thrive on the all-important business side, on-ice success clearly helps attract fan attention and dollars. To that end, it’s getting close to the time of the season when the standings gain additional relevance.
In that category, the Baby Pens are doing better than the Nailers, although both could stand to benefit from a holiday surge.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (13-7-2, 28 points – 3rd in AHL’s East Division)
The Baby Pens held their ground in the East Division despite dropping a pair of extra-time decisions. Those twin losses cut the team’s winning streak down at five games, even though the Pens’ unbeaten streak reached seven (5-0-2). WBS is three points behind Syracuse for first in the five-team division.
An Eric Tangradi power-play goal forced overtime in Hershey last Friday before the Bears prevailed 5-4 at home. Tangradi has a team-best 10 goals to go with four assists; his 14 points put him five behind rookie Beau Bennett (5g, 14a) on the Penguins’ scoring list.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton blew a 3-0 lead to visiting Portland on Saturday night, the second time this season the Pens couldn’t hold a multi-goal advantage over the Pirates. Unlike the first time, Portland claimed a shootout victory against WBS goalie Brad Thiessen.
In an interesting bit of news, the Baby Pens signed goalie Ryan Zapolski to a pro tryout agreement this week. Zapolski, a former star at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., makes it a crowded crease in northeastern Pennsylvania, with Thiessen and reigning AHL goaltender of the month Jeff Zatkoff serving as the incumbents. Perhaps this is a move to push Thiessen, who has been disappointing (.889 SV%, 3.17 GAA) a year after shining in WBS.
The Baby Pens travel to Albany on Wednesday, then they host Binghamton and head to Syracuse on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The latter two opponents are East rivals.
Wheeling Nailers (6-8-5, 17 points – 4th in ECHL’s Atlantic Division)
It was a strange, somewhat disappointing weekend for the Nailers at WesBanco Arena. Wheeling welcomed the defending Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades to northern West Virginia on Friday and Saturday, resulting in a pair of shootout losses via completely different paths.
On Friday, Nailers newcomer Chris Higgins completed a comeback from 3-0 down to force overtime, as he scored his first Wheeling goal in the final minute with goalie Scott Darling pulled. Pittsburgh draft pick Carl Sneep also netted a goal along the way, but the Everblades won 4-3 in the tiebreaker.
Higgins scored again Saturday, as did fellow recent arrival (and second-time Nailer) Andrew Hotham, but Wheeling squandered a 4-1 third-period lead in an eventual 5-4 shootout defeat. Hotham was an all-rookie ECHL selection last year after making his pro debut with the Nailers.
After the ice shavings settled on the weekend, the Nailers remained in last place in the Atlantic. However, they have eight points available this week as they play four times over the next five days. Wheeling skates at Toledo on Wednesday and at Trenton on Friday before hosting Fort Wayne (Saturday) and Evansville (Sunday). The Nailers trail Trenton by two points for third place in the division.