With two weeks having passed since my last Penguins minor-league report, I’ll take a step back to gain a wider-than-usual perspective on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Wheeling Nailers.
Now that the holidays are over, it’s a great time to look at the 2012 portion of the schedule for both teams and determine how they are positioned as the playoff hunt becomes more current.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (14-14-3, 31 points) – 4th in AHL’s East Division
After completing a scintillating November that helped them rally out of the East cellar, the WBS Penguins are near the basement again following a December to forget. The Pens beat St. John’s on Dec. 1 to run their winning streak to five games, but Pittsburgh’s primary player development affiliate has won just once in its last 11 games (1-7-3). WBS is now only two points ahead of last-place Norfolk after threatening for the East’s top spot just four weeks ago.
In spite of the team’s extended slump, rookie forward Beau Bennett remains my top positive story in northeastern Pennsylvania. The 6-foot-1 right-handed shooter missed 33 games last year at the University of Denver due to a broken wrist, but his pro debut has been quite promising.
At 21 years old, Bennett has played in 26 of the Penguins’ 31 games and has led the team in scoring nearly the entire way. His 21 points (5g, 16a) place him 12th among AHL rookies, although he’d likely be a bit higher if the NHL was in session. My only concern is his (relative) paucity of goals, considering that he was drafted in 2010 as a potential top-six sniper at the NHL level.
Defensively, first-year pros Brian Dumoulin (acquired in June’s Jordan Staal trade) and Joe Morrow (2011 first-round draft pick) have been middling to good, according to most credible accounts. Their point totals are essentially even – Dumoulin has nine and Morrow has eight – but Dumoulin has gotten the better reviews when it comes to handling the pace of the game and working effectively in his own end of the ice.
The Penguins’ goaltending has been held down capably by AHL veteran Jeff Zatkoff, whose play has largely been a stabilizing force for coach John Hynes’ club. The AHL’s November goalie of the month battled through a lingering injury in early December but he has taken the ice five times in the last two weeks. Although his save percentage (.915) has dropped a bit from its earlier heights, he remains in the league’s top 10 according to goals-against average (2.15) while facing 25 shots per appearance.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton faces a three-in-three stretch from Friday-Sunday, with road games at Binghamton and Connecticut sandwiching a home confrontation against Worcester.
Wheeling Nailers (13-10-6, 32 points) – T-2nd in ECHL’s Atlantic Division
The Nailers’ 2012 was nearly a mirror image of the Penguins’ first half, as Wheeling started just fine in October, then plummeted in November and early December before a recent uptick. Although the Nailers’ had their eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) expire Saturday in South Carolina, West Virginia’s only pro hockey team has pulled even with Trenton for second place in the four-team Atlantic.
Even with the NHL still locked out, most of the players currently in the ECHL will never play at the sport’s highest level, making true prospects scarce in “Double-A” hockey. However, local favorites like Wheeling’s Paul Crowder, the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals and 15 assists, lend meaning and emotion to the games and rivalries. I recently attended a Nailers game at the intimate WesBanco Arena and I suggest you give ECHL hockey a try, even when the Pittsburgh Penguins eventually get back to work.
Wheeling will have a great opportunity to leapfrog Trenton this weekend when it welcomes the Titans to town Friday and Saturday. The Nailers will then wrap up their three-game week on Sunday afternoon in Reading, Pa., against the Royals.