Penguins minor-league report: Kuhnhackl, Despres break through


Federal mediators are now taking part in NHL labor negotiations, but the AHL and ECHL remain blessedly devoid of boardroom banter. Let’s dive into this week’s Pittsburgh Penguins minor-league report, where a law degree isn’t required to explore specifics.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (11-7-0, 22 points – 3rd place in AHL’s East Division)

The Baby Penguins left October with a 2-5-0 record, but they’re about to enter December within range of first place in the East Division. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton started its week with a rebound 4-0 win over Hershey, as the rival Bears had beaten the Penguins four times prior to last Wednesday’s matchup. Jeff Zatkoff picked up a 15-save shutout to backstop an offensive effort keyed by rookie forward Beau Bennett and defenseman Simon Despres, who each scored a goal.

Dec 31 2011; Newark, NJ, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Simon Despres (47) skates the puck behind the net against the New Jersey Devils during the second period at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Alan Maglaque-US PRESSWIRE

Zatkoff starred again two nights later, carrying a clean sheet into the third period before goals from Despres and Riley Holzapfel triggered a 2-1 win against the visiting Toronto Marlies. Zatkoff’s 1.36 goals-against average and .938 save percentage rank him first and third, respectively, among American Hockey League goalies who have played in more than five games. Despres’ five points (2g, 3a) are three behind Pittsburgh native Dylan Reese for the team lead among defensemen.

First-year pro Tom Kuhnhackl was drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010, one year after Despres went to the Penguins in the first round. Kuhnhackl followed the strides of Despres in another way last Saturday, when he scored his first two AHL tallies in a 5-4 shootout win against the Albany Devils in Atlantic City, N.J. The 6-foot-2 German-born winger also added an assist as Brad Thiessen stepped back between the pipes and made 28 saves in addition to five shootout stops.

While playing for the Niagara IceDogs of the junior-level Ontario Hockey League last year, Kuhnhackl was suspended 20 games for a dangerous check to the head of Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy (video below). He will need to do much more on the ice to push that incident out of hockey fans’ memories, but he has accumulated four points (2g, 2a) in nine AHL games.

The Baby Pens will try to extend their winning streak to four Friday night when they welcome Syracuse to Mohegan Sun Arena. St. John’s pays a visit Saturday night.

Wheeling Nailers (4-8-3, 11 points – 4th in ECHL’s Atlantic Division)

Just as the WBS Penguins continue to surge to the top of their division, the status quo remained in place for the Nailers. While Wheeling did shut down Evansville 4-0 last Wednesday to halt its six-game winless run, Cincinnati grabbed a 2-0 decision at WesBanco Arena on Saturday night to keep the Penguins’ ECHL affiliate stagnant in the basement of the Atlantic Division.

Despite the so-so team results from last week, goalie Scott Darling is beginning to make a name for himself in the Double-A circuit. The 6-foot-6 23-year-old was drafted by the Coyotes in 2007, but he had yet to play regularly above the Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League until this fall.

Darling suited up in both games last week and denied a combined 32 of 33 shots. Penguins 2008 draftee Patrick Killeen is likely still the Nailers’ No. 1 goalie, but the towering Darling may have earned additional playing time for the duration of the season.

With Stefan Chaput (nine points) called up to Hamilton by the Montreal organization, captain Paul Crowder (3g, 8a) and defenseman Cody Wild (3g, 8a) remain Wheeling’s prime offensive threats. The Nailers take on Trenton on Wednesday night in West Virginia before heading to Elmira, N.Y., on Friday to joust with the Jackals.