The Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins played three games this week, Wednesday and Friday night at home against the Abbotsford Heat and Saturday night in Syracuse against the Crunch.
Thirty games into the season, the WBS Pens still have the best record in the entire AHL. At 23-7, they are four points ahead of the Norfolk Admirals for the division lead as well as four points ahead of the Manchester Monarchs for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They also lead the Western Conference's top team to date, the San Antonio Rampage, by one point for the overall league lead.
It's still a bit early to think about playoffs and the promise land just yet but playoff fever should start to kick in when the days are longer, the temperature higher and the regular season games begin to dwindle.
Luckily for the Pens, the players have been allowed to go home for the holidays, even after Saturday's loss in Syracuse. The AHL has no games scheduled from December 23rd until Christmas Day but the Pens were lucky enough not to have a game scheduled from Saturday the 18th until the Sunday the 26th, when they host the Albany Devils.
A quick look at the leading scorers on the WBS Pens with the stats from the AHL's website:
Jeffrey: 14 goals, 18 assists in 27 games
Sterling: 10 goals, 10 assists in 24 games
Wallace: 9 goals 10 assists in 26 games
Vitale: 7 goals, 12 assists in 30 games
Hutchinson: 3 goals, 11 assists in 17 games
Tangradi: 12 goals, 5 assists in 24 games
Wagner: 2 goals, 12 assists in 30 games
Even scoring throughout the lineup. A lot of improvement from guys like Robert Bortuzzo, who has surpassed his point total from last season - 2 goals & 10 assists in 75 games - in his first 29 games this year. Also Joe Vitale has scored more goals this year than all of last season. Even fourth line enforcer Jesse Boulerice has matched his offensive production from last year already. With the injuries and call-ups the Pens have had to deal with, they still have had the depth to continue forward, and with much success.
Wednesday, December 15th, WBS 2-1 OT vs. Abbotsford
In the first of two home games against the Abbotsford Heat, the teams played a tight, low scoring and frankly uneventful game. Keven Veilleux notched his third of the season early in the first period and Abbotsford's Keith Seabrook (relation to Chicago's Seabrook?) tied the game in the final 1:30 of the third.
In the end Nick Johnson won the game for the Pens, with the help of John Curry's 29 saves on 30 shots. With the game against Albany in Atlantic City cancelled, Curry made his fifth straigt start. The team had been rotating the starters in the beginning of the season before Brad Theissen took three straight starts back in mid-November.
Friday, December 17th, WBS 5-2 vs. Abbotsford
Brad Theissen got the start in the rematch from Wednesday and played well, stopping 30 of 32 shots. This game was a lot more exciting to watch, especially in late in the third when basically all hell broke loose. There were a few fights and a near brawl at the end of the game. Not sure what will happen when the WBS Pens make the trip to Abbotsford for a pair of back-to-back games in ...
Eric Tangradi scored twice and has been dominant in the month of December. After scoring four goals in his first 17 games, Tangradi has netted eight in his last seven. Dustin Jeffrey added his 14th goal of the season and an assist, another beautiful shorthanded goal which ties him for the most in the league with five.
Saturday, December 18th, WBS 1-3 vs. Syracuse
Saturday's tilt against the Crunch was probably one of the most frustrating games for the Pens this season. Team captain Ryan Craig got the Pens a 1-0 lead in the first but they couldn't make it 2-0 on any of their six powerplay chances. Dan Sexton, the Anahiem Mighty Ducks future star, tied the game in the second and Trevor Smith scored two quick goals midway through the third to give the Crunch the 3-1 win.
The loss wasn't for a lack of effort. They just couldn't get the puck past Jean-Phillippe Levasseur, including their 22 shots on goal in the second period. A tough way to go into the break but hopefuly a few guys who haven't been in the lineup will be ready to go on Sunday when the Pens host the Albany Devils.
- After 30 games only Zach Sill, Joe Vitale, Steve Wagner and Brian Strait have appeared in all the team's contests. The week long break comes at a good time for the Pens as Andrew Hutchinson and Tim Wallace should be able to return to the lineup shortly after the Christmas break. Unfortunately for WBS, I don't think Chris Conner will be coming back and if another Pittsburgh forward can't play or a move is made it is likely Dustin Jeffrey or Eric Tangradi will get the nod to the NHL.
- Brett Sterling and Keven Veilleux have missed some time here and there with some minor injuries. Veilleux caught the injury bug again in the team's most recent game against Syracuse. After the Penguins scored their only goal of the game early in the first Veilleux was hit up high and left the ice. He didn't return to the game either which isn't a good sign. Hopefully the week off will be enough to get him back on the ice.
- Seems like head coach John Hynes is just riding the hot goaltender, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins did with Brent Johnson earlier this year. The only difference in this case is that both goalies have been spectactular:
Theissen: 12-2 with one shutout, 2.25 GAA & .917 SV%
Curry: 11-5 with one shutout, 2.33 GAA & .913 SV%
- Tough to say who the team's number one guy is. Right now the answer is obviously Curry. Come late March into April it could be either guy.
- An interesting thing about the Penguins this year is their limited troubles with a few opponents. Besides Norfolk (0-3), Syracuse (0-2) and Binghamton (3-2) the Penguins are a perfect 20-0 against the rest of their opponents, with Hershey (4-0) the most impressive. I know it's only the regular season but most WBS Pens fans know how much frustration the Bears have given the Pens over the past few years.