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Ready for another run?

Pens appear to have talent to defend East Division title

Dany Sabourin was the top goaltender in the AHL last year. He returns to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season.

TIMES LEADER FILE PHOTO

Dennis Bonvie will add his own special type of toughness to the Penguins again this season.

TIMES LEADER Staff Photo/Don Carey

WILKES-BARRE TWP. – A year ago, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins opened the season on a record-setting tear.

It wasn’t ’til mid December that the Penguins lost their first regulation game.

By the time they bowed out of the playoffs in the second-round, victims of a four-game sweep at the hands of eventual champion Hershey, the Penguins had:

• Won a franchise-record 51 games

• Collected a franchise-record 113 points.

• Earned their first division championship.

• Allowed a league-low 178 goals against.

• Seen their starting goalie honored as the league’s best.

• And, graduated 16 players to the NHL at one point or another during the season.

So what do the Penguins do for an encore?

A longer playoff run would be nice. But, that’s months away.

Step 1 will be defending the East Division championship they won last season.

And, with the players they have coming back and a handful of new additions, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to do just that.

Here’s a look, position by position at just what to expect this season from the Penguins:

CENTER

The Penguins will be a much stronger team down the middle than they were a year ago. Erik Christensen is back. The question is, will he be the Erik Christensen that scored 19 points in the Penguins’ first nine games while centering the top line, or the Erik Christensen that had four points in the Penguins’ final 15 games and was virtually invisible in the playoffs? If it’s the former, and if coach Todd Richards can pair him with someone who has a finisher’s touch around the net – think Jonathan Filewich – the Penguins will be in good shape. Moreso if, as widely believed, the Edmonton Oilers decide to send Rob Schremp to the AHL to start the season. Christensen and Schremp could give the Penguins one of the best one-two punches at center in the league. Oiler prospect Kyle Brodziak is an excellent faceoff man.

RIGHT WING

Is Filewich ready to take the next step in his development and fill the role that Michel Ouellet relinquished when he was promoted to the NHL last season, namely as the sniper on Christensen’s right wing? Filewich proved last season that he has good hands and a nose for the net by nearly leading the team in goals as a rookie. Free-agent signee Connor James could challenge for that spot. James posted 17 goals with Manchester last season and is an excellent skater. His skills are tailor-made to the way the game is being called these days.

LEFT WING

Much like last season, there are plenty of questions. Can Ryan Stone duplicate his amazing playoff? Will Stone even be in Wilkes-Barre to start the season? And if so, for how long? Can Daniel Carcillo be the Claude Lemieux-like super pest he was at the start of last year when he played on the first line with Christensen and Ouellet? Or will his mouth and antics distract his teammates as much as opponents? Will Libor Pivko report to the AHL if GM Ray Shero decides to send him down?

DEFENSE

The defense boasts four veterans Alain Nasreddine, Micki DuPont, Matt Carkner and Wade Skolney – with a whopping 1,689 games of major pro experience between them. And then, there’s Ryan Lannon, a second-year player who looks more like a 10-year veteran. Because of the contract situation in Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance that all-star Noah Welch will spend a good portion of this season in the AHL. Is there any doubt that the Penguins will again boast the league’s best defense?

GOALTENDING

If there is, Dany Sabourin’s presence in net all but erases it. Sabourin was named the league’s top goalie a year ago after leading the AHL in goals against average and save percentage. His 30 wins were second only to Hershey’s Frederic Cassivi. And if Sabourin should get the call to Pittsburgh, the Penguins have a more than capable backup in Andrew Penner. Penner did a good job last season when thrown into the starting role with Syracuse, winning 20 games for the Crunch.

OUTLOOK

The Penguins are not likely to reel off a 13-game road winning streak or go 20-0-2-1 to start the season the way they did a year ago, but then again, who knows? A lot will have to do with who Edmonton sends down and how long they stay. Just looking at the lineup there isn’t a significant difference in talent between this group and the one that whipped up on Bridgeport 8-1 on opening night last season. If the Penguins can continue their regular-season mastery of Hershey, there’s no reason to believe that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton can’t repeat in the East Division.

Penguins at a glance

WHO’S IN: D Matt Carkner (Cleveland), D Micki DuPont (Europe), F Connor James (Manchester), G Andrew Penner (Syracuse), D Wade Skolney (AHL Philadelphia).

WHO’S OUT: G Andy Chiodo (Europe), F Kenny Corupe (Europe), F Ben Eaves (Europe), F Matt Hussey (Grand Rapids), D Chris Kelleher (Europe), D David Koci (Norfolk), F Krys Kolanos (Grand Rapids), Guillaume Lefebvre (TBA).

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