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Playoff grind prepares Baby Pens for future

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JEFF ZATKOFF

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL)

Goalie, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds

How acquired: Signed to a two-year contract July 1, 2012

How he's doing: Zatkoff has allowed two or fewer goals in 33 of his 48 games this season, including his past eight starts coming into this weekend. He's the only qualifying goalie in the AHL with a goals-against average better than 2.00, checking in at 1.94. As he tries to prove himself to be an NHL-caliber goalie — perhaps for the Penguins in 2014-15 — the only thing missing is playoff success. He'll get a chance this season, as he has overtaken Brad Thiessen as the Baby Pens' No. 1 goaltender.

Why he might make it to the NHL: He's dependable, poised, competitive and smart.

Why he might not: He doesn't have a high-end athlete's build.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, April 20, 2013, 11:21 p.m.
 

The Baby Pens have clinched their 11th straight playoff berth, the longest active streak in the 30-team AHL.

It's a nice stat for the Baby Pens to put in their media guide, but why should anyone outside of Luzerne County give two hoots?

A couple of reasons.

First, Penguins management believes it's important for prospects to develop in a winning atmosphere. If a young player can learn about the playoff grind while he's still in the AHL, that's one less thing to worry about once he reaches the NHL.

Sixteen players on the Penguins roster — from forwards Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis to defensemen Douglas Murray, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik to goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun — played in the postseason in the minor leagues before appearing in their first Stanley Cup playoff game.

“It's something you have to learn right away,” player development coach Bill Guerin said. “If you let it go, it's tougher to learn as you go along.”

Also, it's easier for the Penguins to attract depth free agents if their minor-league team has a winning track record.

Take Jeff Zatkoff, who has developed into a prototypical No. 3 goaltender. He had four solid seasons in the Kings' organization but never made it past the first round of the playoffs. He said he signed with the Penguins in part because he figured he'd have a good chance to remedy that in Wilkes-Barre.

Trevor Smith, the No. 1 center in Wilkes-Barre, could have signed with any number of NHL teams last summer. He chose one whose AHL affiliate makes the playoffs every year.

“It's about effort and doing your work and doing it the right way. That's the mentality here,” Smith said. “That's what attracted a lot of players to come here.”

In good graces

Mattia Marcantuoni, the Penguins' fourth-round pick last June, scored only seven goals in 64 games with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League. Guerin said those numbers are not a disappointment to the Penguins.

“He's not that type of player. He had an excellent year,” Guerin said. “He's an energy guy that will kill penalties. He's a role player that's going to win faceoffs for you. He's going to be very effective in your bottom six right now.”

Out of nowhere

Feisty winger Dominik Uher, the Penguins' fifth-round pick in 2011, managed just one goal in the first 49 games of his rookie season. He scored three in less than 24 hours as the Baby Pens swept a pair of games last weekend in St. John's, Newfoundland.

“He scored all of his goals within five feet of the net. That's the first thing,” Baby Pens coach John Hynes said. “He was in those areas.”

Injury report

Phil Dupuis, a 27-year-old depth forward who has played 116 career NHL games, will miss the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury, Hynes said. Dupuis had 11 points in 34 games with the Baby Pens.

Jonathan Bombulie has covered the Baby Pens for the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre since the team's inception in 1999. He can be reached via email at jbombulie@aol.com.

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