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Holzapfel's growth could put him on a track to Pittsburgh

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 8:54 p.m.

If the Penguins needed to call up a forward from Wilkes-Barre today, their first choice would probably be rookie Beau Bennett. Their second choice, however, would likely be a player only hardcore fans had heard of as recently as a few months ago.

Does the name Riley Holzapfel ring a bell?

If he keeps playing like he has this season, posting a team-best 15 goals and 29 points in 45 games coming into this weekend, it might sometime soon.

“I love it here,” Holzapfel said. “The style I play, it fits the systems the coaches are trying to implement.”

Holzapfel once scored 39 goals in a season in junior hockey and was a second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006.

After turning pro, though, he was cast as a checking-line center for the better part of three seasons with the AHL's Chicago Wolves. He didn't like that role, but it helped him round out his game.

By the time Holzapfel hit unrestricted free agency last summer, Don Waddell, the general manager who drafted him in Atlanta, had joined the Penguins' scouting department and recommended the signing.

Holzapfel doesn't project as an NHL star by any means, but he's got good size at 6-foot, 200 pounds, good mobility and is just 24 years old. He can play all three forward positions and is equally comfortable paired with Bennett on a scoring line or killing penalties alongside Zach Sill.

“Not only our first-half MVP, but you could arguably say he was our first-half most improved player,” Baby Pens coach John Hynes said. “He's a guy who dropped 3 percent body fat since he got here.”

Big D

The Baby Pens came into this weekend playing some stingy defense, allowing 11 goals in their last 10 games and going 9-1 during that stretch. The streak coincides directly with the end of the NHL lockout.

Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo were called up by the Penguins, Brian Strait was claimed on waivers by the Islanders, and the Baby Pens got better defensively? How can that be?

First, there's no longer a personnel logjam on the blue line.

Second, the quality of offensive players the Baby Pens have been facing dropped off as well.

“A lot of pre-lockout top lines are now in the NHL,” goalie Jeff Zatkoff said.

On the mend

Bennett was scheduled to be in the lineup for a pair of road games in Norfolk this weekend after missing the previous five games with a lower-body injury. He has six goals and a team-best 18 assists in 32 games.

“This is more of a precautionary thing, a lingering thing that happened in college — not the wrist, not associated with the wrist,” Bennett said. “It's just something I had to take care of right now, and it will help me in the future.”

On the upswing

The process of tearing down the defensive game of 2011 first-round draft pick Joe Morrow and building it back up is moving along.

After going minus-6 in his previous 12 games, Morrow was a plus-7 in his last seven games heading into this weekend.

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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