Defenseman Grant makes most of opportunity

| Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

Two months into this season, Alex Grant's prospect flame was barely a flicker.

A junior hockey star picked in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, Grant spent much of his first two pro seasons injured or with the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers. This season, Grant was scratched for 21 of the Baby Pens' first 29 games.

But a rash of injuries in November forced Grant into a prominent role, and he responded in a dramatic way.

Entering this weekend, Grant has 20 points in his past 21 games. His 15 power-play points are sixth among AHL defensemen.

"You can't get frustrated," Grant said. "I knew when I got a chance, I just wanted to take advantage of it."

Grant's work in his own zone has been questioned at times, so the fact that he leads Baby Pens defensemen with a plus-11 rating might be even more significant than his offensive numbers.

"Certain areas of his game really needed to improve. To his credit, he worked at it," Baby Pens coach John Hynes said. "The way he's playing right now is definitely putting himself in a good situation not only for our team, but for himself and for his career."

Star map

Winger Colin McDonald will represent the Baby Pens in the AHL all-star game, which Root Sports will broadcast live Monday at 7 p.m. Defenseman Simon Despres also was picked for the game, but he's out with a knee injury.

McDonald leads the Baby Pens in scoring with 36 points, including a career-high 24 assists, in 39 games coming into this weekend. He was an AHL all-star last season for Oklahoma City en route to leading the league with 42 goals.

"It kind of validates and proves to people that last year wasn't a fluke, that I am that type of player," McDonald said. "Making it back-to-back years is pretty special."

Coming up short

Entering this weekend, the Baby Pens had scored six shorthanded goals in their past six games, taking over the league lead in the category with 12 this season.

Center Bryan Lerg is second in the AHL with four shorthanded goals, trailing only former Penguins winger Chris Bourque, who has five for the Hershey Bears.

"The amount of shorthanded goals lately is crazy," Grant said. "We have a lot of fast penalty-killers and they're using their speed and work ethic and it's working great."

On the rebound

Goaltender Brad Thiessen seems to have regained his confidence after suffering through the worst slump of his pro career, posting a 3-8-2 record from Nov. 11 to Jan. 7.

Thiessen is 4-0 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in his past four starts.

"You can start to see that confidence, the resiliency, the ability to manage the game is really starting to come for him," Hynes said.

Injury report

Defenseman Scott Harrington, the Penguins' second-round pick in last June's draft, has missed about a month with a shoulder injury suffered in the World Junior Championships. The OHL's London Knights expect him back in the lineup soon.

Winger Beau Bennett, a first-round pick in the 2010 draft, has missed all but 10 games this season due to a wrist injury that required surgery to repair. The University of Denver expects him back in February.

Additional Information:

One to watch

Scott Wilson

UMass-Lowell (NCAA) • Left wing

6-foot, 175 pounds

How acquired: Seventh-round pick, 209th overall, in the 2011 NHL draft

How he's doing: The Penguins might have found themselves a gem three picks from the end of the 2011 draft. Wilson has emerged on the college hockey scene with 20 points in his first 20 games for UMass-Lowell, leading the team and all Hockey East freshmen in scoring. After posting three goals in a two-game sweep of Northeastern last weekend, Wilson was named Hockey East rookie of the week for the third time this season. UMass-Lowell, which won just five games last year, is 14-6 and ranked 11th in the country.

Why he might make it to the NHL: He's a productive player with good hockey sense.

Why he might not: He needs to bulk up, and since he is expected to play two or three more years in college, it's too early to project what kind of pro he'll be.

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