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Baby Penguins step into Classic spotlight

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

WILKES-BARRE -- Penguins prospect Brian Strait arrived at Consol Energy Center on the morning of Sept. 22 about 10 hours away from a highlight of his young career.

Strait, a defenseman in his second year out of Boston University, was scheduled to play in a preseason game that night against the Detroit Red Wings. Not only would it be Strait's first game in an NHL sweater, it was also the first exhibition game ever played at the new building. He had alerted his appropriate friends and family.

Then, in the blink of an eye, Strait took a puck to the foot during the morning skate and had to be scratched from the lineup. Within a week, he was sent to the minors.

Three months later, Strait will get a chance to erase at least a little of that disappointment.

Strait and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will face the Hershey Bears at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30 at Consol Energy Center as part of the undercard to the Winter Classic.

"I'm looking forward to it," Strait said. "It would have been nice to play in the first game ever there, but this is going to be pretty cool."

Because of their travel schedule, the Baby Pens' visit will be a brief one. They have a home game the night before, so they won't arrive in town until about 3 a.m. the day of the game. They won't be able to stick around for the main event at Heinz Field; the Baby Pens have another home game at 7 p.m. Jan. 1.

In between, though, there are a few reasons they have the game circled on their calendars.

The first is all about the creature comforts the plush new building provides. Most of the team's road trips are to places such as the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena or Onondaga County War Memorial, rinks that are as dreary as they sound.

"The Consol is, like, over the top," Strait said. "We got dressed in the visitors' locker room in training camp and it was better than any locker room I've seen in my life."

"I don't know how many (plasma TVs) you can have in one place," center Joe Vitale added, "but they have a lot."

Second, prospects will have a chance to shine in front of the team's decision-makers, who will undoubtedly be in attendance.

Baby Pens coach John Hynes, however, downplayed that aspect of the trip.

"We've almost had someone here every game, home or road, whether it's Jason Botterill or Tommy Fitzgerald or our pro scouts. Ray Shero's been to a game. I think the guys are used to it," Hynes said. "It won't be, 'Just because we're going to Pittsburgh, the brass is going to be watching.' "

Finally, it will be another installment in the American Hockey League's fiercest rivalry.

The Baby Pens and Bears are two of the league's most successful franchises, and they're separated by fewer than 100 miles of Interstate 81.

"They're the defending Calder Cup champions, and we're obviously off to a good start," Vitale said. "It's going to be good hockey, and a lot of fans like to see that."

Prelude to a Classic

A viewer's guide to the game between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30 at Consol Energy Center.

» About the Baby Pens: After winning 21 of their first 25 games, the Baby Pens have established themselves as Calder Cup contenders. ... Although third-year center Dustin Jeffrey is among the league's top scorers, they've been winning with defense and goaltending. ... Brad Thiessen and John Curry are among the league leaders in goals-against average.

» About the Bears: The most storied franchise in the AHL, Hershey has won the past two Calder Cups. ... Center Keith Aucoin is a minor league scoring machine and fourth-year pro Andrew Gordon is a sniper on the right wing. ... Braden Holtby is a brash but talented second-year goaltender. ... The Bears are the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals.

» The rivalry: Because of the AHL's unbalanced schedule and the fact that the teams seem to run into each other every year in the playoffs, the Bears and Baby Pens have faced off a staggering 63 times in the past four seasons. ... Last year, a powerful Bears team won 10 of 12 regular-season meetings between the rivals. ... This year, the Baby Pens have won the first four games of the season series.

» Prospects to watch: Jeffrey, while lacking ideal NHL size and speed, is a crafty player who has produced at every level. ... Eric Tangradi, who has been on a tear since Thanksgiving, is a power forward in training. ... Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait, who play together on the team's top shutdown defense pair, are on track to develop into NHL players. ... Keven Veilleux is a 6-foot-5 winger with impressive puck skills, but he's very raw.

» Quotable: "It's on the scale of the Flyers and the Penguins at the AHL level. Every time we face off against them, we know what's on the line -- bragging rights." -- Strait

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