St. Mike's grad long shot for Pens

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- There may never be another night like tomorrow in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Sidney Crosby will wear NHL colours for the first time. Mario Lemieux will play only his second game for fans of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The first time, he injured a hip so it's a wonder he's coming at all.

Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi and Jocelyn Thibault will play.

All for a city of fewer than 50,000 in an arena that seats 8,300 and I'm for it. The chamber of commerce says the Wilkes-Barre region is the birthplace of the inventor of the aspirin and the site of the fruit stand that evolved into the Planters peanut company. I figure they're due for a thrill.

All that said, the locals are sure to shout for the Penguins' third- or fourth-string goalie, a 22-year-old Toronto kid named Andy Chiodo.

Chiodo grew up not far from Weston Rd. and the 401. He played junior hockey for St. Mike's and led the Majors to the OHL final in 2003.

Anonymous back home, he is nonetheless the king of the Wachovia Arena

"Wilkes-Barre is an unbelievable hockey town with the best fans. They deserve this game," Chiodo said as he peeled off his sweaty equipment after practice.

Two years ago, Chiodo led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the American Hockey League final. Not only did Chiodo unseat the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Penguins' traditional nemesis, he sealed the deal by besting Phantoms goalie Antero Niittymaki in a post-game brawl.

But Chiodo was given a chance only after Marc-Andre Fleury and Sebastien Caron couldn't gain a win early in the series.

Last year, Fleury lost his first two playoff starts. Wilkes-Barre coach Michel Therien turned to Chiodo who allowed barely a goal and a half a game as the Pens beat a Binghamton team that included Jason Spezza.

The Penguins have five goalies and an interesting conundrum. Barring injury, Jocelyn Thibault will play 60 games. Fleury, the first overall choice in 2003, has an incentive-loaded contract that would cost the Penguins $4 million should the 20-year-old play more than 25 games. He'll play, but not too much.

That leaves a logjam of veterans Sebastien Caron and Dany Sabourin and Andy Chiodo, the goalie of last resort, fighting for the crumbs and, most likely, a chance in Wilkes-Barre.

Chiodo gave up two goals to Sidney Crosby in one game and hasn't found a rhythm through the scrimmages. Now, he needs a good performance in one or two of the Pens' nine exhibition games.

"I think Andy has struggled, I don't think there's any doubt," Pens coach Ed Olczyk said. "He's not happy with the way things have gone in the intrasquad games but again, you've got to battle and compete."

That shouldn't amount to much trouble for Chiodo who found himself demoted to the East Coast league after injury and ineffectiveness last year but still salvaged his year with a strong post-season.

"Last year, being injured or not being on top of my game, there was adversity," Chiodo said. "I battled all season. Come playoff time I had the opportunity to get back in the net. It definitely was a learning experience."

When your franchise's top prospect is a first overall selection and when a 30-year-old free agent comes into town to play 60 games, you could be excused if you didn't like your chances. And yet Chiodo demurs. No wonder they like him so much in Wilkes-Barre.

"I think about process. I think about what I have to do," he said.

"If I got traded tomorrow, there'd be a great goaltender in that system too, that's all there is to it. I think the numbers are big, but I think this is a great opportunity."


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