Baby Pens at home on home ice

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 2:06 AM ET

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- So much talk these days in hockey circles centres around the Pittsburgh Penguins and what to do with the venerable old Igloo in downtown Pittsburgh.

But home ice for Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, the Wilkes- Barre/Scranton Penguins, is going nowhere anytime soon, and what has long been one of the AHL's most difficult barns for visiting teams again held true to form on Saturday night.

That strength on home ice is one reason why the Penguins will spend their two-day holiday as owners of the best record in the AHL before they get back down to work for a busy post-holiday four-in-five stretch of games. The Penguins are now tied with Chicago with 48 points, but they hold two games in hand on the Wolves.

Head coach Todd Richards and his bunch did so in style as well, taking a 4-1 decision from the powerful Norfolk Admirals and controlling the game's pace from start to finish. The Admirals have now dropped 13 straight contests at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

The very demanding Richards stresses a commitment to his team's system, and the Penguins' tenacious, up-tempo brand of hockey is the end result of his having got a team of talented top-end prospects to buy into a team-first mentality, at times a definite challenge at the AHL level.

"Sitting back here at Christmas and looking at our record," Richards said afterward, "I can honestly say I'm proud of the way that we play and the way that we work."

"There's a sign in our room that says 'Be proud of how we work.'"

Outside of that dressing room, a loud, boisterous building and a home club that feeds off the energy provided by the locals are additional reasons that visitors have such difficulty in a building where the Penguins are now 11-2-1-0 this season.

The Admirals, a solid road team, ventured north into coal country for a Saturday night tilt holding 47 points, then the most in the AHL.

Sixty minutes of hockey later, the Admirals boarded their bus for a long overnight bus ride home, no longer atop the AHL after the loss to the Penguins. The win helped the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton slide one point ahead of the Admirals.

Certainly the Admirals, winners of five straight before Saturday night, entered Wachovia Arena very much with a plan. Head coach Mike Haviland, a good candidate to one day head an NHL bench, always has a plan and one in detail.

So, in spite of a nasty 6-3 home win over Hershey featuring 146 penalty minutes and an overnight bus ride that had the Admirals checking into their hotel as dawn approached, Haviland had his group ready to go, just like he always does.

The wheels of motion for Haviland's plan swung into motion nearly 18 hours prior to the start of Saturday's game as the Admirals' sleeper bus rumbled northward.

Off went the televisions inside the bus in an attempt to send players off to sleep. Upon arrival, take it easy. No morning skate, of course.

So, as the Admirals strode into Wachovia Arena, they had every reason to feel confident.

"We have to play as simple as possible," Haviland said two hours prior to the opening face-off. "Not turn over (the puck). The first 10 minutes, if we can keep them off the scoreboard and maybe keep the crowd out of it for the first period, maybe they'll just settle in and enjoy a hockey game."

"We've got to get through the first 10 minutes. It's probably our ultimate goal, and then hopefully we can settle down and play them."

But the Admirals did not survive the opening 10 minutes.

Richards' club knew they had a vulnerable opponent, and they pounced early. The Penguins had the Admirals and goaltender Sebastien Caron staring up from a 2-0 hole by the 7:06 mark of the opening period.

Two Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goals - the first of two shorties from Jonathan Filewich and a long scorcher from defenceman Matt Carkner - spaced 2:43 apart put the Admirals in a bind from which they never recovered.

"Our first periods have been very good for us," Richards said of a Penguins team that has now outscored opponents this season, 39-15, in the opening 20 minutes.

"We've usually come out of the gates, especially here, and been able to get on teams quickly."

Norfolk's Brandon Bochenski scored midway through the third period that cut the hosts' lead to 3-1, but Tyler Kennedy put the game away for good, scoring with 2:43 to play.

And so the Admirals darted back home for a brief holiday break before it all starts over again with three more contests before the calendar closes on 2006.

Not one to even consider for a moment lighting a fire for his opponent, the buttoned-down, respectful Richards acknowledged the Penguins' favourable conditions.

"We were able to get a couple of goals, and I think that put them behind the eight-ball. There's no doubt that travel played a part in how their team played (Saturday night)."


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