PENGUINS SPOTLIGHT - BRETT STERLING
STERLING SEES SOMETHING SPECIAL – By Scott Stuccio
Winning isn’t something foreign to new Penguins left winger Brett Sterling. It was just over two years ago that he was celebrating with his Chicago Wolves teammates after he scored the final goal in Game Six of the 2008 Calder Cup Finals at Allstate Arena.
The Penguins’ goaltender was none other than John Curry, who was completing a surreal season in his AHL debut.
This wasn’t the first time Sterling had faced Curry before he turned pro. The Los Angeles, California native had played for the Colorado College Tigers before being selected in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. It was on November 26, 2005 at Boston University where Sterling completed a hat trick in overtime to send the Tigers clawing past the Terriers by a 6-5 score.
Sterling posted 108 goals and 184 points in 149 games with Colorado College, spanning four seasons. He led the NCAA with 17 power-play goals, ranked third overall with 31 goals and fifth with a team-high 55 points in 2005-06, and went on to finish as a top three finalist for the 2006 Hobey Baker Award, his second consecutive top-three finish.
After all of those successful college years and four huge seasons in the Windy City, Sterling finds himself playing in front of the goaltender who once opposed him. And he says it’s a big reason why the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are off to such a great start in 2010-11.
“He’s a phenomenal goalie,” Sterling spoke of Curry. “I mean, he’s not the biggest guy around, but he’s athletic, he’s quick, he’s smart, he takes the angles away. He just really knows what he’s doing and is a great goaltender.”
Of course, Brad Thiessen is the other piece that has perfectly fit the Penguins’ goaltending mold. But it was Curry who did for the Penguins what goaltender Ondrej Pavelec did for the Wolves – take the club to the 2008 Calder Cup Finals in his rookie year.
Besides goaltending, Sterling says that there are qualities he sees in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton locker room that could very well give this club a shortened summer.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen is that this is a team that doesn’t think they are going to lose,” Sterling said. “It doesn’t matter how many goals we get down. We’re finding ways to win and that’s a huge attribute of a championship team. Some days you’re going to win with offense, some days you’ll win with goaltending, and some days the defense steps up. We know our roles. And not only is it knowing your roles but going beyond. If you’re a third- or fourth-liner, you’re chipping in a few goals here and there.”
Sterling pointed out that Chicago got where they did in the same way the Penguins got where they are now: by getting contributions from all over.
“We had that game against Binghamton where Jesse (Boulerice) and Zach (Sill), on our fourth line, put up the points and got us the win when the other lines couldn’t produce,” Sterling recalled. “I mean, that was a huge win for us. That kind of stuff is what is really similar to the makeup we had in Chicago.”
Former Penguins head coaches Todd Richards, Dan Bylsma, and Todd Reirden used to place a bench mark of 20 games on the team they coached. They felt that by the 20th game of the season, the team should have its identity, should be playing to their potential, should understand the systems, and should be competing for a high spot in the standings. Current head coach John Hynes didn’t come out and preach about the “20-game rule” when he addressed the squad at the team meeting prior to the start of the season, but he mentioned it before the team left for Albany on November 30. Goals were not only met, he said, but exceeded.
“Obviously as a team when we came in here, we had a lot of new guys, and we wanted to gel quickly and get off to a good start,” he said. “We were able to do that with nine straight wins. Obviously we would have liked to get the tenth, but being where we are now is a great start. We just have to keep going like this because unfortunately we haven’t made the playoffs yet and there is a long way to go.”
If the Penguins keep going the way they are, the little “x” just might precede Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s spot in the standings earlier than usual – a mark that means “clinched playoff berth.” But for the Penguins to keep going, the team needs to work hard at something other than their on-ice systems – their off-ice conditioning. Sterling said that although he had to cope with a few minor setbacks early in the season, he feels great and is ready for a grueling schedule of upcoming games.
“I did have a couple of injuries, but the team played really well without me,” Sterling said. “It’s really good to know that no matter who goes down we have guys that can fill roles and win games.”
The second of Sterling’s two minor setbacks this season came around the midpoint of the month of November, when the Penguins had to hit the road to play at Worcester and at Albany. Rather than join his teammates at the morning skate sessions, Sterling was riding a stationary bike and doing a crossword puzzle to pass the time. But the club went on to win both of those games without him, giving up just one goal overall while scoring six times. Many players stepped up to fill the role that Sterling had vacated.
Since then, the prized left winger is getting back into his groove, enjoying every bit of the battles, rivalries, and excitement that surrounds the East Division.
“The more games you get in, the more you start to feel comfortable and get back into game shape,” Sterling mentioned. “It’s been a nice little start, and hopefully I can continue and contribute more.”