The Pittsburgh Penguins have a comfortable lead in the Patrick Division and a playoff spot is all but guaranteed, at this point they are playing for development and chemistry. However, down in the minors they do not have that luxury as both the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the ECHL Wheeling Nailers are fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive.
AHL WBS Baby Pens
After a strong weekend performance, the WBS Baby Pens are back on track. They now have a 32-20-3-5 record and are back to #2 in the East Division and #5 in the Eastern Conference. They are actually tied with the Norfolk Admirals who lead the Division and as such are #3 in the standings, but Norfolk has a game in hand. They are also tied with the #6 Providence Bruins, but the Baby Pens actually have a game in hand there. However, the traffic jam at the bottom still means it is anybody's game, as they hold just a 1 point lead over East Division rival #7 Binghamton Senators who actually still have 2 games in hand. Then the #8 Albany Devils are 2 points below but have a game in hand still. And lastly on the outside looking in are their arch rival Hershey Bears who trail WBS by 5 points with 1 game in hand.
Not that there are ever any games that don't matter, but that makes this weekend's games even more important. They have back-to-back home games this weekend, first facing off against the Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday and then going against the Division leading Norfolk Admirals on Saturday. They could very well walk out of this weekend with the Division lead and a #3 seed if they can manage to take down the NorAds.
ECHL Wheeling Nailers
The Wheeling Nailers also had a strong showing over the weekend and catapulted themselves up the standings. They currently have a 29-24-1-5 record and sit at #7 in the Eastern Conference. However, it is a very fine line between being in the playoff race and sitting on the outside looking in. The Nailers have just a 1 point lead over #8 Fort Wayne Komets and #9 Florida Everblades, and both those teams have 2 games in hand. They are also just 2 points ahead of the #10 Evansville IceMen who have 1 game in hand.
So they need to play every game from here on out as if it could be their last. They have another 3 game weekend coming up, first facing their Division rival Reading Royals at home on Friday, then facing the Cincinnati Cyclones at home on Saturday, and finally traveling out to Reading to face the Royals again on Sunday. The Royals have a commanding 12 point lead on the Atlantic Division, and are currently the top team in the Eastern Conference, so those are not going to be easy games. A couple of wins or even some points in OT would do wodner to keeping their playoff hopes alive, but Reading has a pretty firm grasp on the Division title.
Down in WBS Chuck Kobasew joined the team for practice this week, and as touched upon last week this creates a logjam of veterans. From the AHL FAQs:
What is the AHL's development rule?
In the AHL, player development is a top priority. The American Hockey League and the Professional Hockey Players' Association have the following development rule in place for the 2013-14 season:
Of the 18 skaters (not counting two goaltenders) that teams may dress for a game, at least 13 must be qualified as "development players." Of those 13, 12 must have played in 260 or fewer professional games (including AHL, NHL and European elite leagues), and one must have played in 320 or fewer professional games. All calculations for development status are based on regular-season totals as of the start of the season.
The Baby Pens have 1 "tweener" player that falls into the 260-320 games played category, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. However, they now have 6 veterans with 320+ games for those final 5 roster spots: Kobasew, Tom Kuhnhackl, Andrew Ebbett, Nick Drazenovic, Spencer Machacek, and Brendan Mikkelson. So the team will have to scratch one of those players every night. And the way the others have been playing lately it might be very difficult for Kobasew to find playing time even at the AHL level.
The Baby Pens have also recently shuffled their rosters a bit in recent weeks. On February 28 Tom Kuhnhackl, Anton Zlobin, and Eric Hartzell were sent down to the Nailers. Kuhnhackl and Zlobin were called back up again the very next day. Then a week later on March 7 Kuhnhackl and Harrison Ruopp were sent down to the Nailers, only to be called back up along with Hartzell on March 10. However, that stay proved to be short lived as well, as Kuhnhackl and Ruopp were sent back to Wheeling once more on March 12. Kind of makes you wonder if Kuhnhackl even bothers unpacking anymore.
Hartzell was reportedly called up because the Goaltender Development Coach wanted to work with all 3 goalies while they had a week of practices with no games until the weekend. The assumption is that a decision will be made on which goaltenders will remain to play in WBS while the other will be sent back to play in Wheeling for the time being. Peter Mannino has been excellent since his return, in both Wheeling and WBS, so chances are he will be the starter for now. But with both Hartzell and Jeff Deslauriers struggling it remains to be seen what will happen with the backup situation.
The other news was that the WBS Baby Pens signed University of Massachusetts Amherst Captain Conor Sheary to an Amateur Tryout Contract as well as agreeing to terms for an AHL contract to start next season. This is the time of the year where they form their Black Aces squad, made up of players on tryouts whose college or junior season is over, even a handful of Nailers will join them if they fail to make the playoffs. Usually the Black Aces are just there to practice, in the NHL they refer to it as the Taxi Squad, but on occasion one stands out enough that they see some playing time.
Sheary has been compared to Brian Gibbons in that he is a diminutive forward who plays bigger than he is, with lots of hard work and drive, the stereotypical Penguins style player. However, skill-wise Sheary is not at Gibbons level, so it wouldn't be a shock to see him practice but not play until his regular contract kicks in next season. And with more NCAA teams being eliminated and the Major Juniors seasons finishing up this weekend it is only a matter of time before we see more players heading our way.