The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL are in an Eastern Conference finals matchup against the St. John's IceCaps (the minor league team of the Winnipeg Jets). The series is tied 1-1, with the next three games back in PA, giving the Pens a nice chance to grab a series lead.
To find out more about how this playoff run might affect the Pittsburgh Penguins next year, we checked in with old friend Tony of Highland Park Hockey. Check out his blog for all the details of the playoff run, and he's also very active on the twitters @H_P_Hockey for all your instant feedback.
We conducted this interview before the series started, so all information was relayed before these last two games were played. The overall point was to find out about how individual performances might project to the NHL next season- and beyond- so none of that info has gone out-of-date.
#1 - What has been the key to the WB/S Penguins' playoff run?
The key to the run has been the power play, especially evidenced in their 7-game series with Providence last round. They were 4-0 in the series when recording at least one power play goal, going 7-for-21 in those four games. When they didn't get a PPG, they were 0-3, going 0-for-11.
Another key has definitely been timely saves from Peter Mannino and the tight defensive structure WBS plays. I can't recall a WBS team that allows as few shots per game as this year's team. Much of that, I'm sure, has to do with the willingness of everyone in the lineup to get in shooting lanes and block so many shots.
#2- What's the deal with Anton Zlobin? I believe he was a healthy scratch at one point this season, battled some injuries too and split time between the AHL and ECHL. Now he has 8 points in 9 playoff games and seems like a key player- what was his big turnaround moment? What's his prognosis for an NHL future?
Zlobin has the potential to be a dynamic offensive weapon. He missed the start of the season rehabbing an offseason shoulder surgery and got in some ECHL games before sticking with WBS mid-season. He has a tendency to be streaky, and was somewhat inconsistent in the regular season but has seemed to find his game more regularly in the postseason.
Zlobin has been clutch in the postseason, already with three game-winning goals in these playoffs.
#3 - Conor Sheary was a very under the radar signing by the Pens this year, but he amazingly is a core piece of this team this playoff year and a productive one with 9 points in 9 games. What is his game like, what are the keys to his success? And what kind of NHL future do you think he might have?
Count me as one of many who are very impressed with what Conor Sheary has been able to do at the pro level, mind you the sample size is small (and so is he). Sheary is a bit undersized - I believe he's listed at 5-foot-8 - but makes up for it with great skating ability/speed and a knack for competition. The kid simply doesn't stop competing. He doesn't give up on the play, always battles for loose pucks in the dirty areas of the ice (which is rare for a smaller player) and is great on the back-check on opposing forwards/defenseman in the neutral zone.
He's had a great start to his pro career, but I think it's way too early to try to gauge his NHL potential just yet.
#4 - Brian Dumoulin has 11 points in 11 playoff games, leads the team in assists and seems like he's playing pretty well. Is he ready for the next step next year and make the jump to the NHL?
Dumoulin has had a bit of a sophomore slump, coming off an injury to start the season and he wasn't particularly sharp in the early going. He started playing better then got injured again mid-season and missed more time.
Saying all of that, he's saved his best hockey for the right time. He's been the best defenseman night in and night out for WBS down the stretch and in the postseason. He's big, can move the puck up ice well and has a bit of offensive flare to him while also being very solid and reliable in his own end.
As for NHL-ready? I believe he could make the jump next season, but needs to be more physical and use his 6-foot-4, 220 plus pound more to his advantage. He's a solid two-way defender and if Pittsburgh lets Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen go, he could find a home in Pittsburgh in the very near future.
#5 - How are the recent guys sent down (Simon Despres, Jayson Megna) doing?
Simon Despres has been solid with WBS since his return. He's been on the top shutdown pairing (was with Reid McNeill but now with Philip Samuelsson since he's returned from injury) and has fared well against opposing team's top offensive weapons.
There's still some careless turnovers and mis-reads on offensive zone pinches, but overall I think his play has been steady. He's also a big-game/big-moment kind of player who has liked being on the ice in key moments of a game. He scored a double OT winner this postseason and seems to excel late in games.
I would go as far as to say Despres has that sort of "Kris Letang enigma" surrounding him. I'd say he's a bigger, less dynamic Letang that likes offensive zone time.
As for Megna, his skating ability and moves with the puck are above the AHL level. He often blows right by opposing defenders and has a tendency to make people miss. He's having trouble finishing still (just tallied his first of the postseason in Game 7 on Wednesday), which was a knock against his game last year as well, but he continues to create offensive pressure/chances. He has centered a line with Zlobin/Sheary as of late and the trio is fun to watch.
Thanks to Tony for his time and answers and be sure to check more of his stuff out for all the information you'll need on this exciting run by the Baby Pens.