On December 12, WBS head coach Mike Sullivan was promoted to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the wake of this decision, it was decided that WBS would name Jay Leach, Sullivan's assistant in WBS, as interim head coach, assisted by various members of the Pittsburgh front office (Mark Recchi, Bill Guerin, et al.), while a formal search took place for the next WBS head coach. Leach would preside over the WBS bench for four games leading into the holiday break, winning three of them, losing the fourth in a shootout. The three victories were all shutouts, and in the shootout loss, all of the goals allowed by WBS were shorthanded. Four games, no even strength goals allowed.
This would result in Leach's job title being changed to associate coach on December 23, as WBS announced the hiring of the winningest coach in Wheeling Nailers (Pittsburgh's ECHL affiliate) history, Clark Donatelli, as head coach. A number of current and former Penguins spoke very highly of Donatelli following his hire, which gave me a measure of confidence that the 21-5-0-1 start for WBS this season would not go the way of the 21-1-2-1 start for WBS in 2005-06, when Michel Therrien went to Pittsburgh and WBS cruised to a regular-season division title but a second-round sweep at the paws of the eventual Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears.
Then Christmas came and went, and WBS played their first two games coming out of Christmas, and whatever confidence I had was temporarily sidelined.
WBS Penguins at Hershey Bears, 12/26/15
Man alive, this didn't go well. The superior goaltending that fueled WBS's outstanding start is now no longer present, as Matt Murray is promoted to Pittsburgh (and if I may say so is making a helluva case as the future of Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending) and Tristan Jarry is injured. Furthermore, top scorers Conor Sheary and Scott Wilson find themselves in Pittsburgh as well. So WBS took a goaltending tandem of Brian Foster and Casey Desmith to GIANT Center, and despite Hershey being without its eternal thorn-in-the-side-of-the-Penguins Chris Bourque, the Bears laid a beating on the Penguins 5-0. Five different Bears scored goals, with two being on the power play, and Bears defenseman Erik Burgdorfer continued his curious career pattern of only scoring against the WBS Penguins. Burgdorfer tallied the fifth and final goal for Hershey on this night, which was the third goal of his season and the fourth of his career; all four goals have been against WBS. Weird how this works out.
#1 star honors went to Hershey goaltender Dan Ellis, who recorded a 22-save shutout; second start went to Bears center Carter Camper, who assisted on three Hershey goals; third star went to defenseman Madison Bowey, who posted a power play goal in the first period and assisted on Paul Carey's power play goal in the second.
Brian Foster took the loss for the Penguins, saving only 16 of 21 shots against him. Foster was yanked at the start of the third period in favor of Desmith.
WBS Penguins vs. Lehigh Valley Phantoms, 12/27/15
Things looked a little bit better for WBS as they returned home from Hershey to host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Sunday afternoon, as by all accounts they controlled possession, dictated pace, and certainly outshot their counterparts to the tune of 35-19 over the course of the game. In each period, the Penguins outshot the Phantoms. However, in each period, the Phantoms outscored the Penguins, tallying one goal in each frame (Andrew MacDonald in the first, Petr Straka's league-leading 16th goal of the season in the second, and Colin McDonald in the third) to hand the Penguins their second straight shutout defeat under the oversight of Coach Donatelli. Goalie Brian Foster took the loss, stopping only 16 of 19 shots he faced, while AHL veteran Jason LaBarbera took the shutout victory for Lehigh Valley by stopping all 35 shots against him.
LaBarbera's shutout earned him first-star honors, while MacDonald's goal paired with an assist on Straka's goal was enough for second star honors. Third star went to Lehigh Valley's Nick Cousins, who tallied two assists on the evening.
Apparently, performing badly coming out of the Christmas break is nothing new for WBS...
Last time WBS was shutout in back to back games was, well, around the same time last year - Dec. 26 and 27 to BNG and BRI— Tom Venesky (@TLTomVenesky) December 27, 2015
(Stats are as of December 27, 2015, compiled from theahl.com after the games of December 27 concluded)
- Goals - Scott Wilson (currently in PIT), 15 (2nd in AHL); Dominik Simon leads currently active WBS players with 11 goals, tied for 17th in AHL
- Assists - Conor Sheary (currently in PIT), 19 (T-6rd in AHL); Simon leads currently active WBS players with 16 assists, tied for 19th in AHL
- Points - Dominik Simon, 27 (T-6th in AHL); among active WBS players, Derrick Pouliot ranks second on WBS with 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists). Tom Kostopoulos and Carter Rowney (7 goals, 9 assists each) rank next with 16 points each, while Jean-Sebastien Dea (8 goals, 7 assists), Kael Mouillierat (6 goals, 9 assists), and Will O'Neill (4 goals, 11 assists) have 15 points each.
- Rookies - Dominik Simon leads all AHL rookies in scoring with 27 points in 27 games. Devin Shore of Texas ranks second with 15 goals and 11 assists, but unfortunately Shore is out for the season following an injury. Mikko Rantanen of San Antonio is tied with Shore in rookie scoring with 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points.
- Matt Murray (currently in PIT) - 12-4-0, 1.84 GAA (2nd in AHL), 93.8% save pct (1st in AHL), four shutouts (T-1st in AHL)
- Tristan Jarry (injured) - 8-1-0, 1.50 GAA, 94.0% save pct, two shutouts. On account of Jarry's injury, he is no longer included among the league leaders for goalies; the standings look for a minimum of 540 minutes, and Jarry has 518:43 in nine games.
- Brian Foster - 1-2-1, 2.96 GAA, 89.0% save pct
- Casey Desmith - 0-0-0, 0.00 GAA, 100% save pct after recording a perfect third period in relief of Foster on December 26
- Special Teams
- Power Play - 19.0% home (T-9th in AHL), 15.8% away (16th), 17.7% overall (10th)
- Penalty Kill - 84.7% home (19th), 86.5% away (7th), 85.6% overall (7th)
- Team Record: 12-3-1 home, 9-4-0 away, 21-7-0-1 overall, 43 points
- Team Points Percentage: 74.1% (1st in division, 2nd in conference and league behind Toronto)
- Miscellaneous: 98 goals scored in 29 games (3rd in AHL); 61 goals allowed in 29 games (3rd in AHL)
The Week Ahead
WBS hosts the Syracuse Crunch in their now-traditional New Year's Eve game on Thursday, December 31, with a 5:05 pm start time. WBS then hosts the Springfield Falcons on Saturday, January 2, 2016, at 7:05 pm, before zipping up to Hartford to take on the Wolf Pack on Sunday, January 3, 2016, at 3:00 pm.
Happy New Year, everyone. May your 2016 be filled with good health, much happiness, and fair fortune...and, maybe, some trophies come June.
EDIT: This post was updated December 28, 2015 to include the highlight package from Sunday afternoon's game against Lehigh Valley.