A funny thing tends to happen when you have the best record in the league. Teams tend to play you harder. Teams tend to give you more of themselves, knowing the effort it now takes to defeat you. I bore witness to this on two separate occasions this weekend, as the incredible 10-0-0-0 start for the WBS Penguins on home ice came crashing back to earth...and in so doing, dragged WBS into a much different kind of streak.
The weekend started off very hopeful for WBS, with news that Bryan Rust had become healthy enough to be returned to WBS following his promotion to and injury in Pittsburgh. In addition, Tom Kuhnhackl had returned to playing strength following his own injury. Adding Rust and Kuhnhackl to the team with the best record in the league? What could go wrong?
As it turned out, more than we had anticipated.
Wilkes-Barre vs. Lehigh Valley Phantoms, December 4th
Conor Sheary opened the game on Friday against Lehigh Valley with his fourth goal of the season at 2:58 of the first, assisted by Scott Wilson and Kael Mouillierat, but that would be all the Penguins could muster against Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz would stop everything else thrown his way, finishing with 35 saves on 36 shots, and the Phantoms would get goals from Aaron Palushaj on a power play breakaway at 5:35 of the second, Mark Alt at 9:48 of the second, and Taylor Leier shorthanded into an empty net at 19:39 to win 3-1 and shatter WBS’s perfect home record. Matt Murray took the loss, stopping 19 of 21 shots. The WBS power play could not do anything with six chances, while their penalty kill allowed one goal in three chances.
3) Conor Sheary, WBS; one goal
2) Mark Alt, LV; game-winning goal
1) Anthony Stolarz, LV; 35 saves on 36 shots
Wilkes-Barre vs. Hartford Wolf Pack, December 5th
The struggles for the Penguins continued on Saturday, as former Penguin Jayson Megna paced the Hartford Wolf Pack with a powerplay goal at 17:41 of the first, then posted the secondary assist on Adam Tambellini's powerplay goal at 14:40 of the second. Only Conor Sheary's unassisted goal at 18:17 of the first to trigger the first of two WBS teddy bear tosses this holiday season prevented this from being a shutout, and Chad Nehring's empty-netter at 18:33 of the third provided the final 3-1 margin and hung the first loss on Tristan Jarry this season. Jarry finished with 22 saves on 24 shots, while his counterpart Magnus Hellberg took the win with 28 saves on 29 shots. Despite WBS outshooting Hartford 29-25 on the night, the Wolf Pack thoroughly dominated WBS in the third, outshooting 11-4. The WBS PP continued its funk, going 0 for 3 on the night, while the PK conceded 2 goals in 7 chances.
Lines were roughly the same as on Friday, but Carter Rowney was moved back to his normal position alongside Dominik Simon and Kevin Porter, while Tom Kuhnhackl was slotted with J-S Dea and Josh Archibald. Rust sat out.
3) Conor Sheary, WBS; one goal
2) Jayson Megna, HFD; one goal, one assist
1) Magnus Hellberg, HFD; 28 saves on 29 shots
Wilkes-Barre at Hershey Bears, December 6
The Penguins concluded their three-in-three with a trip down I-81 to their longtime rivals, the Hershey Bears, and it did not go well. Paced by goals from Eric Burgdoerfer at 10:23 of the first and Connor Carrick at 12:34 of the second, Hershey jumped out to a 2-0 lead and held it until 17:53 of the third, when Tim Erixon scored his second of the season. WBS was unable to finish the comeback, however, and Nathan Walker’s empty-netter at 18:54 followed by Chris Bourque’s empty-netter 5 seconds after that provided the final nails in a 4-1 defeat. Murray took the loss, making 29 saves on 31 shots, while Justin Peters took the victory with 22 saves on 23 shots. Hershey outshot WBS 33 to 23, representing the first time in 12 games that WBS failed to win even the shot battle.
Captain Tom Kostopoulos picked up a lower body injury during the game on Saturday and did not play in Hershey; forward Tyler Biggs took his place alongside Dominik Uher and Oskar Sundqvist. Josh Archibald sat in place of Rust, forming a Kuhnhackl-Dea-Rust line.
3) Nathan Walker, HER: empty-net goal, one assist
2) Erik Burgdoerfer, HER: one goal
1) Justin Peters, HER: 22 saves on 23 shots
(Stats are as of December 6, 2015, compiled from theahl.com after the games of December 6 concluded)
- Goals - Scott Wilson, 11 (T-6th in AHL)
- Assists - Conor Sheary, 16 (T-5th in AHL, one behind leaders)
- Points - Conor Sheary, 21 (T-8th in AHL)
- Rookies - Despite a weekend without points, Dominik Simon’s 19 points in 21 games still tie him for 5th in the AHL in points.
- Matt Murray 10-4-0, 1.95 GAA (5th in AHL), 93.5% save pct (4th in AHL)
- Tristan Jarry - 6-1-0, 1.96 GAA (would be 6th in AHL), 92.6% save pct (would be tied for 9th in AHL)
- Special Teams
- Power Play - 21.8% home (T-5th in AHL), 16.7% away (T-15th), 19.6% overall (T-8th)
- Penalty Kill - 84.4% home (16th), 86.1% away (7th), 85.2% overall (8th)
- Team Record: 10-2-0 home, 6-3-0 away, 16-5-0 overall, 32 points
- Team Points Percentage: 76.2% (1st in division, 2nd in conference and league behind Toronto’s 77.1%)
- Miscellaneous: 75 goals scored in 21 games (4th in AHL); 47 goals allowed in 21 games (3rd in AHL)
Historical Records Through 21 Games:
1999-00: 3-12-5-1, 28.6% (win-loss-tie-OT loss)
2000-01: 13-4-4-0, 71.4%
2001-02: 3-14-3-1, 23.8%
2002-03: 8-11-1-1, 42.9%
2003-04: 8-9-2-2, 47.6%
2004-05: 10-6-2-3, 59.5% (win-loss-OT loss-SO loss)
2005-06: 19-0-2-0, 95.2%
2006-07: 15-4-1-1, 76.2%
2007-08: 11-10-0-0, 52.4%
2008-09: 11-9-0-1, 54.8%
2009-10: 10-9-1-1, 52.4%
2010-11: 17-4-0-0, 81.0%
2011-12: 11-5-1-4, 64.3%
2012-13: 13-7-1-0, 64.3%
2013-14: 13-5-1-2, 69.0%
2014-15: 11-8-2-0, 57.1%
2015-16: 16-5-0-0, 76.2%
So despite a horrible weekend and now being on a three-game losing streak, WBS still leads their division and has two of the league’s best goalies. Their 21-game start this season is tied for third-best in their history, behind the Kilpatrick Trophy season of 2010-11 and the Therrien callup season of 2005-06. They better get their offense back into gear, though, because the rest of the league is taking notice.
The Week Ahead:
December 9 vs. Syracuse, 7:05 pm
December 11 at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 pm
December 12 vs. Albany, 7:05 pm
December 13: Bowling tournament