When a team does not have its best scorers, its strategies inevitably change. Defense and goaltending are always important, but they become more important when it's less likely for you to score 3 or 4 goals per game. Facing four games in this calendar week, the WBS Penguins were fortunate enough to have one of the best goalie tandems in the league on which to lean in an attempt to restore space between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic Division.
To the ice.
WBS PENGUINS AT UTICA COMETS, FEBRUARY 9
I had posited in this space last week that this return contest at the Utica Memorial Auditorium would be contentious, but excluding a fight between Carter Rowney and Utica’s Jon Landry, the game was not as contentious as I had predicted. Despite Utica outshooting WBS for the entirety of the game, ending 37-25, WBS led 3-0 at the 6:09 mark of the second period behind two goals from Derek Army and a power play goal from Kael Mouillerat. Utica struck back 37 seconds after Army’s second goal, as longtime Vancouver Canuck Chris Higgins, sent to Utica in January, scored his first goal for the Comets. Comets defender Jordan Subban scored his eighth of the season at 15:08 of the second to draw Utica back to within one, then Brendan Gaunce completed the comeback at 11:24 of the third to draw Utica level. The game ended happily for WBS, as Carter Rowney scored his 11th goal of the season, unassisted, just 33 seconds into overtime to give WBS the extra point and a 4-3 victory.
Matt Murray repelled 34 of Utica’s 37 shots for a hard-earned victory, while Richard Bachman stopped 21 of WBS’s 25 efforts in the overtime loss. Third star honors for the game went to Utica’s Carter Bancks, with two assists. Rowney’s game-winner in overtime earned him second star honors, while Army’s two goals were good for top honors.
WBS PENGUINS AT HARTFORD WOLF PACK, FEBRUARY 12
Murray took the cage again in Hartford on Friday night for the final matchup of the season between these division rivals, and the young WBS star goalie put forward a much more Murray-like performance at the XL Center, stopping 26 of 27 Hartford shots on the evening. Only Nicklas Jensen solved him at 10:26 of the third period. WBS opened the scoring with Kael Mouillierat’s 10th goal of the season at 11:21 of the first, while Anton Zlobin added a power play goal at 8:41 of the second, his second of the season for WBS, to provide the eventual game-winner. Sahir Gill deposited an empty-netter at 19:47 of the third to provide the final 3-1 margin of victory. Hartford’s Magnus Hellberg took the loss for the Wolf Pack, stopping 20 of 22 shots.
Third star honors went to Jensen for Hartford for his goal. Kael Mouillerat took second star honors for his goal and a secondary assist for Zlobin’s goal, while Zlobin took top honors on the evening.
WBS PENGUINS VS. PORTLAND PIRATES, FEBRUARY 13
WBS welcomed its rookie star Dominik Simon back to the lineup on Saturday night following an upper-body injury, but in all honesty, WBS could have used a lot more than Simon on this Military Appreciation Night. Portland thoroughly outplayed WBS on this evening, outshooting the Penguins 36-24, and it was only through the efforts of Tristan Jarry that WBS kept this game close. WBS’s best opportunity in the first 40 minutes came through a match penalty assessed to Portland’s Sena Acolaste for violating AHL rule 46.15, wearing tape on his hands during a fight and cutting or injuring an opponent. WBS could not capitalize on the 5 minutes; in fact, at one point Tim Erixon was forced to take a holding penalty during the major penalty to stop a Portland rush.
Portland finally broke through at 3:08 of the third, as Rob Flick forced a turnover in the WBS zone and beat Jarry clean with a hard wrist shot. That lead would hold until the 11:01 mark of the third, as Kael Mouillierat brought the puck into the Portland zone but was separated from the puck with a very hard check. The puck floated to Simon, who was nearby in support, and he buried his 13th of the season past Sam Brittain to level the proceedings. This game would eventually proceed to overtime, where Michael Matheson got the one breakaway that always seems to take place during 3 on 3 overtime and beat Jarry clean to take the extra point for the Pirates, 2-1.
Brittain’s 23 saves on 24 shots were good for third star honors. The hard-luck loser Jarry took second star honors for 34 saves on 36 shots and essentially stealing a point for WBS, while Matheson’s game-winner earned him top honors.
Expected #WBSPens Lines:— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 13, 2016
Expected #WBSPens D-Pairings— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 13, 2016
WBS PENGUINS VS. PORTLAND PIRATES, FEBRUARY 14
The Penguins closed out their grueling week with a Sunday afternoon matinee rematch against the Pirates, and it appeared at first like this game would go the way of its predecessor on Sunday, with the majority of possession and shots going to Portland.
Unlike the previous night’s game, this game was laden with power plays, with WBS getting 7 to Portland’s 6. On WBS’s fourth advantage, with winger Tony Turgeon off for hooking, an unfortunate mix-up between Will O’Neill and the linesman at the point led to a Portland breakaway, and Wade Megan beat Murray clean for his sixth goal of the season. The shorthanded tally gave Portland a 1-0 lead through 40 minutes.
Things looked bleak as the teams took the ice for the third, but with Jonathan Racine in the box for interference, WBS did this with its fifth power play of the night.
@WBSPenguins pic.twitter.com/CSZ2VvtdxB— Taylor Haase (@TaylorHaasePGH) February 14, 2016
Just five minutes later, O’Neill fired a slapshot on net from the blue line through a forest of bodies, both Portland and WBS, and Sahir Gill was able to deflect it home for a 2-1 WBS lead. Gill’s sixth of the season looked to be the game-winner as Chase Balisy took a slashing minor with 1:58 to go, giving WBS a power play for what seemed like the rest of the game, but rather than use the advantage to attack, WBS chose to defend the advantage. Kyle Rau proved this to be a huge mistake, as his shorthanded goal (17th goal of the year) with 18.2 seconds left leveled the proceedings and brought about the second overtime in less than 24 hours between the clubs.
In the overtime, many chances were exchanged, but just like the night before, the final chance was Portland’s. Dylan Olsen found himself one-on-one with Tom Kostopoulos in the left circle, and Olsen put on a very nifty move to get around the Penguins’ captain and roof the game-winner over Murray for a 3-2 Portland victory.
Murray took the overtime loss with 34 saves on 37 shots. Portland’s Mike McKenna took the win with 32 saves on 34 shots. O’Neill took third star honors with two assists; Gill’s goal, plus his assist to TK as shown above, earned him second star honors; top honors went to Olsen.
Expected #WBSPens Lines:— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 14, 2016
Expected #WBSPens D-Pairings— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 14, 2016
(Stats are as of February 14, 2016, compiled from theahl.com after the games of February 14 concluded)
- Goals - Scott Wilson, 22 (T-3rd in AHL); Dominik Simon and Tom Kostopoulos tied for second with 13
- Assists - Conor Sheary, 29 (T-6th in AHL); Will O'Neill second with 27 (11th in AHL), Dominik Simon and Carter Rowney tied for third with 19
- Points - Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary (tie), 36; Will O’Neill third with 33 points
- Rookies - Simon’s 32 points are tied for 8th in the AHL
- Matt Murray 19-8-1, 2.04 GAA (2nd in AHL), 93.2% save pct (2nd in AHL), four shutouts (T-3rd in AHL)
- Tristan Jarry - 11-3-2, 2.04 GAA, 92.9% save pct, three shutouts (Jarry’s GAA would be tied for 2nd in the AHL and his save percentage third if he had enough minutes to qualify among the league leaders; he has played 942 minutes, while the goalie leaderboard asks for 960 minutes)
- Brian Foster - 1-3-1, 2.97 GAA, 87.9% save pct, one shutout
- Casey Desmith - 1-0-0, 1.50 GAA, 93.5% save pct
- Special Teams
- Power Play - 20.2% home (13th in AHL), 21.0% away (2nd), 20.6% overall (5th)
- Penalty Kill - 86.5% home (7th), 87.7% away (2nd), 87.1% overall (2nd)
- Team Record: 15-7-2-1 home, 17-7-1-0 away, 32-14-3-1 overall, 68 points
- Team Points Percentage: 68.0% (1st in division, 2nd in conference, 2nd in league)
THE WEEK AHEAD
February 19 at Toronto, 7:00 pm EST
February 21 at Rochester, 5:05 pm EST
HUGE test for WBS in Toronto, facing the league leaders at Ricoh Coliseum. Recall their prior meeting on December 18 in the WB, where WBS held Toronto scoreless through the first 40 minutes and had the Marlies down 3-0 in the third before Toronto unleashed three shorthanded goals in under 3 minutes to tie the game, then win it in a shootout. The return match should be quite interesting, as well as a great benchmark of where WBS is as a team at this point in the season.