Conor Sheary. Scott Wilson. Bryan Rust. Kevin Porter. Tom Kuhnhackl. Oskar Sundqvist. Derrick Pouliot. David Warsofsky. Steve Oleksy. Matt Murray. Mike Sullivan.
All of these individuals started the 2015-16 season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. All of these individuals have, as of this writing, played varying amounts of games and minutes with the Pittsburgh Penguins or, in the case of Sullivan, become head coach. It is not coincidence, then, that after this past week's four games in six days, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have seen their once-dominating division lead vanish.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton vs. Hershey Bears, Feb. 23rd
It doesn't help matters for WBS that their longtime rivals, the Hershey Bears, have compiled a 20-9-2-2 record from December 12, 2015, the date on which Mike Sullivan was promoted to Pittsburgh head coach, to February 28, 2016. This includes a decisive 4-1 victory over the Penguins on Tuesday night in WBS. The depth of Hershey was on display on this night, with four different Bears (Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber (penalty shot), Liam O’Brien) scoring goals and another five providing assists. The lone goal for WBS was Carter Rowney’s 13th of the season, and it was good enough for third star honors on the evening. Hershey goaltender Dan Ellis stopped the other 26 WBS shots he faced for the win and second star honors, while Barber took top honors for his penalty shot goal and a primary assist. Tristan Jarry, pressed into service following Matt Murray being stricken by illness, stopped 24 of 28 shots for the loss.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton @ Portland Pirates, Feb. 26th
The Penguins then hit the road for another weekend in the New England states, starting with a Friday night engagement in Portland. After a scoreless first period, Dominik Simon registered his 14th goal of the season at 14:11 of the second. Portland struck back at the start of the third through a power play goal by Connor Brickley at 0:42, then they took the lead at 4:29 as Rocco Grimaldi scored his 11th of the season. WBS, to their credit, answered back quickly at 6:18 of the third thanks to Kael Mouillerat’s 12th of the season.
The remainder of this game belonged to the goalies, as Mike McKenna and Matt Murray staged a brilliant duel in what could turn out to be Murray's final game in WBS (he was called up to Pittsburgh not long after the game). McKenna ended with 38 saves on 40 regulation/OT shots, while Murray stopped 32 of 34. This game went to a shootout, where Murray stopped both Grimaldi and former Penguin Rob Schremp to backstop the Penguins to victory. Simon and Mouillierat provided shootout goals to give WBS a crucial extra point.
Brickley’s tying goal gave him third star honors. McKenna’s stellar effort gave him second star honors, and Mouillierat took top honors with his tying goal in the third and the clinching goal in the shootout.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton @ Springfield Falcons, Feb. 27th
The WBS penalty kill has been a strength all season, consistently in the top 5 of the league. On Saturday night in Springfield, however, the WBS PK failed spectacularly, as Springfield’s Craig Cunningham lit up the WBS PK for three straight power play goals in a span of less than 3 minutes in the last quarter of the first period to power the Falcons to a 5-2 victory. Phil Lane provided the other two goals in the third period, one into an empty net. WBS goals were scored by Mouillierat (power play) and Jean-Sebastien Dea. Jarry took the loss in net, saving 27 of 31 shots, while Marek Langhamer took the win with 33 saves on 35 WBS shots.
Lane’s two goals garnered him third star honors. Former WBS Penguin Dustin Jeffrey took second star honors with two primary assists, while Cunningham was the clear top star of the evening with his first period natural hat trick.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton @ Providence Bruins, Feb. 28th
The Penguins closed their weekend in Providence, facing the top-ranked powerplay in the AHL. While The Penguins struck first on Providence’s power play, with Carter Rowney taking a spectacular save from Tristan Jarry and converted it to a shorthanded goal at 2:41 of the first, Providence dominated the game, outshooting WBS a ridiculous 29-5 in the first period and 50-25 overall, using goals by Colby Cave, Noel Acciardi, and Seth Griffith to take a 3-1 lead in the third period. The third period was very contentious, featuring fights by the WBS captain Tom Kostopoulos as well as John McCarron and a cross-checking major by Kael Mouillierat that put WBS on a penalty kill for the final five minutes of the game. Despite that infraction, Dominik Simon scored his 15th of the season shorthanded with 1:18 to go, but WBS could get no closer as Providence won 3-2.
Tristan Jarry’s 47 saves on 50 shots were easily the most he recorded this season, and Providence recognized this by awarding the WBS goalie third star honors. Acciardi’s unassisted goal in the second garnered him second star honors, while Seth Griffith took top honors with a goal and an assist.
Lines and defense pairings looked like this for the Providence game:
Expected #WBSPens Lines:— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 28, 2016
Expected #WBSPens D-Pairings:— Mike O'Brien (@MikeOBrienWBS) February 28, 2016
(Stats are as of February 28, 2016, compiled from theahl.com after the games of February 21 concluded)
- Goals - Scott Wilson, 22 (T-6th in AHL); Dominik Simon leads current WBS players with 15 goals, trailed by Carter Rowney and Tom Kostopoulos with 14 each and Kael Mouillierat and Jean-Sebastien Dea with 13 each
- Assists - Conor Sheary, 29 (T-14th in AHL); Will O'Neill leads current WBS players with 28 assists, trailed by Carter Rowney with 21 and Dominik Simon/Kael Mouillierat with 20 each
- Points - Scott Wilson and Conor Sheary (tie), 36; Will O'Neill, Dominik Simon, and Carter Rowney tie for the lead among current WBS players with 35 points each, trailed by Kael Mouillierat with 33.
- Rookies - Simon's 35 points are good for 9th in the AHL among rookies.
- Matt Murray - 20-9-1, 2.10 GAA (2nd in AHL), 93.1% save pct (2nd in AHL), four shutouts (T-3rd in AHL) (currently in NHL)
- Tristan Jarry - 11-6-3, 2.33 GAA (6th in AHL), 92.2% save pct (6th), three shutouts (T-7th)
- 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 - 19.6% home (12th in AHL), 19.0% away (4th), 19.3% overall (7th)
- Penalty Kill - 86.0% home (T-9th), 84.7% away (7th), 85.3% overall (8th)
- Team Record: 15-8-2-1 home, 18-10-2-0 away, 33-18-4-1 overall, 71 points
- Team Points Percentage: 63.4% (2nd in division, 4th in conference, 7th in league)
- Magic Number to Clinch Playoffs: 28 (after the games of February 28, per the AHL Playoff Primer at http://theahl.com/playoff-primer-2016-p201276)
The Week Ahead
March 4 at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 pm
March 5 at Hershey, 7:00 pm
March 6 vs. Hershey, 4:05 pm
It’s a circular argument, really, as to what is causing the struggles currently facing WBS. Is it inadequate coaching, as some would argue, or is it reduced manpower due to the callups and personnel shuffling described above, as I would argue?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. WBS is not the team it was to start the season. They are now firmly in the pack, and time is running short to right the ship.
EDIT: This post was updated February 29, 2016 to include the magic number for the Penguins. The magic number, as defined by the AHL, is "The number of points needed by a team to clinch a playoff berth. A team's Magic Number is reduced when it earns standings points, or when the team with the highest possible total outside the playoff picture fails to earn standings points. A team clinches a playoff berth when its Magic Number reaches zero." After the games of February 28, WBS's magic number is 28.