Six games left in the season. Three in three days against their biggest rivals. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton started the week charging hard down the backstretch looking to catch the Hershey Bears for the division lead and prepare themselves for the playoffs. Let's take a look at how the week progressed.
WBS PENGUINS VS. LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS, APRIL 8
Before their game on Friday against the Phantoms, the Penguins took a few moments to honor some of their award winners: Will O'Neill, Matt Murray, and Dustin Jeffrey as second-team AHL All-Stars for the season; Carter Rowney as the CCM AHL Player of the Month for March; and Tom Kostopoulos as the Fred T. Hunt Award winner for 2015-16, awarded by the AHL to the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination, and dedication to hockey". The good vibes for the evening ended there, though, as despite outshooting the Phantoms 40-22 for the game, the Penguins could not break down opposing goaltender Martin Ouellette even once, and Tristan Jarry allowed four Phantoms shots (three by defenseman Adam Comrie, one by former Penguin Tim Brent) to slip past him for a 4-0 Phantoms victory. Comrie's hat trick earned him top honors for the evening, while Ouellette's stellar shutout performance earned him second honors. Another former Penguin, Chris Conner, rounded out a Phantoms sweep of the stars with three assists.
Combined with Hartford's 7-3 triumph over the Springfield Falcons, the Penguins were again denied the opportunity to clinch the playoffs.
WBS PENGUINS AT HERSHEY BEARS, APRIL 9
Whether it was because of Jarry's increasingly unimpressive performances over the last couple of weeks or whether it was a sign of things to come following Matt Murray's injury while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins against Philadelphia, the return of Brian Foster to the WBS net seemingly could not come at a more inopportune time...Saturday night, on the road, against the Hershey Bears and a sold-out Giant Center. What was opportune, however, was Foster's best performance in a WBS uniform to date.
WBS came out flying in the first period, as Dominik Simon (23) and Carter Rowney (22) scored within 2:39 of each other to pace WBS to a 2-0 lead at 11:40 of the first. WBS quickly absorbed Liam O'Brien's 7th of the season at 12:08 of the first to restore their two-goal advantage through Simon's second of the game and 24th of the season at 17:39, and despite only 7 shots on goal, WBS claimed a 3-1 advantage after 20 minutes. WBS expanded its advantage to 4-1 at 3:23 of the second through Jarrett Burton's second of the season, which turned out to be the end of starting goaltender Dan Ellis's evening as well as the game-winner. Despite Carter Camper's 9th of the season at 7:15 of the second and Chris Bourque's 29th of the season on the power play at 6:04 of the third, WBS survived the Hershey onslaught and a Simon double-minor power play in the third period to prevail 4-3 and finally clinch a playoff berth, their 14th straight season with a playoff berth and 15th in their history. Foster ended up with 21 saves on 24 shots for the win.
Chris Bourque's goal was good enough for third star honors; Tom Kostopoulos recorded two assists for second star honors, and the clear top performer of the evening was Dominik Simon, with two goals.
WBS PENGUINS VS. HERSHEY BEARS, APRIL 10
The return matchup in WBS on Sunday featured another returning goaltender to the WBS net, this being Casey DeSmith, signed to a PTO on Sunday morning in anticipation of Jarry's recall to Pittsburgh in the wake of the Murray injury. DeSmith stumbled out of the gate, conceding Ryan Bourque's 11th of the season at 5:10 of the first, then he failed to close his five-hole as Garrett Mitchell threw a blind backhanded shot on net following a broken 3 on 2 which somehow found the net for a 2-0 lead for the Bears. To their credit, WBS did not back down, and when Kael Mouillierat scored his 18th of the season at 19:52 of the second, hope started to spread throughout the crowd. That hope became celebration when Dominik Simon scored his 25th of the season at 13:13 of the third, but like the hardened veterans they are, Hershey stormed right back to take the lead again as Mitchell stuffed home the rebound of a Chandler Stephenson shot for his second of the game at 14:14 of the third. WBS would not die easily, though, as Carter Rowney quickly tied the game again at 15:42 of the third on the power play, but the final break fell to the Bears through a classic Hershey back-door goal by Stephenson. Chris Bourque iced it with a long empty net goal at 19:28 to defeat the Penguins 5-3 and narrow their magic number to clinch the division championship to 2.
DeSmith's final numbers were 18 saves on 22 shots, while his opposite number Justin Peters repelled 33 of 36 WBS shots for the victory. WBS defenseman Will O'Neill assisted on all three WBS goals for third star honors; Chris Bourque took second honors with three assists and the empty-net goal; Stephenson took top honors with the game winner and an assist.
STATISTICS (as of April 10, 2016)
- Goals - Dominik Simon leads with 25 (T-13th in AHL); Carter Rowney second with 23; Scott Wilson third with 22; Tom Kostopoulos, Dustin Jeffrey, and Jean-Sebastien Dea tied for fourth with 19 each
- Assists - Dustin Jeffrey first with 44; Will O'Neill ranks second with 41; Carter Rowney and Tom Kostopoulos tied for third with 31; Conor Sheary fifth with 29
- Points - Dustin Jeffrey leads the team with 63 points; Carter Rowney second with 54, Tom Kostopoulos third with 50; Will O'Neill fourth with 49; Dominik Simon fifth with 47
- Rookies - Simon's 47 points are good for 9th in the AHL among rookies. His 25 goals trail only Providence's Frank Vatrano among rookies.
- Matt Murray - 20-9-1, 2.10 GAA (second in AHL), 93.1% save pct (second in AHL), four shutouts (currently in NHL)
- Tristan Jarry - 17-13-3, 2.69 GAA (21st in AHL), 90.5% save pct (31st in AHL), five shutouts
- Brian Foster - 3-3-1, 3.51 GAA, 85.7% save pct, one shutout
- Casey Desmith - 1-1-0, 2.6 GAA, 88.7% save pct
- Frank Palazzese - 1-0-0, perfect GAA and save pct in 22:21 of work
- Special Teams
- Power Play - 20.6% home (7th in AHL), 17.9% away (6th), 19.3% overall (6th)
- Penalty Kill - 83.8% home (18th), 82.6% away (13th), 83.2% overall (16th)
- Team Record: 20-14-2-1 home, 22-12-2-0 away, 42-26-4-1 overall, 89 points (clinched playoffs)
- Team Points Percentage: 61.0%; 2nd in division, 5th in conference, 9th in league)