FEBRUARY 14: Lehigh Valley 1 @ WBS 5
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins opened their week on Valentine’s Night, closing out a four-game-in-six-day stretch by once again hosting their Pennsylvania Turnpike rivals from Lehigh Valley, the fourth game out of 12 between the clubs this season. Much like the first game between the two that was played in WBS, this game was all Penguins, nearly all of the time. Derrick Pouliot, playing some much, much improved hockey for WBS over the last few weeks, opened the scoring at 5:37 of the first with a power play goal, his 4th goal of the year. Dominik Simon made it 2-0 at 17:03 of the first with his 8th of the year, and WBS was off and running.
Oskar Sundqvist scored his first of the night and 15th of the season just 0:57 into the second period with an unassisted shorthanded goal, which would prove to be merely insurance as Lehigh Valley could only manage Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s 7th of the season at 9:10 of the second against Tristan Jarry, who would stop the other 27 shots he faced for his 22nd win of the season. Jean-Sebastien Dea extended the lead to 4-1 at 16:43 of the second with his 13th of the year, then Sundqvist clinched first-star honors for himself at 4:20 of the third with his second of the night and 16th of the season.
The proceedings were marred somewhat by the Phantoms’ giant defender Samuel Morin cross-checking Garrett Wilson early in the first period. The ensuing power play was converted by Pouliot as described above, and Morin would later be suspended for two games as a result of it, but later on in the week, coach Clark Donatelli would announce Wilson would be out for “at least a month” with an upper-body injury.
Small consolation, that two-game suspension.
FEBRUARY 17: WBS 0 @ Albany 4
So, let’s add all this up. Jake Guentzel - Promoted. Josh Archibald - Promoted, although he was returned to WBS on Saturday. Carter Rowney - Promoted. Garrett Wilson - Injured. Chad Ruhwedel - Promoted. On the morning of the 17th: Steve Oleksy - Promoted. Cameron Gaunce - Promoted.
You take that much star power away from the best team in the league, and they become eminently beatable. Witness Friday’s game in Albany, as for the first time all season, WBS failed to score any goals, as Albany’s Blake Coleman scored just 0:58 into the first, then held that lead for 60 minutes, even expanding it in the third through Ben Sexton’s 19th of the year at 11:23, Max Novak’s 5th at 15:54, then Nick Lappin’s 6th at 19:19 into an empty net. Jarry took the loss, stopping only 30 of 33 Albany shots.
FEBRUARY 18: WBS 1 @ Springfield 2
Witness also Saturday night’s game in Springfield, as despite the return of Archibald and outshooting the sixth-place Thunderbirds 35-27 on the evening, the Penguins could only manage David Warsofsky’s 12th goal of the season at 7:57 of the third against Springfield’s Reto Berra, who would stop the remaining 34 shots he faced. Thanks to Juho Lammikko’s 6th of the season at 11:06 of the third, the Thunderbirds laid what would easily be the most stunning loss of the weekend on the Penguins by the score of 2-1. Despite 25 saves on 27 shots, Casey DeSmith was saddled with the loss.
It’s one thing to go to the North Division’s second-place team and get shut out. Against a team as defensively sound as Albany, that’s possible, if perhaps a bit unlikely. But losing on the road to the sub-.500 Thunderbirds? That, to me, is cause for alarm.
FEBRUARY 19: WBS 2 @ Providence 3
As misfortune would have it, the final game of the 3 in 3 this past weekend saw WBS visiting the fourth-place Providence Bruins and the hottest goaltender in the division, Providence’s Zane McIntyre, who coming into this game had not lost in regulation in 13 decisions. The Bruins struck first through Danton Heinen’s 10th of the year, but it was quickly answered by Dominik Simon’s 9th of the year on a power play. Providence retook the lead at 7:47 of the second thanks to Sean Kuraly’s 10th of the year, but that goal was answered at 1:49 of the third as Derrick Pouliot scored his second PP goal of the weekend and 5th of the year.
All the scrapping was for naught, though, as Jordan Szwarz scored his 13th of the year at 15:56 of the third to put the Bruins ahead to stay, 3-2, and give McIntyre his 13th win in 16 games played and WBS a thoroughly pointless weekend. McIntyre closed the weekend holding a 1.74 GAA and a 94.1% save percentage that, if not for being 28 minutes short of the AHL’s “qualified goalie” cutoff of 960 minutes as of February 19, would lead the league. This day’s loss fell to Tristan Jarry, who saved 32 of 35 Providence attempts.
STATISTICS (through February 19)
Goals: Jake Guentzel 21 (on recall to Pittsburgh); Tom Kostopoulos 18; Oskar Sundqvist 16; Jean-Sebastien Dea 13, David Warsofsky 12
Assists: Warsofsky 26; Kevin Porter 25; Kostopoulos 24; Guentzel/Dominik Simon 21 each; Sundqvist 20
Points: Guentzel/Kostopoulos 42 each; Warsofsky 38; Sundqvist 36; Porter 33; Simon 30
Goalies: Tristan Jarry 22-10-1, 2.27 GAA, 92.1% save percentage, one shutout; Casey DeSmith 14-4-2, 2.32 GAA, 91.2% save percentage, no shutouts
Special Teams: Power play 17.8%, 14th in AHL, two shorthanded goals allowed; penalty kill 86.8%, 1st in AHL, six shorthanded goals forced
Fight Tracker (courtesy of HockeyFights.com): Patrick McGrath 8 (fought Tyler Randell of Providence on Sunday; McGrath can fight once more this season without being suspended), Tom Sestito 5, Garrett Wilson 4, Cameron Gaunce 2, Ryan Haggerty 1, Josh Archibald 1, Carter Rowney 1, Tom Kostopoulos 1, Jarrett Burton 1 (fought Colin McDonald of LV on Tuesday), Kevin Porter 1 (fought Tommy Cross of Providence on Sunday);
Standings: 1) WBS, 71.3% (leads the AHL now only by 0.2% over San Jose); 2) Lehigh Valley, 67.3%; 3) Bridgeport, 66.7% (on a stretch of 15 wins in 16 games); 4) Providence, 65.1%; 5) Hershey, 59.4% (would lead the North Division if there was a crossover); 6) Springfield, 47.1%; 7) Hartford, 41.3%
MAGIC NUMBER TO CLINCH PLAYOFFS: 35 points (per the AHL’s Playoff Primer through the games of February 18)
THE WEEK AHEAD
Friday, February 24 at Utica, 7:00 pm EST
Saturday, February 25 at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 pm EST
Don’t look now, but with two games in hand and 8 more head-to-head meetings to go, Lehigh Valley is now only seven points behind WBS, having taken 4 out of 6 points in their 3 in 3 this weekend. Also, don’t count out the surging Sound Tigers, the hottest team in the division; Providence, who have a dangerously hot goaltender; or Hershey, who should never be counted out of any discussion.
For as good as the WBS season has been to this point, with three powerful teams nipping at their tails and The Franchise still on the outskirts, too many more bad weekends can bring the Penguins back to the pack.