Now that I’m sufficiently thawed out from my weekend...
FEBRUARY 24: WBS 1 @ Utica 2
On the heels of a three-game weekend that ended up with three losses and zero points, WBS headed up to the legendary Utica Memorial Auditorium on Friday night for a contest against the fifth place team in the North Division, the .500 Utica Comets. Unfortunately, the Penguins would see their losing streak extended to four, as Jordan Subban and Darren Archibald paced the Comets to a 2-1 victory. Tom Kostopoulos scored his 19th goal of the season on a power play at 8:50 of the third to break Thatcher Demko’s shutout bid, but the Canucks prospect stopped the remaining 27 shots he faced for his 10th win of the season. His counterpart, Tristan Jarry, stopped 23 of 25 shots for the loss.
FEBRUARY 25: WBS 4 @ Lehigh Valley 3 (OT)
Not exactly the place one would want to go, on a four-game losing streak, but WBS found itself in Allentown on Saturday night, in a fitting echo to the Stadium Series (though indoors), for the fifth game of the season between the rivals. Captain Kostopoulos opened the scoring at 17:08 with his remarkable 20th goal of the season at age 38 and, perhaps more remarkably, the first lead of this extended road trip for the Penguins. Lehigh Valley answered in the second with Greg Carey’s 25th of the year and Danick Martel’s 14th to take a 2-1 lead, but Jarrett Burton scored his 2nd of the year at 16:16 to tie the game at 2 after 2 periods. Jean-Sebastien Dea opened the third with his 14th goal of the season at 2:04 and it looked for all the world that the losing streak would end until 12:03 of the third, when Corban Knight tied the score with a power play goal. This game went to overtime, and with only 15 seconds left, perhaps the most unlikely of Penguins provided the winner, as defender Barry Goers scored his first goal in nearly two years to give WBS a 4-3 victory, the first win of the season series between the two by the road team. Tristan Jarry rebounded with 34 saves on 37 Phantoms shots for the win, his 23rd of the season.
FEBRUARY 25: Philadelphia 2 @ Pittsburgh 4 (Stadium Series)
While the WBS Penguins ended their losing streak and continued their road trip, I found myself in Section 513, row L of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, braving a 40+ degree drop in temperature from 24 hours earlier, more wind than I’d ever want to deal with again in my life, and the occasional snow squall to attend my third outdoor professional hockey game. The first was the 2011 Winter Classic in the same stadium, a game I’d rather forget; the second was the 2012 Outdoor Classic between WBS and the Hershey Bears at Hersheypark Stadium, won by WBS in OT and holding the distinction of being the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. Saturday night in Pittsburgh came close, but my oh my, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The so-called “PreGame” outside in the parking lots was a nice way to start the evening, reminding me positively of the carnival outside Hersheypark Stadium five years ago. I had to wait about 45 minutes to take my shot (literally) at the accuracy shooting exhibit, and let’s just say...there’s a reason I do what I do for a living and not hockey.
I got to my seats pretty early, so I had to sit in the cold and wind for about an hour before the players came out for warmups, but the pregame videos of some of the 100 greatest NHL players of all time (primarily those with Penguins connections) were very well done and a welcome distraction.
Bringing out actual penguins from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium after warmups for a turn on the smaller side ice sheet was a nice touch, but maybe next time we can get them out of there once the fireworks start.
The pregame introductions were also well done, with the Flyers entering from one side and the Penguins (prompted by the Steelers’ Antonio Brown, another neat touch) from the other. The use of Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” for the Flyers’ entrance was also well thought out, as it is the song currently used by the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center for their pregame introduction. The first intermission musical set by Train was also very well done on what had to be short notice for them.
The national anthem was also very well performed, though I would advise that the anthem is probably not the appropriate time to use an expletive about the opposing team. (Looking in your general direction, random fan who sat close enough for me to hear him.)
Then, the faceoff. But first, probably the most powerful moment of the evening for me.
The jig is up, the news is out - it's finally STADIUM SERIES TIME! pic.twitter.com/RxlebFdAV7— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 26, 2017
I’m not a Steelers fan, so I’ve never experienced what fans would call the “Renegade Roar” during a Steelers game. I know it when I hear it, but usually for me, it’s a sign of impending dread. In fact, the repeated use of “Renegade” by the Steelers has made it difficult for me to listen to the song on the radio. So, to sit in Heinz Field for the second time, commemorative Terrible Towel in hand, waiting for the game to start, and to hear Tommy Shaw’s voice warn that the hangman was descending from the gallows as images of Super Mario, Best in the World, the Russian Bear, and Mad Max flashed on the screens...it gave me even more chills than the weather.
The game was, for my money, a much higher quality affair than the slog in 2011 (not just because Pittsburgh won), and as a WBS fan first and Pittsburgh being 1A, it gave me a great amount of pride to see Jake Guentzel dominate the proceedings as he did. His primary assist to the Best In The World for the game’s opening goal was a thing of beauty, and his second assist of the night to Nick Bonino for Pittsburgh’s second goal was also a powerful sign of the vision “Jake from State Farm” possesses, as well as a signal of his bright future. Well earned first star honors for the rookie.
Good on Matt Cullen for getting a goal for himself at age 40, and I almost screamed myself hoarse when fellow WBS callup Chad Ruhwedel scored the final goal of the evening to send the Flyers packing.
The walk back to my hotel was joyful and uneventful, a great way to allow everything of the weekend to settle in. To top it all off...my hotel on the North Shore was primarily populated by visiting Flyers fans, and when I returned to the hotel, a number of them were waiting for the elevator, holding Claude Giroux’s and Shayne Gostisbehere’s heads on sticks and openly questioning Giroux’s fitness to be the captain. I believe one even said he’d rather have Eric Desjardins as captain.
All in all, it was an outstanding night to be a Penguins fan. One I’d gladly repeat in the future if Pittsburgh ever got the chance to do one of these again.
STATISTICS (through February 26)
Goals: Jake Guentzel 21 (T-6th in AHL, on recall to Pittsburgh) Tom Kostopoulos 20 (T-10th in AHL), Oskar Sundqvist 16, Jean-Sebastien Dea 14, David Warsofsky 12, Garrett Wilson/Josh Archibald 11
Assists: Warsofsky 26 (T-5th among AHL defenders), Kevin Porter 26, Dominik Simon/Kostopoulos 24 each, Guentzel/Sundqvist 21 each
Points: Kostopoulos 44 (T-13th in AHL), Guentzel 42, Warsofsky 38, Sundqvist 37, Porter 34, Simon 33
Goalies: Tristan Jarry 23-11-1 (2nd in wins behind Jack Campbell’s 24 for Ontario), 2.28 GAA (9th in AHL), 92.0% save percentage (T-11th in AHL), one shutout; Casey DeSmith 14-4-2 (T-16th in wins), 2.32 GAA (12th in AHL, 91.2% save percentage (T-20th in AHL) no shutouts
Special Teams: Power play 17.6%, T-14th in AHL, two shorthanded goals allowed; penalty kill 86.3%, 1st in AHL, 6 shorthanded goals forced
Fight Tracker (courtesy of HockeyFights.com): Patrick McGrath 8 (one more allowed before suspension), Tom Sestito 5, Garrett Wilson 4, Cameron Gaunce 2, Ryan Haggerty 1, Josh Archibald 1, Carter Rowney 1, Tom Kostopoulos 1, Jarrett Burton 1, Kevin Porter 1
Standings: 1) WBS, 70.5% (2nd in AHL behind San Jose’s 72.9%); 2) Providence, 67.0% (7-2-0-1 in their last 10); 3) Lehigh Valley, 65.7% (4-5-1-0 in their last 10 to fall behind Providence); 4) Bridgeport, 64.8%; 5) Hershey, 59.8%; 6) Springfield, 48.2%; 7) Hartford, 40.9%
MAGIC NUMBER TO CLINCH PLAYOFFS: 31 (through games of February 25). Hershey’s regulation loss on February 26 likely drops WBS’s number to 29; you can watch the magic number every day through the league’s Playoff Primer.
THE WEEK AHEAD:
March 1, 3 pm EST: NHL trade deadline. Anything could happen, and anything that does happen could affect the makeup of WBS or its rivals, especially if a certain long-tenured goaltender for Pittsburgh is moved.
March 4, 7:00 pm EST: WBS at Hershey
March 5, 3:00 pm EST: WBS at Hartford
I’ll just be over here, hiding in a corner until the trade deadline is over.