March 8th: Lehigh Valley 3 @ WBS 0
Having lost Cameron Gaunce and Tom Sestito on recall to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the day, but gaining Derrick Pouliot in return, the WBS Penguins returned home after their dismal 2-5 road trip only to find the Lehigh Valley Phantoms waiting for them. The demons of the road appeared to follow WBS back home for the first game of this three-game homestand, as the Phantoms’ “other” young goaltender, Alex Lyon, stole first-star honors with a 31-save shutout, his fourth of the season, and his 23rd win. Providing the offense for the Phantoms were Chris McCarthy, his first of the season; former Penguin Colin McDonald, his 21st of the season; and Mark Zengerle, his 12th of the season on a power play. WBS goaltender Tristan Jarry matched his counterpart Lyon with 31 saves, but unfortunately the three Lehigh Valley goals marked the difference in this one.
March 10th: Hartford 1 @ WBS 8
Thanks to Tom Sestito nearly destroying Toby Enstrom’s face in Winnipeg on Wednesday night and being suspended four games for it, WBS found itself without its stalwart young center Oskar Sundqvist, called up and shipped out to western Canada in place of the hulking enforcer. Perhaps fortunately for the home side, its opponent on Friday night was the last-place Hartford Wolf Pack. The difference in quality between the two sides was apparent very early on, as Derrick Pouliot scored his sixth goal of the season at 6:27 of the first, then provided a spectacular end-to-end rush just two minutes later to free up Jarrett Burton for his third of the season.
By the time the ice shavings settled, seven different Penguins (Pouliot, Burton, Kevin Porter, Barry Goers, Sahir Gill, Dominik Simon, and Tom Kostopoulos) were able to beat Hartford goaltender Mackenzie Skapski, with Goers getting two past the Abbotsford native. Only Taylor Beck’s goal at 9:02 of the second, his 14th of the season, was able to break the shutout bid of Casey DeSmith, who stopped 19 of 20 shots for his 16th win in 22 games played.
Pouliot ended the night with a goal and three assists for first star honors.
March 11th: Providence 2 @ WBS 3
It’s one thing to put up eight goals against the worst team in the division and a goaltender with a goals-against average north of 5 for the season. It’s quite another to put up such a performance against the hottest goalie in the conference, Zane McIntyre, and the formidable Providence Bruins, who entered the weekend charging up the Atlantic Division leaderboards.
Yet, that’s exactly what the WBS Penguins did, which is why I have no qualms about saying that, after a month away from the Mohegan Sun Arena, I was far more impressed by Saturday night’s 3-2 win over Providence than I was with their 8-1 win over Hartford.
Dominik Simon got the party started very early, as Josh Archibald forced a turnover in the neutral zone for Simon to pick up, break in, and rip past McIntyre. Providence’s Noel Acciari quickly equalized against Tristan Jarry at 2:23 on a power play, but at the 9:48 mark, Josh Archibald made an absolutely nasty deflection of a Barry Goers shot, and the puck bounced past McIntyre for 2-1. Just 1:09 later, the Shavertown, PA native Patrick McGrath fired a seemingly innocuous wrister at McIntyre, which was lazily deflected away right into the path of the on-rushing Jarrett Burton, who took the puck and fired it into the net for his fourth goal of the season, a 3-1 lead, and the end of McIntyre’s night after saving just 6 of 9 WBS shots in 10:57 of work. He was replaced by Malcolm Subban, who saved all 23 shots he faced.
Providence managed to claw back to 1 at 12:18 of the second with Matt Grzelcyk’s fifth goal of the season, but they could get no closer as Jarry saved 16 of 17 shots he faced in the final two periods, as well as 26 of 28 overall, to send WBS to its second consecutive win, as well as Jarry’s 24th win of the year.
Statistics (through March 13)
Goals: Tom Kostopoulos/Jake Guentzel 21 each (T-14th in AHL); Oskar Sundqvist/Jean-Sebastien Dea 16 each; David Warsofsky/Josh Archibald 14 each; Dominik Simon/Garrett Wilson 11 each; Kevin Porter/Carter Rowney 10 each
Assists: Porter 30 (T-19th in AHL); Warsofsky 29; Simon 26; Kostopoulos 24; Sundqvist 23; Guentzel 21
Points: Kostopoulos 45, Warsofsky 43, Guentzel 42; Porter 40; Sundqvist 39; Simon 37; Dea/Wilson 29 each, Archibald 27
Goalies: Tristan Jarry 24-13-1 (T-2nd in AHL in wins), 2.28 GAA (9th in AHL), 92.1% save percentage (11th in AHL), one shutout; Casey DeSmith 16-4-2, 2.29 GAA (10th in AHL), 91.2% save percentage (T-18th in AHL), no shutouts
Special Teams: Power play 17.8%, T-14th in AHL, two shorthanded goals allowed; penalty kill 86.7%, 1st in AHL, six shorthanded goals forced
Fight Tracker (courtesy of HockeyFights.com): Patrick McGrath is now up to 9 fights on the season, as he fought the much larger Tyler Randell of Providence on Saturday, shown at 1:17 of the above highlight video. I highlight this not necessarily because of the very impressive single-leg takedown McGrath used to end the fight, but because McGrath is now at his fight limit for the season; any more fighting by McGrath this season will bring with it automatic suspensions. McGrath may also be in some hot water with the league this week, as he was assessed a game misconduct for leaving the bench to fight (AHL rule 70.6), a charge that, if upheld by the league, could bring with it a suspension of 6 games, per AHL rule 70.10.
Also on the fight tracker: 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, 69.7% (2nd in AHL behind San Jose’s 72.2%); 2) Lehigh Valley, 67.5%; 3) Bridgeport, 63.1% (ahead on wins tiebreaker); 4) Providence, 63.1%; 5) Hershey, 62.1% (a points percentage that, if Hershey were in the North Division, would lead the North; the North’s leader at week’s end, Syracuse, had a 58.2% points percentage); 6) Springfield, 49.2%; 7) Hartford, 38.5%
Magic Number to Clinch Playoffs: 21 (through the games of March 11). Hershey’s 4-2 win over Providence on Sunday kept WBS’s number at 21 for week’s end.
The Week Ahead:
Friday, March 17 at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 pm EDT
Saturday, March 18 vs. Lehigh Valley, 7:05 pm EDT
WBS now gets to enjoy one of their last relatively quiet weeks of the season, with no games until Friday and two in two days against their PA Turnpike rivals. With only 15 games to go, WBS has now accomplished one of my predictions for this season by winning at least 40 games, the 12th consecutive season they have hit the 40-win total.
The other, making the playoffs, is still 21 points away, which speaks to the incredible strength of the Atlantic Division this year. At week’s end, Bridgeport, Providence, and Hershey all have 77 points, with Hershey ranking 5th due to having played one more game, meaning despite WBS’s record of 41-17-3 through 61 games, they cannot let up or afford many more extended dry spells.