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WBS Weekly: What’s the future for the Penguins in Wilkes-Barre?

WBS goes 3-2-1 in my absence to stay in fifth place in the Atlantic, as my questions about the future of the franchise grow bigger on the cusp of 2019.

Photo by WBS Penguins

Every year, I try to take time out of the festive season to visit the city of Pittsburgh. I have fallen in love with the city over the last decade-plus of visiting it, going back to my very first live Penguins game in January 2007 at which I asked Toronto fans around me the meaning of the “sixty-seven” chant, witnessed a Mark Recchi hat trick, and fell in love with a cramped, charming inverted steel bowl of an arena and a franchise.

This December was no different, as I attended Pittsburgh’s recent games against Boston, Los Angeles, and Anaheim and saw the return of Matt Murray, the surge of Bryan Rust, a Jake Guentzel milkshake goal, and Pittsburgh taking four out of six points. I had a chance to hit all my usual stops...Burgatory at the Waterworks Mall, the Hofbrauhaus on South Side, the Oyster House on Market Square, the Christmas market, and the ice rink at PPG Place. (No, I did not fall.)

But one thing I saw (or, more accurately, didn’t see) bothered me very much, and it played perfectly into my fears for the future of the WBS Penguins.

For as long as I can remember, the main PensGear store inside PPG Paints Arena has sold the jerseys of the WBS Penguins and the Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL affiliate. Seeing them on my visits to the Burgh have always filled me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, as if they were a recognition of the contributions from the farm that have led to three Stanley Cups during our affiliation.

This year, however, something was different. The yellow Wheeling alternate jerseys for this season were on the racks, but there were absolutely no WBS jerseys to be found.

I took a chance and asked the staff what happened to them, as well as conveyed my lingering questions about the future of the WBS Penguins and whether Pittsburgh wanted to move its AHL affiliate. In no uncertain terms, I was told that my fears were founded...that it was Pittsburgh’s plan to move its AHL affiliate, but they did not know where.

This marked the third occasion over the last several months that I’ve been told about Pittsburgh wanting to move its affiliate out of Northeastern Pennsylvania, but I wouldn’t consider any such discussion to be on a level of “official” to the point where I would rely on it. All I know for sure is what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears:

  • Being told on three separate occasions that the affiliate is moving.
  • Seeing no WBS jerseys for sale in the gear store in Pittsburgh.
  • It’s now Christmas of the last season of the current lease that has the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre Township with nothing said in the minutes of the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority minutes since June.

To me, the signs are pointing to a departure of the AHL affiliate from Northeastern Pennsylvania, but again, I would not consider any of the above as definitive proof...just what I have seen, and the conclusions that I draw from what I have seen.

If I had a Christmas wish list regarding the Penguins (and I don’t), the only thing I would have on it is a decision on the future, whether or not the team is staying or going. I don’t care what the decision is, necessarily; I just want to know what the future will bring.

But that’s the future. Let’s take a quick look at what the recent past has been for the WBS Penguins, as well as where things stand now as we hit the holiday break:

Wednesday, December 12: WBS 2 @ Springfield 1 (SO)

Adam Johnson scored at 8:44 of the second period to cancel out Blaine Byron’s 7th of the year. In the shootout, Johnson, Thomas DiPauli, and the newly acquired Ben Sexton all scored to give WBS the extra point. Tristan Jarry stopped 34 of 35 shots in regulation and 1 of 2 shootout attempts to take the win.

Saturday, December 15: Lehigh Valley 2 @ WBS 5

WBS celebrated its annual Teddy Bear Toss when Teddy Blueger scored shorthanded at 5:28 of the second to match Phil Samuelsson’s 2nd of the year for Lehigh Valley. From there, WBS took over, as Ryan Haggerty scored a hat trick, capped by an empty-netter at 19:07 of the third, to fuel the Penguins’ victory. Tristan Jarry took the net again and stopped 29 of 31 shots for the win.

Sunday, December 16: WBS 0 @ Bridgeport 1

WBS outshot the Sound Tigers 33-25 on the afternoon after Teddy Bear Toss night, but Bridgeport goaltender Christopher Gibson stopped them all, including a penalty shot from Jarrett Burton, to earn a shutout. Bridgeport’s Sebastian Aho scored the only goal at 5:47 of the first; goalie Anthony Peters stopped the other 24 shots he saw, but it wasn’t enough on this day.

Wednesday, December 19: Bridgeport 3 @ WBS 4 (OT)

Down 3-1 in the third period, WBS staged a furious comeback as Linus Olund and Ethan Prow scored at 14:43 and 17:59 of the third period to force overtime, then Kevin Czuczman scored at 2:24 of overtime to steal a victory. Tristan Jarry stopped 20 of 23 Bridgeport shots for the win, as Prow took top honors on the night with two goals.

Friday, December 21: WBS 2 @ Hershey 3

For the first time this season, WBS featured as the Facebook Live free game of the week as they visited a hurting Hershey team, dressing three defenders on professional tryouts due to injury. Despite that, Hershey’s power play carried the day, going 3 for 5 against the beleaguered WBS penalty kill to overcome the Penguins. Jean-Sebastien Dea scored his first for WBS this season, and Teddy Blueger scored his 10th, but it was not enough. Anthony Peters stopped 30 of 33 shots in the losing effort.

Saturday, December 22: WBS 3 @ Syracuse 4 (OT)

WBS closed out its pre-Christmas schedule with its first visit to the War Memorial in Syracuse on the season, and it was an ugly, penalty-filled affair containing 18 power plays in all (11 for the Crunch, 7 for the Penguins). WBS’s special teams won the day, going 3 for 7 on its power play and dispatching 10 of 11 chances against the league’s best power play, but Ross Colton scored his 4th of the year at 17:33 of the third to force overtime, then Carter Verhaeghe scored his 10th of the year at 1:19 of the extra session to give the Crunch the full points. Tristan Jarry finished with 37 saves on 41 shots to effectively steal a point for the Penguins. Please visit our friends at Raw Charge for more coverage of this game.

WBS enters the Christmas break with a record of 15-12-4-1 through 32 games, good for a points percentage of .547 and fifth place in the Atlantic Division. Full division standings at the break:

  1. Charlotte Checkers - 23-7-2, .750 (best record in AHL)
  2. Bridgeport Sound Tigers - 18-9-5, .641
  3. Lehigh Valley Phantoms - 17-9-3, .638
  4. Springfield Thunderbirds - 15-10-5, .583
  5. WBS Penguins - 15-12-5, .547
  6. Hartford Wolf Pack - 14-14-3, .500
  7. Providence Bruins - 13-13-5, .500
  8. Hershey Bears - 12-17-2, .419

The WBS power play has improved to a 17.2% conversion percentage at the break, good for 22nd in the AHL, while its penalty kill has improved marginally to 77.5%, which is now 29th in the AHL ahead of only Toronto (77.0%) and Binghamton (74.5%).

Teddy Blueger and rookie Sam Lafferty lead WBS with 22 points each (Blueger 10 goals and 12 assists, Lafferty 5 goals and 17 assists). Defender Ethan Prow has surged to third on the team in points with 20 and tying Blueger’s 10 goals. Anthony Angello has 9 goals and 6 assists to lead a group of players tied at 15 points that includes Adam Johnson (8 goals, 7 assists), Garrett Wilson, Thomas DiPauli (7 goals, 8 assists each), and Ryan Haggerty (4 goals, 11 assists). Rookie Linus Olund is also in double digits in points with 10 (4 goals, 6 assists).

Tristan Jarry holds a record of 7-5-3 for WBS at the break, with a GAA of 2.75, a save percentage of .913, and no shutouts. His counterpart Anthony Peters has a record of 6-5-2, a GAA of 2.92, a save percentage of .903, and WBS’s only shutout of the season.

WBS comes out of the break with four games in six days, starting on Boxing Day (Wednesday, December 26) as Lehigh Valley comes to town, start time 7:05 pm EST. On Friday, December 28, WBS will host Hershey for its last home game of calendar year 2018 at 7:05 pm EST. WBS then visits Lehigh Valley on Saturday, December 29 at 7:05 pm EST, then visits Binghamton on New Year’s Eve (Monday, December 31) at 6:05 pm EST to close out 2018.

2019 looms on the horizon, just as uncertain as ever. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all, and enjoy the good times while they last, because you never know when they might be snatched away from you.