Coming into their final three games, the playoff hopes of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were hanging by a fingernail. They needed to win all three of their remaining games and have Providence lose all of their remaining games.
What ended up happening was...not that. In fact, it was the complete opposite of that.
Friday, April 12: WBS 1 @ Utica 8
With first choice goaltender Tristan Jarry recalled to Pittsburgh to serve as the traditional third playoff goalie during Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup Playoffs run, WBS embarked on the first of its assignments on the weekend, their final road game of the season at Utica, with John Muse in net and ATOs Brandon Hawkins, Jake Lucchini, and Michael Kim dressed among the top 18.
It was not really a contest. In fact, by the time it was done, it was quite possibly the most embarrassing 60 minutes of the season...and this was 5 days after WBS conceded 10 on the road at Lehigh Valley.
Jonah Gadjovich opened the scoring for Utica at 2:57 of the first with his 4th goal of the season, and Utica was able to take that 1-0 lead into the locker room for intermission.
In the second period, the fleeting playoff hopes of the Penguins exploded in an embarrassing display of lack of defense and loss of emotional control as WBS conceded 6 goals (three to Reid Boucher to put him at 31 on the season, and one each to Tom Pyatt, Lukas Jasek, and Kole Lind) and engaged in 5 fights. Jimmy Hayes, Ben Sexton, Jarrett Burton, Joseph Cramarossa, and Matt Abt all started fights in the second period, with the lack of control spilling over into the first minute of the third period as Sam Lafferty and Joseph Blandisi also started fights in the first minute of the third.
Put bluntly, it was hard to watch, and it should not be tolerated.
Burton also scored a goal in the midst of the 2nd period implosion, his 6th of the season, but it wasn’t nearly enough as Jaime Sifers scored shorthanded at 2:45 of the third to finish off the scoring and officially break the Penguins’ 16-year playoff streak.
Starting goaltender Muse lasted only 40 minutes, allowing 7 goals on 31 shots before being removed in favor of ATO signing Matt O’Connor, who stopped 9 of 10 shots in the third.
Utica goaltender Marek Mazanec took third star with 25 saves on 26 shots; Pyatt added two assists to his goal for second star; Boucher added an assist to his hat trick to take top honors.
Saturday, April 13: Bridgeport 5 @ WBS 2
With WBS officially eliminated before its last two home games, the Penguins cleared the press box of almost all of its ATOs, as nine of the 10 under tryout (Jake Lucchini, Chase Berger, Jordy Bellerive, Jan Drozg, Christopher Brown, Calen Addison, Jon Lizotte, Alex D’Orio, and O’Connor) dressed for Fan Appreciation Night. The only one not to dress was Michael Kim.
Before the game started, WBS handed out its team awards:
- Defensive Player of the Year: Jarrett Burton
- Media Award (given out to the player judged to be most accommodating to WBS’s media): Kevin Czuczman
- Rookie of the Year: Sam Lafferty
- Star of the Year (most awards for one of the three stars of the game over the course of the season): Ryan Haggerty
- Community Service Award: Chris Summers
- Fan Favorite Award: Tristan Jarry
- Most Valuable Player: Tristan Jarry
In addition, the assistant GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Billy Guerin, was on hand to present defender Ethan Prow with a special award to recognize his selection to the AHL’s second All-Star Team for the season.
I don’t have any problems with any of the award selections. Lafferty stood out more than the other rookies over the course of the season as Anthony Angello cooled off considerably after a torrid first half of the season. I was a little surprised that Jarry was selected as the Fan Favorite when that award has been the exclusive property of local product Patrick McGrath for the last several years, and Jarry’s insane month of March to keep WBS in the playoff hunt for as long as they did essentially stole the MVP award from Prow, who I would have given the award to had the season ended in February.
As for the game itself, it went about how you might expect with a team as strong as Bridgeport against a team with 7 amateur tryouts in the top 18 and an ATO making his professional debut (Alex D’Orio) in goal. WBS’s Ben Sexton opened the scoring at 1:07 of the first with his 7th of the year...
...but Steve Bernier answered quickly at 2:36 with a power play goal to tie the score.
The game turned very ugly with just over 6 minutes left in the first, as Patrick McGrath did this.
McGrath got a match penalty for a check to the head, as well as 5 for fighting Kieffer Bellows, who instigated a fight to make McGrath atone for the headshot. Bellows also got 2 and 10 for instigating the fight, so after 2 minutes of 4 on 4 and Sam Lafferty taking a tripping call at 17:03, Bridgeport converted the two player advantage through Mitchell Vande Sompel at 18:09. 2-1 Bridgeport after 1.
Jake Lucchini, impressive in his 14 games since joining WBS on his ATO, scored his fifth of the season on an absolute laser to the top corner to tie the game at 2.
Bridgeport’s quality would show through, though, as Otto Koivula scored his 21st of the season at 15:39 of the second to restore the lead.
WBS did well to stay within the game in the third period until Oliver Wahlstrom danced around three WBS players and put a soft backhander through Alex D’Orio’s legs for 4-2.
Emblematic of the season right there...one opposing player dancing around three defenders (Lizotte, Abt, and Miletic) to get on goal.
Bridgeport answered all remaining questions just 26 seconds later as Vande Sompel scored his second of the night to make the final score 5-2 and clinch home-ice advantage in their first round playoff series against the Hershey Bears.
Lucchini took third honors for his goal. Bridgeport’s Sebastian Aho (not to be confused with Carolina’s Sebastian Aho) assisted on three Bridgeport goals for second honors, and Vande Sompel’s pair was good enough for top honors.
Sunday, April 14: Binghamton 2 @ WBS 5
If Saturday represented a spotlight for those on amateur tryouts, Sunday could be considered a spotlight for both the ATOs and Wheeling’s best. Out of the regulars for most of the season, only Sam Lafferty, Sam Miletic, Jarrett Burton, Linus Olund, and Jeff Taylor dressed. Everyone else in the lineup was either an amateur tryout signing or a Wheeling callup, including the WBS debut of Yushiroh Hirano, only the second Japanese-born player to play in the AHL in its history.
Binghamton opened the scoring at 18:11 of the first with Ryan Schmelzer’s 14th of the season and held the lead past the halfway point of the game, including a second period delayed by a Zamboni that broke down while trying to resurface the ice. Clearly, the Zamboni wanted an early vacation.
Starting at 11:22 of the second and going for the next 18 game minutes, WBS scored the next five goals, starting with Sam Lafferty’s 13th of the season.
Cedric Lacriox then scored his first professional goal at 14:24 of the second.
Just 14 seconds later, Sam Miletic doubled the lead with his 12th of the year.
In the third period, Jake Lucchini finished off a strong ATO stretch of 15 games with his 6th of the year and 2nd in as many games at 2:10 of the third.
To close the five-goal breakout, Lacroix scored his second of the night, with Hirano getting the primary assist, his first in the AHL.
Binghamton’s John Ramage scored his 12th of the year on a power play at 14:34 of the third, but it was far too little, far too late. For only the second time in their history and the first time since the inaugural season back in 1999-2000, WBS closed its season with a win.
Miletic took third honors with a goal and an assist; Lafferty took second honors with a goal and two assists; Lacroix took top honors with two goals.
POSTGAME HIGHLIGHTS - Cedric Lacroix posted two goals in his AHL debut as the #WBSPens downed the @BingDevils 5-2 in both teams season finales. Sam Lafferty had three points (1+2) and Sam Miletic chipped in with a pair (1+1). Yushiroh Hirano had an assist in his AHL debut. pic.twitter.com/wToj0vdI82— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) April 14, 2019
WBS’s final record for 2018-19 is 36-30-7-3, good for 82 points and a sixth place finish in the Atlantic Division. Shockingly, WBS’s home record this season of 17-18-2-1 is last in the Atlantic Division and last in the Eastern Conference. It is only second-worst in the league to Stockton, who lost at home to Bakersfield in the last game of the AHL regular season to drop their home points percentage to .485 against WBS’s .487. On the flip side, its road record of 19-12-5-2 was second best in the Atlantic behind Charlotte’s 25-10-2-1 and ninth best in the AHL; in fact, WBS had the best road record of all teams not to qualify for the playoffs.
The WBS power play conceded 8 shorthanded goals and finished with 49 goals in 298 opportunities on the season for a conversion percentage of 16.4%, tied for 27th in the AHL. The WBS penalty kill conceded 67 goals in 326 chances for a kill percentage of 79.4%, tied for 24th in the AHL, while scoring 6 shorthanded goals.
On the final score sheet:
- Defender Ethan Prow was the only player to crack 50 points for WBS this season, finishing with 18 goals and 32 assists to lead WBS in scoring and finish tied for third with Rochester’s Zach Redmond among all AHL defenders.
- Sam Lafferty came close to 50, finishing with 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points, sixth among AHL rookies.
- Ryan Haggerty led the team in goals with 23 and added 21 assists for 44 points to finish in third.
- Adam Johnson closed his sophomore season with 18 goals and 25 assists for 43 points, an increase of 7 goals and 5 assists over his rookie campaign in three less games played (70 in 2017-18 versus 67 in 2018-19).
- Joseph Blandisi’s combined 43 points on the season included 9 goals and 11 points for WBS in 27 games.
- Teddy Blueger finished with 21 goals and 18 points in 45 games prior to his promotion.
- Sam Miletic closed his rookie season with 12 goals and 23 assists in 49 games.
- Jimmy Hayes finished with 15 goals and 15 assists in 72 games.
- Rookie Anthony Angello finished with 16 goals and 13 assists in 65 games, missing all of March due to injury and scoring only 2 goals from February on.
- Among other rookies, Linus Olund finished with 6 goals and 9 assists in 61 games, while defender Matt Abt assisted on 12 goals in 63 games without scoring any of his own.
Between the pipes, Tristan Jarry finished the 2018-19 season with 47 games played, a record of 23-15-8, a GAA of 2.66, a save percentage of .915, and one shutout. Anthony Peters appeared in 19 games, finishing 6-10-2 with a 3.28 GAA, a .890 save percentage, and one shutout. John Muse appeared in 10 games, finishing with a record of 6-4-0, a GAA of 3.00, a .906 save percentage, and two shutouts. In Matt O’Connor’s two games, he registered one win, a 2.26 GAA, and a .930 save percentage. Alex D’Orio’s only start was a loss, a GAA of 5.01, and a save percentage of .848.
Round 1 of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs, best of 5, pairs off as follows:
- In the Atlantic Division, the Kilpatrick Trophy winners from Charlotte will host Providence, while Bridgeport will host Hershey.
- In the North Division, winners Syracuse will host Cleveland, who stole the final playoff spot in the North from Belleville with a 5-1 win at Toronto. The defending champion Marlies are back in the tournament, but will start Round 1 on the road at Rochester.
- In the Central Division, winners Chicago will host Milwaukee, while the first-time qualifiers Iowa Wild will host Grand Rapids.
- In the Pacific Division, winners Bakersfield will host the first-season Colorado Eagles, while San Jose hosts San Diego.
Full schedules can be found here.
And so concludes the 20th season of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey, far earlier than I anticipated back in October. I expected WBS to continue both of its streaks this season, playoffs and 40 win seasons, and the team came up short of both. But they did provide the platform for Zach Aston-Reese to return to form following getting blasted out of the 2018 playoffs by Tom Wilson, for Garrett Wilson to earn a callup, and for Teddy Blueger to graduate to the big show. I’m fully convinced that if not for other moves to bolster the defense, Ethan Prow would have graduated as well.
This won’t be the last of me here, though. I’ve got a couple of things bouncing around to commemorate 20 seasons of this wild and wacky sport in my backyard, plus there’s the looming issue of the lease extension.
During their most recent meeting last Wednesday, the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority announced that negotiations were still continuing, with the Authority sending its most recent offer to the Pittsburgh Penguins and waiting for a response. To this point, due to the nondisclosure agreements in place, all that was seen or heard on the negotiations was from the Authority itself.
But on Saturday, at the first advertising break for Fan Appreciation Night, the Pittsburgh Penguins released their own statement, which was displayed on the big screen and read aloud to the crowd of 7,871 inside the arena. I will share it here now.
The Pittsburgh Penguins remain committed to Wilkes-Barre and are in good faith negotiations with the Arena Authority and the County on a long-term contract. More information will be available in the near future.
As soon as that information comes out, no matter what it is, you’ll see me here again.