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WBS Weekly: A big AHL trade helps Wilkes-Barre

Following one of the biggest AHL-centric trades the Penguins have executed in quite a while, WBS takes two wins out of 3 games in 48 hours against the Atlantic Division’s best.

Thursday, February 20: We Have A Trade To Announce

In one of the more stunning trades I’ve seen the Penguins organization make on behalf of its AHL franchise, Pittsburgh opened the weekend a day early for its AHL franchise by sending forwards Jake Lucchini and Joseph Blandisi to Montreal in exchange for forwards Riley Barber and Phil Varone.

Lucchini joined the Penguins as a college free agent signing out of Michigan Tech on March 11, 2019. During his amateur tryout period in the 2018-19 season and this, his first professional season, Lucchini played 68 games for WBS, scoring 13 goals and assisting on 9 others. Blandisi joined the Penguins on January 17, 2019 in a trade that sent Derek Grant to Anaheim. During his 53 games for WBS over the last two seasons, Blandisi scored 15 goals and 19 assists.

In return, WBS got two stone-cold AHL veterans for the rest of this season, before both become unrestricted free agents. Longtime WBS fans will recognize the name Riley Barber from the Hershey Bears, where he scored 90 goals and 90 assists in 237 games over his first four professional seasons. Such fans will also recognize the name Phil Varone, the former Lehigh Valley Phantom and AHL MVP from 2017-18, with 127 goals and 283 assists over 515 regular season AHL games. Barber had scored 13 goals and 18 assists for Laval this season over 39 games, with Varone tallying four goals and 10 assists over 27 games, before both were mysteriously scratched from Laval’s contest last Sunday.

If any of you had commented on my weekly writings two years ago that both Barber and Varone would be Penguins in the future, I’d probably have laughed hysterically. But, here we are.

Friday, February 21: Hershey 1 @ WBS 2

Funny how schedules work out, huh? WBS acquires the former Hershey Bear Barber in a trade, and his first game for WBS is against his former team...a fact not lost on Hershey social media.

As for the game itself, Hershey played a very clean, very strong game, outshooting WBS 36-19, conceding no power plays to the Penguins (though two Bears took matching roughing minors over the course of the game, because it’s Penguins/Bears after all), and getting the first goal through Axel Jonsson-Fjallby’s 12th of the year at 17:13 of the first.

To their immense credit, WBS responded. Despite only managing a total of eight shots over the last two periods combined, two of them connected. First it was Kevin Roy just 21 seconds from the end of the second period, taking the deflection of a blocked shot on a breakaway and beating Hershey goaltender Pheonix Copley to tie the game.

In the third period, WBS managed to break the tie through the returning Kevin Czuczman, having missed the last 13 days for WBS but going bar-down on Copley to make it 2-1.

From there, it was all Casey DeSmith, who stopped all 18 shots Hershey fired at him in the third period and 35 out of 36 over the course of the game to give WBS a huge 2-1 victory in their chase for a playoff spot.

A playoff spot, mind you, that the #1 star of the game has no doubt the Penguins can achieve.

Roy’s tying goal earned him third star, and DeSmith’s 35-save performance earned second honors. New arrival Barber recorded his first point for WBS in the contest, tallying the second assist on Czuczman’s winner.

Saturday, February 22: WBS 4 @ Hartford 3 (OT)

Another return for WBS as they returned to Hartford for their second road game against the Wolf Pack in the last eight days, as Dustin Tokarski recovered from his injury to take the net.

What a back and forth game this was. While the eyes of the hockey world were fixated on Toronto and emergency goaltender David Ayers, my ears were in Hartford, as three times WBS scored in regulation, and three times Hartford responded to tie the game.

First on the board was Cole Cassels, deflecting home his seventh goal of the year at 11:16 of the first off a big slapshot from John Nyberg. Kevin Roy also got an assist.

Just 45 seconds into the second period, Hartford found its equalizer, as Danny O’Regan scored his 11th goal of the season, with Vincent LoVerde and Vinni Lettieri assisting.

It only took WBS 1:36 to respond, as Ryan Scarfo, playing only his fourth game for WBS this season after spending the majority of the season in Wheeling, scored his first goal of the season for WBS. Jon Lizotte and Pierre-Olivier Joseph helping out.

Hartford’s second equalizer came off the stick of its scoring leader Lettieri, who tallied his 23rd goal of the season with 38 seconds to play in the second to tie the game at two after 40 minutes.

WBS’s third tiebreaking goal of the game came at 3:21 of the third, with Roy scoring in his second straight game and his 11th goal of the season, with Adam Johnson and Cassels assisting.

Hartford tied it again at 10:39 of the third, with Vitali Kravtsov scoring his fifth of the season assisted by Nick Ebert and Steven Fogarty, to send the game to extra time tied at 3.

The game ended with one of the rarest feats I can think of in WBS Penguins history...a goal scored off of a penalty shot. There have only been a handful of them in history, and even less to end a game in overtime, but Adam Johnson got one to give Hartford only their fifth home loss of the season, their first overtime home loss, and only their seventh dropped point at home.

Hartford’s home record following the loss was 21-2-1-2. In two games, WBS is responsible for the overtime loss and one of the regulation losses.

Tokarski finished the game with 25 saves on 28 shots for his 200th professional victory, with his counterpart Adam Huska stopping only 16 of 20 WBS shots. Cole Cassels took third star with a goal and an assist; Vinni Lettieri took second star with a goal and an assist; Johnson took top honors for the game-winner in overtime and an assist.

Sunday, February 23: WBS 1 @ Providence 2

No Varone for the third straight game after his acquisition; per the brilliant Providence reporter Mark Divver:

Also, WBS changed its goaltending alignment right as the teams were taking the ice, as Dustin Tokarski took the starter’s net instead of Casey DeSmith, and Emil Larmi took the backup’s chair. Reasons unclear, but fill in your own blanks.

The third game of a three in three is always the hardest game of the AHL schedule to play. But when it’s the third game in 48 hours, in the third different city, against a team only playing their second game in 24 hours...well, that’s a tall order for anyone, and WBS could not answer the challenge, dropping a 2-1 decision to the Bruins to fall to 1-3 against Providence this season. Zach Senyshyn opened the scoring just 1:52 into the game with his fifth goal of the season, and Steven Kampfer doubled the lead mere moments before the end of the second period. Cole Cassels did well to halve the lead 1:03 into the third with his eighth goal of the year, but WBS could not get anything else.

Pressed into quick action and playing his second game in 24 hours, Tokarski did well, stopping 25 of 27 shots and taking third star honors on the afternoon. But his counterpart, Max Lagace, was that much better, stopping 20 of 21 WBS efforts. Providence’s Brendan Gaunce took second star with an assist, while Kampfer’s eventual game-winner was enough for the day’s top honors.

The Stat Board

Atlantic Division standings after the games of February 23, sorted by points:

  1. Hershey Bears - 56 games played, 33-17-3-3, 72 points, .643 points percentage
  2. Hartford Wolf Pack - 55 games played, 30-14-6-5, 71 points, .645 points percentage
  3. Providence Bruins - 55 games played, 31-18-3-3, 68 points, .618 points percentage
  4. Charlotte Checkers - 53 games played, 30-19-4-0, 64 points, .604 points percentage
  5. Springfield Thunderbirds - 56 games played, 30-24-2-0, 62 points, .554 points percentage
  6. WBS Penguins - 56 games played, 27-21-3-5, 62 points, .554 points percentage (loses ROW tiebreaker to Springfield 27-23)
  7. Lehigh Valley Phantoms - 56 games played, 23-25-2-6, 54 points, .482 points percentage
  8. Bridgeport Sound Tigers - 56 games played, 19-30-5-2, 45 points, .402 points percentage

A weekend split for Hershey against three points earned for Hartford brings the Wolf Pack one point closer to the Bears for the division lead at week’s end. Providence’s 2-1 win over WBS to close the week was their third of the week, a perfect week, to vault them ahead of Charlotte, who split their two games. Charlotte found itself in extreme danger at week’s end, losing both of their goalies (Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic) to recall to Carolina after the events of Saturday night in Toronto. Springfield matched WBS’s 2-1 week to keep them in a points tie with the Penguins and ahead on tiebreaker, while Lehigh Valley and Bridgeport continue to lag behind.

The WBS magic numbers as of this morning, after the games of February 23, were as follows, per the daily AHL Playoff Primer:

  • Clinch playoffs - 49
  • Win division - 52
  • Best record in league - 60

Simply by virtue of being traded to the Penguins, Riley Barber is now the active leader in points for WBS, ending the week with 13 goals and 19 assists for 32 points, one goal behind Anthony Angello, still on recall to Pittsburgh. Kevin Roy is now tied with David Warsofsky for third, with 11 goals and 20 assists on the season versus Warsofsky’s nine goals and 22 assists. Adam Johnson’s penalty shot winner on Saturday propelled him to 30 points on the season, with nine goals and 21 assists in 41 games.

Casey DeSmith’s win on Friday ends his week with a record of 18-14-2, a GAA of 2.72, and a save percentage of .910 with three shutouts. In 735:38 of action (a solid 345 minutes shy of qualifying for the league leaderboards), Dustin Tokarski sports a 7-4-2 record, a 1.88 GAA, and a .928 save percentage with one shutout at week’s end.

The power play did not convert any of its five chances this week, ending with 37 conversions on 202 chances for a conversion percentage of 18.3%, good for 14th in the AHL and 2nd in the Atlantic. The penalty kill, on the other hand, was perfect, killing off all 14 attempts it was faced with on the week to finish with 38 goals allowed on 221 chances for a kill percentage of 82.8%. WBS is finally out of the basement in the division on the penalty kill, ranking sixth in the division and now 12th in the AHL.

The week begins with the trade deadline today, at 3 pm EST.

Quick reminders: Players must be on the WBS roster at the deadline in order to be eligible to play for WBS for the rest of this season or the playoffs. Anyone on the Pittsburgh roster at the deadline, including those who have been promoted (Andrew Agozzino, Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty, Zach Trotman, etc.), cannot play for WBS the rest of this season. Following the deadline, Pittsburgh is limited to 4 standard recalls for the rest of the season, though it can make as many emergency recalls as situations demand.

Once the deadline dust settles, WBS faces three games in four days, starting with a midweek rematch against the Providence Bruins on Wednesday, February 26, start time 7:05 pm EST. WBS then hits the road, as the PIAA District 2 high school basketball championships take residency at the Mohegan Sun Arena for three days starting on Thursday. First up is a road trip to Syracuse to take on the Crunch on Friday, February 28, start time 7:00 pm EST, then a classic Saturday night in Hershey to close the week, start time 7:00 pm EST.