Saturday, October 16: Lehigh Valley 1 @ WBS 2
The roster of players that took the ice for the 23rd season opener of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins featured only a handful returning names from last season. Between free agent acquisitions on defense and one of the strongest incoming rookie classes in many memories, it was very nearly a brand new team for WBS that welcomed one of their oldest rivals, the Phantoms, to town to kick off the 2021-22 season.
The answer to the question “Which one of the rookies was going to score first” came at 10:40 of the first period. With Lehigh Valley’s Brennan Saulnier in the penalty box for elbowing, the new kids asserted their authority.
The switch of the camera angle makes it difficult to appreciate just how slick this wrist shot was by Valterri Puustinen. The slick cross-ice pass by Samuel Poulin and the player advantage of the power play gave Puustinen just enough time to settle down the puck, load up, and unleash a dart over Felix Sandstrom to score the first goal of the season for the home team. Poulin earned his first pro assist on the goal, with the second assist going to Juuso Riikola.
Despite the opening goal, it never felt like the Penguins were in full control of the game through the first 37 or so minutes. Lehigh Valley enjoyed the majority of shots and chances, at one point late in the second period outshooting WBS 23-10. The advantage eventually cashed out with a goal, as Tyson Foerster scored on a power play at 17:01 of the second with Nathan Legare in the box for hooking. Cam York and Linus Sandin provided the assists, and the second period ended 1-1.
Tyson Foerster scored the first goal of the season...off this saucy dish from Cam York. pic.twitter.com/vAVoY3Dt5W— LehighValleyPhantoms (@LVPhantoms) October 17, 2021
WBS wasted no time in the third period breaking the tie, and two years and three days after scoring his first goal for WBS, defender Niclas Almari finally scored his second.
Almari spent the 2020-21 season on loan to the Lahden Pelicans of the Finnish Elite League, scoring one goal and six assists in 33 regular season and playoff games. What a way to return to North America…not only scoring in the opener, but scoring the game-winner in the opener. Michael Chaput recorded his first assist for WBS with that beautiful pass out of traffic down low to an all-alone Almari, and Chris Bigras also earned an assist.
There were a lot of eyes locked on the debuting crew of WBS rookie forwards, but the opening night show was stolen by another Finnish prospect making his pro debut, goaltender Filip Lindberg. With free agent acquisition Louis Domingue announced as part of the injury list during pregame buildup, Lindberg was given opening night duties. He took the opportunity and ran away with it, excelling all evening with several spectacular saves to keep the crowd of 5,785 engaged all game. Lindberg finished with 30 saves on 31 shots to take the opening night victory and top star honors on the evening.
Sunday, October 17: Charlotte 4 @ WBS 1
As the incoming rookie class will soon learn, the American Hockey League waits for no one. No matter how good or bad your Saturday night game performance was, there will be weekends where you’re going to have to come right back to the rink a few hours later and do it all again against a new opponent. That’s the situation that faced WBS out of the gate this season, and the Charlotte Checkers took advantage.
This season, Charlotte is utilizing the only split affiliation in the league, accepting the Seattle Kraken’s prospects for one season in addition to its own regular affiliation with the Florida Panthers. After a scoreless first period, Charlotte struck twice in the second, with Lucas Carlsson scoring at 1:17 and Alexander True converting a power play at 4:15. Max McCormick extended the lead to 3-0 at 9:35 of the second period.
About the only positive for WBS on this day is that they broke the shutout bid of Joey Daccord, as Felix Robert (making his season debut after being scratched from Saturday’s opener) scored a power play goal at 18:00 of the third. Robert was the extra attacker brought on by coach J.D. Forrest for a 6 on 4 power play advantage in the final minutes. Puustinen and Riikola recorded assists.
Unfortunately, that’s as close as WBS would get, as Zac Dalpe scored an empty netter just 12 seconds from full time for a 4-1 win.
As good as Filip Lindberg was on opening night, it would have been a very tall assignment to put him back out there on the Sunday afternoon following a Saturday night. So the net was given to Tommy Nappier, making only his fourth AHL start after signing for WBS as a college free agent last season. Nappier stopped 28 of 31 shots in the losing effort. Daccord, meanwhile, finished with 26 saves on 27 shots for the win.
After the first two games, I think it’s fair to say that this team has a lot of work to do. I don’t know if they win on opening night without Lindberg’s stellar debut, and the harsh introduction to Sunday afternoons after Saturday nights speaks for itself. The season is long, though, and top six teams will get into the playoffs. I’m still excited to see how this team grows, evolves, and develops.
WBS will now take this week to recover and regroup before next weekend. The Penguins will welcome Hartford to town for their first visit of the season on Friday, October 22, start time 7:05 pm EDT. Then, WBS hits the road for the first time in the new season, visiting Lehigh Valley on Sunday, October 24, start time 3:05 pm EDT.