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WBS Weekly: Bjorkqvist and Puustinen score OT goals

Goaltending is the early story of the season for Wilkes-Barre, with Filip Lindberg and Louis Domingue both off to great starts

Kasper Bjorkqvist celebrates his game-winner in overtime, as WBS defeated Hartford 2-1 on Friday.

Friday, October 22: Hartford 1 @ WBS 2 (OT)

Coming into Friday’s first visit of the season from the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins had recorded a cumulative record of 30-7-2-1 in their last 40 games against the top affiliate of the New York Rangers. It wasn’t a guarantee that the Penguins would continue that record this year, as Hartford loaded up in the offseason with signings of AHL veterans Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Anthony Greco, Tanner Fritz, and goaltender Keith Kinkaid to supplement New York’s prospects.

As the season progresses, it’s inevitable that the many rookies on the WBS Penguins would score their respective first goals and assists. Valtteri Puustinen was already on the board with his first goal, and Sam Poulin had his first assist coming into the weekend. Just 6:53 into the first, it was time for the two other star rookie forwards to open their scoresheets.

That’s Nathan Legare’s first assist in the AHL, as he fired the initial shot on Kinkaid that was rebounded to Filip Hållander for his first AHL goal. Jordy Bellerive recorded an assist as well, but I would remiss to ignore the neutral zone turnover forced by Cam Lee that started the breakout.

A blistering first period featuring 25 combined shots (13 for Hartford, 12 for WBS) ended tied at one thanks to Greco’s goal for Hartford. Labrie and Rangers prospect Tarmo Reunanen took the assists.

The 1-1 score held throughout the second and third periods, as Kinkaid for Hartford and Filip Lindberg for WBS stopped everything thrown at them. The overtime period started off favoring Hartford at first, as they were able to control possession for the first minute-plus of the extra session. Lindberg stopped the only shot Hartford managed, and when the trio of Lee, Jordy Bellerive, and Kasper Bjorkqvist took possession, they did not miss.

Another initial shot, this time from Lee, saved, but rebounded right to a waiting Penguin for the finish…and what a celebration from the Finnish forward scoring his first goal of this season for WBS and third AHL goal in just 14 career games split over the last three seasons.

Lindberg followed up his strong AHL debut with another solid performance on Friday, saving 30 of 31 Hartford shots for his second win of the season. Kinkaid finished with 25 saves on 27 shots in the loss.

Sunday, October 24: WBS 2 @ Lehigh Valley 1 (OT)

WBS enjoyed a rare Saturday night off from AHL action following their defeat of Hartford; the only other Saturday WBS has off this season is Christmas. Lehigh Valley, fell 3-1 to Hartford in Allentown on Saturday to drop to 0-3 on the season. Lehigh Valley was without former Penguin Garrett Wilson for this game, as he was suspended for instigating a fight following Hartford’s empty netter clinching their win on Saturday. Meanwhile, WBS was without defender Juuso Riikola, recalled to Pittsburgh on Saturday evening.

The early season woes continued for the Phantoms, mired in the worst start of their franchise’s 25-year history. An own-zone turnover led to the second goal of the year for Valtteri Puustinen.

That looked to be all that goaltender Louis Domingue needed in a sleepy affair, as he held a clean sheet in his WBS debut for over 59 minutes. But with Lehigh Valley starting goaltender Samuel Ersson pulled for an extra attacker, Phantoms forward Max Willman backhanded home a rebound of a Tyson Foerster point shot to steal the first point of the season for his team.

Fortunately, WBS was able to get the second point.

There’s Puustinen again, doing a give-and-go with Michael Chaput to line up in the slot and rifle that deadly wrist shot of his past Ersson. Puustinen’s second of the afternoon and third of the season moved WBS to 3-1 on the season, matching Hershey for 2nd place in the Atlantic Division after the second weekend. Only Springfield has a better record so far, with 9 points out of 10 in their first 5 games.

Domingue finished his WBS debut with 28 saves on 29 shots for his first victory at the AHL level since New Year’s Eve 2019. Ersson finished with 28 saves on 30 shots in the losing effort, earning third star of the game. Willman’s equalizer was good enough for second star, while first star went to Puustinen.

The WBS penalty kill was busy on Sunday, fending off all six Lehigh Valley chances. Through the second weekend, the WBS penalty kill has allowed 2 goals in 17 chances for an 88.2% kill percentage that ranks 11th in the AHL. The power play has been a bit less successful, scoring twice in 14 chances for a 14.3% conversion percentage that ranks 19th in the AHL.

It’s a sign of just how good Domingue and Lindberg have been in their three combined games that WBS could score only seven goals so far (26th in the league), concede seven, and be 3-1 on the season. Needless to see, if that level of goaltending keeps up through the whole season, WBS will be in fantastic shape.

Puustinen leads the team in scoring with his three goals and an assist. Jordy Bellerive, the recalled Juuso Riikola, and Michael Chaput all have two assists, while the other goal scorers (Niclas Almari, Felix Robert, Kasper Bjorkqvist, and Filip Hållander) are all level with Chris Bigras, Taylor Fedun, Cam Lee, and Nathan Legare on one assist. Don’t worry, though…the way Sam Poulin has been playing through four games, I expect his first points to come in very soon.

WBS closes out the month of October with three games in four days. Lehigh Valley comes back to town on Wednesday, October 27, 7:05 pm EDT, for their third game against WBS already this season. WBS then hits the road for two in two nights, first against Hartford on Friday, October 29, 7:00 pm EDT start, then an early season test against division leaders Springfield on Saturday night, October 30, 7:05 pm EDT.