For the entire 2021 regular season, the participating teams of the American Hockey League were wondering what sort of playoff plans awaited them once they concluded their schedules. That clarity came in the form of a sledgehammer on Thursday, as the AHL announced the cancellation of formal playoff plans for this season and a tentative date range of October 15, 2021 to April 24, 2022, for all 31 AHL franchises to contest the 2021-2022 season.
As part of the announcement, the five divisions were given the opportunity to decide for themselves how they wanted to determine their division champions.
Four of the divisions, including the North Division to which the WBS Penguins belonged this season, opted to award their division championships to the team with the best points percentage at the end of the regular season.
Only the Pacific Division chose to hold a postseason tournament, with the ways, means, and dates for this tournament to come in the near future.
The choice from the Pacific Division to hold a tournament for its division champion came under swift and harsh rebuke by the head of the AHL’s players union, the Professional Hockey Players Association. In a statement by PHPA Executive Director Larry Landon, the AHL was accused of “ignoring the wishes of the vast majority of the Players within the Pacific Division”, which “were communicated to the League on several occasions”. Further: “There is a genuine inability to ensure the health and safety of Players and the Pacific Division will not recognize what other teams have already recognized. The PHPA and its Members are truly discouraged that the Pacific Division Players’ wellbeing will continue to be in jeopardy.”
In the end, the Calder Cup, the championship trophy for the American Hockey League, will go unclaimed for the second straight season.
Wednesday, April 28: Lehigh Valley 1 @ WBS 2 (OT)
On to the games from this past week.
To open the week, WBS welcomed Lehigh Valley to town for the first time since March 8. The Phantoms struck first, with Linus Sandin scoring his 5th of the season at 11:27 of the first. Anthony Angello, now back with WBS after an extended spell in Pittsburgh, scored his second goal in as many games and his 3rd of the season for WBS at 3:28 of the third to tie the game.
It eventually went to overtime, where Tim Schaller scored at 1:36 of the extra session to give WBS their second win in a row.
Here’s you GWG from Tim Schaller pic.twitter.com/lplVVHm0ee— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) April 29, 2021
Goaltender Alex D’Orio turned in an outstanding performance in net, stopping 41 of 42 shots to secure first star honors. Phantoms goaltender Felix Sandstrom turned in a solid performance too, with 32 saves on 34 shots, but D’Orio clearly stole the show for his third win of the year.
Friday, April 30: WBS 3 @ Binghamton 1
One of the big issues plaguing WBS this season was the inability to start games strong. Coming into Friday’s visit to Newark to take on the Binghamton Devils, WBS opponents had scored the opening goal against WBS in a stunning 17 straight games, going back to March 3 against Syracuse. In those games, WBS were 5-9-2-1.
WBS finally flipped that script against the Devils, as Jordy Bellerive and Jonathan Gruden scored in the first period to stake the Penguins to a 2-0 lead.
Colton White drew the Devils back to within 1 at 6:59 of the third, but they could get no closer as Drew O’Connor hit an empty net three seconds from time to give WBS a perfect 3-0 record in Newark this season and their third win in a row.
Alex D’Orio kept his strong form to earn his third straight victory, stopping 23 of 24 shots. Binghamton’s Evan Cormier stopped 35 of WBS’s 37 shots in the losing effort.
Saturday, May 1: Hershey 4 @ WBS 3 (OT)
WBS started a new streak regarding the first goal of the game on Saturday, striking first against the Hershey Bears through Sam Miletic’s 2nd of the year.
Shot off the wall, puck in the net. Just like they drew it up. pic.twitter.com/adD1tvikNF— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) May 1, 2021
But, as would be the case throughout this game, as soon as WBS scored a goal, Hershey would respond just as quickly. The pattern started with Cameron Schilling scoring his 4th of the year 1:19 after Miletic scored.
In the second period, Felix Robert scored his 5th of the year at 4:31, but Hershey’s Alex Alexeyev matched it 2:55 later for his 2nd of the year.
In the third, Will Reilly scored his 3rd of the year at 4:04 of the third, but Hershey’s Kale Kessy responded just 2:02 later with his 2nd of the year.
The game eventually went to overtime, and Connor McMichael was able to give the Bears the bonus point with his 11th of the season on a breakaway.
Max Lagace, reassigned to WBS just before the game, stopped 30 of 34 Hershey shots in the losing effort. Hershey’s Pheonix Copley took the win with 20 saves on 23 shots.
Sam Miletic recorded a goal and an assist, while Max Lagace stopped 30 shots, but the #WBSPens fell in overtime to the Hershey Bears, 4-3, on Saturday evening.— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) May 2, 2021
Postgame highlights are presented by the @PALottery - #PALottery #PennsylvaniaLottery pic.twitter.com/grKiT8U3U8
The WBS Penguins hold a record of 10-11-4-2 at week’s end, good for 26 points and a .481 points percentage. By percentage, WBS ranks fifth in the North Division.
Hershey put more distance between themselves and the rest of the division, ending with a record of 20-6-2, 42 points, and a .750 points percentage...16 points clear of WBS with only one extra game played. Only the Laval Rocket ended the week with a better record league-wide, with a points percentage of .793. Lehigh Valley’s .673 ranks second in the division, with Syracuse third at .630 and Utica fourth at .595. Trailing WBS in the standings are Rochester at .438 and Binghamton at .345.
Captain Josh Currie ended the week with the team lead in points, with 7 goals and 11 points in 19 games. Nic Schilkey is second, with 5 goals and a team-leading 12 assists in 27 games. Tim Schaller is third, with 9 goals (tying with Jordy Bellerive for the team lead) and 7 assists. Bellerive and Drew O’Connor are tied for fourth with 14 points each (O’Connor’s 6 goals and 8 assists are in only 15 games).
The WBS power play connected once against the Phantoms on Wednesday but not again the rest of the week, closing the week with a success rate of 17.9% that ranks 17th in the AHL. The penalty kill, easily the standout quality of the team this season, dispatched all 9 penalties it faced on the week to end the week with a kill percentage of 85.4%. That tops the North Division, and it only ranks behind the Tucson Roadrunners (86.3%) and Colorado Eagles (86.0%) for league’s best.
The Week Ahead
The cancellation of the league-wide playoffs and the decision by the North to not hold a postseason tournament leaves the WBS Penguins with only five games left in its season.
Three of those games are this week.
WBS will close its home schedule with two against Binghamton, on Wednesday, May 5 at 7:00 pm EDT, then again on Saturday, May 8 at 5:00 pm EDT. WBS then heads down to Allentown on May 9 for a Mother’s Day contest against Lehigh Valley, start time 3:05 pm EDT.