The NHL Penguins are off on their bye week, but the grind never stops in the Always Hungry League. (Well, just kidding; Wilkes-Barre only has one game in a 10-day stretch coming up for their All-Star break in early February).
Anyways, the Wilkes-Barre Penguins put another successful week in their pockets, going 2-1-0 in the last week. That overview makes it sound easier than it was, Wilkes almost blew a 3-0 lead over Lehigh Valley (I think 3-0 has replaced 2-0 as “the worst lead in hockey”) and then suffered a heart-breaker to find a new way to lose this season to Hershey on a over-turned last-minute potential tying goal.
Nick Hart at the WBS official site has the deets on the games:
Wednesday, Jan. 24 – PENGUINS 4 vs. Hartford 1
Domination in all facets of the game led to a comfortable Penguins win over Hartford. Two goals in the first 3:42 set the tone for the Penguins’ offense and Joel Blomqvist’s 27-save gem kept the Wolf Pack at bay all night.
Friday, Jan. 26 – PENGUINS 4 at Lehigh Valley 3
Despite a three-goal comeback by the Phantoms, the Penguins came out on top thanks to a late-regulation game-winner from Sam Poulin. Poulin posted a Gordie Howe hat trick, scoring twice, recording an assist and dropping the gloves to fight AHL penalty minutes leader, Garrett Wilson.
Saturday, Jan. 27 – PENGUINS 2 vs. Hershey 3
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton dropped a last-second heartbreaker to Hershey. After trading goals through the first two frames, the Bears pulled ahead in the third. A tying goal with 5.9 seconds left was disallowed due to a high stick, stunning the capacity crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza.
In the standings, WB/S remains in third place in their division, though Hartford’s massive advantage in games in hand and points% likely means the Pens are trending for fourth place. The top six teams in the Atlantic will make playoff, so even with that WB/S is chugging along comfortably towards qualifying for the AHL post-season at the current moment, quite the turnaround from last season’s noncompetitive last place showing.
On the player front, the exciting news from the NHL perspective is that Sam Poulin continues to do good things in the minors. That was highlighted with a monster 2G+1A+fight game over seventh-placed Lehigh Valley that included firing home the game-wining goal with under two minutes to play, with some nice work by Radim Zohorna to get on the forecheck and dig out the puck to setup Poulin’s goal.
A Gordie Howe Hatty wasn't enough--Pouly needed another goal pic.twitter.com/SCKu4oCMF7— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) January 27, 2024
With those positive aspects covered, under the surface it could be said that Poulin’s recent returns against first-place Hershey (0G+0A in three games in the last month) have not been as fruitful as he has been against some of the weaker AHL competition. Still, no matter how you slice it or dice it, Poulin’s never made more waves in his three year AHL career as he has been in the last month or so. Given how stop and start or outright absent most his development has been over the past few years, it’s difficult to determine between “prospect finally stepping up” and “a nice 15 game stretch against AHL competition” but it has to be a welcome development either way for the Penguins at this point to see some signs of life out of a former first round pick making some waves.
The other player drawing a lot of interest out of Pittsburgh right now is Jesse Puljujarvi. As a Poulin linemate, Puljujarvi has been stepping up recently too. Puljujarvi notched 1G+1A in each of the first two games this week, and scored his first AHL power play goal with the Pens on Friday against LV. Puljujarvi was held without a point against Hershey, but did record a season-high five shots on goal.
Overall, it’s perhaps a bit of a mixed bag with Puljujarvi to weigh different amounts of positive and negative aspects as well. He has eight points (4G+4A) during his AHL tryout that’s now up to 11 games. Give him some grace on going point-less in the first four games as his season was getting off the ground, and that makes for an impressive eight points in the last seven games. However, it’s also been feast or famine for him, with Puljujarvi notching four two-point games and being without a point in 7/11 of his games so far.
As ever the case in this situation, how Puljujarvi’s body is handling and responding to the games could be considered even more pertinent to his immediate future than what the boxcar numbers show. On the plus side, Puljujarvi has been able to “answer the bell” and dress all the games that the team has wanted him to, which has to be an encouraging sign now three weeks in that he has been playing and seemingly getting stronger as time has gone on. Yet from where he started weeks and months ago, the NHL level is a big leap. It’s now almost February and the future still doesn’t appear clear in one direction or the other for how this comeback attempt will shake out.
Poulin, Puljujarvi and the rest of the AHL Pens will get their chance to keep it up this week with a typical Wednesday (TOR) - Friday (@Hartford) - Saturday (@LV) upcoming schedule.
WB/S has not yet worked any of the NHL players sent down for the bye week (Valtteri Puustinen, John Ludvig and Ryan Shea) into their lineups yet and could be looking at icing a pretty formidable group in this next stretch due to the benefit of the NHL break.