The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t the only team in the organization with the arrow pointing up lately. The AHL Wilkes-Barre Penguins came through last weekend’s tough 3-in-3 by gaining five out of a possible six points.
Nick Hart sums up the action this week on WBSPenguins.com:
Friday, Jan. 5 – PENGUINS 2 at Springfield 1
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton built a 2-0 lead on pretty goals by Vinnie Hinostroza and Peter Abbandonato, and then Joel Blomqvist turned aside 35 shots to lock down the win. PTO forward Jesse Puljujärvi made his Penguins debut.
Saturday, Jan. 6 – PENGUINS 3 vs. Lehigh Valley 4 (OT)
Once again, the Penguins had a two-goal lead in the third period, but this time, they couldn’t hold on. Matt Filipe, Alex Nylander and Abbandonato helped construct a 3-1 lead, but Phantoms rookie Samu Tuomaala sparked a comeback that concluded with Tuomaala’s overtime-winner.
Sunday, Jan. 7 – PENGUINS 2 vs. Hartford 1
The Penguins gutted out another close victory with Jonathan Gruden’s second-period, shorthanded goal standing as the difference. Blomqvist made 20 saves for his fifth-straight win.
A bunch of tight games there, highlighted by rookie Joel Blomqvist recording two wins (and giving up only one goal in each game this weekend that he played). It gets even better, Blomqvist is on a personal five-game winning streak, and per Hart the goalie ranks third in the AHL in goals against average (2.16) and fifth in save percentage (.920%).
While NHL fans often bemoan (and rightfully so) the lack of true prospects within the pro ranks of the Pens’ organization these days, Blomqvist is a shining star right now. He’s well on his way to a smash success of a rookie season. He’s only played 21 AHL games and only turns 22-years old tomorrow, but the goalie is showing an early mastering of that level which speaks towards a NHL future, whenever that might be.
The successful weekend pushed the Pens up the standings a little, with the tightly packed middle of the division beginning to move away a little bit from Lehigh Valley.
All eyes were on Jesse Puljujarvi, who made his debut in the Pens’ organization this weekend. Puljujarvi played on Friday and Sunday in a planned move to not throw the forward in for three straight games in three straight games. He did not record a point in either game, but came close to scoring a goal with a shot off the cross-bar. There aren’t yet many quotes from Wilkes coach J.D. Forrest on how it is going, but there was this Finnish report:
Jesse Puljujärvi kertoo Ylelle, miltä tuntui pelata vakavan vamman jälkeen – paluu SM-liigaan ei kiinnosta https://t.co/CY9GveEx8i— Yle Urheilu (@yleurheilu) January 9, 2024
Translated from the ever-handy google machine (which should be taken more as general thoughts than an exact word-for-word meaning) and edited ever so lightly for clarity, here ar some key points.
Puljujärvi trained mostly off the ice in Pittsburgh.
A few days ago, Puljujärvi signed a similar, indefinitely valid so-called PTO (Professional try out) contract with Pittsburgh’s AHL club Wilkes/Barre Scranton Penguins, where the Finn finally got to play last weekend - for the first time since last season.
Puljujärvi played two of the weekend’s three matches without [scoring a point].
Yle Urheilu caught up with the man from the middle of AHL everyday life.
“Of course, it has been a long process to come back. The goal for the last month has been to get to play. It’s been a long journey, but it opens up the opportunity to still play good puck. The most important thing now was to be able to play without pain,” begins Puljujärvi.
It goes without saying that the feeling of [playing] the game is not at the best level, when it was about eight months since the last match. This is certainly also the reason why the NHL club Penguins wanted Puljujärvi to start from [their minor league team].
“The weekend was spent feeling the body and new movements. However, I was able to play and enjoy it, but small things still need to be polished in the game. More I could have stayed on the puck and stuff. You have to react better and get your feet involved so that you can be a really good player again. That’s what we’re looking for here, bringing out the best.”
How Puljujärvi’s situation towards a possible NHL contract is progressing is still heavily shrouded in darkness. On the NHL side, Pittsburgh will certainly keep an eye on the Finn’s situation, but there is no information about the next transfers yet.
“The plan is that the AHL is one step in being able to play good puck again in the NHL. When I left for the farm, we agreed that the situation would be monitored in peace. We’re going one day at a time in relation to the NHL,” Puljujärvi clarifies.
Returning to Finland or Europe was never an option for the recovering winger.
“Throughout the rehabilitation process, I have said that the NHL is the number one goal and that is what we are going towards”
Puljujärvi still has enough land to work on before the door to the NHL opens. You have to find sharpness and fluidity for skating, and a general NHL-level feel for playing. Puljujärvi, who had surgery last season with severe pain, knows that he is still in the process with new hips.
“I feel much better now than last year, but I still need to get my legs working. Confidence and balance for skating, such powerful skating in a good position. The power is now in the body, you just have to get it out of there. The balance I’m looking for here is that I can use the new movement trajectories that are there in the game.”
So there you have it, looks like a day at a time thing to see how it goes for Puljujarvi in the minors and then he and the Penguins will figure out next steps if and when they get to him. He made it through the first game with Wilkes and was back for a second, which looks like a good sign, but this long process is going to take a lot of time and hard work before he is back in the NHL.
The road ahead for the AHL Penguins is going to be a difficult one, too. Wilkes is on the road for three games coming up this extended MLK Day weekend: Friday @ Providence, Saturday @Bridgeport and Monday @Springfield. That’s three road games against divisional rivals and more chances for Blomqvist and Puljujarvi to show their stuff to eyes eagerly awaiting progress updates in Pittsburgh.