It was a rough weekend for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as they missed a chance to clinch a playoff spot, playing against two teams desperate to get wins in hopes of finding their way into the postseason. The Penguins are still in an excellent position to secure a playoff berth, but here are a few things I have observed lately…
- Get In and Worry about the Rest Later
The Penguins enter the weekend with a magic number of 2. Meaning one win of any kind during their upcoming three-in-three and they’ll have punched a ticket to the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Penguins take the ice for a home-and-home series against the Bears this weekend that will yet again go a long, long way in determining who takes home the division crown. But it seems like seeding matters less this season than in years past. With the old AHL playoff format in which the top 8 teams from each conference, there were more opportunities for favorable first-round match-ups. This year where it will be #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. #3 in the Atlantic Division (it appears that the 5th place team in the Atlantic will be crossing over into the North Division to most likely face Toronto) and there are no pushovers. Hershey and Providence are strong teams. Bridgeport and Portland are hot right now. The Atlantic Division title is a goal for the Penguins. Home-ice advantage is also a goal. When the playoff picture finally comes into the focus, the Penguins will play who they’re going going to play and they’ll play where you have to play. Every opponent is a tough one and, at some point during the postseason, any successful team will have to win some road games. Just get that “x” next to your name in the standings and take it from there.
- Penalty Kill Personnel
The penalty kill had its struggles over the weekend, allowing three conversions against power play units that weren’t exactly the strongest in the league. Penalty killing is an art upon itself though. It’s not just about throwing willing players onto the ice. It is a skill that is developed and honed. That is why great penalty killers are coveted by every team at every level of hockey. If we compare the personnel – especially at the forward position – to the start of the season, it’s almost an entirely different crew. Kevin Porter and shot-blocking extraordinaire Tom Kuhnhackl took those talents to Pittsburgh and deservedly so. Dominik Uher suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury and Oskar Sundqvist is currently on recall to Pittsburgh. The lone mainstay from the penalty kill unit that had such a strong start to the season is Carter Rowney. A late scratch on Sunday, he was clearly missed with the Pirates scoring twice on the man-advantage. All this is not to say that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is without willing and able penalty killers. Far from it. Jarrett Burton has proven more than able on the PK and it appears that Teddy Blueger has the work ethic and intelligence to thrive in that role as well. Rowney’s eventual return will also help, but what they really need is time. Practice time, specifically, to further develop that chemistry and cohesion as a unit. Indeed, the end of the regular season is not too off in the distance, but there is time for the penalty kill of the Penguins to grow into a stout unit that can perform well in the playoffs.
- Fitting Finish
It is somewhat appropriate that the playoff scenarios for the Penguins will ultimately be determined by their in-state rivalries with the Bears and Phantoms. Yeah, I know the Providence Bruins come into Mohegan Sun Arena on the penultimate day of the regular season, but otherwise five of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s final six games will be against Hersey or Lehigh Valley. The Phantoms – though eliminated from postseason contention – can play spoiler when they host the Penguins on Friday or when they visit Northeast Pennsylvania one week later. The three games remaining between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey will probably have the biggest overall impact on the Atlantic Division standings. It’s a stark contrast to years past where Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hershey had wrapped up their season series before March even rolled around. It will be a tough stretch for the Penguins, but it is apropos that their fate will be determined by their success versus their fiercest rivals.
The Post Script
- I can’t cast myself as a huge college basketball fan. My dad went to St. Joseph’s though, so I grew up with a steady diet of Hawks and Big 5 basketball. I knew “The Hawk Never Died”. Villanova and Temple (along with a Lionel Simmons-led Lasalle) were the teams consistently making the tourney when I was a kid. I’ve always followed Big 5 basketball over the years and make it a point to tune into the Final Four. Monday’s bout between Villanova and UNC was the best championship game I have seen and Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating three was the most clutch shot ever to win a title. Still, there seems to be some debate as to where the shot and the game itself rank in the pantheon of college basketball’s greatest. One thing you cannot debate, however, is between Jenkins’ clincher and Marcus Paige’s acrobatic three-pointer to knot the score with 4.7 seconds left, there have never been two more significant back-to-back shots to decide a title game.
- Congrats to Daniel Sprong and the Charlottetown Islanders on their win over Rimouski in the first-round of the QMJHL playoffs. They move on to face Shawinigan in the Quarterfinals.
As always, tweet at us using the hashtag “#WBSPenguinsLive” during the games this weekend with your questions or comments (@MikeOBrienWBS & @_NickHart) and listen in to see if your tweet makes it on air.