Penguins coming together at the right time

Photo: KDP Studio

📝 by Nick Hart | AHL On The Beat

With one month left in the American Hockey League regular season, the Atlantic Division playoff bubble is as volatile as ever. But as the standings get tighter, so have the bonds in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins locker room.

The Penguins recently embarked on a four-game, week-long road trip to Canada, featuring stops in Toronto, Belleville and Laval. The excursion not only allowed half the roster the delight of playing in front of many friends and family members, but it also gave the players a chance to come together as a team.

“This group is getting closer and closer with every game that goes by,” said Penguins forward Alex Nylander. “Every game is really important for us down the stretch when it comes to fighting for a playoff spot, and the guys here, we’re all fighting and playing for each other now.

“The vibes are really good right now.”

Penguins forward Félix Robert points out that while the team spends a lot of time with one another at the rink weekly for practices in Wilkes-Barre, players will retreat to their own homes and apartments after noon.

Maybe you get to spend some extra time with a roommate or two, but players who have wives ― and in some cases, children ― they’re spending most of their time with family. But on the road? Teammates will make dinner plans together. There are no cliques, just a chance to talk and interact in a setting away from the rink. It helps you get to know your mates on a more personal level, and that bond calcifies as a result.

“In general, weeks like that are good for the team,” Robert said. “It’s good to have a chance to hang out with guys you don’t see as much at home. It’s where you learn to really love each other, and for us it happens right when we’re making this push to finish the season.”

Players like Robert, Kyle Olson, Will Reilly, Cam Lee, Jonathan Gruden and countless others across the league were robbed of those camaraderie-building experiences during their rookie year. The Penguins’ 2020-21 season featured a condensed schedule against teams that were only a bus ride away from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Hershey, Allentown, Newark and Syracuse were the only cities on the Penguins’ docket, none of which featured an overnight stay. Last season, even a carefully planned dinner downtown could potentially breach the league’s COVID-19 protocols, so it was best to avoid them as much as possible.

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While players and coaches alike are quick to point out that the pandemic is not completely over, this season has allowed them to establish a better rapport with one another. The main conduit for strengthening their relationships? You guessed it: the road.

“I think a good example for me is Kyle Olson,” said forward Anthony Angello. “I was around him a ton last year, but it was all mainly at the rink. Then this year, we went out to dinner, and I got to sit down and talk to him for a while. Turns out, he’s a character and an awesome guy to talk to. He’s definitely someone that I’ve gotten to know better this year than I knew last year.”

While long, fun road trips help these relationships congeal, the Penguins don’t want to just look back on their season as one where they only shared some laughs with new friends.

They want to win.

And they want to win for each other.

The Penguins have spent all season learning more and more about each other, growing closer with every game, every practice, and every long road trip. Now that there’s so much on the line every time they step on the ice, the consensus is this is the closest they’ve ever been.

“That feeling is pretty evident,” Angello said. “We can feel it in the locker room, but you can see it on the ice, too. It’s the little things on the ice, like Jonathan Gruden blocking a shot, or Kyle Olson having a big hit, or guys getting the puck out, getting it deep during a penalty kill. It’s those little things that guys start cheering for, not only the big things.”

Banded together, the group is focused on making those rallying, little things translate to the big things. Much, much bigger things.