Penguins facing critical juncture in playoff push

📝 by Patrick Williams

When the weather warms up, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins keep playing.

That’s how it’s been for the better part of the past two decades — the Pens have failed to qualify for the Calder Cup postseason just once since 2002.

Will that continue this season? A key week of practice leading up to a crucial three-in-three weekend awaits first. In the meantime, the Penguins are going through the painful, if unavoidable, lessons that the AHL doles out to young prospects sometimes.

“I think if you don’t learn from those [mistakes], your competition humbling you, then it’s going to be hard to advance,” Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest said Saturday night following a trying 4-1 home loss to Utica that stalled the club’s playoff push.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton reached the Calder Cup Playoffs 16 consecutive times between 2003 and 2018, including trips to the Finals in 2004 and 2008 and back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014.

Last spring, the Penguins knocked out the rival Hershey Bears in a best-of-three first-round series before falling to Springfield, the eventual conference champion.

A six-game winning streak in October had the Penguins looking like a good pick for another trip to the postseason, but one injury after another coupled with personnel losses to the parent Pittsburgh Penguins have left Wilkes-Barre/Scranton seven points out of a playoff spot with 14 games to go.

The Penguins, who suffered three home losses in four nights last week while managing to score just three goals total, have 55 points on the season, trailing sixth-place Bridgeport (62) and seventh-place Hartford (59). The top six teams in the Atlantic Division make the playoffs when the regular season closes April 16.

This weekend will be no less of a challenge. The Penguins host Rochester, a team in its own playoff fight, on Friday, before going on the road to face Syracuse and Lehigh Valley.

“It’s a division where teams can go on runs,” Forrest said. “Teams run into stiff competition every single night.”

The reasons for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s predicament are easy to find.

In net, veteran backbone Dustin Tokarski missed nearly two months while on recall to Pittsburgh, and injuries have held prospect Filip Lindberg to just 19 games. Injured defenseman Xavier Ouellet, originally a pick for the AHL All-Star Classic, is out for the season. Ty Smith, another key part of the blue line when the season opened, has played just four games since Dec. 27 and none since Feb. 18. Up front, Drew O’Connor broke out to a 22-point start in his opening 20 games before earning a full-time promotion to Pittsburgh in December. Top prospect Sam Poulin took personal leave in December and has not returned. A fall in a Jan. 6 game left forward Filip Hållander out of the line-up for nearly a month.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has had trouble finishing chances lately, and that has been a source of frustration, Forrest acknowledged.

“It is frustrating,” Forrest said, “because you feel like you’re taking the right steps, and then you’re not getting a result. It just messes with your head a little bit.”

Down 2-1 to Utica late in the third period on Saturday, a giveaway on a broken play set up Graeme Clarke’s backbreaking goal with 3:52 left in regulation. Another turnover set up Joe Gambardella’s empty-netter that finished off the Penguins.

Forrest thought that puck protection was an issue throughout the game, not just on the last two Comets goals.

“I feel like mistakes kind of happened throughout the game,” Forrest said. “Those just got really magnified in the moment.”

How and when to press the play is usually a learning process for young prospects, and the Penguins are no different. The AHL tests its players, and sometimes those lessons can come at the most inopportune moments.

“It’s one of the things where when you get to the American League,” Forrest said. “The competition is there to make you pay when there’s a mistake that maybe you’ve made in the past that you haven’t paid for. Each time you go up a rung on that ladder, there’s a level of competition there that teaches you a lesson. I think that experience is the best teacher in these cases, because if you get away with it, it doesn’t sting you as much as when it ends up in the back of your net or you end up losing the game.

“That just sticks with you much longer and leaves a deeper scar.”

Being seven points out of a playoff spot with 14 games to go is a predicament, no doubt, and Forrest did not sugar-coat the Penguins’ situation.

“There are so many factors in how that is going to play out here for the remainder of the season that it’s tough to do anything but just look at what we’re doing and try to make sure that we’re putting ourselves in a situation where if things bounce our way we can catch a team. That’s going to be the focus.

“One way or another, we’re gonna scratch and claw until the very end.”