Penguins getting lift from new faces

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Is Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest happy with where his team is as the AHL regular season begins its final week?

Not quite, even though the Penguins had just put together a seven-game winning streak.

But is he encouraged? Yes. Forrest is going with that.

New faces are helping. So are reliable standbys. Undrafted forward Beau Jelsma, just picked up from Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, had a solid pro debut this past weekend, earning a spot in Forrest’s lineup in all three games. From the NCAA ranks, Wisconsin forward Mathieu De St. Phalle has found playing time. Defenseman Scooter Brickey, just out of Ohio State, has shown polish as a 24-year-old rookie.

The Penguins have needed those reinforcements, as injuries and an ever-changing cast of personnel easily could have sidetracked their season. Up front, Alex Nylander, Rem Pitlick and Colin White departed the organization in trades. So did defenseman Will Butcher. Forward Marc Johnstone has been out since Feb. 3. Blueliners Ty Smith and Jonathan Gruden are out. Forward Valtteri Puustinen is with Pittsburgh.

But instead of folding, the Penguins rattled off seven consecutive victories, capped by a solid 4-1 victory against the league-leading Hershey Bears on Saturday night in their regular-season home finale. A trip to Hartford this Friday night, followed by the regular-season finale Saturday at Lehigh Valley, will be the final chances to tune up and tweak before the Calder Cup Playoffs arrive.

There is a good chance that the Penguins will face either the Wolf Pack or the Phantoms in the first round.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is right in the thick of contention. Second place in the Atlantic Division is even still in play with Providence holding a four-point lead.

So yes, there is plenty for Forrest to be encouraged about. He wants a good week of practice before the Penguins get on the bus and hit the highway for Hartford.

“I think we know what makes us successful for the most part, and our guys have a belief in it,” Forrest explained. “You know, the trick is doing it over and over and over again, and you feel like you get some traction there, and then you might have a step back, and you’ve got to learn a couple things. And a lot of times, you’ve got to learn it the hard way.

“That’s a great thing about this league and high competition – you learn fast. The consequences are right in front of your face, so you can’t escape it, and it’s pretty evident when something has to change.”

And getting those details can mean drilling down quite a bit, especially situationally. It might be something as seemingly minor as a broken stick. What if that happens during a penalty kill? Or a power play?

“You feel like everybody knows the ins and outs of your tactics, how you want to play, your identity, and your overall mentality as a team,” Forrest continued.

Until four or five new faces arrive. Then that work has to start again.

What does help is the players who have been with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and have stepped forward to fill in for some of those hits to the roster. Playing on an AHL deal, rookie forward Avery Hayes had gone without a goal in his first 20 AHL games. Now he has struck for six goals in his past seven games. Second-year forward Raivis Ansons has taken on minutes, including on a penalty kill that ranks third in the AHL at 85.3 percent. Also in his second season, forward Corey Andonovski has been a useful tool for Forrest to deploy. Forward Austin Rueschhoff has matched a career high with 14 goals this season.

It’s nothing flashy, but it’s winning games.

“It’s a bit of a collection of everybody,” Forrest said. “I think everyone’s helping each other make those steps.”

The club has had to lean heavily on its veteran leadership, starting with blueliners Taylor Fedun and Xavier Ouellet. Fedun holds the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton captaincy while Ouellet wore a “C” while he was with Laval. Forward Vinnie Hinostroza and his 374 NHL games has divided his season between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh, but has provided that needed guidance as well when he has been with the AHL club. With so much turnover, that leadership extends to being a welcoming committee as much as anything.

“We’re a team that welcomes [new faces] and makes them feel a part of the team right away,” Forrest said. “If you’re in Wilkes-Barre, you’re a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin whether you’re coming from Wheeling on a PTO or you’re a guy we signed from college. You’re here to be a part of the team.”