Penguins lean on Tokarski’s steady hand

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📝 by Patrick Williams

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins really needed this one.

A 6-0-1-0 start had put the Penguins in the running for the American Hockey League lead, but that start had dissolved amid four consecutive losses to begin November. Now the Hershey Bears, one of the Penguins’ longest-running rivals, were in town on Friday, riding a six-game winning streak and having already beaten the Penguins twice this month.

Moreover, the Penguins were beginning a stretch of six games in nine nights, including a visit to Bridgeport, another team pushing for first in the AHL, the following evening. The AHL schedule is picking up speed now, and this losing streak had the possibility of growing into something much more concerning.

The first couple of months of the season can be a tricky time for any AHL club. Offseason turnover means that time is needed for chemistry to build and for players to mesh. There are systems to implement and refine. First-year players are learning the pro world both on and off the ice. And teams must do all of that all while winning at least often enough to keep themselves in contention for the final two-thirds of the season. The pressure that comes with those second-half games matters a lot to NHL front offices.

Nights like these are where having a two-time Calder Cup winner like Dustin Tokarski really can help a young AHL club.

With the Penguins clinging to a 1-0 lead and Hershey on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period, Tokarski was there, including two stops on the dangerous Mike Sgarbossa. Then he cut off a Bears dump-in and started the Penguins’ transition to offense, earning an assist on a big insurance goal by Jonathan Gruden with 6:14 to play. Tokarski would go on to stop all 26 shots he faced in a much-needed 4-0 win.

Afterward, with the Penguins scurrying to pack their gear, shower, and head to the bus for the overnight trip to Bridgeport, head coach J.D. Forrest had plenty to say about his goaltender.

“When [Tokarski is] seeing the puck the way he did, it’s hard to put it by him,” Forrest said. “It starts with him, and then everyone kind of fed off that. There’s no panic, and he reads the play like an expert.”

Now in his 14th pro season, Tokarski spent all of 2021-22 in the National Hockey League — a career first for him — and played 29 games with the Buffalo Sabres. He has tended goal for the venerable Montreal Canadiens, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in Madison Square Garden no less. He has won gold with Canada at the World Junior Championship, and led his club to a Memorial Cup title, winning MVP honors at the tournament. And he has two Calder Cups to his name, first as a member of the Norfolk Admirals’ record-setting run in 2012, and then partnering with Alex Nedeljkovic in the Charlotte Checkers’ crease in 2019.

So with that kind of background, a four-game losing streak is not about to fluster someone like Tokarski. The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Tokarski in July — his second tour with the organization — for games like Friday’s. Games in which a roster of young prospects needs a dependable goaltender to pull the club out of a slump.

The win was Tokarski’s 28th career AHL shutout, tying him for ninth place all-time with Brad Thiessen, another former Penguin. It was also his 198th win, moving him closer to becoming the 16th goaltender in league history to reach 200. He is 5-2-1 in eight appearances this season, his 1.38 goals-against average tops the league, and his .948 save percentage is second only to Providence rookie Brandon Bussi at .949.

After dropping a tough 4-2 decision in Bridgeport on Saturday, the Penguins (7-5-1-0) remain well within striking distance of the competition in the Atlantic Division. After visiting Charlotte tonight and Wednesday, they return home for the resurgent Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Friday before hitting the road again for a trip to Springfield on Saturday.

Knocking off Hershey was a good first step towards breaking the Penguins’ slump, and Tokarski helped to make it happen. Even AHL players in their 30’s can continue to develop, and Forrest, an assistant during Tokarski’s first stop with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2019-20, has seen a shift in the netminder.

“From the last time he was here and now,” Forrest said, “he seems a little bit more — I don’t want to say at ease… he’s always been sort of relaxed — but he seems a little bit more at ease and relaxed in-between, and I mean that in a good way.

“He’s got a great way of preparation. He just gets so dialed in for these games mentally. I mean, I don’t know if that’s just experience. He’s got a ton of it, that’s for sure. When you have a year like he did last year, all the games in the NHL, I think it’s confidence.”

Forrest recalled a game last season when Pittsburgh ripped 46 shots on the Sabres’ Tokarski, beating him just once in a 2-1 Buffalo win at PPG Paints Arena. That’s 45 saves against some of the best competition in the world, and they represented an NHL career-best for Tokarski. He faced 35 or more shots in 11 games last season with the Sabres; NHL competition is unforgiving, and there were some tough nights.

“It was tough year in Buffalo, but he was consistently one of their better players,” Forrest said. “I just remember watching the game, and [Pittsburgh] could not score. He was unbelievable that game.

“And I think that just carries over here. He knows he’s an NHL-caliber goalie.”