Sunday notebook: Puljujärvi’s road back goes through WBS

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Patrick Williams, Features Writer

A lot happened for Jesse Puljujärvi between his previous stint in the American Hockey League – a week-long stay with Bakersfield in November 2018 – and this latest stop with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Too much, in fact.

There was hip surgery in March 2019. Then came a season-plus spent back in Finland with Kärpät Oulu, the club that had developed him before the Edmonton Oilers made him the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. A return to the Oilers when the truncated NHL season began in January 2021. Career bests with 15 goals in 2020-21 and 36 points in 2021-22. A trade to the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 28, 2023.

After playing through chronic pain, Puljujärvi had double hip surgery last offseason. A long, long recovery followed.

With 334 NHL games behind him and still just 25 years old, Puljujärvi signed a professional tryout deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 10 and joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in early January. He quickly jumped into the midseason flow; four games in eight nights is a test for any player, but especially someone coming off intensive hip surgery.

“I’m doing good,” Puljujärvi told Wilkes-Barre/Scranton broadcaster Nick Hart recently. “I think this has been really good for me. I’ve been having a good time. Brand-new hips, so it’s learning how everything works. I did back-to-back (games) recently, so that was good.”

“The main thing is that now I don’t have any pain. After games I was pretty sore (before the surgery). Now I’m pain-free, so that’s the main thing. Right now is finding a way to be a good player.”

Well, he is finding a way. Last night against league-leading Hershey, Puljujärvi churned out five shots on goal in a hard-fought 3-2 loss. Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest has Puljujärvi working the right side of a strong line with Sam Poulin and Radim Zohorna. That is a trio more than capable of handling top minutes, and Zohorna scored 1:10 into the game. A night earlier in a 4-3 win at Lehigh Valley, the threesome had a combined three goals and three assists.

“It’s a long time since he’s been playing a lot of hockey,” Forrest said, “so we’re just trying to make sure that he’s getting back into the repetition. It’s a lot of the habits that after being off the ice, you just sort of forget them, and you have to be reminded of them. I think since he’s been in the lineup, he’s been making more plays, he’s been hanging on to pucks more. He’s been using his size. You can see his speed.”

With Puljujärvi in the lineup, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has gone 7-3-1-0 and is now third in the Atlantic Division. Through those 11 games, Puljujärvi has delivered eight points (four goals, four assists), welcome offense for a team that lost veteran Rem Pitlick in a trade to the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 6 and has had to deal with forwards Jansen Harkins, Valtteri Puustinen and Colin White away in Pittsburgh for extended periods.

“We’re encouraging him where even if it doesn’t work out the first time, to keep trying, because we want him to get back to that level we know,” Forrest said.

“I think it’s just reps, times, games, understanding that we believe he can get to where he wants to get to.”

Any discussion of the 2023-24 Texas Stars usually focuses on top forwards Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque.

And rightfully so. The pair rank one-two in AHL scoring, after all, and it seems to be only a matter of time before they are off to Dallas. But Texas head coach Neil Graham wanted to go to bat for another one of his players, a 23-year-old forward who has all of the game’s details down.

“The one guy that never gets talked about is Oskar Back,” said Graham, who will be coaching the Central Division at next weekend’s AHL All-Star Classic in San Jose.

Back came up through the Färjestad program in his native Sweden before Dallas selected him in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft. He went on to play 113 games in the Swedish Hockey League before moving over to Texas for the 2021-22 season.

“What he’s meant to our team this year has been incredible,” Graham said. “When you look for a rock, (it’s) a guy like Oskar who pretty much does everything right on the ice, plays center, he’s on both the power play and penalty kill. He’s been a guy that has been a model of consistency and has gotten better each year.”

And after scoring five goals in 66 games last season, Back has already matched that total (and also has 20 assists) through only 39 games this campaign; his 25 points so far put him only two off his pro career-best set last season.

“He has been a model of growth,” Graham stressed. “It has been impressive to see. He just means so much to our team.”

Nothing gets decided in January. But going into Cleveland and taking back-to-back games from the North Division’s top club? Grabbing three wins in a run of four consecutive games away from home? The Hartford Wolf Pack will take it.

After two goals from rookie Brett Berard gave them a 4-2 win in Cleveland on Friday night, the Wolf Pack made it a sweep with a 3-2 victory last night as second-year forward Matt Rempe chipped in a pair of goals, including the game-winner with 5:46 to go in regulation.

Hartford’s Louis DomingueDylan Garand goaltending tandem continued its strong play, too. Garand stopped 23 shots on Friday, allowing two goals or fewer for the sixth consecutive start. Domingue stepped last night and made 24 saves to move to 11-5-2 on the season.

Now the Wolf Pack can settle in at home for a bit. They host Charlotte on Wednesday to open a six-game homestand, and won’t have an overnight trip until a two-game visit to face the Checkers in mid-March. XL Center has been good to the Wolf Pack, whose 10-4-3-0 mark (.676) at home is third-best in the AHL.

Hartford sits at 22-11-5-0 and 49 points, fourth in the Atlantic Division but with five games in hand each on second-place Providence and third-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Five teams are separated by five points atop the Pacific Division, and for now, the Coachella Valley Firebirds have the highest perch.

The Firebirds earned a split of their two-game visit to H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, knocking off the Stars 5-1 last night after Texas had erased a 2-0 deficit in winning Friday’s opener in overtime.

Holding a 2-1 lead last night, Coachella Valley took control of the game as captain Max McCormick extended the lead only 62 seconds into the middle period, and then the Firebirds used third-period goals 1:26 apart to make it a 5-1 game. They allowed the Stars just 15 shots in the final 40 minutes of play to earn three of four points from their trip to Texas.

On New Year’s Eve, last season’s Calder Cup finalist was seventh in the Pacific Division with a 15-10-2-0 record. They took a 6-1 decision from Calgary on Jan. 1 and have gone on to a 9-2-2-1 charge this month that has put them first place.

A two-game set this week with the Wranglers starts a seven-game homestand for the Firebirds.