📝 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…
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