PENGUINS DISAPPOINTED, BUT “CHARACTER” NEVER WAVERED
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – One by one, the members of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins grabbed their bags, their assortment of sticks, shook hands with the equipment staff and headed for the door.
They were packed up for the summer. No playoffs. No Black Aces in Pittsburgh. Just going home.
Just like their NHL affiliate, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the AHL Penguins were left searching for answers after a promising start to the year ended without a single postseason puck drop. One by one, tried as they might, every player was puzzled as to why their season didn’t have a better fate.
The Team at the End of the Season
“I think we always gave a good effort, honest effort out there. But we came up short, and it just kind of just stockpiled,” said Jamie Devane. “We kept trying to work our way out of it, and it just wasn’t happening. Whether that be bad brakes or tightening grips on sticks when the playoff push came, we just couldn’t really figure out how to close.”
Despite the lack of a postseason berth, every player and coach sternly mentioned the same trait that never wavered from game one. One by one, the same word kept coming up when they were asked for their thoughts on the group overall.
“We have a lot of [character] in this locker room,” said Jonathan Gruden. “It stems from the older guys, a lot of guys that have been there before or been in the NHL. It’s easy to lean on those guys. It allows us young guys to just go out and play. … We always battled in all 72 games. So I’m really proud of this group.”
From the start of October, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton knew that it would have to run back the identity that brought it success in 2021-22. That required playing with an unwavering commitment to defense and a tenacity in the battle areas of all three zones.
For most of the 2022-23 season, the Penguins checked those boxes. At the All-Star Break, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had a top 10 defense in terms of goals against per game.
These blue-collar efforts kept the Penguins in a lot of games.
Overview of the Penguins Season
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton appeared in 36 contests decided by one goal. That’s exactly half of the team’s games this season, and doesn’t even account for decisions that came down to the wire but had an empty netter in the last minute of regulation tilt the scales.
The Penguins also appeared in 24 overtimes, second-most in the league and tops in the Eastern Conference. That gave way to a league-leading 11 shootouts, a gaudy number in the era of three-on-three OT.
All of this is to say that the Penguins were right there, neck-and-neck, with their opponents on a regular basis.
To their detriment, offense never materialized consistently, particularly in the second half of the season. A goal here or a goal there could have completely rewritten the year.
“I think if we were to replay the same season over again, we could have six or seven more wins without really changing much at all,” said veteran forward Tyler Sikura. “When you’re in low-scoring games, sometimes you just need somebody to step up, or just need one play. And I feel like every little mistake seemed to bite us. That adds to the frustration when you think you’re doing everything right and not getting rewarded.”
Despite the mounting frustration, the team’s belief never wavered. They were sure their work ethic would usher them out of their funk. They never let the dwindling on-ice results affect their camaraderie – or character – off the ice.
Ty Smith’s Thoughts On the Penguins
Ty Smith remembers the discomfort of joining a new organization for the first time after he was surprisingly dealt by the New Jersey Devils to Pittsburgh in the offseason. Then his bewilderment was doubled when he was assigned to the AHL for the first time in his career.
He also remembers how grateful he was for how warm and welcoming everyone was to him from the first day he set foot in Wilkes-Barre. With few familiar faces in the locker room at the start of the season, Smith ended up forging valuable friendships that only grew stronger as the year wore on.
The many rookies on the Penguins’ roster recount similar experiences.
Jack St. Ivany was effusive in his admiration for his teammates on locker cleanout day.
“This group is just a great group of guys, top to bottom,” the rookie defenseman said. “I think that we all mesh together, and I’ll remember this first pro year for me as making some lifelong friends. Hopefully it can turn to something special for next year.”
A Culture of Winning
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have a culture of winning. Unfortunately, 2022-23 failed to live up to that standard. This season was just the fourth time in franchise history that the team failed to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
But it would be foolish to overlook other cornerstones of the culture that has been established here in Northeast Pennsylvania over the past two decades-plus.
The team also strives to develop good human beings, and demands its players give mothing less than 100-percent effort.
Those two elements never faltered, even when racking up victories became a struggle. With the character of the team’s culture still intact, the aim to bring back the winning side of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton may not be hard to find again.
“It was not an easy year, and this is not the way that we wanted it to end,” said head coach J.D. Forrest. “But you know, throughout the roller coaster of a season, I thought regardless of the situation, whether we had guys out for injury or to call-ups or whatever the case was, we always battled to the very bitter end.
“I think it’s a good learning lesson for our players, and we had a lot of young guys in the lineup that were learning on the fly there. They learned how hard it is to win, how competitive this league is, and the steps that everybody needs to take to continue to progress as a professional hockey player.”