WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – It doesn’t take much to stoke the rivalry between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, but coming down the stretch in the regular season, these two teams will get well acquainted with each other with four more matchups before the 72-game slate wraps up in mid-April. In Wednesday’s case, the two points meant a lot to two teams in the bottom half of the Atlantic Division standings and clawing for positioning.
Despite an early Phantoms lead, the Penguins’ power play roared to life in the final 20 minutes of action, erasing a 2-0 lead and hanging on for a 4-3 decision in regulation. Dustin Tokarski made 34 saves in his return to the crease in Wilkes-Barre, skating in his first American Hockey League game since February 1 after being returned from the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Nolan Maier took the loss with 19 stops after starter Troy Grosenick departed with an apparent injury.
It made for some interesting hockey theater as the Phantoms went up 2-0 starting with a first-period goal from Garrett Wilson. The rugged Lehigh Valley forward entered the game fresh off of a hat trick performance in Sunday night’s 6-4 loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack and opened the scoring in familiar fashion by burying a feed from Cooper Marody as the lone tally of the opening stanza.
Max Willman doubled the lead in the second period with a well-placed shot in the right circle through the pads of Tokarski. The Phantoms had 26 shots on goal through 40 minutes to 18 for the Penguins and seemed to be in control of this game.
It’s unclear how severe the injury to Grosenick is after a collision with Lukas Svejkovsky midway through the first forced him out of the game after continuing to the end of the frame. It’d be a massive loss for the Phantoms, who are already without regular netminder Samuel Ersson on recall to the Philadelphia Flyers and already missed Grosenick for most of the season to date due to injury. The loss would force the Phantoms to potentially rely on their ECHL tandem until one or both of the goaltenders were to return.
Nyls keeping those mitts nice and toasty 🔥 pic.twitter.com/1kbYYcUMrq
— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) February 23, 2023
The Penguins didn’t shy away from this one, setting the stage for the final frame with a power play goal from Drake Caggiula as he’d bury the rebound off the pads of Maier for his 12th goal of the season. If there’s been any facet of Wilkes-Barre’s game that teams should fear, it’s giving them opportunities on the power play, something they had five cracks at in this game despite some abbreviated chances.
After the Penguins tied the game with their only even-strength goal off a heads-up play from Corey Andonovski to Nathan Legare, Alex Nylander picked the corner on a four-on-three power play to put the Penguins in front with just over three minutes remaining in regulation.
Houdey sends us home with the Dub 🙌 pic.twitter.com/PTeA2fPBF8
— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) February 23, 2023
Less than a minute later and just after the announcement of the Nylander goal, the Penguins tallied their third power play goal in five chances as Sam Houde deflected a point shot down and past Maier for his tenth goal of the season for a little insurance. Wilkes-Barre rattled off three goals in a span of two minutes and 41 seconds to go from trailing by one to leading by two, a flurry of goals that hasn’t always been easy to come by especially recently.
The Phantoms would press to make things interesting as Elliot Desnoyers would tally late on the power play for another multi-point game with a goal and an assist, but it proved to be too little, too late as the Penguins skated away with two points and won the special teams battle with only one power play goal in seven tries for the visitors.
The two points are crucial for the Penguins to hang in there in the Atlantic Division race, while the Phantoms are starting to feel the heat as their grasp on fifth place weakens with the loss. The Hartford Wolf Pack won on Wednesday night over Springfield by a commanding 5-1 count for their third straight victory, while the Bridgeport Islanders have also won three straight games. Wilkes-Barre keeps pace only two points out of the final playoff spot at 51 while Lehigh Valley stays at 55, only two points up on Hartford suddenly at 53 in a worst-case scenario for them on this night. The bottom three teams are seeing their stock rising while Lehigh Valley and Springfield suddenly have some pressure on them after their hot streaks have hit a snag of late.
It sets the stage for some interesting divisional play this weekend and a lot of scoreboard watching for every team. The Penguins will be in action on Friday when they visit the Syracuse Crunch, while Lehigh Valley will face the Hershey Bears at Giant Center on Saturday. There’s a fine mixture of divisional teams facing each other, with Lehigh Valley facing Bridgeport in a particularly intriguing game on Sunday, while most teams take on a North Division opponent at some point this weekend. Stay tuned to Field Pass Hockey for more on how the weekend unfolds and what shakeups may be in store as games go final.
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