WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – It wasn’t easy, but the Springfield Thunderbirds have come a long way from where they were a few weeks ago by earning their sixth straight win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a pivotal Atlantic Division showdown. Springfield’s top scorers did the damage as Matthew Peca’s first goal of the season in return from injury stood up as the game-winner in a 3-2 decision. Joel Hofer turned in a strong performance in goal with 28 saves while Dustin Tokarski took the loss with 14 stops. The Thunderbirds sit on the precipice of team history as the Thunderbirds can go for seven straight wins on Friday when the teams rematch in Springfield.
With both teams even in the standings going into action on Wednesday, the winner was guaranteed to move ahead with a win with each point pivotal in the close race for playoff positioning. The Penguins have struggled at times among their personnel losses with recalls and injuries plaguing them but have persevered as tough competition.
They’ve been particularly tough inside of Mohegan Sun Arena, where they put a good shot volume on and jumped out to the lead with Corey Andonovski’s eighth goal of the season. The rookie forward deflected a point shot from Mitch Reinke to put the home team in front.
The Thunderbirds have proven to be resilient and rebounded to tie the game in the middle stanza on the power play. Despite a very low shot count in this game, Springfield’s strength was with a man to the good as Brady Lyle fired through a screen at the point for his fourth of the season. The seven shots on goal by the visitors in the second was the highest count of the three periods in the game, but the results spoke for themselves in this one. Lyle would pick up right where he left off in the third, as he’d deke swiftly down the middle and beat Tokarski for his second of the game. The goal came with the teams skating four aside after Matthew Kessel was given five minutes and a game misconduct for cross-checking while Filip Hallander was doing time for hooking in his return to the lineup.
everyone watch Peca get his 1st of the season tonight⬇️ pic.twitter.com/L841FyugQG
— Springfield Thunderbirds (@ThunderbirdsAHL) February 2, 2023
The lead would be short-lived for the Thunderbirds, however, as the Penguins responded when the power play resumed with an unusual goal. Alex Nylander caught his opposition playing a bit too relaxed in their own zone and stole the puck inside the blue line and beat Hofer for his 18th goal of the year.
With the game up in the air, Peca buried a feed from Matthew Highmore for his first goal of the year that stood up as the winner as Springfield nabbed two key points. Peca’s two points gives him nine in as many games this season while already having four multi-point performances after shattering his career bests a season ago. Springfield has missed him desperately since missing most of the first half with injury, but he’s picked up right where he left off. Highmore’s pair of helpers gives him 31 on the season as he hits 40 and closes in on setting a new career-high mark in the American Hockey League.
Two points moves the Thunderbirds into a tie for fourth place and the best active win streak in the Atlantic Division. Springfield once sat in the division’s basement but have proven to be a case study on how a strong stretch can change a team’s fortunes with their current surge with a consistent lineup. Wilkes-Barre drops into seventh place and out of the playoff picture if it were to start today as a result of the loss, but with their lineup steadily improving with the return of Hallander as well as Ty Smith, they won’t stay there for too long.
The two teams will rematch on Friday at MassMutual Center in the back half of a home-and-home set.
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