Pens Weekly: Rookies Gearing Up For First AHL Playoff Chase

February 17, 2019 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — For players like goaltender Tristan Jarry and forward Jean-Sebastien Dea that have been with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for multiple seasons, the upcoming two-month battle for a postseason berth might feel a little like uncharted territory. Generally speaking, however, there’s no panicking when it comes to their day-to-day habits — even with the increased sense of urgency for the team’s final 25 games. The same goes for the team’s crop of rookies, who aren’t intimidated by the task ahead. Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello, Sam Miletic, Linus Olund and Matt Abt have all played extensively in their first full AHL season, and all are expected to have a significant role in the Penguins’ mission to leapfrog at least two of their Atlantic Division foes and become one of 16 teams to play for the Calder Cup. For Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, a streak of 16 straight appearances is on the line. “The whole season is just getting ready for playoffs,” Miletic said after a practice last week. “This is the time you dream about as a kid, playing hockey in meaningful games.” First-year pro players often go through a lot adjustments with the jump in competition — getting used to bigger opponents, the quicker speed of play and a more grueling schedule. But in many cases, they have already been in playoff games or other high-pressure situations earlier in their careers. This year’s Penguins group is no different. Angello played for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of the regular season a year ago, and he scored two goals in the team’s series loss to the Charlotte Checkers. Olund’s Brynas team reached the Swedish Hockey League championship round in 2016-17, and Abt played in the NCAA Tournament with RIT. Getting to the postseason might be particularly special for Lafferty, though, because he didn’t play many meaningful late-season games in college. The 23-year-old’s Brown University squad won only 25 games total over his four seasons with the team and wasn’t in the ECAC playoff mix. “I’m really excited (for the rest of the season),” Lafferty said. “It’s very competitive, and the playoffs are the best time of year. We’re just trying to set ourselves up for that.” That confidence level is important given they are key pieces for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in a variety of aspects. Angello, a Cornell product, has been among the team’s leading scorers all season and fits the team system well with his physical playing style. Miletic and Lafferty both made recent returns from injury, but each scored twice on the team’s recent road trip through the Midwest. Miletic even had a shorthanded goal, showing how he can contribute on both special teams. Abt has been a good complement to Ethan Prow on the blue line and is emerging as a big hitter, and Olund brings good energy and forechecking to the bottom six. With the Penguins needing to win at a better pace than they have all season, Angello said preparation and conditioning takes on even more importance. “You definitely have to pay attention to taking care of your body,” he said. “Eating well, sleeping well, keep staying hydrated. Something we’re getting a taste of this year.” Just as important as the rookies’ own development and learning experiences on the ice has been the guidance they received from the Penguins’ surplus of veteran players and the coaching staff. Head coach Clark Donatelli said he and the coaches stress to young players the importance of maintaining their compete level and then working off that to improve the team’s overall execution. By the same token, they have to avoid the temptation to try and do too much to make a play and not think too far ahead. It’s often said game intensity makes a noticeable jump in games at the end of winter, and experienced players like the Penguins’ group of alternate captains can set the example for how to stay in check emotionally. “The older guys, as a whole, have helped us quite a bit this year,” Angello said. “Taking us under their wing, treating us well. I think it will be good, especially because a lot of them have a lot of playoff experience and NHL experience. I think it helps pave the way for us.” Contact the writer: tpiccotti@citizensvoice.com; 570-821-2089; @CVPiccotti on Twitter