Starting Forwards Prove Bright Spot
WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Silver linings didn’t matter much to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Wednesday night — especially after a disastrous third period cost them two points.
With a few hours to look back on the 5-3 loss to Lehigh Valley, one positive stood out — the starting line of forwards Ben Sexton, Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty.
Sexton scored twice in the first period to snap a 28-game goal drought dating back to last season, while Johnson frequently used his speed to drive toward the net and create offensive chances. Lafferty didn’t record a point, but had three shots on goal.
The Penguins hope for more good things from that trio as they prepare for tonight’s home game against Hershey and a Saturday rematch with the Phantoms in Allentown.
Head coach Clark Donatelli said Sexton stood out as the team’s best forward because he was hard on the puck and winning his individual battles.
“One of our better lines since we’ve put them together, not just (Wednesday) night,” Donatelli said following Thursday’s practice at Mohegan Sun Arena. “They’ve been consistent. I think Benny solidifies it there on the right side being a veteran, and Johnny using his speed and Lafferty is a really good player obviously. It’s a fast line, and I think (Sexton) kind of settles it down with his structure, and he talks a lot out there.”
Sexton said it’s usually a dirty goal that gets players out of a scoring slump, and that was the case Wednesday.
Johnson drove down the left side and tried to go post-to-post on goaltender Alex Lyon, but was turned aside. However, he immediately got the puck back, spun around and threw it toward the crease with Lyon out of position. Sexton was there to bang in the carom off the post and give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.
“It felt like a big relief, a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Sexton said, adding that he felt like he was letting his new team down by not producing in games prior. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say (the drought) wore on me, because it really did. I got a greasy one there; I was lucky. Johnny made a good play getting to the net.”
His second to end the period was a soft goal by most standards — it wasn’t a particularly hard shot and came from an awful angle — but his time awareness and competitiveness to the horn was rewarded as the puck leaked through the pads of Lyon. Johnson had the primary assist.
Despite what could turn out to be a breakthrough game, however, Sexton’s ultimate takeaway was the final score.
“I was just hoping we’d win the hockey game,” Sexton said. “We came up a little short, and that’s unacceptable at home up 2-0 and 3-1. So, we’ve got to find ways to win, close out hockey games.”
Defenseman Ethan Prow skated in a regular black sweater after missing Wednesday’s game with an upper-body injury. Donatelli said he is day to day and will be a game-time decision tonight.
Fellow blueliner Chris Summers and forward Sam Miletic were on the ice in red noncontact sweaters. Neither are expected back for the weekend.
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Opponent: Hershey Bears
When: 7:05 p.m. tonight at Mohegan Sun Arena
Season series: Hershey has won four of the seven matchups between the teams this season.
About the Bears: Hershey enters the weekend last in the Atlantic Division at 12-17-0-2 and has lost seven of its last 10. Forward Mike Sgarbossa has been a thorn in the Penguins’ side this season with six points (3G-3A) in the series. He also leads the team with 13 total. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton did get a break on Thursday, as the Capitals called up defenseman Tyler Lewington. The Bears have the Eastern Conference’s least potent offense with 76 goals in 31 games; this is a game the Penguins need to win following two straight games in which they gave away a lead and lost.
Opponent: Lehigh Valley Phantoms
When: 7:05 p.m. at PPL Center
Season series: The teams have split four previous matchups.
About the Phantoms: Lehigh Valley (18-9-1-2) moved into second in the Atlantic based on point percentage with its comeback win over the Penguins on Wednesday. Tyrell Goulbourne scored twice in that game and has four goals in his last two contests. Defenseman Philippe Myers had three assists on Wednesday and has five points (2G-3A) against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season. The Phantoms also held the Penguins scoreless on three power plays and now have the league’s top penalty kill. The Penguins are already four points behind them and have played three more games, so this game is very important in the division race.