Sprong Delivering In Clutch As Playoffs Loom

April 15, 2018 GMT

It still bothers Daniel Sprong. Nothing that happened this season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, but rather his final campaign in major juniors with the Charlottetown Islanders in 2016-17. The Netherlands native returned midway through the season and put up gaudy scoring totals: 32 goals and 59 points in only 31 games. The team steamrolled into the playoffs with a ton of momentum, but only made it to Round 3 before being eliminated from contention. No championship. So, as the Penguins prepare to begin their 16th straight pursuit of the Calder Cup, Sprong isn’t thinking about the 30 goals and 61 points he recorded in his first professional season. Or the all-star appearance, or the all-rookie honors. “It’s nice, personally,” Sprong said. “You want to have a good year, but you want to win the finals. You want to win the Calder Cup. That’s the most important thing.” If the last month is any indicator, he’ll play a key role if they actually claim it after four rounds. The 21-year-old is red-hot entering the postseason, with 17 points over his last 14 contests through Thursday. It’s not so much that he’s scoring, but that the goals are coming in important situations — he has three game-winning tallies since March 30, including an overtime snipe on that afternoon against Hartford. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has won five of its last seven as a result. With the win-or-go-home atmosphere the playoffs often bring, that makes Sprong an obvious X factor against whichever team the Penguins wind up playing. “He’s definitely clutch, where he’s scoring big goals,” Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli said. “That’s what he brings. Our biggest thing is he will score, and he will get some scoring chances, but he’s got to play a solid game away from the puck.” The former second-round pick has done that of late, helping create turnovers in the defensive zone that lead to transition chances the other way. Paired with Jean-Sebastien Dea and Garrett Wilson, he has also helped bring stability and balance to the Penguins’ top line. As misleading as plus-minus ratings can sometimes be, it’s also important to note that Sprong is plus-10 during his aforementioned 14-game hot streak. He was minus-9 prior. That means he’s not only generating more quality chances, but preventing opponents from doing the same. Sprong admitted there was a temptation to let frustration set in after Pittsburgh demoted him in late January, but he didn’t want to disappoint the teammates around him. Especially captain Tom Kostopoulos, who he said has played an important part in his progression throughout the season despite a four-month game absence. His biggest takeaway from this season is a reflection of that. “No games off,” Sprong said. “Every game is hard. Even if it’s the last-place team or the first-place team, every team comes hard. Always someone watching from different teams or your own team’s watching you, and everyone wants to play their best game day in and day out.” The AHL postseason is no different, something Sprong already knows from experience. He played in 10 games with the Penguins during the 2016 Calder Cup playoffs, recording five goals and two assists before the Hershey Bears eliminated Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss. As a result, he learned how different it is from playing in the QMJHL. In juniors, Sprong said, players can maybe get away with a lazy pass or rush out of position. But in the pros, all of those mistakes are magnified and can completely turn a game in favor of the opponent. A solid two-way game goes a long way toward preventing those, and Sprong is hopeful it will help his late-season success carry over as well. “Every shift is important,” he said. “We’ve just got to approach it like a regular game and play our style.” Contact the writer:; 570-821-2089; @CVPiccotti on Twitter