CRANBERRY TWP. — After a fast-paced morning practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Garrett Wilson cooled down at his locker stall. Across the room, Tom Sestito checked messages on his phone, Jean-Sebastien Dea joked with Daniel Sprong and a handful of other players hung up their gear.
While the practice session meant the players are a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins run to the Stanley Cup, it was anti-climatic.
For Wilson and the other players on the Black Aces squad, their days begin with practice but their nights rarely conclude with games. The group of 11 headed to Pittsburgh after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s first-round playoff exit, serving as emergency backups to the NHL Penguins.
“It’s tough sitting up in the press box and watching (the games),” said Wilson on Sunday. “You want to be a part of it and get in on the action.”
But that doesn’t mean the players aren’t appreciative just to be around Pittsburgh’s postseason run. For Wilson, who played in six NHL playoff games last year with Florida, being around a team with a history of winning is exciting.
“It’s cool to experience this. This organization has built a winning culture and when you’re around it, it rubs off on you,” he said.
Dea was on last year’s Black Ace squad and said he’s learned a lot just being around Pittsburgh during their playoff run. While he spends his mornings practicing, Dea said he watches every playoff game closely, looking for things he can integrate in his own game.
And he also stays ready because even though game action might be a long shot, it could happen.
Josh Archibald, who practices with the Black Aces but is on Pittsburgh’s roster, played in three games for the NHL club in the conference finals against the Ottawa Senators.
“It was good to see Archie out there, and it makes you think ‘Why not me one day?’” Dea said.
Archibald agreed with the mindset of being ready for a chance that could come at any time. During the regular season, Archibald scored three goals in 10 games with Pittsburgh. Playing in the NHL postseason, he said, was different.
“Everything is escalated. There’s a lot of intensity in the AHL playoffs, but in the NHL that steps up,” Archibald said, adding the experience gave him more motivation to stay ready.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. Everybody is here for a reason.”
But while the Black Aces wait for an opportunity that may never come, they make sure to not only practice hard, but to have a little fun as well. Sestito said the group has formed a tight bond.
“Our year (with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) ended early, so it’s fun to still be skating and it’s fun to be in this room,” he said. “It’s good to come to the rink and still have that team camaraderie.”
And hope for a chance that in reality is a long shot.
“Anything could happen,” Wilson said. “Right now Pittsburgh is successful and that have to stick with it, and we just have to keep doing our thing as well.”
Sprong ready for next step
Despite missing the first half of the season due to shoulder surgery, Sprong finished his year in juniors with a flurry, posting 32 goals and 59 points in 31 games. After his team was knocked out in the postseason, despite Sprong’s 20 points in 12 games, he joined the Black Aces in Pittsburgh.
After a 18-game stint with Pittsburgh as an 18-year old in 2015, Sprong hopes to use his experience as a Black Ace to take the next step in his career.
That means making Pittsburgh’s roster out of training camp this fall.
“It’s exciting to be a part of this and see the game from a different perspective,” Sprong said. “I’m learning a lot.”
While Sprong was happy with his season from a statistical standpoint, the early playoff exit still stings.
But now, being around Pittsburgh’s run to a second consecutive Stanley Cup, Sprong’s focus is on the future.
“I improved last year, especially my plus-minus and play away from the puck, and I’m ready for a big summer,” he said. “All I can do is work hard and see where it takes me. Hopefully it leads here.”