WILKES-BARRE — For more than a month, Patrick McGrath could only watch.
One of the longest-tenured Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, McGrath was a healthy scratch for the first 12 games of the season, and he only cracked the lineup twice during November. Despite the coaching staff raving about McGrath’s hard work in practice, the fifth-year pro was unable to crack the lineup due to a glut of forwards ahead of him.
“It was tough,” McGrath said. “We just have so many good guys on this team and throughout the organization.”
Still, McGrath, 24, knew an opportunity to get into the lineup would arise at some point. Injuries and call-ups would occur, and he just had to wait for a chance.
McGrath’s patience paid off in mid-December. With injuries to several regulars, along with call-ups to Pittsburgh, McGrath got the nod to help fill the voids at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Now, after sitting out more than a month, McGrath is a regular in the lineup anchoring the fourth line.
“It’s good to be back on a consistent basis. You can practice as hard as you want, but it’s different in a game,” he said. “The more you play, the higher your confidence gets.”
McGrath played in six of the team’s 14 games in December and two of the three games in January so far. He has a goal in 10 games on the season, and has proven effective at jumping into the lineup whenever he’s needed, even if it isn’t every game.
“It’s nice when some guys go up and they trust you and rely on you here,” McGrath said.
Centering the fourth line on most nights is Jarrett Burton, a player who McGrath has been teammates with since the 2014-15 season in Wheeling.
That familiarity with Burton has allowed McGrath to bring chemistry to the Penguins’ fourth line.
“It’s easy when you have a guy like that. We know what each other is going to do and we keep it simple. Nothing out of the ordinary,” McGrath said.
Head coach Clark Donatelli said McGrath’s hard work in practice has been noticeable in games, and he cited improvement in his skating and stickhandling.
Even though McGrath has endured long stretches as a healthy scratch, his experience and attitude have helped when it comes to to transition back into the lineup, according to Donatelli.
“Sitting out that long and coming in, it’s hard to do that,” Donatelli said. “Patty’s been great with it.”
While providing points has never been a big part of McGrath’s game, he has proven effective with his physical play. He has dropped the gloves in three of his last four games and former teammate Daniel Sprong credited McGrath’s fight during a game on Dec. 29 against Hartford as a key to the Penguins’ 5-1 win.
After McGrath’s fight early in the second period, the Penguins scored four un-answered goals to defeat the Wolf Pack.
“If it gets a guy like (Sprong) going, it’s great for the team,” McGrath said of his fight. “That’s the goal.”
Gage Quinney participated in Tuesday’s practice. Quinney hasn’t played since Dec. 29 while dealing with an injury. “Really happy to have him back in the lineup,” Donatelli said. “He plays a lot of minutes on the power play and different scenarios.” … Tom Kostopoulos skated on Tuesday but didn’t practice. Donatelli said Kostopoulos, Tom Sestito, Lukas Bengtsson and Michael Leighton are still considered week-to-week.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky