Calder Cup Playoffs preview: WBS Penguins defense ready to build postseason experience vs. Charlotte

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
Penguins defensemen Chris Summers and Jarred Tinordi have logged hundreds of games in the pros, but both have minimal experience in the postseason. - Tony Callaio file photo | For Times Leader

As the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins get ready for Game 1 of the first round playoff matchup against the Charlotte Checkers on Friday, several of the team’s defensemen are preparing for the chance to just play hockey in the postseason again.

Despite having a strong veteran presence on the blue line, many of the Penguins defensemen haven’t seen the postseason in quite some time. The chance to play hockey in the spring enticed many of the veteran players to sign with the Penguins last summer, and now that opportunity is about to become a reality.

“It’s been forever,” said defenseman Chris Summers, whose last trip to the postseason was in 2013 with the Portland Pirates.

Summers, 30, has just three postseason games under his belt despite playing nine years for several AHL and NHL teams. He admitted it’s been tough being limited to three playoff games, and he doesn’t know how many more postseason opportunities he’ll get at this stage of his career.

“Now that I’m a little bit further along, it’s really exciting to be back. It’s a time of year when you give everything you have, and that’s the way it should be played,” Summers said.

Kevin Czuczman, 27, also has just three AHL playoff games on his resume during his four-year career. That was in 2016 with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, although Czuczman did go on a longer run the year before when he appeared in 12 ECHL playoff games with the Florida Everblades.

Like Summers, the lack of experience has made Czuczman hungry for the postseason.

“It’s nice being on this side of the coin,” he said. “All your friends are back home, done for the season, and you’re still playing. That’s a pretty cool feeling.”

While Summers and Czuczman only have three AHL playoff games during their career, Jarred Tinordi has none.

But he did play in five NHL playoff games with the Montreal Canadiens in 2013.

Tinordi, 26, said that experience with Montreal helps him to prepare for his first AHL playoff action with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

“Being in the room in Montreal, you could just feel the energy. You feel it just walking into the rink every morning,” Tinordi said. “I just want to carry that to here.”

Including fellow blueliners Zach Trotman, Lukas Bengtsson and Andrey Pedan, none of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s top six defensemen were in the postseason last year. In fact, all six have combined for just 27 AHL career playoff games.

Trotman has the most postseason experience with 17 playoff games as a member of the Providence Bruins, but his last trip was in 2015.

Trotman, 27, acknowledged that it’s been a long wait for the team’s defense corps to get back to the playoffs.

“We all can’t wait. For some guys, it’s their first time getting a taste of it in quite a while,” he said. “It’s intense and emotional hockey.”

Still, despite the long absences, the group of defensemen — who all joined the Penguins via free agency or trades before the season, with the exception of Bengtsson — knew their chances for playoff hockey were pretty high with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

When the team takes the ice against Charlotte on Friday, it will officially begin Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 16th consecutive trip to the postseason, the longest active streak in the AHL.

“It’s an expectation here and that’s why it’s such a good franchise,” Czuczman said. “They expect to make playoff runs every year, and that’s the message they sent to us right at the start of training camp.”

Penguins defensemen Chris Summers and Jarred Tinordi have logged hundreds of games in the pros, but both have minimal experience in the postseason.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_Pens-Bridgeport-5.jpgPenguins defensemen Chris Summers and Jarred Tinordi have logged hundreds of games in the pros, but both have minimal experience in the postseason. Tony Callaio file photo | For Times Leader

By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

PENGUINS vs. CHECKERS

Series predictions

FORWARDS

If the games turn into shootouts, both teams have plenty of firepower. The Penguins are led by rookie Daniel Sprong, who finished the season second in the AHL with 32 goals. He had 65 points in 65 games and 11 power play tallies.

The Penguins scored two goals or fewer in seven of their last 10 regular-season games. As a team, the Penguins totaled 252 goals in the regular season — the fifth-highest total in the league. Teddy Blueger emerged to score 21 goals this season, followed by Jean-Sebastien Dea (18) and Christian Thomas (18). Ryan Haggerty erupted for a scoring spree early in the season but has been quiet of late, and captain Tom Kostopoulos has produced points at a steady clip heading into his last postseason.

The Checkers led the AHL with 262 goals, and Valentin Zykov led the league with 33 tallies. Charlotte had four players top 20 goals — Zykov, Warren Foegele (28), Aleksi Saarela (25) and Andrew Potualski (22). Greg McKegg, who was acquired from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in a trade for Josh Jooris late in the season, has produced 23 points in 19 games with Charlotte.

Edge: Charlotte.

DEFENSE

While the Penguins blueliners haven’t played in a lot of playoff games over their careers, they do bring plenty of experience overall. Kevin Czuczman turned in a career year with 35 points, Andrey Pedan blossomed into an offensive threat (9-17-26) to go along with his physical play and Jarred Tinordi made a habit of punishing forwards all season. Zach Trotman and Chris Summers provide steady play in the defensive zone and can also hit, while Lukas Bengtsson has speed to chase pucks and man the point on the power play.

The Checkers blueline is just as balanced as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s, led by Trevor Carrick (44 points) and Brenden Kichton (24 points). The group can also play physical and former Penguin Philip Samuelsson posted an astounding plus-44 in the regular season, followed by Roland McKeown’s plus-34.

Edge: Tie. Scoring, defensive play and physicality — both teams have it all.

GOALTENDING

While Tristan Jarry figures to get the start in Game 1, he is still something of a wildcard for the Penguins. During the regular season, Jarry’s numbers were mediocre, with a 3.05 goals against average and .901 save percentage. He started two playoff games for the Penguins in 2016, winning one but getting pulled from his second start after allowing three goals on 16 shots. Since he returned from Pittsburgh in March, Jarry allowed no fewer than two goals just twice in eight starts.

Still, if Jarry falters, the Penguins can turn to veteran Michael Leighton, who has plenty of playoff experience and finished the season on a strong note, allowing one goal on 32 shots against Lehigh Valley on April 14.

For Charlotte, Jeremy Smith is a familiar face to the Penguins. He faced them as a member of the Providence Bruins in the 2016 postseason and twice during the regular season, allowing just three goals and winning both contests. Smith had an average regular season overall, posting a 13-13-1 record, 2.71 GAA and .902 SV%. But in his last five starts, Smith allowed one goal in three of the contests.

Edge: Penguins. Jarry could step up big. But if he doesn’t, having Leighton to turn to is a big advantage.

PREDICTION

Charlotte has an edge offensively and finished the regular season strong, winning seven in a row. The Checkers clearly have momentum, but the Penguins are riding the emotion of trying to win a championship for Kostopoulos before he retires. That can be enough to compensate for any advantage the Checkers have on paper. Penguins in five.

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky