The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have seen several prospects start the season on their roster, but a number of them have moved on to the NHL and are currently in the midst of a Stanley Cup Playoff run.
Luckily for the AHL Penguins, they have seen some of the organization’s top collegiate prospects not only join the team, but make a nearly immediate impact in helping them advance to the Atlantic Division finals of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Reliable Blueger Benefiting From AHL Time
After leading Minnesota State University Mankato in scoring in his senior season, Teddy Blueger – the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second round pick in 2012 – signed an entry-level contract with Pittsburgh and joined the AHL Penguins on an amateur tryout contract in late March.
“It’s been fun. It’s always been my goal to play pro. It’s been nice to get some games in, get some experience,” Blueger recalled of his first look at the AHL heading down the stretch with the Penguins. “I think the level is obviously higher. Guys are a lot stronger and more skilled so the game’s faster. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but it’s been fun.”
While Blueger was a point-getter at the collegiate level, his initial role in the AHL has been a bottom-six center playing a defense first, two-way approach to the game.
“I know he was an offensive player in college, so he’s changing his role and figuring out how to be a pro,” Penguins’ head coach Clark Donatelli said. “He’s doing a really good job on the PK and shutting down top lines. His offensive abilities, he’s had some chances. He’s playing really good two-way hockey and he’s coming along just fine.”
Despite being his team’s leading scorer at Minnesota State, Blueger explained that he was more than just a one-dimensional hockey player.
“I played penalty kill in college so I feel like my game is a two-way game,” Blueger said. “I’m a versatile guy that can play at both ends of the rink. Whatever role I get here I’m fine with, just doing whatever I can to try to help this team win. I take a lot of pride in killing penalties. I’m fine with getting that opportunity and trying to make the most of it. “
Blueger has yet to find the scoresheet with the AHL Penguins, going pointless in 10 regular season games in addition to three postseason contests, but he nearly scored a goal on the first shift of his AHL debut March 25th in Binghamton – instead catching the post on his first shot at the pro level.
“That would be nice,” a smiling Blueger said of tallying his first career pro goal in a meaningful situation in the playoffs.” I’d take one any way I could get one right now, but I just have to keep working hard and not think about that. Just keep playing well and doing my job. I think once you keep focusing on working, competing and playing a good overall game, that those things will come.”
The Great Guentzel
There wasn’t any doubting that University of Omaha-Nebraska (UNO) forward Jake Guentzel was going to have a monster of a senior season. After averaging a point per game over his first two years at UNO, Guentzel added another level to his game in putting up 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 35 games this season in the NCHC before signing his entry-level contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins and joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on an amateur tryout contract back on March 22nd.
Upon his arrival to the AHL, the question mark surrounding Guentzel was whether or not his offensively potent game would transfer to the next level. After putting up a modest six points (two goals, four assists) in 11 regular season games, it appeared as though Guentzel was starting to get more comfortable at the AHL level and was destined to be a difference maker offensively for a Penguins team that had their struggles scoring goals down the stretch.
“He’s one of our best forwards,” AHL Penguins’ head coach Donatelli said after the team’s final practice before the postseason. “We have him in our top six. He’s been getting better and better every game, he’s playing with pace and doing a great job. We are very happy with him,” he added, mentioning Guentzel was skating on a line with Carter Rowney and team captain Tom Kostopoulos.
For Guentzel, he was simply thankful for the opportunity to get acclimated to the pro game down the stretch.
“It’s been great so far. Just getting in games, it helps me out a lot. I’ve learned a lot so far,” Guentzel recalled of his 11 games in the AHL after the regular season had ended. “Everyone is just so good here. Just the speed, everyone is much stronger here and bigger. You have to make plays faster and you have to be ready all the time. You have to be able to find a way to get pucks through,” he explained of his transition, adding, “It’s obviously what you want to do, you want to make an impact any way you can.”
Skating on the team’s second line heading into the opening round of the AHL’s 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, Guentzel knew about the opportunity that was coming his way during the postseason. It was his job to take advantage of it.
“Obviously, it’s been going well so far but hopefully I’ll make an impact in the playoffs,” Guentzel said before Wednesday’s Game One against Providence.
Heading into their first round series against the Boston Bruins’ AHL affiliate, the Penguins were widely considered underdogs. With the help of Guentzel and his seven points (three goals, four assists) in the opening round, the Penguins swept Providence out of the postseason with three consecutive overtime wins, the last of which saw Guentzel burn past the defense and score a breakaway goal in double overtime to help the Penguins advance to the second round, where they will await the winner of the Hershey/Portland series.
“It’s part of the process of developing. I think it’s a great opportunity for them,” Donatelli said of the addition of Blueger and Guentzel to the Pens’ lineup. “They’re off to a great start, they’re going to have long careers. You’re going to see these guys in a Pittsburgh uniform someday. This is just another step in the right direction, a part of the process in developing.”
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