Only two years ago an extended run in the NHL post-season was a seeming right of passage for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and their rabid fanbase. But after two consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins have experienced dramatic early post-season upsets, the first in 2011 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and most recently in 2012 to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The upsets have occurred in spectacular fashions too. In 2011 the Penguins were so offensively inept in the post-season they couldn't have bought a goal for a billion dollars. In 2012 they had no problem scoring goals but couldn't defend even when their playoff life depended on it. Worse yet, the team lost their composure and discipline, took stupid, indefensible penalties, and as a result was at a constant disadvantage.
If there is any silver lining to be found in the Penguins disastrous 2012 NHL post-season, it was the play of some of their prospects. Defensemen Simon Despres and Brian Strait in particular were impressive. While neither played major roles, both acquitted themselves well in the roles they were assigned and finished with plus ratings.
Winger Eric Tangradi also made his way into two games and managed an assist and a plus-two rating. Tangradi had difficulty cracking the Penguins lineup for most of the regular season, but by the end was starting to be trusted with greater ice time and responsibilities.
It has been a similar narrative for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Though the team has managed to make the post season in 11 of the 13 years they have existed, they have only managed to get to the third-round of the playoffs on three different occasions, most recently in 2007-08.
Similar to the parent club, the 2012 post-season edition of the Baby Penguins seemed incapable of playing both defense and offense at the same time, often to extremely frustrating results.
The player who for better or worse epitomized the Baby Penguins post-season struggles (and possibly the entire organization) was Brad Thiessen. Though he managed a 2.14 goals against average in 12 games, he allowed soft goals in games in which he would sometimes saw fewer than 20 shots. When he did have good games, such as a 34 save performance in game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, he was often not provided any offensive support.
Tangradi, Despres, and Strait all also saw post-season time in the AHL, though Strait appeared in only two games. Of the three Tangradi probably acquitted himself the best, managing nine points in 10 games. The big power forward was also one of the more effective players against a defensively stifling St. John's team.
Offensive defenseman Alex Grant carried his strong second-half regular season momentum into the post-season and was the Baby Penguins top offensive threat from the blue line. On the other side of the blue line defensive defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Philip Samuelsson bought toughness, size, and nastiness and generally did their best to make opposing forwards miserable in the Penguins zone. All three however, like many members of the parent club, were guilty of numerous ill-timed or undisciplined penalties.
Forwards Paul Thompson and Brian Gibbons also played the majority of the playoff games, though neither was particularly effective offensively, with Thompson managing only two goals in 12 games and Gibbons held off the score sheet entirely.
The trend of bad goaltending in the post-season continued with Penguins ECHL affiliate the Wheeling Nailers. Goaltending prospect Patrick Killeen went 1-3 in a best of five opening round against the Kalamazoo Wings, managing a 3.54 goals against and a .864 save percentage in the process. The Wheeling Nailers sputtered into the playoffs, posting a 2-5-1-2 record in their last 10 regular season games, so it is not totally fair to blame Killeen for their quick post-season exit. Still, after opening the post-season with a 25 save win and a .926 save percentage, he got shelled for 12 goals in the next three games.
Niagara sniper Tom Kühnhackl capped an injury and suspension abbreviated regular season with a forgettable playoff. While he may not have been expected to repeat his 2011 playoff performance with the Windsor Spitfires, where he posted 11 goals in 18 games, his 2012 performance was disappointing, with him managing five goals and six assists in 20 games.
Scott Harrington easily had the most successful post-season of any Penguins prospect and arguably of any player under any sort of contract with the organization as he not only helped the London Knights en route to their second OHL championship but also appeared at the Memorial Cup, where he managed three assists in four games.
Sarnia Sting defenseman Reid McNeill had a non-descript but solid post-season, blocking shots, laying hits, and making sure he kept a solid gap on opposing forwards.
Joe Morrow continued his domination of the WHL this post-season with the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks. Though they eventually fell short of the WHL championship to the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Winterhawks were nonetheless a team to be reckoned with and Morrow was one of the main reasons. Often playing against opposing team's top lines, Morrow managed four goals and 13 assists through 22 games. A late '92 birthday, Morrow will be available to join the Penguins AHL affiliate in 2012-13.
Though Dominik Uher finished the WHL regular season on point-per-game pace, and scored a goal in the first game of Spokane Chief's first-round matchup against the Vancouver Giants, he was relatively quiet in the first round of the playoffs. That all changed however in the second round when the Chiefs met the Tri-City Americans. Though the Chiefs would eventually lose to the Americans in seven, Uher was one of the more consistent players on his team, and managed to score a goal in each of the last four games of the series. Interestingly, four of his five goals game on special teams, with him managing two on both the PK and the man-advantage.
Notes and Signings
Reid McNeill signed an entry-level deal with the Penguins shortly after his post-season concluded. A droll personality on and off the ice, McNeill brings a solid stay-at-home presence but also provides some sandpaper and smile to his game. Like most of the Penguins defensive prospects, he is a solid skater and puck-distributor with a good hockey IQ. Also, like most Penguins defensive prospects, he should be considered a long-term project, with likely two years of minor-league experience before an opportunity to see the big show. Though McNeill played with the Sarnia Sting in 2011-12, he was formerly with the London Knights, where he was a frequent linemate of fellow Pens prospect Scott Harrington. Expect them to eventually be reunited in the AHL.
Uher was also signed to a contract shortly after his post-season concluded. A Czech import with three years of WHL experience, Uher has seen dramatic development over the past two seasons. With an aggressive two-way style of play and a soft set of hands, he can create match-up problems for opposing defensemen, particularly on the penalty kill where he is a proven offensive weapon. While he projects as a complementary offensive forward, his game is well-rounded enough to play in a bottom-line checking role as well.
The recent signing of NHL veteran Thomas Vokoun to a two-year deal effectively signifies the end of Brad Thiessen's time with the Penguins. Groomed to be March-Andre Fleury's backup, Thiessen seemingly hit a developmental wall in 2012 and was woefully ineffective when called up to the NHL, yielding 16 goals in 258 game minutes. He will however likely have no trouble finding work, having managed solid numbers in his three years with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, particularly in 2010-11 when he posted a 1.94 goals against and a 35-8-1 record.
By Ian Altenbaugh