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Wilkes-Barre Call-Ups Help Steer Penguins in Right Direction

by Mark Madden / 105.9 the X

For brevity's sake, they're frequently referred to as "the call-ups" or "the Wilkes guys." Although, as those in the Penguins organization often correct, they're NHL players.

But with the Penguins overwhelmed by a host of injuries up front, forwards Joseph Blandisi, Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty have helped the team keep steered in the right direction, winning the last four games.

These guys really are NHL players.

"They've brought so much energy," Coach Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins beat Colorado 3-2 in overtime at PPG Paints Arena Oct. 16. "They're playing the game the right way. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

"These guys are good players. They're impactful players. They're making a difference in every game that they play. We've put them in high-stakes situations, and they've responded so well."

The latest of those high-stakes situations saw Lafferty kill a penalty in OT vs. Colorado. He drove to the net to help facilitate Brandon Tanev's game-ending shorthanded goal.

Lafferty has had the most statistical impact. He got three goals and two assists in his first five games.

But Blandisi and Johnson have both found the scoresheet, each posting a goal and assist. (Johnson has played four games, Blandisi three.)

Blandisi and Johnson are 25, Lafferty 24. Their youth, energy and success evoke memories of when the Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and '17 thanks partly to the performance of several players not far removed from the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL team like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and a few others.

Sidney Crosby is a believer.

"It's so hard to get [into the NHL] and get that opportunity that when you get it, you want to see guys have success and do well," said the Penguins captain. "They've really made the most of it. They're working, creating plays and producing. It's great to see."

Defenseman Kris Letang agreed.

"When you know somebody can come in, fill a spot, and do that good a job, it's a great feeling," Letang said.

Letang pointed out that it would do the Penguins no good to dwell on the injuries.

"It's hard. But at the end of the day, we have no choice," Letang said. "It's good to have the mentality that we have guys able to step up and fill spots in the lineup, and accomplish some pretty good things."

Eventually the injured will trickle back into the lineup. Does that mean "the call-ups" will trickle back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton?

That remains to be seen. Lafferty's production can't be ignored, and he provides a right-handed faceoff option.

At the very least, all "the call-ups" have merited a longer look, or a future look.

"I'm really proud of them, and I'm happy for them," Sullivan said. "They're all getting rewarded for their efforts."

Lafferty was the Penguins' fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft. The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder is a native of Hollidaysburg, Pa. - about 90 miles from Pittsburgh. He played four years of college hockey at Brown before starting his pro career at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2018.

The Penguins acquired Blandisi from Anaheim this past Jan. 17. Colorado's sixth-round choice in 2012, he has nine goals and 19 assists in 83 NHL games.

Johnson signed with the Penguins as an undrafted free agent on July 6, 2017 after playing two years of college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth. He had a productive campaign for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, posting 18 goals and 25 assists in 67 games.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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