WILKES-BARRE TWP. — The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins might have finally found the answer to their power-play woes.
Maybe defenseman Ben Lovejoy wasn’t the first choice for that assignment, but in one dramatic moment, he turned out to be the best choice.
Playing the point because Alex Goligoski was ejected from the game for throwing an elbow, Lovejoy scored on the power play with 8:31 remaining, as the Penguins cracked their long-lasting curse of playing with an extra man to beat Providence 3-2 Saturday at Wachovia Arena.
“Obviously, it’s fun to be out there on the power play,” said Lovejoy, who tallied just his second goal of the season. “I haven’t done it a lot this year. I was certainly not Coach’s first choice, maybe his third choice.”
“It’s great for him, it’s great for our team,” Penguins coach Todd Richards said. “Late in the game, we needed guys to use as forwards back there.”
Asked if he was the solution to the team’s pitiful power play conversion rate of just over 14 percent coming into the night, Lovejoy grinned, “I wish.”
Before his winning score, the Penguins had converted just two of their previous 30 power-play opportunities, taking a 1-for-15 stretch into Saturday’s final power play chance.
But Lovejoy lined up and stroked the winner past Providence goaltender Tuukka Rask as the Penguins beat the only AHL team to clinch a playoff spot so far.
“It was a huge win for our team,” Lovejoy said, scoffing at Friday’s 3-0 defeat to Albany, which snapped a nine-game Penguins win streak. “I think we were all disappointed in our effort and the outcome of the game last night. Tonight, we were pretty happy.”
A key penalty kill sparked the smiles.
The Penguins fended off a five-minute major just before Lovejoy’s goal and held Providence without a score on seven power-play chances.
“Penalty-kill did a great job,” Richards said. “They were 0-for-7, a team that can skate and make plays. Sometimes your penalty kill can give you a boost.”
“I think that won us the game,” Lovejoy said.
The dam briefly broke on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Dave Brown, who was outstanding otherwise, in the second period.
After stopping the first 23 shots against him, Brown allowed two scores 30 seconds apart during the final two minutes of the second as Providence tied the Penguins 2-2 heading into tonight’s final period.
Immediately after staving off two power plays, the Penguins buckled and lost a 2-0 lead as Providence’s Matt Lashoff lifted a puck over Brown’s glove hand at the 18:03 mark, and Adam McQuaid scored unassisted on the next Bruins charge. But Brown recovered to stop 35 shots and earn the game’s third star.
“We had a lull and gave them some momentum and some confidence,” Richards said.
Early in the second period, Penguins left winger Paul Bissonnette used a rebound slap shot to give Wilkes-Barre/Scranton a 2-0 advantage.
Tim Wallace took a feed from Ned Havern and banged home the game’s first goal less than two minutes into the opening period as the Penguins jumped to a quick 1-0 lead.
That came as Connor James rejoined the Penguins just in time for an AHL playoff run. The point-producing right winger was reassigned Saturday morning by parent Pittsburgh, and was inserted straight into Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s starting lineup for the battle with Providence.
James played in four games for Pittsburgh since his March 11 recall, which was his fifth stint with the big club this season.
During his time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, James has registered 32 points in 53 games, with eight goals and 24 assists. His only impact through the first two periods was a hooking penalty against him in the second period, which the Penguins killed off.
Before the game, the Penguins honored the late Darcy Robinson, who played four seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, with a touching ceremony. Robinson succumbed to a heart condition during a game in Italy this past September. A video tribute highlighting his action with the Penguins was shown on the jumbotron and drew appreciative cheers from the crowd at Wachovia Arena before his family was presented one of his Penguins game-worn jerseys.