WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Garrett Wilson knows how much is at stake every time the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins face the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
He’s also aware that the matchups could dictate who wins the Atlantic Division.
“We know they’re right behind us in the standings. We know we have them nine more times down the stretch. And we know these games are all four-point swings,” Wilson said after Monday’s practice at the Mohegan Sun Arena. “The division really comes down to these games. It going to come down to the wire.”
The fact that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is nine points ahead of Lehigh Valley for first place in the division and the Penguins still feel as though the Phantoms are breathing down their backs shows how much they respect their rival.
And for good reason.
In the previous three meetings this season, the Phantoms defeated the Penguins twice, outscoring them 9-4 in those two contests.
But the Penguins blasted Lehigh Valley 7-1 in the first game at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Feb. 4, so the Penguins know anything can happen when the two teams meet again on Tuesday.
Still, Wilson said he likes the way his team has responded this season when the stakes are high in games against division rivals.
Against Atlantic Division teams this season, the Penguins are 21-6-2-0.
“The last stretch of five games we kind of played down to a few teams - such as St. John’s. But we had good efforts against Lehigh Valley and Hershey,” Wilson said. “We tend to get up for those games against our division rivals. We know they’re going to be intense.”
Head coach Clark Donatelli agreed.
“Our division is tough and we do seem to rise to the occasion when we play our division rivals,” he said.
With Josh Archibald in Pittsburgh, Donatelli knows it will be tough to replace the player who leads Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with two goals and four points in three games against the Phantoms this season. Donatelli also said it’s impossible to replace Archibald’s speed, but he’s confident that players will step up.
“I like our four lines. We’re going to get (Tom) Sestito back in the lineup, (Sahir) Gill is going to go back to playing center, (Jarrett) Burton is out there and (Danny) Kristo is starting to score,” Donatelli said.
Sestito exited the third period of Friday’s game against Hershey and didn’t return, and he sat out the next night against Binghamton as a veteran scratch. Donatelli said Sestito is fine and will return to the lineup on Tuesday. Oskar Sundqvist sat out Monday’s practice with an illness but will reportedly be ready for Tuesday’s game.
Getting back on track
Sundqvist has been held without a goal for his last 16 games and Donatelli attributed it to a concussion he suffered right after the all-star break.
“I think the injury set him back a little bit,” Donatelli said. “I liked his game the other night so hopefully he’s getting going.”
With two weeks remaining before the NHL trade deadline on March 1, Donatelli acknowledged that it’s always something that is on a player’s mind.
“We don’t let all the outside interference come into the equation, but we also know they’re human and I’m sure they’re thinking about it,” he said.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky