Now that they’ve spent some extended time in the NHL, returning to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins should feel about as pleasant to Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland as a as a high stick to the jaw.
They were both slashed from the roster of the Pittsburgh Penguins over the weekend, after spending most of the past month playing defense for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
But a hard landing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton didn’t leave Lovejoy and Engelland tasting blood. It left them smelling it, after their first prolonged taste of the NHL.
“It was more than a taste,” Lovejoy said. “I had a good chunk of time up there.
“And I do want to get back.”
The quickest way to do that is by playing hard in the minor leagues.
Engelland and Lovejoy both realize that.
“They both came down with very good attitudes about it,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Todd Reirden said. “They both had very good experiences in Pittsburgh.”
Nobody would fault Lovejoy or Engelland if they came back to the AHL with a bad disposition.
Both defensemen registered their first NHL points over the past few weeks. Both proved they could play with the best in their sport. And both gave the parent Penguins reason to smile.
Just the night before he found himself back in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the 25-year-old Lovejoy created some excitement when he registered an assist, his third in three weeks, during Pittsburgh’s 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Friday. His first assist came against Boston on Nov. 14.
In his eight games with Pittsburgh, Lovejoy played in eight games, averaged nearly 18 minutes of ice time mainly on the penalty kill and power play units and put up a plus-5 rating.
Engelland put up a couple fights. Never one to back down, the physical 27-year-old collected 17 penalty minutes in nine games and finished his three-week run with two assists after making his NHL debut Nov. 10, also against Boston.
“I think they helped the organization see that they have the ability to play in the National Hockey League,” Reirden said.
Then how did Engelland and Lovejoy end up playing together for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during AHL losses Saturday and Sunday?
Were they were the most viable candidates to help a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster depleted by an onslaught of injures right now? That’s the popular reasoning.
Reirden has another reason, though.
“They need to continue to improve, so that they can be consistent full-time,” Reirden said.
Lovejoy can buy that.
“Often times, it’s more difficult down here,” said Lovejoy, who made his brief NHL debut with Pittsburgh last year. “Guys (in the AHL) don’t have that elite skill level. They’ll chip pucks in and go at you. That’s hard to play against.”
So it’s not hard for a couple of guys to find as much enthusiasm skating around in a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton uniform as they did wearing Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys?
“I don’t think it’s hard to stay motivated,” Lovejoy said. “Playing games is fun. When you do get sent down, you’re more motivated.”
It’s similar to the challenge defensemen feel when the other team’s on a breakaway, as they rush to regain position on the ice.