On Feb. 23, 29-year-old forward Jimmy Hayes and his wife Kristen stood in their Wilkes-Barre apartment holding a balloon, surrounded by family and friends.
Kristen is pregnant with the couple's first child, due this August. Inside the balloon was colored confetti that would reveal if they would be having a boy or a girl. Jimmy wielded the pin:
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Blue confetti. It's a boy. Judging by Hayes' reaction, he could not have been more thrilled.
"It was such good news to finally find out, and to find out it was a boy was even greater," Hayes told me this week. "We had bets, we all thought it was a girl. We saw those balloons, it was blue, that was a relief."
The following day, the Rockford IceHogs were in town for an afternoon game. Hayes, originally designated a healthy scratch by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's pregame lineup graphic, was a surprise late addition in place of Anthony Angello.
Hayes seized the opportunity. In a tight, tied game, he did this in the second period:
The first goal stood up to be the game-winner, and Hayes was named the game's No. 1 star. Did he get a little extra push from the emotion of the previous day? It sure sounds like it.
"It's always fun to be playing hockey," he said. "To be playing for a playoff spot, keep trying to play for my job, and to start playing for a family? It makes it a lot more fun."
Wilkes-Barre is on the AHL's playoff bubble, and Hayes has been on the bubble of Wilkes-Barre's roster in some recent games. If there is ever an ideal time to step up, it would be now.
Hayes carried that success into Saturday's game in Hartford. He scored a crucial, game-tying power play goal in the final minutes to send the game to overtime. Wilkes-Barre ultimately fell in overtime, but Hayes' late goal secured a huge point towards a tight Atlantic Division playoff push.
It was Hayes' 10th goal of the season. His 10 goals, coupled with his nine assists through 54 games, make for a modest point total for a player who has 334 games of NHL experience over the past seven seasons.
"It's been an up-and-down season, but that's why they play a full season," said Hayes. "It's never too late to start producing, especially down the stretch when it means a lot for the team and for yourself. It's been good, just continue to ride this wave."
The last time Hayes spent a majority of the season in the AHL was way back in 2012-13, when he played 10 games for the Blackhawks and 67 games for the IceHogs.
When Hayes, a physical, intimidating presence at 6-feet-5 and 210 pounds, signed with the Penguins on the opening day of free agency this past summer, he was well aware that ending up in Wilkes-Barre long-term was a possibility for this season. He had frank discussions with Bill Guerin about the Penguins' forward depth, and knew about the challenge ahead of him. Hayes still decided to sign with the Penguins, and believes he's in a good spot to get his game back to a level that is ready for the NHL again.
"I still believe I have a lot left to give, and I feel like I'm getting back on the right track, especially lately with a little bit of adjustment," he said. "My whole career, I've never had something given to me, you've got to earn it. I continue to do that, and try to work my way back to the roster."
Hayes isn't the only hockey player in the family. His younger brother, Kevin, was one of the top names of this year's trade deadline, and was traded from the Rangers to the Jets on deadline day. For Jimmy, it's been exciting to follow his younger brother's success this season, and he's looking forward to seeing where he goes from here.
"He's a big boy, and he plays with high-end talent and speed just like that Winnipeg Jets team does," he said. "I think it's going to be great for him to play on a team like that, and continue to push and try to find his game even more, playing with all of those elite players.
Hayes has extended family all over the league. He's second cousins with former NHL great Keith Tkachuk, now a scout for the Blues, making him also second cousins with Keith's sons -- Brady on the Senators, and Matthew on the Flames. He's also second cousins with former Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald, now an assistant general manager for the Devils, and Tom's brother Scott, a scout for the Bruins. Tom's son Ryan is a Bruins prospect, and his son Casey is a Sabres prospect.
It makes for some pretty fun summers.
"It's cool to see a lot of them, especially in the summertime, just to catch up," said Hayes. "We're all at the age now where we can go play golf and see each other more."
With a few of his family members on teams poised to make Stanley Cup playoff runs, there's a decent chance that one of those summer get-togethers could have some impressive hardware at the center of it all.
If Hayes and the Penguins keep riding this wave, a Calder Cup isn't out of the question either.
THE ROSTER MOVES
• Defenseman Blake Siebenaler, previously acquired from Columbus for a conditional seventh-round pick, was reassigned to Wheeling on Feb. 28.
• Defenseman Chris Wideman joined the team after being acquired from Florida in exchange for Jean-Sebastien Dea at the trade deadline.
• Defenseman Zach Trotman was recalled to Pittsburgh Feb. 26.
• Juuso Riikola (in a paper transaction) and Teddy Blueger were on the AHL roster at the trade deadline, making them eligible for the AHL playoffs if needed.
• Thomas Di Pauli hasn’t played since Dec. 16 with a lower-body injury.
• Today, March 4, is the AHL trade deadline.
• Wilkes-Barre's annual “Pens & Pins” Charity Bowling Tournament is March 10. Tickets are $50. Can't beat that.
• Ryan Scarfo was the guest on the latest Penguins Podcast. These are always great, definitely give this episode (and past episodes) a listen if you have time.
• March 1: at Providence, 2-1 shootout win
Ethan Prow opened the scoring on Friday, 44 seconds into the third period. It was his 16th goal of the season. The Bruins' Chris Breen tied the game five minutes later.
The game remained tied through the remainder of regulation and the five-minute overtime period, and would be decided in a shootout.
Sam Miletic shot first, and was stopped. Tristan Jarry stopped Paul Carey in the first round.
Ben Sexton shot second for the Penguins, and scored, making him 2-for-2 in shootout attempts this season. Jarry stopped former Penguin Lee Stempniak.
Joseph Cramarossa went third for the Penguins and scored to win the game. He's now 3-for-3 on shootout attempts this season, and all three goals have been game-winners.
Jarry earned the 'W' with 34 saves on 35 shots. The Penguins' power play went 0-for-5, and the penalty kill went 5-for-5.
Sam Lafferty recorded eight shots on net in the game.
• March. 2: at Hartford, 4-3 overtime loss
Joseph Blandisi gave the Penguins an early 1-0 lead in Saturday's contest, but goals from Ryan Gropp and Ty Ronning put the Wolf Pack ahead 2-1 at the first intermission.
The Wolf Pack's John Gilmour scored the lone goal of the second period to increase the lead.
The Penguins were dialed in for the third period and rallied. Sexton scored his sixth goal of the season to bring the Penguins within one, and Hayes' 10th of the year sent the game into overtime. In the third period alone, the Penguins outshot the Wolf Pack by an 11-4 margin.
Overtime was over in no time. Gropp won the game for the Wolf Pack just 22 seconds into the extra frame, the first shot on goal for either team in overtime.
Jarry stopped 28 of 32 in his second start of the weekend. Pittsburgh isn't the only team in the organization giving their starting goaltender back-to-backs to make a push for the playoffs.
The Penguins' power play went 1-for-5, and the penalty kill went 4-for-4.
• Goals: Teddy Blueger, 21 in 45 games.
• Assists: Prow, 25 in 56 games
• Points: Prow, 41 in 56 games
Adam Johnson – Sam Lafferty – Ben Sexton
Sam Miletic – Joseph Blandisi – Anthony Angello
Ryan Scarfo – Jarrett Burton – Ryan Haggerty
Joseph Cramarossa – Cam Brown – Jimmy Hayes
Kevin Czuczman – Ethan Prow
Tim Erixon – Chris Wideman
Matt Abt – Chris Summers
• After this week, the Penguins record is 27-22-6-2. They rose to fifth place in the eight-team Atlantic Division.
• The power play sits at 17.3 percent, 20th in the 31-team league. The penalty kill is operating at 80.2 percent overall, 21st in the league.
• The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is 40.
• The Penguins will have three home games this week. They'll see the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (28-24-3-3) on Wednesday, Hartford Wolf Pack on Friday (24-27-6-3), and Syracuse Crunch (35-17-3-2) on Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Prow scored this one on the power play (Prow-er play?):
Cramarossa has killed it in shootouts this season:
WILKES-BARRE FUN THING
Summers, Sexton, Scarfo, Macoy Erkamps, and Miletic visited local classrooms this week to read Dr. Seuss books to elementary students.
It's Dr. Seuss all week for the #WBSPens, as @chri5ummers visited I'm Big Now Pre-K and K; @macoy_erkamps & Sam Miletic were at Lee Park Elem. in WB; and Ben Sexton stopped by Old Forge Elementary to talk about Star-Bellied Sneetches, Cats in Hats, and Red Fish & Blue Fish. pic.twitter.com/sSEPU6Q4Y4
— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) February 27, 2019
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